23 November 2020

Daily Press Briefing by the Office of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General

The following is a near-verbatim transcript of today’s noon briefing by Stéphane Dujarric, Spokesman for the Secretary-General.

Good afternoon.  I apologize for the delay.  I forgot the joys of working remotely.  And as a reminder, just put your questions in the chat when you are ready to ask a question.


Today, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, the 2020 Afghan Conference got under way.  The ministerial pledging conference is being co-hosted by the Governments of Afghanistan and Finland, along with the United Nations. 

The Secretary-General will participate in the conference tomorrow through a pre-recorded video message.  In his message, he is expected to emphasize how the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate emergency are making life even more difficult in Afghanistan, particularly for the most vulnerable. 

The Secretary-General will also stress his concern about continued high levels of violence in the country.  He will highlight the central role of the Afghan women in creating peaceful and inclusive communities. 

His remarks have been shared with you under embargo. 

And due to the pandemic restrictions in Switzerland, the Conference is taking place virtually, with only the co-hosts meeting in person, and you will be able to watch the whole event on UN Web TV. 

**Regional Organizations

Earlier today, speaking to 23 regional organizations, the Secretary-General said that our partnership with them is more important than ever. 

Regional organizations play a vital role in the global response to the pandemic, he added, and he reminded participants of his call for a COVID-19 response based on a New Social Contract and New Global Deal to ensure that power, wealth and opportunities are shared more broadly and fairly. 

To achieve this, Mr. [Antonio] Guterres said that we need a new, reinvigorated, inclusive multilateralism, in which the UN, regional organizations, international financial institutions work together more closely. 

Turning to conflicts, he also highlighted the importance of cooperation with regional organizations and underscored the positive developments following his global ceasefire call, but also added that several months on, the situation remains mixed. 

Now is the time to double down on our efforts to reach a global ceasefire by the end of the year, Mr. Guterres said.  International cooperation is essential to change the calculations of conflict parties, open the space for dialogue, and end these wars. 

**Group of 20

As you know, the Secretary-General spoke yesterday at the G20 Leader’s Summit, and renewed his call for solidarity and cooperation in the face of COVID-19. 

He said that G20 leadership is vital to halt the spread of the pandemic, to mobilize the resources to build forward better and to align recovery efforts with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

And I know a number of you have asked me, and I can tell you that the Secretary-General is pleased by the strong commitment expressed in the final communiqué to have COVID-19 vaccines treated as a global public good, as well as the financial commitments made to COVAX, although obviously a financial gap remains. 

On debt, the final communiqué was a step in the right direction, but the Secretary-General thought it was insufficient.  He would have liked to see more comprehensive initiatives on debt and liquidity.

And he was also encouraged by the interventions and the commitment to build forward better by the participants at the meeting, as well as commitments on inclusion. 

However, on the issue of climate change, he was disappointed by the final language, which does not reflect the movement we are seeing globally in business and Governments regarding carbon neutrality. 


On Ethiopia, I can tell you that we remain extremely concerned about the safety of civilians in the Tigray Region, especially the more than half a million people — including more than 200 aid workers — who remain in Mekelle following information that fighting might move into the city in the coming hours. 

We and our humanitarian partners in Ethiopia are urgently calling on all parties to the conflict to comply with their obligations under international humanitarian law and protect civilians and civilian infrastructure, including health facilities and water systems. 

Our humanitarian colleagues also stress that it is urgent that all parties to the conflict enable the free and safe movement of affected people in search of safety and assistance, including across international and within national borders, regardless of their ethnic identification. 

We along with our partners in Ethiopia are ready to provide humanitarian assistance to people impacted by the conflict.  For this, free, safe and unhindered humanitarian access is urgently needed. 

We continue to receive reports of internal displacement.  Nearly 39,000 people have now fled to Sudan, including 17,000 children.  The response is scaling up, but the influx of arrivals is outpacing the capacity on the ground and additional funding is urgently needed. 

**COVID-19 — Djibouti

Just a note from another country on the Horn of Africa, this time Djibouti, where the UN team, led by Resident Coordinator Barbara Manzi, is concerned about how the socioeconomic impact of the pandemic will further deepen vulnerabilities. 

The UN is working closely with authorities to prepare for a potential influx of people and respond to the economic consequences of the crisis. 

Any such movement of people, even in small numbers, would have a major impact since it would add to an already sustained mixed migration phenomena.  Today, 1 in 33 people in Djibouti is a refugee and 1 in 10 is a migrant. 

With 85 per cent of the trade through Djibouti’s port either going to or coming from Ethiopia, the UN team on the ground is concerned about the potential impact on trade, the economy and food security. 

We are also looking into stepping up prevention measures for communicable diseases, including COVID-19, malaria and acute watery diarrhoea. 

**Democratic Republic of the Congo

Turning to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the head of the peacekeeping mission there, Leila Zerrougui, welcomed the sentence pronounced today against Ntabo Ntaberi Sheka, the former head of the armed group NDC (Nduma Defence of Congo), as well as co-defendants. 

Sheka was condemned to life in prison for war crimes against civilians — notably women and children — between 2007 and 2017 in the Walikale Territory, in North Kivu.  These crimes include murder, sexual violence and recruitment and use of children [in combat]. 

In a statement issued a few minutes ago, Ms. Zerrougui said that the verdict shows that impunity is not inevitable.  And it also testifies to the determination of the Congolese authorities to continue, with the UN’s support, the legal fight against war criminals in the country. 


Turning to Libya, our Acting Special Representative, Stephanie Williams, convened today the first virtual meeting of the second round of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF).  The meeting aims to discuss the selection criteria of the unified executive authorities for the preparatory period preceding Libyan elections. 

In her opening remarks, she welcomed the progress made in the first in-person round in Tunisia, especially the consensual agreement on a road map for the preparatory period and on setting 24 December 2021 as the date for the elections. 

Regarding allegations of bribery, the Special Representative announced that these reports have been referred to the UN Panel of Experts, given that such activities, if proven to have occurred, could constitute obstruction of the political process and be subject to sanctions.  

The second round has been adjourned to Wednesday to allow participants to fully study the selection options presented at today’s meeting. 

**Security Council

This morning, the Security Council held an open video conference on Somalia. 

Briefing Council members, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative, James Swan, said that Somalia faces critical decisions, including an electoral process to choose the parliament and President in the coming months. 

He said that, while a consensus was reached on an indirect electoral model and ended a political stalemate.  Mr. Swan said that, while the model falls regrettably short of the constitutional requirements for direct universal suffrage election of parliament, this agreement reflected wide Somali political consensus and ownership. 

The Special Representative also noted that humanitarian needs remain acute in Somalia.  The country has been hard hit by the triple-shock of COVID-19, flooding and locust infestation.  While the national trends in COVID-19 cases are broadly favourable, he said we must remain vigilant.

His remarks have been shared with you.

**Nagorno Karabakh

I was asked over the weekend, and again today, about the UN’s role in Nagorno-Karabakh. 

As the Secretary-General has made clear publicly, we hope that the cessation of hostilities will enable humanitarian actors to have the necessary access to all people in need in all areas affected by the conflict, including people displaced by the conflict, particularly in and around Nagorno-Karabakh.   

As the Secretary-General stressed in his most recent phone calls with the Foreign Ministers of both Armenia and Azerbaijan, the UN stands ready to respond to the humanitarian needs and is prepared to work with all concerned accordingly.  The same has been conveyed to the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) Minsk Group Co-Chairs. 

In response to a request from the Russian Federation and pending further details on the role and operating modalities of the “Russian Inter-agency Humanitarian Response Centre”, the Secretary-General has confirmed that the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and relevant UN entities are ready to cooperate and to discuss possible interaction and collaboration on the ground, including for the purpose of undertaking an initial independent inter-agency assessment in Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding areas, as soon as conditions permit, in order to obtain a comprehensive picture of the humanitarian needs on the ground.


I was also asked about the events in Guatemala over the weekend. 

And I can tell you that we reiterate that the fundamental rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly must be respected.  We trust that the authorities will conduct an impartial and independent investigation into the events.  We call on all actors to work together to address the challenges facing Guatemala through peaceful means, with full respect for [the rule of] law and human rights.

**Carbon Dioxide

And lastly, our friends in Geneva at the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) today said that carbon dioxide levels continue to be at record levels, despite the COVID-19 lockdowns around the world. 

According to the WMO’s Greenhouse Gas Bulletin, carbon dioxide levels saw another growth spurt in 2019 and the annual global average breached the significant threshold of 410 parts per million.  The rise has continued this year as carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for centuries and for longer periods in the ocean. 

WMO said the lockdown-related fall in emissions is just a tiny blip on the long-term graph and stressed that we need a sustained flattening of the curve. 

That full report is online. 

And that is it for me.  Let me see if I can actually turn to your questions.  Bear with me two seconds as I do this.  Let me go to the chat. 

**Questions and Answers

All right.  I see a bearded man in the front who seems to be asking questions.  So, James, why don’t you go ahead?

Question:  Yeah, I should have [inaudible] a way of trying to get onto the chat down here, as well. 

So Ethiopia, please, for my first question…

Spokesman:  Yes.

Question:  Over the weekend, the Ethiopian authorities said to those in Tigray that they had 72 hours and they would…  to the civilians, they’d show no mercy if they didn’t save themselves, and they were threatening to unleash heavy artillery. 

How concerned is the Secretary‑General?  And does he believe that the threat to unleash heavy artillery is a threat of war crimes?

Spokesman:  Look, the Secretary‑General is gravely concerned by what he heard, by the latest developments in Ethiopia.  For him, it’s very important that the parties take immediate action to protect civilians, ensure human rights law and ensure humanitarian access.

So, we’re keeping an…  obviously, keeping a close watch on things as they develop.  And it goes without saying that, as I’ve said, humanitarian access but, obviously, international human rights law, international humanitarian law should be respected at all times.

Question:  Follow‑up on that.  When the Secretary‑General had his lunch with the Security Council, they asked him whether a Security Council meeting would be helpful on this issue, and he said not at that time; he didn’t think it would be helpful, I’ve been told by several diplomats that was the Secretary‑General’s view. 

Now I’m told the Security Council is again contemplating a meeting.  Does the Secretary‑General now feel that now things have moved on and got worse that it’s time for the Council to meet?

Spokesman:  Listen, I can’t confirm that was actually the Secretary‑General…  what he said at the lunch.  Those lunches are private.  I think, with any crisis, especially ones involving peace and security, I think a strong unified voice from the Security Council is always a push in the right direction.

Question:  I have quite a few more questions.  I’ll ask you one more now, if you don’t mind.  President‑elect [Joseph] Biden has just announced his national security team.  And among the team, he’s announced the former Secretary of State, John Kerry, as his climate change presidential envoy.  What is the Secretary‑General’s view that the new US Administration, we know, has pledged to rejoin the Paris climate deal and has put someone as senior as Secretary Kerry in charge as the presidential envoy?

Spokesman:  Look, we will…  we look forward to working, as we always have, with representatives of the United States.  And I think, on climate, the role of the United States, whether the federal, the state or the business level, has always been very important and will continue to be.

Okay.  I’ll come back to you. 

Richard Roth, and then Abdelhamid. 

Question:  Thank you.  I hope you can hear me.  James’ three questions took a…  well, some of my question, but he left a…  one morsel, which you may not have anything new.  The new US Ambassador has also been named, Linda Thomas‑Greenfield, an experienced diplomat who has served as an ambassador in Liberia, with extensive African affairs duties also.  Considering the Council’s agenda is always like 70 per cent Africa and considering her tweet just now, which talked about her mother talking about improving the world and let’s work together, is the Secretary‑General doing cartwheels in his office?  Do you have a comment on this new US representative?

Spokesman:  I have never known nor can I ever imagine the Secretary‑General doing cartwheels in his office or anywhere else.  What I can tell you is that the Secretary‑General has always worked very closely with every US Permanent Representative that has been sent by Washington and will do so in the future.

Okay.  Abdelhamid, and then Benno. 

Correspondent:  Thank you, Stéphane.  I don’t know.  I’m still…  says I’m muted.

Spokesman:  No, I can hear you.

Question:  Okay.  Thank you.  The Palestinian Authorities are clamping down on those critics of going back to the security coordination with Israel.  The latest, they arrested Nizar Banat — Banat, his last name is B‑a‑n‑a‑t — for issuing a YouTube video criticizing the Authority.  They also called for questioning a broadcast — young female, not well‑known radio producer also for questioning.  So, there are a number of statements issued to criticise that, including the Euro‑Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor and the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights and others. 

Do we expect a statement from the…  Mr. Mladenov or from any other UN agency?

Spokesman:  I’m not aware of the particular case, but what I can tell you, clearly, from our standpoint, is that people should be able to express their political opinions freely and free from any harassment or intimidation.


Correspondent:  Steph, you can go to the next person.  My questions were actually asked by Richard and James, so thanks.

Spokesman:  All right.  The next question…  I think we’re going around in a circle, so the next question will go back to James.

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  I’d like to drill down on the G20.  You seemed to suggest the Secretary‑General was positive, but we had him in this room on Friday, and he had some very key asks, and they don’t seem to be met.  For example, he said that there was $28 billion needed for getting the vaccine to everyone on earth and $4.2 billion by the end of the year.  The G20 did not — and he wanted concrete action — did not, did it, come up with any money, any specific money at all?

Spokesman:  Well, I…  James, I don’t know if you were in the room when I was reading my notes, but I did…  I think I was very clear that the Secretary‑General on COVAX welcomed the commitment by the G20, but he said that financial gaps remained. 

On debt, he did say it was a step in the right direction, but he would have liked to have seen more comprehensive initiatives on debt and on the issue of liquidity. 

And he said he was disappointed by the language on climate, which he felt didn’t really reflect what had been…  the sort of global movement we’re seeing from a number of Member States, from business, regarding commitments towards carbon neutrality.

Question:  On that funding gap on the vaccine, where is that money going to come from now?  What is the Secretary‑General’s plan now, or is that vaccine not going to get to everyone?

Spokesman:  Well, we very much hope that the vaccine does get to everyone, because it’s the only way we can all be safe.  We hope that Member States, other Member States or even those parts of the G20, will continue to provide funding, and he will continue to advocate for such funding. 

Question:  One more, if I can.  Mr. [Nickolay] Mladenov is still the Special Coordinator in Jerusalem.  Is he now the UN’s envoy on Libya, the next envoy on Libya?

Spokesman:  He remains, as of 12:43 p.m., New York time, the Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process.  If and when his status changes, it will be announced from this podium either in person or virtually or by email, and you’ll be one of the first to know, James.

Mr. Burns, NHK. 

Question:  Thanks, Steph.  Flailing my arms back here.  I’ll sit closer next time.

Spokesman:  Sorry.  You need to sit closer to James.

Question:  Yep.  That’s where the attention is. 

The…  two questions for you, please.  Number one is on Yemen.  We’re hearing, really, some dire warnings about famine in Yemen, specifically from UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) regarding children.  I wonder if you have an update there on funding, on logistics, on access.  It’s a very concerning situation as it appears, but what does it look like from your end?

Spokesman:  Well, the situation doesn’t look any better than on Friday when we said that Yemen was in imminent danger of probably facing one of the worst famines the world has seen in years, if not decades.  We continue to be very worried, and I think our humanitarian colleagues, different agencies have expressed that in great detail.  So, the situation has not been improving since Friday, on the contrary.

Question:  And then my second question — just give me one second here — is the Open Skies Treaty.  This is now defunct.  It’s the…  at least the second, if not the third, recent treaty to fall by the wayside.  Seems like the world is more dangerous now as a result of this.  How does the UN feel about this decay of the arms control regime?  Thank you.

Spokesman:  The decision taken by the United States to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty was regrettable.  We do note that other parties to the treaty continue to show commitment to it. 

The arms control agreements, the confidence‑building regime that was provided…  that existed provided security benefits for the international community as a whole by constraining strategic arms competition.  I think what we’re seeing is a deteriorating international security environment, which is worrying.  And these types of agreements, confidence‑building measures, arms control, are really more important now than ever. 

Okay.  Iftikhar, and then Ibtisam. 

Correspondent:  Thanks, Steph.  You really look well rested today with a nice glow on your face.

Spokesman:  I have a lot of makeup on, Iftikhar. 

Question:  No.  My question is a follow‑up to Richard’s question about the new US Permanent Representative to the United Nations.  The President‑elect Biden has also restored cabinet status to this post.  How does the UN look at this development?

Spokesman:  I understand the interest that you all have in the announcement.  The point is, for us, is that we will work closely with all American envoys, and we continue to work closely with the current American envoy, the Permanent Representative, Kelly Craft.  So, let’s take it one day at a time.  

Question:  I was asking about the restoration of cabinet status.

Spokesman:  I think that’s a US internal issue.


Question:  Hi, Steph.  Do you have any update on the UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees) situation and shortage of funds?

Spokesman:  No.  That’s a good question.  I…  strangely enough, I was thinking about it over the weekend and forgot to ask.  So, we’ll try to get you something later today or tomorrow. 

Correspondent:  Okay.  Thank you. 

Spokesman:  Okay.  All right.  I will see you virtually again tomorrow.  And enjoy the rest of the day.

For information media. Not an official record.