15 December 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.

All right.  Back to our regular programming.


This morning, the Secretary‑General listened to the Member States as the General Assembly held a closed session to discuss the follow‑up to the Declaration on the Commemoration of the UN’s Seventy‑Fifth Anniversary.

The Secretary‑General also shared some of his views of the problems we face, ranging from the COVID‑19 pandemic to rising hunger, air and water pollution, the impact of climate change, war, displacement and famine.  And he pointed out the need to reinvigorate multilateralism so that it delivers more effectively and inclusively, leaving no one behind.


A quick update from Ethiopia, where we continue to engage at the highest levels with the Federal Government to work out operational details to guarantee humanitarian access.  We are also working to scale up humanitarian assistance in the Tigray region once access is re‑established.

In the meantime, our humanitarian colleagues tell us that arrangements are being made to deploy surge teams to different areas in Tigray, Afar and Amhara, and that supplies — including food, health, emergency shelter and other items — are being continuously mobilized.  More than 63,000 people have been recorded as internally displaced in Tigray, but we hope to know the true number once we have more access.

And in neighbouring Sudan, our humanitarian teams there tell us that there are still challenges to help the increasing number of refugees crossing the border.  Water, hygiene and sanitation services are extremely limited in all transit centres, as well as in Um Raquba settlement, to where over 16,000 refugees have now been relocated.  More than 50,000 people have now fled to Sudan since the beginning of the conflict in Tigray, which started in early November.

**Resident Coordinators

A quick note on Resident Coordinators, and I am delighted to announce, to let you know that the UN Development Coordination Office is announcing today that Siddharth Chatterjee of India has been appointed as the new Resident Coordinator in China.  His appointment follows confirmation from the Host Government, where he will take up his post in the middle of January of next year.  And as you know, Mr. Chatterjee had been the Resident Coordinator in Kenya.

Resident Coordinators are the Secretary‑General’s representatives for development at the country level.  They lead UN teams supporting countries to recover better from the COVID‑19 pandemic through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  We proudly remain with full gender parity and North‑South balance among all of our Resident Coordinators, who cover 162 countries and territories.

We congratulate our friend Siddharth.


And a note, speaking of Resident Coordinators — we have an update today from Chile on what we are doing to address the COVID‑19 pandemic.

As the Chilean Congress is discussing an immigration bill, the UN team, led by Resident Coordinator Silvia Rucks, is carrying out advocacy to ensure that the rights of migrants are respected.  UN agencies have delivered life‑saving supplies to migrants and refugees by the country’s northern border.  These items include thousands of masks, diapers and hygiene kits.  The UN is also helping to provide guidance on how to reopen schools safely and to reintegrate women into the labour market.

Our team is also supporting preparations for next year’s elections to identify how to vote safely during a health crisis.  The team is also working to promote gender equality and the inclusion of indigenous people in drafting the country’s new Constitution.

**Geneva International Discussions

And a note on the Geneva International Discussions, and I can tell you that we welcome the resumption of the Geneva International Discussions (GID), which had its fifty‑first session in Geneva on 11 December in person.  As you know this is an important process under the co‑chairmanship of the UN, European Union (EU) and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).  This was the first meeting of the Geneva International Discussions process in 2020 since the start of the pandemic.

We appreciate that, despite the challenges — including those brought by the COVID‑19 pandemic — all the participants recognize the vital importance of the Geneva International Discussions and reaffirmed their commitment to continue to participate and willingness to engage in this unique platform for dialogue.

And as you know, the Geneva International Discussions is a platform for the talks to address the consequences of the 2008 hostilities in Georgia.  The GID was launched in Geneva in October 2008 and the process is co‑chaired by the UN, the OSCE and the EU.

**Venezuelan Migrants

And the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) today said that they are deeply distressed by the death or disappearance at sea of up to 25 refugees and migrants from Venezuela, including children, after their boat capsized on the way to Trinidad and Tobago.  According to reports, between 14 and 21 bodies were found over the weekend floating in waters near the Venezuelan coastal town of Guiria.  Search and rescue efforts continue as there may be others still missing at sea.  The agencies are in contact with the Venezuelan authorities and are on standby to support as necessary.

For its part, the UN Human Rights Office urged the Venezuelan and Trinidad and Tobago authorities to coordinate to protect the lives and safety of migrants and refugees, including by operating effective search and rescue at sea, and by promptly investigating this incident.


Today, the Palestinian Prime Minister, Mohammad Shtayeh, and the Acting Humanitarian Coordinator for the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Lucia Elmi, launched together a $417 million Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP) to help 1.8 million vulnerable people over the coming year.  The latest humanitarian needs assessment found that 2.45 million Palestinians — 47 per cent of the population — need aid.

This past year has seen the unique realities of the COVID‑19 crisis, its socioeconomic impact and the temporary suspension of coordination between the parties.  About 346,000 Palestinians, who had been identified as having moderate needs, are now assessed to be in severe need.


And you will have seen yesterday, we issued a note yesterday afternoon on Niger, on which the Secretary‑General strongly condemned the attack perpetrated by unidentified gunmen in the Diffa region, on Saturday, in which at least 27 people were reportedly killed and some 800 houses have been burned.  He expressed his deepest condolences to the bereaved families and the people and Government of Niger and wishes a swift recovery to those injured.

The Secretary‑General regrets that this barbaric act disrupted the peaceful holding of municipal and regional elections in the Diffa region.  He reiterates the commitment of the United Nations to support national efforts to consolidate democratic governance, promote social cohesion and achieve sustainable development.

**Human Development Report

And the 2020 edition of the UN Development Programme’s (UNDP) Human Development Report focuses on the actions that are needed if we are to live in balance with the planet in a fairer world.  It shows that we are at an unprecedented moment in history, in which human activity has become a dominant force shaping the planet, from the climate crisis and biodiversity collapse to ocean acidification.  UNDP says that COVID‑19, which almost certainly sprang to humans from animals, offers a glimpse of our future, in which the strain on our planet mirrors the strain facing societies.

This year’s report discusses three key mechanisms for change:  social norms and values, incentives and regulation and nature‑based human development.  And UNDP has adjusted its Human Development Index, by which nations are ranked according to their contributions to human development, to account for planetary pressures.

Take a look at the report.  It is very interesting.


Also, I want to say that we have a note on the latest report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which looks back at the arrest of…  and harassment of journalists over the last year.  And I can tell you that the Secretary‑General is appalled by the findings, and reiterates the fact that journalists, especially in this year of pandemic, need to be able to do their job freely, free of harassment and unrest, and he will continue to advocate on their behalf.

And I will have a more formal note for you by email.

**Press Conference Tomorrow

And tomorrow morning at 10:30 a.m., there will be a virtual press briefing by the President of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), Munir Akram.  That is at 10:30 through WebEx.  He will brief on the topic “Responding to COVID‑19:  What will it take to recover better?”  The briefing is being organized by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA).

I will now take your questions.  Bear with me.

**Questions and Answers

Okay.  Abdelhamid.  Apparently, you have two questions.

Question:  Yes.  My first question, Stéphane, on Libya…  was closed meeting today.  There was some briefing, but we don’t know what has been said in the Security Council in the closed consultation and briefing.  And related to that, is the Security Council close now to appoint a Special Envoy to Libya as the press report said?  That’s my first question.

Spokesman:  Listen, there’s an interesting…  we could organize a game of bingo about the naming of special representatives, but at this point, I have no names to pull out of a bowl.  The process is ongoing.  As you know, it’s not solely in the hands of the Secretary‑General.  As soon as we have something to announce, I will gladly announce it so I can stop answering questions about when the announcement will come.  Your second question?

Question:  [Mic muted, inaudible].

Spokesman:  Did you have a second question?  Otherwise, I’ll go to Maggie.

Question:  The second question is about a Palestinian child.  His name is Emil Nakhale, N‑a‑k‑h‑a‑l‑e, Nakhale, and he’s 16 years old.  He was arrested on 3 November.  He has a rare disease.  And the Israeli court ordered his release, yet the military authorities rejected that and extended the detention of this boy for six more months, which means a threat to his life.  Is this case known to Mr. [Nickolay] Mladenov and to the UN bodies in the Occupied Palestinian Territories?

Spokesman:  Look, I personally have not been aware of the case, which doesn’t mean our colleagues on the ground aren’t.  And, as you know, we have repeatedly expressed our concern about children being held in detention and have called for their release.

Margaret Besheer, and then we’ll go to…

Question:  Thanks, Steph.  Steph, maybe I just didn’t hear it properly, but could you explain what “search teams” mean on Ethiopia?  You said something about arrangements for search teams going into Tigray, and I didn’t quite understand what they’re searching for.

Spokesman:  Surge, surge, surge.

Question:  Oh, surge.

Spokesman:  I think the word was “surge.”  I’m sorry.

Question:  Okay.  Okay.  No, that’s okay.  You go fast sometimes.

Spokesman:  My…  I didn’t take my elocution classes this morning.

Question:  Okay.  Go slower next time.

My next question is, Somalia has cut diplomatic ties with Kenya.  Do you have any comment on this, since the UN is in both countries [as a] pretty big presence?

Spokesman:  No, well, I mean, obviously, it’s a bilateral issue, and we very much hope that Somalia and Kenya will work out these current tensions.  I think it is very important for countries that are critical to the stability of East Africa to have fully open and engaged diplomatic relations, but obviously, this is, indeed, a bilateral issue.

Kristen, yep.

Question:  Thanks, Steph.  And thanks for the update on the Libya Special Envoy.  I’m wondering, given it’s been such a long process, what does that say about the challenges facing this country, facing the UN in this country in particular, and what does it say about the hopes that the Secretary‑General has for the New Year, perhaps going forward?

Spokesman:  Well, it’s an interesting question.  I’m not…  the complications of appointing special representatives sometimes is not directly linked to their portfolio.  Other things are at play here, and I think I will leave it at that.

But I will…  it bears…  I think it bears reminding almost every day what a tremendous job our acting Special Representative, Stephanie Williams, has been doing.  I mean, we’ve all been able to see the great progress that the Mission has made under her leadership and the great progress the Libyan leaders who have been working with her on talks have also made.

Before I go to Toby, I just want to read into the record the note about journalists, which I had failed to bring with me.  So, this is, obviously, as I had mentioned, we’d seen the report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, and I can tell you that the Secretary‑General is appalled by the rising number of attacks against journalists and media workers around the world.  As already expressed during this pandemic period, the Secretary‑General has been concerned about the number of restrictions and attacks against journalists, who are just doing their job.  Many have been subjected to harassment, acts of intimidation, sanctions, killings and also arbitrary detention.

The Secretary‑General calls again on governments to immediately release journalists who have been detained solely for exercising their profession and reiterates his previous calls for concerted efforts to tackle widespread impunity for such crimes.  In our day‑to‑day life, journalists and media workers are crucial to helping us make informed decisions.  And as the world fights the pandemic, we can see that those decisions are even more crucial and can make the difference between life and death.

Let’s go to a media worker.  Toby? [Laughter]

Question:  Hello.  Question from media worker today is on Nigeria.  The disappearance of people as a result of this attack in Katsina State, which is a different region of the country from where we see a lot of similar attacks, different from Borno State, and I’m…  my question is, is the UN taking this region…  the security in this region seriously enough?  Because it seems to be getting worse.

Spokesman:  Look, it’s not an issue for…  first of all, it bears reminding, whether it'’ in Nigeria or anywhere else, the primary responsibility of the security of its citizens lies with the State.  So it’s not really an issue about whether the UN is taking the security seriously enough.  That is a responsibility of any State.

We’re, obviously, concerned about these repeated…  not repeated…  I mean, these number of cases that we’ve seen of attacks on schools, whether they be done by extremist groups, organized crime or sometimes a combination of both.  It’s difficult sometimes to figure out who exactly is responsible.  We’ve seen that a number of the boys that were abducted have now been released, and it’s vital that the remaining boys be released forthwith.

James Reinl, I hear you have a question.

Question:  Hi, Stéphane.  Thanks so much.  It’s just a couple of questions on Libya.  Is there anything you can tell us about Stephanie Williams’ briefing to the Council this morning?

And on this issue of the appointment of a Special Envoy, there’s a report in circulation about a 24‑hour period that must elapse, after which point an envoy can be named, if there’s no objections from the Council.  I’m not asking for a specific response as to whether this is Mladenov or anything like that, but is that a formal procedure, a 24‑hour waiting period?  And if it is, how does that process work?

Spokesman:  Okay.  Stephanie Williams briefed and gave an update to Council members on the constitutional talks that have been going on on Libya.

So, I’ll answer your question as a procedural issue, not related to all the announcements we’ve been waiting for.  It is not uncommon, when a person is nominated by the Secretary‑General to a post that is mandated by the Security Council, that a letter be sent to…  from the Secretary‑General to the President of the Council.  Then it is up to the Presidency to decide how to handle that letter.  Often, it is put under a silence procedure.  It could be 24 or 48 hours.  It’s up to the Council.  And if there is no objection, then it is taken as the Council giving its assent.  That’s one step.

The final step, as always, is an official statement from this podium or by email announcing that such and such a person, like James Reinl, has been named SRSG [Special Representative of the Secretary‑General].

Question:  Is that a possibility?

Spokesman:  Did you put your name forward?  [Laughter]

Correspondent:  I believe it’s just been done so from the rostrum.  Steph, that’s really helpful.  Thanks so much.  Appreciate it.

Spokesman:  All right.  Abdelhamid, you have another question?

Question:  In fact, one question and two follow‑ups.  The question is about, as the year comes to an end, can you update us — how many UN staff have been affected with COVID‑19 and how many passed away?  So, we need to just update our information.  We didn’t hear about the UN.

Spokesman:  Okay.  And your other question?

Question:  And the second question, a follow‑up to my question yesterday about inheriting the crimes against humanity from one regime to the other.  And you answered me, “You ask a lawyer.”  But I want to go back to you and ask you to ask the legal department if you can give me a concrete answer from the UN point of view.  Does the crimes committed during [Augusto] Pinochet or Omar al‑Bashir or Ali Abdullah Saleh or [Muammar al] Qaddafi… can be inherited to the following regime, to the subsequent regime, and be tried or be responsible for them?  Thank you.

Spokesman:  I will ask.  And if I get charged a lot of money for asking a lawyer, I will pass that on…  [Laughter]

Question:  I will share with you.  I will.

Spokesman:  Okay.

Question:  And the question about COVID‑19, yes?

Spokesman:  So, in the Secretariat…  well, in New York, okay, in New York, we’ve had 169 cases.  It is vital — and I will repeat it again — that, as to date, we’ve had no cases of workplace transmission, which is consistent with the very careful measures we have put in place in terms of managing risk on how to continue to operate the Headquarters building while mitigating as much risk as possible from the UN.  Okay.

Correspondent:  Hey, Steph?  [Cross talk]

Question:  And how many people passed away, staff?

Spokesman:  I don’t have that number for you right now.  Yeah?

Question:  Steph, it’s Margaret.  Sorry to just chime in there.

Spokesman:  It’s okay.  It’s okay.

Question:  When you say 169 cases in New York, does that include the ones from the missions?  Because how do you know those weren’t a case, in a sense, of workplace transmission if they were in the UN Headquarters building — i.e., the General Assembly Hall or something — and gave it to each other?

Spokesman:  Okay, well, let…  we’ve had…  when I mean workplace transmission, I mean workplace in the UN Secretariat.  Okay?  So, there’s been…  and in the UN buildings.  I can’t speak to what goes on in the permanent missions.

All right.  Brenden [Varma] has been very patient today.  So, I will ask you to stick around for Brenden.

For information media. Not an official record.