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17 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.  Good afternoon.  I hope that everyone who is in New York is staying warm and safe, given the weather outside.

**Secretary-General — Germany

Let me start off with the Secretary‑General, as we often do, who as you know, is in Berlin, in Germany, where he is addressing tomorrow members of the Bundestag.  He was invited to speak to the Bundestag on the occasion of the UN’s seventy-fifth anniversary.  Just a few moments ago, he met with Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, with whom he discussed the current COVID‑19 pandemic, the climate crisis, and the need for multilateralism to solve these global challenges.  They also touched upon the situations in Libya, in the Sahel, in Sudan and in Ethiopia.  And in a joint press encounter with the Foreign Minister after the meeting, the Secretary‑General praised Mr. Maas’ dedication and engagement throughout Germany’s membership of the Security Council.  The Secretary‑General also thanked Germany for hosting the Libya Conference at the beginning of the year and its efforts to galvanize the international community’s support for the Libyan people.

On the subject of Ethiopia, the Secretary‑General once again underlined the importance of unfettered access for humanitarian assistance, as well as the swift resumption of the rule of law and a secure environment, and, of course, in full respect for human rights.  Mr. [Antonio] Guterres added that the UN system stands ready to support Ethiopian-led initiatives to encourage inclusive dialogue, reconciliation and post-conflict reconstruction.  Those remarks will be sent to you shortly if they haven’t already.  And tomorrow, the Secretary‑General will meet with Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier as well as with the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel.  And his meeting with the Chancellor will be followed by a joint press stakeout and we will share with you those remarks, as well, as well as the speech that he will deliver tomorrow.

**Secretary-General — Japan

This morning, he also, the Secretary‑General also spoke via a pre-recorded video message to the Japan National Conference for Realizing a Carbon-Neutral Society by 2050.  Pointing out Prime Minister Suga [Yoshihide] and the people of Japan’s commitment to reach net zero emissions by 2050, the Secretary‑General said that he believes that Japan has all the necessary tools to achieve this and become a global leader in climate-friendly technology.  Mr. Guterres said that now Japan enters the critical phase of implementation.  The Secretary‑General urged the country to identify coherent mid-term targets for 2030, and design and implement policies that are in line with its long-term goal.  He underscored that working together, we can end the climate emergency.

**Ethiopia

Turning back to Ethiopia:  The Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, has announced an allocation of $35 million for water, sanitation, medical supplies and protection for civilians caught up in the conflict in the Tigray region.  Our humanitarian colleagues tell us that thousands of people are reportedly displaced in the region, and millions [are] in urgent need of humanitarian assistance in Tigray.  And the emergency funds for Ethiopia will help health facilities procure medicine, gloves and other supplies to care for the sick and injured.  The funds will also go towards providing support in nutrition, as well as drinking water and shelter supplies.  And as we’ve told you already, more than 50,000 people — nearly half of them children — have arrived in Sudan since the start of the disturbances in Tigray in November.  The UN funds will be used for shelter, health care and drinking water for refugee populations.  Mr. Lowcock stressed that conflicts like this are hard to stop once they get out of control, the lives they extinguish cannot be brought back, and the grievances they create are long lasting.  He called for unfettered access now for humanitarians.

**Security Council — Afghanistan

And this morning, the Security Council held a meeting on Afghanistan.  Deborah Lyons, the Special Representative of the Secretary‑General and head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), briefed Council Members via video link on recent developments in the country and the Secretary‑General’s 9 December report on the UN activities in Afghanistan.  Ms. Lyons noted that since her last briefing, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taliban have made incremental but genuine progress in their peace talks.  On 2 December, the two parties announced that they had agreed to the “rules and procedures” for negotiations.  The two sides then formed a working committee to discuss the agenda, and both parties presented to one another an initial list of topics for discussion.  She added that these developments are an early but a positive sign that both sides are willing and able to compromise when needed.  The Special Representative pointed out that earlier this week, following 93 days of uninterrupted talks, the parties agreed to take a 20‑day recess.  The hope is that this will allow both sides to regroup, to consult internally and externally, and to resume negotiating with a renewed commitment.

**Zimbabwe

Turning to Zimbabwe, our friends in Rome at the World Food Programme (WFP) today appealed for an additional $204 million to support over four million of the most food insecure people in the country over the next six months.  WFP says that millions of Zimbabweans have been devastated by a year of drought, rising hyperinflation and of course, the pandemic.  The appeal comes ahead of the “lean” season, which risks pushing some 6.9 million people into hunger by the peak in March.  That is according to the most recent national data, and this represents nearly half of Zimbabwe’s population.  The funding would allow WFP to provide the minimum amount of emergency food assistance to the most vulnerable 3.5 million rural and 550,000 urban dwellers, and would complement the response of Zimbabwe’s Government and other partners.

**Central America

And a survey released today by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) shows that death threats, gang recruitment, extortion and other forms of targeted violence are driving more families in northern Central America to flee their homes and seek safety in other countries.  Nearly 20 per cent of more than 3,100 interviewees migrating in family units identified violence as the main reason behind their decision to leave communities.  UNHCR and UNICEF noted that these findings help explain the dynamic behind the alarming 456 per cent rise in family units apprehended at the southern border of the US last year.  This number has soared from nearly 77,800 families in 2018 to more than 432,000 in 2019.  UNHCR and UNICEF pointed out that during the COVID‑19 pandemic, strict restrictions on movement and border closures have limited the options for people to flee danger, particularly in countries of northern Central America.  At the same time, many forms of violence and persecution have continued and, in some instances, worsened during confinement.

**Fiji

And a quick update to what we told you about yesterday, which is Tropical Cyclone Yasa in Fiji has made landfall today.  National authorities have declared a state of natural disaster and a nationwide curfew is in effect until tomorrow.  Approximately 73,000 people are potentially exposed to widespread wind damage.  The UN Resident Coordinator in Fiji has agreed to provide coordinated and systematic assistance in support of the Government as it takes the lead in the response and recovery.  The Pacific Humanitarian Team from the UN is assessing stockpiles available in Fiji and is coordinating with national partners.

**Resident Coordinators

And today, the UN Resident Coordinators across five regions held a virtual session with Member States to take stock of our teams’ response to the pandemic and our support to countries to recover better [for] the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  The Resident Coordinators stressed that the UN development reform — soon entering its third year — has helped to increase their capacity to support to authorities on the health, humanitarian and socioeconomic response and recovery.  Across regions, the Resident Coordinators highlighted the ways COVID‑19 has brought the UN even closer together to speed up sustainable development in an emergency mode.

**Tunisia

And lastly, I just want to flag a statement that was issued by the Resident Coordinator in Tunisia to mark the tenth anniversary of the revolution in Tunisia.  The Resident Coordinator, Arnaud Peral, congratulated the country’s people and Government, adding that efforts to anchor Tunisia’s democratic transition are more than ever at the heart of the UN’s support.  He added that the country has made significant efforts over the past decade to reform its legislative framework, build capacities in all sectors of economic, social, educational and cultural life, and implement investment and development programmes.  The UN has endeavoured to contribute to this progress, Mr. Peral said in the statement.  As the pandemic brings additional challenges on Tunisia, the Resident Coordinator reiterated the UN’s commitment to continue to support the country on the path to the full realization of a peaceful, prosperous and equitable and inclusive society that leaves no one behind.  All right.  Let’s see if you have any questions.  Thank you, Maria, for complementing our Christmas tree.  And I’ll take a question from Iftikhar.

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  Does the Secretary‑General confirm with the views expressed by IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) chief in an interview with CBS that the world has become a more dangerous place partly because of President [Donald] Trump’s policies and he urged President‑elect [Joseph] Biden will return to the Iran nuclear deal?

Spokesman:  Look, it’s not for the Secretary‑General to validate or not validate the comments of this agency head.  What I can tell you is that the Secretary‑General has always called for all member… all parties to the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) to support the programme and that he’s always felt that the JCPOA was a major diplomatic achievement that should be constantly supported.  Mr. Vaccara?

Question:  Thank you very much, Stéphane.  Okay.  Have the good news about the fish… the Italian fishermen that they were freed today, and my question is… after over 100 days of being prisoner in Libya.  My question is, did the UN mediation or work had something to do with the liberation?  And then I have another question.

Spokesman:  Look, all I would say is that we are delighted that they are released.  And your other question?

Question:  And my other question has to do with something related with human rights.  The same hours that the fishermen were freed, the Italian Government, through the Foreign Minister [Luigi] Di Maio, had very harsh words against Egypt for its human rights record and especially also for the case… the particular case of [Giuliano] Regeni, that he’s an Italian that was tortured by the Egyptian.  And there is this.  The Italian Government is proposing that the European Union sanction against Egypt, even economic sanction, for pushing Egypt to change its human rights records.  And I would like to know what the Secretary‑General thinks about this possibility of a sanction against countries with very spotty or even worst human rights records, like Egypt?

Spokesman:  Look, the European Union’s decision is a sovereign decision and we’re not going to get into what the EU may decide or may not decide.  The Secretary‑General has, on a number of occasions, cited his concern at the lack… the shrinking of civic space in many countries throughout the world and different continents, north and south, in which people can express themselves freely.  But what the European Union will do is up to the European Union.  Abdelhamid?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  The Israeli Knesset now is debating the issue of legalising the settlement outposts, which is normally… until now, has been considered by Israeli law as illegal.  So, the first reading in the Knesset have passed, and there will be second and third reading.  So, would the UN be waiting until the Israeli Knesset utilize these outpost settlements and then issue a statement saying all settlement activities are illegal and hinder the two‑state solution?

Spokesman:  Well, I mean, that’s something we’ve been saying for a long time, Abdelhamid.  So, it’s not… our position, again, is unchanged, is firm and is very clear.

Question:  But can’t something be said in advance before…?

Spokesman:  Things… I mean, we have expressed our concern about annexation.  We’ve repeatedly stated our position on the legal status of these settlements.  So, I mean, if anybody cares to take our position to account, all they need to do is read.

Okay.  Any other questions?  If you have a question, wave so I can see you or put something in the chat.  All right.  Nothing else.  Just to let you know that I don’t know if the building will be open tomorrow, but regardless, Farhan [Haq] will be briefing from his usual undisclosed location somewhere in New Jersey.  And in the meantime, I leave you in the hands of Brenden Varma, who’s also at another undisclosed location in a different state, I understand.  All right, Brenden.  Take care.

For information media. Not an official record.