27 February 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.


As a reminder, the Secretary-General will speak today at The New School Auditorium at 6:30 p.m. in Greenwich Village.  He will be delivering remarks on the topic of “Women and Power”.

The doors open at 6 p.m. and we look forward to seeing you there.  If you have not yet RSVPed to Florencia [Soto Niño], please let us know.


Turning to Syria.  Ongoing military operations around Idlib — where more than 1 million civilians are concentrated and where escalation could easily get out of control — highlight the clear and pressing need for an immediate ceasefire and an end to constant violations of international humanitarian law.  Without urgent action, the risk of even more catastrophic consequences is growing by the hour.

Through his ongoing contacts, the Secretary-General continues his efforts to urge the parties to achieve these goals, end the suffering of civilians and ensure access for vital humanitarian assistance.

And on that very subject, the Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Ursula Mueller, briefed the Security Council this morning.  Speaking on the cross-border modality of delivering aid, she said these are absolutely essential to our response in north-western Syria.  People in need in Idlib cannot currently be reached at this scale, in such a timely and direct manner, through any other means, she warned.  As the Secretary-General has stated, Ms. Mueller said, the Security Council has a critical role to play in support of these humanitarian efforts.

She also briefed the Security Council on the Secretary-General’s report on humanitarian access in the north-east, which says that, “In order for all humanitarian needs to be met, the Syrian Government would need to facilitate greater crossline access to north-east Syria, particularly for medical assistance.”

Ms. Mueller echoed the Secretary-General’s renewed call for an immediate ceasefire and end to the humanitarian catastrophe and avoid an uncontrollable escalation.

Also briefing was Henrietta Fore, the Executive Director of UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund).  She told Council members [about] the effects of the escalation in the north-west of Syria on children, saying that UNICEF has heard of reports in recent days of children freezing to death.  She added that an estimated 180 schools are out of operations, while access to health care is almost non-existent.

And also today, at the Humanitarian Task Force meeting in Geneva, Senior Humanitarian Adviser Najat Rochdi expressed her gravest alarm at the rising civilian death toll and the unprecedented number of persons displaced in the north-west of the country.

All those remarks and statements have been distributed to you.


Turning to COVID-19, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr. Tedros [Adhanom Ghebreyesus], said that for the past two days, there were fewer new cases reported in China than in the rest of the world.

We are at a decisive point, he said, as he urged countries not to miss their window of opportunity to contain the virus.  Aggressive early measures can prevent transmission before the virus gets a foothold, he added.

He called on every country to be ready to detect cases early, to isolate patients, trace contacts, provide quality clinical care, prevent hospital outbreaks, and community transmission.

WHO is providing the tools to help them prepare:  They have shipped testing kits to 57 countries and personal protective equipment to 85 countries who need it.

They have also trained more than 80,000 health workers in multiple languages through their online courses and have issued operational guidelines with concrete actions that countries can take in eight key areas to prevent, detect and manage cases.

And also in Geneva, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, expressed her concerns related to COVID-19, saying that to effectively combat the virus, public health measures should be carried out without discrimination of any kind, with an emphasis on transparency and information to empower people.

Quarantines, she added, should be proportionate to the risk, time-bound, safe, and the rights of those under quarantine must be protected.


And Martin Griffiths’ office, the Special Envoy for Yemen, tells us that they have concluded a two-day consultative meeting with Yemeni public and political figures in Jordan.  The meeting, which took place in Amman, brought together a diverse group of Yemeni stakeholders, men and women, to discuss the prospects for resuming the official political process.  Discussions included challenges against the resumption of the peace process and opportunities to push that process forward.

Mr. Griffiths said that it was encouraging hearing from the participants that we share the same vision for peace in Yemen, and that we all agree that sustainable peace is only [possible] through an inclusive, comprehensive and negotiated solution.  He said that we will continue our consultative meetings and engage in a constructive dialogue with the aim of bringing Yemenis closer to peace and prosperity.

**Middle East

And in a statement, the Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Nickolay Mladenov, said he was very concerned about Israel’s recent announcements regarding the advancement of settlement construction in a number of areas in the occupied West Bank.

He said that all settlements are illegal under international law and remain a substantial obstacle to peace.

Mr. Mladenov urged the Israeli authorities to refrain from such unilateral actions that fuel instability and further erode the prospects for resuming the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations on the basis of relevant UN resolutions, international law and bilateral agreements.


Our humanitarian colleagues tell us that the locusts continue to spread throughout Eastern Africa with nine countries now affected:  Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, Tanzania and Uganda.  One small swarm reached the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

There has also been recent significant swarm movement in the Persian Gulf.

Hundreds of thousands of hectares, including cropland and pasture, have already been affected by the ongoing widespread breeding.

OCHA (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) warns that immature swarms — the most voracious stage of locust development — will emerge at the start of the upcoming rainy season, which is the most important planting season for some of the worst affected and at-risk countries in East Africa.

OCHA said an extended response will be necessary, including early support from Governments and humanitarian partners to affected farmers and pastoralists to meet their immediate needs and enable them to quickly resume their livelihoods.

The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) has increased its appeal to $138 million to cover expanded needs and additional countries, for which $52 million has been pledged so far.

**South Sudan

And from South Sudan, UNICEF tells us that earlier today, 15 children associated with armed groups and armed forces were released.  The boys were taken as prisoners of war last year during clashes in the northern part of the country.

The release is happening just over two weeks after the signing by the Government of an expanded Action Plan that formally includes provisions to end and prevent all grave violations against children.


And today, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) called for increased focus on improving substance use prevention and treatment services to young people.  The Board cited a report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) which found that substance use is highest among young people, with cannabis being the most widely used substance.

The UNODC estimates that in 2016, cannabis use affected 5.6 per cent or almost 14 million young people aged 15-16 with rates varying by region.

**Financial Contribution

And today, we say thanks to our friends in Germany and Micronesia for having paid – hey, everybody counts – for having paid their budget dues in full, bringing us up to a grand total of 56, which is not that bad for February, while February lasts.

**Questions and Answers

Mr. Klein?

Question:  Well, first of all, I am curious as to how much Micronesia actually contributed here.

Spokesman:  $28,053 and Germany contributed $170,396,420.

Question:  Okay.

Spokesman:  Everybody pays their fair share.

Question:  I understand.  I understand.  Thank you.  But my main question concerns the virus.  In addition to the United States, more and more countries are imposing or considering imposing border controls, including within the EU, as part of their containment policies.  I’m wondering what the Secretary‑General thinks about that and where he would strike the balance.

Spokesman:  Look, that’s a question for medical experts.  So, that is a question for the World Health Organization.  What the Secretary‑General… first of all, he is fully backing the work of the World Health Organization and Dr. Tedros with their policy focusing on containment.  WHO, I know, is working with Member States.  It’s very important that countries take the necessary precautions.

Yes, Madame.

Question:  Thank you.  Stéphane, on the violence in New Delhi, the Secretary-General has asked for restraint, and Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi has also appealed for peace and brotherhood, and he’s taking stock of the situation.  Going forward, the Government authorities are also involved there, so any message on that?

Spokesman:  You know, as we’ve said, the Secretary‑General has been following the situation in India and… concerning the violence closely and is saddened by the reports of deaths that we’ve seen over the past few days in New Delhi and, again, reiterates, as he’s done in other places, his calls for maximum restraint and for violence to be avoided.

I think, throughout his life, the Secretary‑General has been deeply inspired by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi.  And, today, the spirit of Gandhi is needed more than ever, and it is essential to create conditions for true community reconciliation.

Maria.  I’m sorry.  Then…

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  So, on visa issue, yesterday, you already said that SG is concerned about it.  Could you be, please, more specific about if Secretary‑General is considering action going to this arbitration, which Russia is suggesting, and on Commission on Disarmament, which was scheduled to start tomorrow, if I’m not mistaken?  Do you think it will be able to take place and if Russian representative received the visa finally?

Spokesman:  Sure.  I don’t know if the Russian representative has received his or her visa, and that’s a question to ask the Russian Mission.  I think, for the disarmament work, the bureau of the committee will have to decide when to start its work.

As we’ve said, the non‑issuance of visas and the heavy travel restrictions put on certain representatives of certain Member States is something that’s of very great concern to the Secretary‑General.

He is fully aware of the position of the Russian Federation and others, as expressed during the meeting of the Host Country [Committee], I think, took place a bit more than a day ago.

This is an issue that both he and his Legal Counsel have raised with the host authorities at very senior levels and will continue to do so in an effort to resolve the ongoing situation.

Yeah, Gabriel?

Question:  Thank you.  Two questions on Idlib and north‑west Syria.  Number one is, yesterday, nine members of the Security Council met with the Secretary‑General, and part of their message, apparently, was urging the Secretary‑General to do all he can to get an immediate ceasefire.  In that light, what is the Secretary‑General doing to achieve those means?

Spokesman:  Well, the Secretary‑General did meet with the nine members.  His goals, as stated publicly and privately, are really two very simple goals:  put a stop to the killing and make sure there is humanitarian access for those who need it the most.

This is something he has been pursuing in his contacts.  He met, as you know, with Foreign Minister [Sergey] Lavrov.  He has either met or spoken to, you know, a pretty big number of relevant permanent representatives and others.  And he will continue to do so to try to get the parties to implement an immediate ceasefire.

Question:  Can I follow up?

Spokesman:  Yeah.

Question:  One more.  Thank you.  Just following up on that, you know, we’re… listening to the Security Council meeting that was going on this morning, there’s just so much talk about the immediate ceasefire, which we’ve been hearing for a long time now.  The Foreign Minister of Germany mentioned it again.  Clearly, there’s a myriad of issues in Syria, long list of them.  But from the Secretary‑General’s perspective, has the issue of an immediate ceasefire moved up on the list of importance, given the escalation that’s been going on?

Spokesman:  I think you have to see it from the standpoint of the civilians, the men and the women and the children who are getting bombed or shelled.  I think there is no greater urgency, immediate urgency, to stop the fighting.  These people need help.  They need humanitarian help, either through cross‑line or cross‑border.  That can only be… the first step to achieving that is to silence the guns.  Right?  And, so, it’s not a matter of ranking what is the most important.  I think it’s what is needed most immediately?  Right.  And that is what is needed most immediately.

We’ll come to you.  Yes, Carmen?

Question:  Stéphane, on… in this hemisphere, in Cuba, for the last two days, there has been the trial of Jose Daniel Ferrer, who is a Cuban activist.  There’s very little information about what’s transpiring, but he seems to be very deteriorated.  There are reports that he’s been tortured, maltreated.

How does the Secretary‑General view the situation of a citizen who’s being maltreated by a Government that wants to renew its membership at the Human Rights Council, especially at a time that you’re calling, like, for reconciliation in other parts of the world?

Spokesman:  Let me… I will admit of not being familiar with this particular case.  Let me get some language, and I will get back to you on that.


Question:  Also on Syria, Bloomberg’s… Bloomberg published yesterday information quoting diplomatic sources about a meeting between Secretary‑General and nine members of Security Council.  Do you have information on this, what this meeting was about?  Was there really a request from these nine countries and, actually, which nine countries for SG to be more involved in the situation in Idlib?

Spokesman:  Yeah, I mean, I think it’s a question I just answered.  Yes, indeed, there was a meeting with nine members of the Security Council.  My memory is not what it used to be.  I can give you the list of nine, but I don’t want to rattle off the nine right now, because I’m not 100 per cent sure.  But I will give you the list of nine.

They came to present… they requested to meet the Secretary‑General to discuss the situation in Idlib.  And, as the Secretary‑General said, his two main objectives was to find a way to stop the killings and to get the humanitarian aid in.


Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  My question, Stéphane, is about the rainforest in… Amazon’s rainforest.  And was the Secretary‑General concerned with the climate change, since deforestation and burning day by day of the rainforest is putting at risk humanity on this situation of the… this devastation of the Amazon… [cross talk]

Spokesman:  You know, I… sorry.  Go ahead.  I don’t mean to cut you off.

Question:  And including is the rights for the indigenous and the forced extension of the wildlife on the region.  And what is the concern of Secretary‑General of this?  And is this maybe a Government… my question is, is this a Government programme on the development of industries and mid-industries, agriculture and all these in the process for the deforestation of the rainforest?

Spokesman:  It’s a very important question.  The questions you’ve asked, I mean, it would take quite a lecture to answer all of them.  What I can… you know, and I’ll need to get an update on the situation in the Amazon, but what I can tell you is that the Secretary‑General has expressed his concern at the destruction of some of the world’s largest forests that we have seen over the last year and beyond, whether… and that’s whether it’s in the Amazon, in the central part of the African continent or in large parts of Asia and whether that destruction has been man‑made, through man‑made deforestation or through fires that are burning out of control.  And these are issues that various UN country teams are working closely with local governments to try to help.

Question:  And to follow up, Stéphane, in the rights for the indigenous people in the region… [cross talk]

Spokesman:  It’s very important that the rights of indigenous peoples everywhere be respected.

Mr. Klein?

Question:  Yes.  Ms. Bachelet has been quoted recently making some very sharp critiques of President [Donald] Trump, particularly in the areas of environment and migration.  I’m wondering, first of all, to what extent, if any, does she coordinate with the Secretary‑General before making those kinds of general critiques about a particular… the Head of a particular Member State?  And, secondly, does the Secretary‑General share her viewpoint on what she raised…? [cross talk]

Spokesman:  I haven’t seen the particular comments you’re referring to.  What I can tell you is that the Secretary‑General does not interfere in the work of the High Commissioner for [Human Rights].  She is the UN’s prime voice on human rights.  She often speaks about many countries in the world, and I think she delivered rather long remarks in the Human Rights Council recently, but it is not for the Secretary‑General to interfere in her work.

She does not, as far as I know, coordinate her remarks with the Secretary‑General, and the Secretary‑General has full respect and confidence in the way she goes about her work.

On that note, hasta mañana.  Why not?

For information media. Not an official record.