The following is a near-verbatim transcript of today’s noon briefing by Stéphane Dujarric, Spokesman for the Secretary-General.
Good afternoon. Happy Wednesday. In the Security Council today or at least virtually in the Security Council, Geir Pedersen, the Special Envoy for Syria, told Council members by videoconference that the last 10 months have been the calmest in the history of the Syrian conflict. Front lines have barely shifted. But, he added, this is a fragile calm that could break down at any moment. Mr. Pedersen said the conflict is highly internationalized, with five foreign armies active in Syria. We cannot pretend that the solutions are only in the hands of the Syrians, or that the UN can do it alone, he said. The Special Envoy said he continues to help the Syrian-led, Syrian-owned, UN-facilitated Constitutional Committee, adding that the fifth session of its Small Body will convene in Geneva next week, as we told you — from 25 to 29 January — COVID‑19 conditions permitting, of course. Mark Lowcock, the Emergency Relief Coordinator, told the Council members the value of Syria’s currency has drastically declined, causing food prices to increase. He warned of bread shortages and a decline in domestic wheat production. He added that there were signs that Syria is now experiencing a new wave of COVID-19 infections. I’m so sorry I started on time and caught all of you by surprise. I channelled my inner Farhan today and I’m sorry.
**Central African Republic
Moving to the Central African Republic, Denise Brown, the Humanitarian Coordinator, is concerned about disruptions to the country’s main supply route because of the violence. This road connects the country’s capital, Bangui, to both the country and the closest port in Cameroon. Ms. Brown strongly condemned the attacks on a convoy of humanitarian and commercial trucks that took place two days ago. The attack by armed combatants took place near the Cameroonian border. Three truck drivers were injured. The disruption of the supply route prevents the safe and timely delivery of vital aid, as well as commercial goods. More than 1,600 trucks are estimated to be blocked at the border with Cameroon. This includes 500 trucks with critical UN and partners’ supplies, such as food, medicines and non-food items. The disruption to the delivery of supplies to and within the Central African Republic has resulted in significant spikes in food prices across the country, both for imported and locally produced goods. Meanwhile, over a third of the population, that’s 1.9 million people, face high levels of acute food insecurity. In 2021, 2.8 million people — that’s more than half of the population of the Central African Republic — will need humanitarian assistance and protection. Nearly 200,000 people have been newly displaced inside the country since violence and tensions broke out in connection with the general elections in December. About half of them have since returned.
Quick note from Central America, where our UN teams in Guatemala and Honduras are working with Governments and partners to protect a caravan of migrants who are currently in Guatemala. The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), International Organization for Migration (IOM), Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) are all on the ground. They are focusing on care and protection of unaccompanied children, observation of compliance with international human rights standards and the national legislation, as well as the distribution of water, food and hygiene kits. An assisted voluntary return programme has also been established and the UN team is monitoring that flow of people. In Honduras, the UN team is working with the Government to prepare for the voluntary return of Honduran migrants. Official estimates led the UN team and authorities to prepare for the return of 1,500 migrants, many of them are children.
**COVID-19 — Asia and the Pacific
Moving on to the Pacific and Asia, today where a new joint report by several UN agencies says that the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic threatens the health and nutrition of nearly 2 billion people in the region. The report was put together by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), UNICEF, World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Food Programme (WFP). It finds that 1.9 billion people were unable to afford a healthy diet, even before the COVID-19 outbreak. The pandemic and a lack of decent work opportunities, together with higher food prices, has led to a worsening of inequality. Poor families with dwindling incomes must further alter their diets to choose cheaper, less nutritious foods. The full report is online.
A sad note from IOM and UNHCR, who said they are deeply saddened by a shipwreck off the Libyan coast yesterday. The wreck claimed the lives of at least 43 people. This was the first shipwreck of 2021 in the Central Mediterranean. According to IOM and the International Rescue Committee, which is UNHCR’s partner on the ground, 10 survivors were rescued and brought to shore by Coastal Security in Zwara. More information online.
We are very pleased to announce that we have reached 10 Member States in our Honour Roll. We say thank you to Armenia, Denmark, Iceland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Republic of Korea and Switzerland, who all paid their budget dues in full and more than on time — and they are all part of the Honour Roll. Take some questions now. Yes, madame, sorry, and then Edie.
**Questions and Answers
Question: Stéphane, about Central African Republic, what could the Mission do to stop the cycle of violence? And if… actually, no. And does the Mission has the means to do so? Sorry.
Spokesman: That's okay. The Mission's work with the peacekeepers that they have, I think, have done… have been out on the front lines protecting civilians at… sadly, with peacekeepers paying the ultimate price. We have seen a number of attacks… directed attacks at peacekeepers, peacekeepers caught in the crossfires. So, they will continue to do their job, fulfil their Mission. The way to stop the cycle of violence is through political reconciliation, is to ensure that all the political actors renounce violence, renounce inciting their followers to violence, accept results of elections. The breaking of the cycle of violence has to come through a political process. Edie?
Question: Thank you, Steph. Does the Secretary‑General have any comment on the inauguration of a new President of the United States? Does he plan to try to meet Joe Biden? And what will be his top priorities? Thank you.
Spokesman: Sure. He will either… he will likely speak to the President… to the new President of the United States when appropriate. There… as we've often said, the US has a key leadership role to play across the international agenda, including in the Security Council, on matters of peace and security. We also look forward to working with the administration to advance sustainable development, human rights for all the world's people. We have also seen the press reports of expected executive orders to be signed later this afternoon, notably on issues of climate, on global health, WHO, pandemic. We welcome these reports. We welcome these developments. As soon as these executive orders are officially signed and become policy, we will, obviously, welcome them more formally. It's going to be, I think, a very active and positive engagement between the Secretary‑General and this new administration, and we look… I know he looks forward to working with President Biden and, obviously, with the Secretary of State‑designate, and of course, with the Permanent Representative‑designate, once she is confirmed and arrives here on site. Okay. Let's go to the video. Hold on. Any… if you have a question… yes, Iftikhar. Go ahead, Iftikhar.
Question: Thank you, Stéphane. Following up on Edie's question, but has he sent… has the Secretary‑General sent a message to President Biden and what it is?
Spokesman: A letter is going out to President Biden expressing that he looks forward with President Biden and with Vice‑President [Kamala] Harris, and the letter is along the lines that I've… of the sentiments that I've expressed in my answer to Edie. Gloria and then Carla.
Question: Yes. My question is for the 1 million… the thousands… 1,500 of the refugees that are going to be returned to Guatemala and the understanding with… with their Honduras refugees. Is this [Donald] Trump's last act, do you think?
Spokesman: That's not an analysis for me to answer. I mean, that's for you to analyse. I think there are a lot of reasons why people… these men, women and children were on the move, and I think a lot of it has to do also with their economic prospects due to the pandemic and the severe climate storms that we have seen batter Central America for quite some time this year. Carla?
Question: Thank you. The late Director of Political Science and Russian Studies at Princeton University, Stephen Cohen, has said that the current cold war… the new cold war is much more dangerous than the old one. Number of treaties are being scrapped, and the misunderstandings, some deliberate, some maybe not, are much worse. So, my question, again, goes back to the Nuclear Non‑Proliferation Treaty and the fact that the three most powerful nuclear Powers are in violation of article 6. My country is in violation of article 1, having transferred nuclear weapons to five other countries. Now, you said that the Secretary‑General is for the abolition of nuclear weapons, which is quite realistic. How much authority does he have to influence the major nuclear Powers to reduce their arsenals?
Spokesman: Well, his influence is his bully pulpit and his call to action. Maggie?
Spokesman: Margaret Besheer? I can't hear you. I can see you, but I cannot hear you. Yes? First word? Do you want to text me your question? Okay. Quick. Do it quick, then. All right. I'm still not… if anybody else has a question while we wait for Maggie to compose her tome? I hope it's an interesting question.
Question: Can you hear me now, Steph?
Spokesman: Oh, perfectly. Okay. There you go.
Spokesman: Yes. Go ahead.
Question: Okay. Great. Sorry. It's a new laptop. It's a new laptop. I tried to send you my scribbly note. Sorry. So, will the WHO action… will that help global response on COVID if the US rejoins WHO? Can you hear me okay?
Spokesman: Yes. I mean, listen…
Question: And will that be immediate, because they haven't withdrawn and it's not final? Do they just send a letter to the Secretary‑General, to Tedros [Adhanom Ghebreyesus]? What's the procedure to stop the withdrawal? And do they still owe money and how much? And also, on the Muslim ban — I know that's not a UN‑related thing, but it is, sort of, because the Secretary‑General's spoken on xenophobia and things like that — they've said today also that they're going to repeal that. So, do you have a reaction on it? And sorry for going on.
Spokesman: No, that's okay. Listen, we will have more formal reaction once all these things are announced, because we, obviously, have to see what exactly is announced, and we don't want to get ahead of our skis. It is clear that, if the WHO… the [re-engagement with] WHO happens, it will send a clear signal and a strong signal, and American leadership within many realms, including public health, is critical. But, again, if you'll bear with us just a little bit longer, once we have the announcements and they're publicly made, we will react to them, and we will, obviously, welcome them from what we have seen. Okay. Thank you, all. I leave you in Brenden's capable hands, and we will see you tomorrow.