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26 January 2021

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.  Bear with me.  We have quite a few items for you today. 

**Noon Briefing Guest Today

As soon as I’m done, we will be joined virtually by Myrta Kaulard, the UN Resident Coordinator in Mozambique.  She will brief you on the situation in Mozambique, following the storm, obviously, and also the general humanitarian situation that we’ve been reporting on for quite some time. 

**Senior Personnel Appointment

Senior personnel announcement:  The Secretary-General is appointing Khassim Diagne of Senegal as his Deputy Special Representative for Protection and Operations in the UN Peacekeeping Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO).  Mr. Diagne succeeds David Gressly of the United States, to whom the Secretary-General is deeply grateful for his dedicated service to the UN peacekeeping operations in the DRC.  Mr. Diagne brings to the position more than 25 years of experience in refugee protection, political affairs, management and oversight.  Most recently, he is serving as Director of the Political, Peacekeeping, Humanitarian and Human Rights Unit in the Secretary-General’s Executive Office. 

We send out warm, warm congratulations to Khassim and we will miss him, but we know where to find him. 

**Peacebuilding Fund

At the virtual Replenishment Conference for the Peacebuilding Fund, held this morning, the Secretary-General said that in the current context, we need an approach that goes beyond crisis response and boosts long-term investments in prevention and peacebuilding.

The impact and cost-effectiveness of the Peacebuilding Fund have been widely recognized and appreciated by the 50 nations it has supported, the Secretary-General said in his remarks.  Yet, we continue to massively underinvest in it. 

The Fund prioritizes areas that may otherwise be considered too risky, or that are chronically underfunded.  In addition, as part of the Comprehensive Response to COVID, the Fund quickly responded to the risks and tensions heightened by the pandemic. 

The Secretary-General called on all Member States and partners to contribute to the Fund, even a small amount.  Doing this would allow us to finally accomplish the much needed “quantum leap” and send a clear signal that together, we can successfully invest in building and sustaining peace. 

We also expect a wrap-up communiqué from the Secretary-General at the end of today’s meeting.

**Middle East

Back here, at least virtually, Tor Wennesland briefed the Security Council this morning for the first time in his new role as the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process.  He told the members that Nickolay Mladenov’s performance as Special Coordinator is a hard act to follow. 

He added that he joins the Secretary-General in welcoming the presidential decree issued by President Mahmoud Abbas to hold legislative, presidential and Palestinian National Council elections this year. 

Mr. Wennesland warned that the COVID-19 crisis continues to take a staggering toll across the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) and Israel.  Concerted efforts to contain and halt the spread of the virus have succeeded in lowering the overall number of active cases in the West Bank and Gaza.  However, the cost in lives and livelihoods remains high, particularly in the Gaza Strip. 

In this context, he said, the UN continues to encourage Israel to help address the priority needs of the Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and to support COVID-19 vaccine availability more generally. 

**Ethiopia

Updates from the field:  From Ethiopia, our humanitarian colleagues there are receiving reports of rising hunger and malnutrition in Tigray. 

It is still not possible to determine the full impact of the crisis on food insecurity, but months of conflict and the dire lack of access to food is worsening an already dire situation caused by the pandemic and locust infestation. 

Many farmers have missed the harvest season, and food is scarce in local markets due to regional trade being blocked. 

While certain services have been restored in some major towns, electricity, banking, communications and transportation services have yet to be restarted in most of the region.  Access to cash and banking services is only available in the province’s capital, Mekelle. 

Our colleagues at the World Health Organization (WHO) warn about increasing risks of the spread of disease.  Nearly 80 per cent of the hospitals are still not functional and insufficient medical supplies are being delivered.  Clean water is another concern, with hundreds of water pumps also not functioning properly. 

Our humanitarian colleagues stress that the overall situation is dire.  Although supplies have increasingly been allowed to enter the region, most of the critical staff needed to scale up the response have still not been able to access the area.

We continue to call for immediate, unimpeded and safe passage of humanitarian personnel and supplies to Tigray to reach all people who need assistance. 

I also wanted to flag that today, the Head of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), Audrey Azoulay, has called for an inquiry into the killing of journalist Dawit Kebede.  He was found dead on 19 January, in Mekelle, the capital of Tigray. 

Kebede [was] a journalist working for Tigray regional television at the time. 

**Yemen

Turning to Yemen, we are indeed aware of the new general licence issued by the US yesterday afternoon.  This licence exempts all transactions with the Houthis from sanctions-related enforcement by the US authorities until 26 February. 

As you know, Yemen brings in nearly all its food and everything else by commercial imports.  As we have said for months, it is the reaction of private companies all along the global supply chain that will determine life and death for people in Yemen. 

Yemen’s heavy import-dependence is why the Security Council has unanimously agreed for years that commercial imports to the country through all ports must be protected.  This is even more important now as famine is stalking the country. 

The US announcement is still being digested both by aid agencies and the private sector.  We have heard concerns that companies are still planning to cancel or suspend business, given that this move does not resolve underlying uncertainties. 

With millions of civilians at risk of starvation, Yemen cannot afford even a temporary disruption in commercial activity, and it is not yet clear that the new licence will prevent those kinds of disruptions. 

We continue to call for the reversal of the designations on humanitarian grounds. 

**Central African Republic

The UN Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) dispatched a patrol to Mangrao, on the Grimari-Bambari axis in Ouaka Prefecture yesterday, after combatants from the CPC (Coalition Patriotique pour le Changement) set a local fuel truck on fire.  This led the combatants to flee the area.

Meanwhile, the Mission continues to provide support towards the completion of the electoral process.  Yesterday, the Mission supported a weekly videoconference between the Government and the prefects to assess the security situation and the preparations for the second round of the legislative elections, currently scheduled for 7 February. 

**South Sudan

On South Sudan, we are told now that more than 8 million people in the country are believed to need humanitarian assistance this year.  This includes 310,000 refugees and asylum seekers and is an increase from the 7.5 million people who were in need in 2020. 

Years of conflict and the impact of climate change are driving up humanitarian needs, including hunger.  More than 7.2 million people are projected to be severely food insecure during 2021, with some communities facing catastrophic levels of food insecurity. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to severe economic contractions, spikes in basic commodities, and the loss of livelihoods. 

The already serious situation has been compounded by severe flooding.  People also continue to be highly vulnerable to diseases, due to low immunization coverage, a weak health system and poor hygiene and sanitation. 

In 2020, we, along with our partners, provided assistance to more than 6 million people across South Sudan. 

**Comoros — COVID-19

And an interesting update for you — or at least we thought it was interesting — on what we’re doing to address the COVID-19 pandemic in the Comoros. 

The UN team, led by Resident Coordinator François Batalingaya, is supporting the authorities’ response to a new COVID-19 outbreak on all fronts. 

While the country had been officially COVID-free for nearly 100 days, officials confirm that it took only one imported case, reported last month, for the virus to spread swiftly and widely. 

WHO (World Health Organization) has chartered a plane carrying medical equipment and a team of medical professionals to help Comoros’ smallest island, which is at the epicentre of this new wave.  WHO has helped nearly 500 COVID patients there. 

Both WHO and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) have provided more than 3,000 units of personal protective equipment.  UNDP helped to install a solar energy system, which has provided electricity for patient care, including maintaining respirators. 

We have reached thousands of people on how to stop the spread of COVID-19 through awareness and community engagement caravans. 

**Environment

I just want to flag that a report released today by UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) says that climate litigation cases have spiked in recent years.  This makes the courtroom increasingly relevant to efforts to address climate change around the world. 

The background of plaintiffs is becoming increasingly diverse as well, with NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and political parties joined by children, senior citizens, migrants, and indigenous peoples. 

**Holocaust Remembrance

I just wanted to flag the remarks the Secretary-General made yesterday, last night at a virtual ceremony at Park East Synagogue to commemorate the remembrance of the Holocaust.  In his remarks, he said that the pandemic has contributed to a resurgence of xenophobia, antisemitism, and hate speech.   He said that propaganda linking Jews with the pandemic by accusing them of creating the virus as part of a bid for global domination would be ridiculous, if it were not so dangerous. 

He warned that Holocaust denial, distortion and minimization are resurgent.   In Europe, the US and elsewhere, white supremacists are organizing and recruiting across borders, flaunting the symbols and tropes of the Nazis and their murderous ambitions.  The Secretary-General said that there is no vaccine for antisemitism and xenophobia, but our best weapon remains the truth.   His full remarks have been shared with you.

And I want to flag that there will be a virtual screening on Thursday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. of the Commemorative Programme to mark the International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust.  This usually takes place in the General Assembly, in non-pandemic years.  The Programme will be screened live on UN WebTV.  Angela Merkel, Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, will deliver the keynote address, and the Secretary-General will also speak, as will Audrey Azoulay, the head of UNESCO, and others. 

A panel discussion on Holocaust denial and distortion will follow the ceremony.  That will start at 12 p.m. on Thursday, with diverse experts in the field.

**Noon Briefing Guest Tomorrow

Tomorrow my guest will be Achim Steiner.  He will join us virtually to discuss the results of UNDP’s “Mission 1.5” climate action poll — a global opinion poll on climate action, in partnership with Oxford University. 

**Honour Roll

We end on a high note.  Belgium and Cuba have now made their full payments to the regular budget.  We welcome them to the Honour Roll, which has 19 Member States. 

**Questions and Answers

James, and then Maria. 

Correspondent:  I knew it was 19, and you didn’t ask.

Spokesman:  I know.

Question:  Okay.  I want to ask about the Middle East meeting today.  Clearly, we heard from the new Special Coordinator, Mr. Wennesland, but we didn’t hear his reaction to some of the things that happened later in the meeting.

So, first, what is the Secretary‑General’s reaction to the fact that you now have a US Administration laying out its policy on Israel‑Palestine and it has now returned to the international norm of a two‑State solution, pretty much what is laid out in UN resolutions, which hasn’t been the Administration’s policy…  the previous Administration’s policy for the last four years?

Spokesman:  Well, I mean, with…  I will say that we obviously welcome the US’ renewed focus on international cooperation globally, and we will engage with the US on this and other issues.  I mean, I’m not going to get into…  I don’t want…  we obviously welcome these comments, but I’m not…  I don’t want to get into the analysis of what each Member State said.  We will…  we work with one Administration at a time, and we look forward to working with this Administration.

Question:  I don’t want to get into an analysis of what each Member State said, but the Russian Foreign Minister made a new proposal, which was either an international conference or he suggested the idea of a ministerial meeting this summer with the Quartet plus a group of Arab countries, as well as Israel and Palestine.  What is the…  what is the Secretariat’s view…?

Spokesman:  We will analyse the proposal.  We’ve always called for a renewal of the activities of the Quartet, which is something that we hope we will see.

Question:  Could a conference be helpful, an international conference?

Spokesman:  I think let’s…  let me stay for there right now.  Thank you. 

Ah, Maria, sorry.  When I let James ask 12 questions, he’s going…  I know he’s going to steal other people’s questions. 

All right.  Does anyone have a question that has not been asked by Mr. Bays?

Alejandro, please. 

Question:  Sure.  Thank you, Steph.  I have a question on Colombia.  The country is mourning today the passing of the former Defence Minister…  sorry, the Defence Minister and former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Carlos Holmes Trujillo, due to a COVID‑19 infection.  And today, he is the highest officer from any Government in Latin America to die from a coronavirus infection.  And then during his lifetime, he worked very closely with the UN to lead many efforts on the assistance to Venezuelan refugees and also the implementation of the peace accord in Colombia.  So, I was wondering if we could get any reaction or comment on the passing of this minister.

Spokesman:  Sure.  First of all, we send, obviously, our condolences to his family and to the Government and people of Colombia.  I think he was a…  as you said in your answer, he was a very strong partner of the UN and, I think, had done a lot of good work, notably on…  during the establishment of the Verification Mission, on humanitarian issues, and he will be dearly missed. 

Toby?

Question:  Hi.  Thanks, very much, Stéphane.  Can you just walk us through any updates on the Secretary‑General’s vaccination plans for Thursday?  Will he be available to us?  What’s going to happen?

Spokesman:  We will…  he is still scheduled to do it at 3…  around…  in the late afternoon on Thursday after you’re finished with him at the press conference.  We will have a UNTV videographer and a photographer there to capture the moment. 

Obviously, it’s being done in one of the many centres established by the City of New York.  He will go there, get his shot, wait on line and wait for his turn like everyone else in his category.

And then we will share the visuals as soon as we can.

Question:  And is he addressing the General Assembly on Thursday, as well, and if so, in person or…

Spokesman:  Yes, he’s also addressing…  yes, he’s addressing the General Assembly; he’s addressing you, and then he’s getting a shot. 

Yes, Carla?

Question:  Sorry.  Is that in person at the GA or virtually?

Spokesman:  That’s a very good question.  I will check.  I will check.  [He later confirmed it would be in person.]

Question:  [inaudible] reports of people having negative reaction to the vaccine, in some cases dying.  And I understand the urgency to come up with something; I know the US, Russia and China have, but at what point is…  is there sufficient testing and determination that the vaccine is actually safe?

Spokesman:  I don’t pretend to be a medical doctor.  What I do know is that various regulatory authorities have cleared the vaccine, whether in this country, in other countries.  The WHO has cleared a number of vaccines, and I think it’s important we listen to public health officials.

Mr. Bays, I see you holding something in your hand.

Question:  Yeah, no, sorry.  One other question about today’s Security Council meeting, which was Mr. Wennesland said that he would like the Israelis to provide more help to Palestinians with regard to vaccinations.  Does the UN believe it is an obligation of Israel as the occupying Power to start vaccinating those that are living in that occupied territory?

Spokesman:  Look, we’ve had…  what I will say is that we’re continuing to encourage the Israelis to help address the priority needs of Palestinians in the OPT, support the vaccine.  I think this is critical to support of the broader efforts of the Palestinian Government to control the pandemic, also in line with Israel’s obligation under international law. 

I think it’s also important to note that Israel has worked very closely with the UN and partners throughout the course of the pandemic to ensure that equipment and supplies have been delivered throughout the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza.  And Palestine is also eligible for support through the COVAX facility and that we anticipate an initial allocation of vaccine batches to cover priority groups to be available in the first half of this year. 

Okay.  Ronda, and then we’ll go to our guest.  Go ahead.

Question:  Am I un‑muted?  Yeah, okay.  Yes.  My question is about your response to Mr. Bays’ question yesterday about the new technology envoy.  And your answer was about the ability of Mr.…  of Fabrizio [Hochschild] to connect with other people.  My question is about the…  that the Secretary‑General signed a partnership agreement [inaudible] at the Economic Forum [inaudible] this is about [inaudible] multi-stakeholderism, and that’s seen as [inaudible]…

Spokesman:  Ronda… 

Question:  Yeah.  My question is about multi-stakeholderism and multilateralism.  Does the Secretary‑General feel that there’s…  they’re totally consistent with each other?  There are criticisms of multi-stakeholderism and I…  and [inaudible] that the multilateral is supposed to be dominant whereas multi… 

Spokesman:  I can hear every other word.  If I get the gist of it, we don’t think there is…  it’s an either/or of multilateralism and multi-stakeholderism.  There is the UN’s multilateralism, which is based on the Charter, which will continue to be the guiding principle, but we also have to have an honest look about the world that we live in and power centres and who do we need to get to to move things forward, whether it’s on science, on technology, on climate?  And we need to have other people at the table. 

I mean, it’s clear…  to take climate for example, it’s like, how do you expect to move on climate if you don’t bring in investors and insurance companies to the table or subnational stakeholders?  So, listen, I think it’s a very important…  interesting question to debate for a panel discussion, but to give you…  the short answer is that we don’t believe there is a contradiction between the two.

Question:  Quick follow‑up.  The…  can I ask a quick follow‑up?  The Secretary‑General signed the partnership agreement with the World Economic Forum.  This hasn’t been the General Assembly decision.  Does the Secretary‑General feel that he can make these decisions and it’s not up to the General Assembly to determine what will happen at the World Economic…?

Spokesman:  We enter…  the Secretary‑General serves with the authority of the Member States, of the General Assembly.  He has the authority to sign partnership agreements between the Secretariat and external partners.

Iftikhar, and then we will go to our guest, who’s been very patient.

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  Does the Secretary‑General have any comments on the violence in New Delhi following weeks of protests by Indian farmers who want…  who are protesting against anti-farm laws introduced by the Government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi?  These people have been protesting for the past two months, and they have lost so many lives while protesting in cold conditions.  Does the Secretary‑General have any comments on that?

Spokesman:  Look, I will just say that, as we say in many of these cases, I think it’s important to respect peaceful protests, freedom of assembly, and nonviolence.

Okay.  I will ask, Myrta, can you hear us?

For information media. Not an official record.