27 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.

**Noon Briefing Guest Today

In a short while, I will be joined virtually by Achim Steiner, the Administrator of the UN Development Programme (UNDP), as well as Cassie Flynn, UNDP’s Climate Change Adviser.  They will join us to discuss the results of UNDP’s global opinion poll on climate action, which was done in partnership with the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.

**Secretary-General’s Press Conference

And just a reminder, tomorrow at 1 p.m., right here in this room, the Secretary-General will hold a press conference on his priorities for 2021.  Earlier in the day, he will deliver remarks to the General Assembly.  We will have interpretation available in French and Spanish.  For those of you joining remotely, you will be able to access simultaneous interpretation on the Interprefy platform.  We will send the instructions on how to do that via email.  Obviously, if the boss speaks, I don’t, so there will not be a noon briefing [tomorrow].


Speaking by video message at the virtual event to mark the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust, the Secretary-General paid tribute to the memory of all the victims of the Holocaust.  Today’s meeting takes place under the shadow of the pandemic, he said.  COVID-19 has put societies to the test, revealing long‑standing fractures and injustices, adding that the pandemic has also contributed to a resurgence in xenophobia and hate speech, including antisemitism.  In Europe, in the United States and elsewhere, white supremacists are organizing and recruiting across borders, shamelessly flaunting the symbols of the Nazis and their murderous ambitions.  This must be a year of healing, he said.  There is no vaccine for antisemitism and xenophobia, and the most effective weapon remains the facts and the truth, the Secretary-General concluded.  The UN will continue to stand for the truth, and against lies, bigotry, antisemitism and hatred.  The full programme, including panel discussions, can be followed on our UN WebTV platform.

**Africa — COVID-19 Vaccines

The Secretary-General spoke by pre-recorded video message at a high-level webinar today on the African COVID-19 vaccine financing and deployment strategy.  He again stressed the need for vaccines to be accessible and affordable to all, calling for everyone to work together to prioritize those most at risk in all countries and to close the financing gap.  The Secretary-General commended the African Union’s efforts to secure an additional 270 million vaccine doses for African countries.  He again called on all countries, economies, and manufacturers to work with and through the COVAX facility to realize the commitments of equitable access, especially for the most vulnerable.  The Secretary-General said that, as additional vaccines come through the development pipeline, he calls on manufacturers to prioritize the review of data [by] the World Health Organization (WHO), so they can be deployed by COVAX as quickly as possible.


A quick humanitarian update for you on Yemen, where the risk of famine continues to rise.  Our humanitarian colleagues inform us that around 50,000 Yemenis are already living in famine-like conditions today, with 5 million more just one step away.  With food prices at 150 per cent higher than the average before the conflict and the depreciation of the Yemeni Rial, the threat of hunger for millions is a reality.  We must do all that we can to prevent widespread famine now.  We need more humanitarian funding; greater support for the economy through foreign-exchange injections; and an end to the violence.  To date, the 2020 Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan has only received 56 per cent of the money it needs — that’s $1.89 billion of the $3.38 billion needed to fund the operation.


Turning to Syria, where we just want to give you an update on the really dire situation in relation to the floods and winter conditions and the impacts they’ve had on the vulnerable people throughout the country.  As of yesterday, 26 January, more than 67,000 internally displaced people in almost 200 sites throughout the north-west of the country have been affected, with nearly 11,500 tents either destroyed or damaged.  One death and three injuries have been confirmed as a result.  Heavy rainfall has also impacted internally displaced people elsewhere in the country, including in the southern rural Tartous area, where families have been forced to relocate.  Winter conditions are of particular concern for the estimated 2.2 million internally displaced people living in inadequate shelter conditions across Syria.

We, alongside our humanitarian partners, are mobilizing additional assistance to support impacted families.  As of 1 January, more than 1.6 million individuals across Syria were reached with winter-related assistance.  This includes 850,000 [people] in north-west Syria, 250,000 people in north-east Syria and almost half a million people in Government-held areas.  We remain concerned that many vulnerable families are not sufficiently prepared for winter due to the continued funding gap of $24.5 million for winterization efforts across Syria.  More than half a million people could be unreachable with winter assistance.

**South Sudan

In South Sudan, we have been giving you updates about the deadly clashes there.  The United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) recently trained traditional leaders on conflict management and reconciliation processes in Malakal in Upper Nile State.  More than 30 local chiefs residing in Malakal and in the Mission’s protection of civilians [site] in the town took part in this training, which featured conflict management skills to promote reconciliation and social cohesion in and between communities.


In Somalia, this month marks the thirtieth anniversary since the civil war broke out in the country.  Today, James Swan, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative, paid tribute to the courage and resilience of the Somali people who have persevered through some of what he called the toughest conditions in any country on the planet in the past three decades.  Speaking at a press conference, Mr. Swan noted that, while enormous challenges remain, it is important to acknowledge that progress has been made.  He pointed to successes, including the functioning of national and federal member state institutions and private sector investment.  On the country’s current impasse over the elections, Mr. Swan reiterated his call for Somalia’s leaders to pursue compromise and dialogue for the good of the country.  His full press [conference] is now online.

**Security Council

The Security Council here held a closed-door meeting [this morning] and heard from the head of the UN Regional Centre for [Preventive Diplomacy for] Central Asia, and that is Natalia Gherman, who is the Secretary-General’s Special Representative in that area.

**Brazil — COVID-19

Quick COVID-19 updates — one from Brazil, where the UN team has been supporting the public health system in the northern State of Amazonas, which is currently struggling to cope with the impact of the pandemic.  In the last five days, the UN teams has delivered more than 160,000 items to hospitals and emergency rooms.  These include 60 cylinders of oxygen to maternity wards.  The head of the UN team, Niky Fabiancic, met virtually yesterday with authorities in all northern states to discuss how to support people’s needs.  This includes creating a funding scheme to help authorities immediately respond and recover better in a sustainable way.  The Governor of Amazonas, Wilson Lima, thanked the UN for its support during this emergency and said it is essential to complement existing local and national efforts.

**Egypt — COVID-19

In Egypt, we have been supporting national efforts to fight the pandemic.  Egypt’s massive vaccination plan — one of the largest among Arab States — began this week with technical support from UN experts.  The UN conducted risk assessment as part of the COVAX requirements.  We are working with authorities to include migrants and refugees in the vaccine rollout plan.  Priority is being given to the frontline health workers and other vulnerable groups.  Our UN team also focused on coordination, procurement and distribution of vaccines, as well as supply-chain management and healthcare [waste] management.  We are also working with the Government on its communication strategy and community engagement to halt the spread of the virus and curb misinformation to ensure widespread public vaccination.

**Children and Armed Conflict

And, just to note that, in her annual report to the Human Rights Council, Virginia Gamba, who heads the Children and Armed Conflict office, said that she is deeply concerned about the pandemic’s adverse impact on children affected by armed conflict.  She urged Member States to take child rights into account in their measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 and ensure that child‑protection services can continue despite the pandemic.  Ms. Gamba also stressed the importance for parties to conflict to respect the civilian nature of schools, health infrastructure, and associated protected personnel.  This is her report to the Human Rights Council; the annual report to the Security Council will come later this year.


Two more notes:  the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has released its 2021 strategic action plan today, calling on the international community to do more to save lives of refugees taking risky routes towards the Mediterranean.  UNHCR is seeking over $100 million to enhance refugee protection in African countries en route to the Mediterranean.  Offering safe and viable alternatives to the perilous journeys, during which too many people are facing abuse and deaths, is the critical priority.

**Honour Roll

We have now reached 20 members of our Honour Roll.  Anybody can guess what country just joined?  Our friends in Bratislava.  So, we warmly thank Slovakia for making it onto the honour roll and taking us to a nice 20.  Mr. Bays?

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Okay, first, following yesterday's Security Council meeting on the Israelis and Palestinians, the Israeli ambassador focussed on Iran.  There was then push‑back from the Iranians, a war of words.  We've also heard from Israel's military chief of staff, saying they're coming up with new military plans with regard to Iran.  How concerned is the Secretary‑General in this rise in the temperature when he wants everyone to go back to the Iran deal?

Spokesman:  Look, you're correct that the Secretary‑General is very keen to see a renewed commitment to the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] and a renewed commitment to reviving it, in a sense.  Rhetoric that heightens tensions coming from any side is never very helpful.

Question:  And another question.  I'll give you two questions but… because you might want to link them together, one, the US saying it is going to start funding UNRWA [United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East] again and then a hint from the new US Ambassador‑designate in her confirmation hearing that they may well stop… restart funding to UNFPA [United Nations Population Fund].  So, your reaction to those bits of news?

Spokesman:  I mean, I watched part of the confirmation hearings.  I mean, all of it, if confirmed, is, obviously, welcome news, and for us, going in the right direction.  We know the impact that the cutting of US funding had on UNRWA, and we also know the impact it had on UNFPA.  Okay.  If you have a question before we go to Mr. Steiner, wave your hands up in the air, like Toby and then Erol.  Go ahead, Toby.

Question:  Hi, thanks, Stéphane.  I just want to follow up on James' question about UNRWA.  So, you're still waiting for the US to reach out and confirm any actions related to UNRWA?  That's my first question.  And then my second question is, did you put out a formal reaction to the New START announcements by Moscow and Washington, D.C.?  Thank you.

Spokesman:  I'm sorry.  I had too many things going on at once here.  On UNRWA, I mean, we also heard very positive statements from the US representative in the Security Council.  Yesterday, we heard what the Permanent Representative‑designate had to say.  We'll check with UNRWA if anything officially has happened, but, obviously, the messages that are in the air are indeed very positive.  On the New START, we, obviously, saw the reports of the votes in the Russian Parliament.  We also saw the statements that have been made.  The Secretary‑General has been very consistent in his support for this extension of the New START Treaty.  I think it's a good means of maintaining viable limits on the world's two largest nuclear arsenals and also giving time for both the US and the Russian Federation to sit down and negotiate.  Erol?  And then Abdelhamid.  I'm sorry.  Yeah.  Go ahead.  And then Abdelhamid.  I'm sorry.  Yeah.  Go ahead.

Question:  Yes.  Thank you, Steph.  Many people are predicting that the life is going to be much easier for the Secretary‑General [António] Guterres for his… pursuing his multilateralism at the United Nations with the [Joseph R.] Biden Administration.  Can you, from your point of view, give me one recent example where the multilateralism track will be easier with the Biden Administration for the Secretary‑General?

Spokesman:  Well, the life of a Secretary‑General is never easy.  I've been able to witness that for a number of years now.  It's always full of challenges.  Member States are here to defend their positions and stake their turf, so to speak.  We always hope it is done in the spirit of multilateralism.  I mean, we did see that one of the first decisions taken by the administration of the new US President was to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, to rejoin or at least halt the withdrawal [from] the World Health Organization.  So, I think those are two very powerful symbols on the first day of the importance of multilateralism for the US Administration, but I will leave you to do the deeper analysis.

Question:  What about Iran?

Spokesman:  Abdelhamid.

Question:  If I can just… small follow‑up?  Can I?  What about Iran deal that everybody's talking?

Spokesman:  What about it?  I mean, we've stated our position.  We very much hope that the parties will re‑engage on the basis of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.  Abdelhamid?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  There is a report on Yemen… this is international report that says that the Government have lost more land to the Houthis.  The report also mentions the corruption in the Yemeni Government and also mentioned $1 billion that Houthis took over from the Government funds.  It's a lengthy report, but I want to hear more from you about the impact; I didn’t see it, but it was in the news.  So, who issued this report?

Spokesman:  Well, I mean, I read… from what I read from the Reuters report is that it was a leaked copy of a report by the Panel of Experts to the Security Council.  So, these, as you know, do not come through our little hands.  Okay.  Any other questions?  Yes, Mr. Sato, and then we'll go to…

Correspondent:  Yeah, I… oh, okay.  And James, please.

Spokesman:  Go ahead, Sato‑san.

Question:  Sorry, James.  Thank you.  My question is, you're wearing a very nice badge.  My question is about this morning, US Science magazine released the so‑called Doomsday Clock report.  It reports 100 seconds until the extinction of mankind, same as last year.  Do you have any comment on that?

Spokesman:  Sorry, it is something to be taken seriously.  I… if I'm not mistaken, this Doomsday Clock has to do with issues related to disarmament… I mean to nuclear disarmament, among others, so I think it underscores the need for Member States to support efforts of disarmament through a multilateral process, whether it's for the Treaty of the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which has come into force, which is, I think, a very strong and direct message by the international community and, on a more practical level, to give impetus to the US and the Russian Federation to negotiate a full extension of the New START Treaty.  All right, Mr. Reinl?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  It's a question about the UN mission to the Safer oil tanker off the coast of Yemen, the repair mission.  We've been talking about it for a few months.  End of January, beginning of February, well, that's about now, isn't it?  We've had the recent US sanctions against the Houthis affecting the Mission.  You've got the carve‑out for one month from the new US Administration.  What's the latest?  When's it going to leave?

Spokesman:  James, it's a very valid question.  Let me… I will send something in writing to all of you just after this, because I had a note, which I can't find here.  Okay.  I think we will now give the floor to our guests, Achim Steiner, who you know very well as the UN Development Programme's Administrator, and his colleague Cassie Flynn, who is the Climate Change Adviser for UNDP.  So, Achim, welcome, and we'll give you the floor.

For information media. Not an official record.