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29 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.

A couple of updates from our political envoys.  First, on Syria.

**Syria

The Fifth Session of the Constitutional Committee Small Body has just concluded.

The Special Envoy, Geir Pedersen, just said that he has spoken frankly to the Committee today at the end of this session that the current mode of working is not effective.

He notes that the co-chair nominated by the SNC submitted proposals on the working methods and that these had been rejected by the co-chair nominated by the Government of Syria.  He also noted that he had submitted proposals as the facilitator and these had also been rejected by the co-chair nominated by the Government of Syria and accepted by the co-chair nominated by the SNC.

Mr. Pedersen believes that what has transpired in the week only underscores that the current mode of work needs to change.

I think a transcript is being prepared by our colleagues in Geneva of his remarks.

**Libya

Turning to Libya.  The Libyan Political Dialogue Forum will convene in Switzerland next week from 1 to 5 February.  The session will be facilitated by the Acting Special Representative of the Secretary-General, and Head of Mission, Stephanie Williams.

The Forum is expected to vote on the positions of a three-member Presidency Council and the Prime Minister in accordance with the road map adopted by the Forum in Tunis in mid-November.  This interim unified executive authority will be primarily tasked to lead Libya to national elections set for 24 December 2021 and to reunify State institutions.

A verification committee composed of three members of the Political Dialogue Forum will verify the candidacies submitted for the executive authority, in accordance with the new relevant requirements.  That committee will then compile the final lists of candidates for the Presidency Council for each region and for the post of Prime Minister.

**Central African Republic

Turning to the Central African Republic:  In the past two months, over 200,000 people have fled violence and insecurity in that country.

More than 90,000 of these people have sought refuge in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Another 13,000 have crossed into Cameroon, Chad, and the Republic of Congo.

The others are displaced within the Central African Republic.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) warns that tens of thousands of people are facing dire conditions and they are calling for more support for assistance to the displaced people and refugees.

**Mali

The UN Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) tells us they are continuing to support capacity-building for the country’s national armed forces.  Earlier this week, 38 members of a battalion of the reconstituted Malian army, deployed in Timbuktu, have now completed a five-week training course.

Trainees were able to improve capacities in several operational areas, including the reaction to explosive devices.  They followed training modules with instructors from the UN Mission’s Ivorian contingent.

Due to the pandemic, training is being done in groups, and will be offered to 130 members of the Malian army over the next five months.

**Migration

Today, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) announced its 2021 Crisis Response Plans.  IOM said it aims to assist an estimated 50 million people around the world who have been displaced or affected by crises.  This will require $3 billion.

The head of the IOM, António Vitorino, said that COVID-19 has tragically increased the suffering and insecurity facing hundreds of millions of people around the world.  He also called on the international community to step up their efforts by supporting the organization’s 2021 Crisis Response Plans.

**Myanmar

And you saw that yesterday, on Myanmar, we issued a statement in which the Secretary-General said he is following recent developments in the country with great concern.

He urges all to desist from any form of incitement or provocation, to demonstrate leadership, and to adhere to democratic norms and respect the outcome of the 8 November general election.  All electoral disputes should be resolved through established legal mechanisms, he said.

He also reaffirmed the support of the United Nations to the people and Government of Myanmar in their pursuit of peace, inclusive sustainable development, humanitarian action, human rights and the rule of law.

**UNFPA

We also issued a statement yesterday afternoon in which the Secretary-General welcomed the announcement of the Biden-Harris Administration to restore funding to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA).  The decision will transform and save women’s and girls’ lives across the world, from the most pressing humanitarian emergencies to the most remote and hard-to-reach communities, and everywhere in between.  

That statement was shared with you. 

**Secretary-General — Vaccine

And also, you will have seen the exciting photos and video of the Secretary-General getting his first dose of his COVID-19 vaccine yesterday.

He received it at the Adlai E. Stevenson High School in the Bronx.

Afterwards, he expressed his gratitude to the City of New York and the wonderful staff at the vaccination centre.

The Secretary-General underscored how important it is for everyone, everywhere, to be vaccinated and he appealed for all to be vaccinated as soon as they can.

He thanked the city for including the United Nations and UN diplomats in their vaccination programme.

And he received the Moderna vaccine, as I recall.

**COVID-19 Research

Also on COVID, I just wanted to flag that the United Nations and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research are hosting an online discussion on how to prioritize scientific research to recover more equitably from the pandemic.

The Deputy Secretary-General spoke at the event, which is under way.

The dialogue is bringing together more than 100 participants from 60 countries.  They include representatives from research funders around the world who are responsible for more than $100 billion annually in global research investments.

Today’s event is based on the UN Research Roadmap for the COVID-19 Recovery.  It’s designed to immediately address the complex health, humanitarian and socioeconomic consequences of COVID-19.  It also calls on boosting speedy recovery efforts and encouraging targeted research for data-driven responses that focus particularly on the needs of people being left behind.

**Venezuela

In answer to a couple of questions that were raised outside of this room.  First, on Venezuela, about the detention since 12 January of five members of the NGO (non-governmental organization) Azul Positivo.

I can tell you that we are deeply concerned about the detention of the five humanitarian workers of the Venezuelan NGO Azul Positivo.

We are following up with the authorities and have requested their immediate release.

Azul Positivo is an important partner of the United Nations, including UNAIDS (Joint United Nations Programme against HIV/AIDS), which has also called for their release, and also calling for the return of essential equipment seized at the time of their arrest.

We urge the Venezuelan authorities to facilitate the space for humanitarian action and ensure the protection of aid workers, including for civil society organizations.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights also expressed concern, recalling that a free, diverse and active civil society is crucial for any democracy and must be protected.  People must not be targeted for performing legitimate work, including humanitarian assistance.

**Cuba

And I was asked about the meeting earlier this week between the Secretary-General and the Permanent Representative of Cuba, Ambassador Pedro Pedroso Cuesta, which took place on 26 January.

I can tell you that they discussed the inclusion of Cuba on the US State Department’s list of State sponsors of terrorism.

The Secretary-General expressed his disagreement and hoped that the new US Administration would consider rescinding the listing.

**Security Council

Today is the last day of the Tunisian presidency at the Security Council.

This afternoon, at 3 p.m., the Council is expected to hold an open video meeting to announce the outcome of the vote on the mandate renewal of the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP).  Following the adoption of this resolution, Ambassador Andreas Mavroyiannis will hold an in-person stakeout.

And on Monday at 1 p.m., we have the next Council President, that’s the new UK Permanent Representative, Barbara Woodward.  She will be in this room to brief you on the programme of work for February.  That briefing will be hybrid — so she will be here, some of you will be here and others will join by phone.

**Honour Roll

And I almost forgot the best news.  Since we last briefed, Malta, Mongolia and Sweden have all paid their regular budget dues in full.  So, we thank our friends in Valetta, Ulaanbaatar and Stockholm.  I still know my capitals.  That brings us up to 23.

**Questions and Answers

Okay, James.  I could tell you would have won had we had a contest, so you get the first question.

Question:  Okay.  Follow‑up on the situation with the UN tech envoy, please.  Can you tell us when did the Office of Internal Oversight (OIOS) start its investigations into Mr. Fabrizio Hochschild?

Spokesman:  No, I can’t, but I can… I mean, because I can’t speak on their behalf…

Question:  Well, I’m told it was last year, and the Secretary‑General said he only knew about it a few days ago.  So, there seems to be a problem here.

Spokesman:  No, the Secretary‑General was informed on… what day’s today?  Friday?  He was informed on Wednesday, which is the 27th — is that correct?  — he was informed on the 27th of these investigations, and he took the action that he felt was necessary.

Question:  But this investigation, I’m told, started at the end of last year.  Was… if the Secretary‑General wasn’t informed, was the Deputy Secretary‑General or anyone else in the Secretary‑General’s Office informed?  Because it seems most unusual that you start an internal investigation into someone who is of Under‑Secretary‑General level and that no one in the Secretary‑General’s Office is notified.  There seems to be a problem if that is the case.

Spokesman:  I think there is a… and again, I… I don’t want to speak on behalf of OIOS, but they have procedures in place where they receive complaints, and I think, until they reach a point where part of the investigation has been done or they’ve interviewed X number of people, then the information flows upward.

But neither the Secretary‑General nor the Deputy Secretary‑General nor the Chef de Cabinet nor anyone else that I’m aware of was aware that a formal investigation was under way.

Question:  And one final question on this issue.  It seems, from speaking to people, that Mr. Hochschild was… while he was running UN75, was sort of given the job to set up this tech envoy’s job.  He was sort of engineering the post that then he was given.  Is that correct?

And, also, what seems unusual, as well, is that, in his office, he had one employee apparently funded by Microsoft.  That seems a strange arrangement for someone who is then going to become what is supposed to be a neutral tech envoy.

Spokesman:  He was designated with the task of leading the UN75.  This idea of having a tech envoy is something that had been in the works for some time.

I don’t know about the funding of staff in his office.  If I can find out, I will let you know.

Correspondent:  I have more, but I’ll come back.

Spokesman:  Thank you so much.  Edie and then…

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  A follow‑up on the envoy… Mr. Pedersen and the meeting and his apparent frustration that this process is not being effective.  Does the Secretary‑General believe or is he concerned that since this blockage is from the Syrian Government side that they are trying to stall until after upcoming elections?

Spokesman:  Look, I think you’d… two things.  First, Mr. Pedersen’s frustration, I think, is palpable through the words I was asked to convey.  The full transcript of his remarks to the press will be shared.

As for the motivation of one side or another, those are questions best asked the various sides.

Célhia?

Question:  Steph, to go back to Central African Republic, did you say 200,000 people have fled?

Spokesman:  Yes.

Question:  Okay.  So, that’s a lot…  [cross talk]

Spokesman:  That’s a lot of people.

Question:  Yes.  Since when?  And what is the Mission doing to stop that violence?  It seems incredible, and they’re going to seek refuge in countries which are like…

Spokesman:  I mean, I think this underscores a couple of things.  First, it underscores the lack of willingness of a number of Central African actors to support a political process and to… instead of supporting a political process, instead of accepting decisions taken by judicial bodies, to take up arms.

The Mission is doing what it can.  We report regularly on how peacekeepers are in the front lines.  Some of our colleagues have paid the ultimate sacrifice to try to stabilize and to try to bring peace to those parts of the country which are seeing an uptick in violence.  But at the end of the day, there needs to be a commitment by those who are… those armed groups who are still holding on to their guns to lay down those weapons and to engage in a political process.

We… I mean, it doesn’t take a… even I can figure this out.  Let me just put it that way.  The violence and the lack of support for the political process leads directly to 200,000 people — men, women and children — fleeing for their lives and seeking refuge in countries that are themselves in crisis.  And we also need to note the hospitality of the population of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, of Chad, of other places, so…

Madame, welcome.

Question:  Thank you.  Suzanne Lynch from The Irish Times.  I just have a question about China, and the new US Secretary of State, Tony Blinken, has said that he agrees with the determination by the previous US Administration that China… China’s actions against the Uyghur people constitutes genocide.  Does the UN… does the Secretary‑General share this view?

Spokesman:  I would… as I was joking with James, I would refer you to the Secretary‑General’s answers yesterday, because he answered that very question.

Carla, and then we’ll go to the screen.

Question:  Thank you very much.  The Secretary‑General yesterday made several extremely important and powerful points.  One is the need for nuclear disarmament.  Secondly, the problem of global inequality, economic inequality.  And thirdly, if the vaccine is not gotten to the poorer countries, there’s the risk of resistant strains developing.  So, I was wondering when and how the UN will be addressing these problems.

Also, as a follow‑up, Joe Klein and I have been discussing our Resident Correspondent passes expire on Sunday.  So, since I wanted to hear the UK representative present…

Spokesman:  I would… Carla, with respect, anything having to do with passes, I would encourage you to contact Tal [Mekel] and his team, who will deal with it.

Yes, the Secretary‑General was very eloquent yesterday.  I think he’s made his position known, and it is up for Member States to take up his call and move forward on a lot of the things he put forth in front of them, both here and in the General Assembly Hall.

Abdelhamid?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  The high court in Iraq has just approved the death sentence of 340 convict… convicted persons under the banner of terrorist.  Do you have any comment on that?  Three hundred forty in one shot — that is too much to pass without, I mean, major comments from international [inaudible]… [cross talk]

Spokesman:  We stand firmly and clearly against the death penalty, whether in Iraq or anywhere else in the world, and we would call on these sentences to be changed or to be overturned.

Joe, I think you had a question.

Question:  Yes, I do.  Also referring back to yesterday’s press briefing by the Secretary‑General, I think another point that he had made was concerning the power of a limited number of social media platforms to, more or less, regulate the exchange of ideas and free speech.

The Federation Council of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation put out a statement that shares that concern, saying that they would reach out to the Secretary‑General and other world leaders and calling for an international convention regulating the activities of global Internet companies to make sure that they follow generally accepted norms of international law.

Does the Secretary‑General support the idea of such an international convention?

Spokesman:  What the Secretary‑General supports is exactly what he said.  He… but we believe that there is a conversation to be had with all the different stakeholders in this, which is Member States, civil society and, obviously, the private sector.

Okay.  Yoshita?

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  Does the Secretary‑General have any reaction or comment to the Pakistan Supreme Court’s decision to acquit Omar… terrorist Omar Saeed Sheikh and four others who were convicted of the kidnapping and murder of journalist Daniel Pearl?  This acquittal is being seen as a travesty of justice for victims of terrorism against civilians, media people around the world.  Any comment on that?  Thank you.

Spokesman:  Look, I don’t have a comment on the specific case.  What we’ve… what is important that there be accountability for those crimes committed.

Let me go back to… Betul, and then Pam.

Question:  Hi, Steph.  Thank you.  A question on the vaccine.  Can you clarify how the UN staff and diplomats will be included in the New York City’s vaccine programme?  Does it mean that they are prioritized, or they’re considered as essential workers?

Spokesman:  No.  I mean, at this point we are grateful for the city to have included us in their general programme.  So, they are not dip… as a whole, diplomats and, as a whole, the UN staff are not considered a priority.  The Secretary‑General got his jab because he is in the over‑65 category.

And I think, as he said, he… well, his assistant went online, registered.  They found a slot at the aptly named Adlai Stevenson High School, and he went, though his first appointment had been postponed due to vaccine shortage.  And he has… he will be scheduling a second dose as soon as it’s medically… as he’s told by doctors to do so.

We’ll go to Pam Falk, and then we’ll come back to James for more.

Pam?  Pam Falk?

Okay.  James, you go ahead while Pam gets online.

Question:  Okay.  Well, first, just picking up on what you were just saying to Betul, I understand that the UN wants to be a good neighbour to everyone here in New York and whatever, but what the Secretary‑General… what you’re saying on behalf of the Secretary‑General seems to be different from what the PGA (President of the General Assembly) is saying.  He says that he would like ambassadors and others to be treated specially at some point and… as a group and to be vaccinated.  He made that clear in his last briefing.

And it does seem odd that you won’t apply for essential worker status for ambassadors, for example.  I mean, as I understand it, under New York rules, journalists are essential workers.  Well, why should I be an essential worker and then a permanent representative sitting on the Security Council is not?  I mean… You’re not going to get that status if you don’t apply for it.  [cross talk]

Spokesman:  No, no, I understand, and we are… what I said is, as a group, as a whole, we are not considered essential workers.  The Secretariat has been in touch with the city about including a small sliver of critical UN staff, and we’re in discussions with them.  But we have not and we are not looking to ask for a blanket designation.

Correspondent:  I have a number of other questions, but if Pam comes on, you can… [cross talk]

Spokesman:  Pam, can you save me or no?  [laughter]

All right.  Pam Falk has definitely shirked her responsibilities.  Go ahead, James.

Question:  Okay.  So, it’s on Special Envoy Pedersen.  And you talk about his palpable frustration.  Do you think it now, with hindsight, it has been a mistake — and I assume the Secretary‑General gave us the overall strategy, because it’s been a strategy under Special Envoy [Staffan] de Mistura and under Special Envoy Pedersen — putting all the eggs in the Constitutional Committee basket?  I mean, this is the Special Envoy to come up with peace in Syria, not to draw a Constitution in Syria.  There are lots of other issues that needed focusing on; for example, not a single detainee has been released from [Bashar al] Assad’s jails.

Spokesman:  Yeah, I mean, listen, I think Mr. Pedersen is… and his team have been able to focus on more than one issue as the UN as a whole.  I think it was felt that the Constitutional Committee was a wedge issue in a sense, in a positive sense, where we could move forward.  Obviously, this round, as far as I can tell from Mr. Pedersen, did not end in the way that he wished it to be.

He will report back to the Security Council next week on the… or the week after next, on the 9th, and I think we’ll get a clear picture on the road forward.

Our other big focus re… has been on the humanitarian situation and dealing with difficult winter conditions, with the closure of two of the cross‑border points, and we’ve continued to engage with the Government of Syria and other Member States on that.  So, we are working on different platforms.  I have no doubt there are also discussions going on on the detainees.

Part of it also — and I would say a large part of it — depends on the will of the parties that are directly engaged in this issue and those Member States who have an influence on the parties.  And I think… I would go back to what the Secretary‑General said yesterday about the Syrian political actors following the example of the Libyan actors, who have really kind of banded together and moved forward.

Correspondent:  Sorry.  There is rather a big difference.  [Muammar al] Qaddafi is dead.  Assad is still in power.

Spokesman:  Iftikhar.  Iftikhar?

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  Thank you, Steph.  You gave us updates on the situation in Syria and Libya, but do you have something on Myanmar?  Because the Secretary‑General issued a statement of concern, and there are rumours flying around about the possibility of a military coup there.

Spokesman:  Well, I mean, I can’t speak to rumours, but I think the update I gave you is in the statement.  We are, obviously, following the political situation, the political climate, with great interest.  And the Secretary‑General felt it was a good moment to speak up, and I think other parties have, as well.

Question:  Secondly… one more.

Spokesman:  Yep.

Question:  The UN human rights experts, last week, issued a statement calling for… calling on Government of Sri Lanka not to cremate the bodies of… victims of coronavirus.  Does the Secretary‑General agree with this statement?

Spokesman:  Listen, I don’t know.  The point is, we have the experts who spoke.  I don’t know enough about the practice, but I think it is important to… you could respect both health requirements and cultural and religious requirements at the same time.

Okay.  On that note… all right, Brenden [Varma], get ready, because I’m about to jettison, but I’ll take one more from…

Question:  Well, it’s just a point of clarification, actually, about something that the Secretary‑General said yesterday, and I did follow up with your office and also with UNSMIL (United Nations Support Mission in Libya).  The Secretary‑General referred… he said… talked about the deadline for foreign fighters leaving [inaudible] has passed, and then he said there was another deadline or there would be another deadline.  Do we know when that second deadline is?

Spokesman:  I don’t right now on this podium.  It doesn’t mean that others in this building don’t know, so we will try to get that information.

All right.  Mr. Varma.  Yes.  Go ahead, speak, so we can wave.

For information media. Not an official record.