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10 February 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.

**Mali

Good afternoon.  In central Mali, at about 7 a.m. this morning, 28 peacekeepers from Togo were wounded when their temporary base located in Kéréna, near Douentza, was targeted by what the Mission (MINUSMA) described as a complex attack. 

We, of course, strongly condemn this attack.  The Mission has taken all necessary measures to ensure that the injured receive prompt and appropriate treatment.  We wish them a speedy and full recovery.   

In a statement, the head of the peacekeeping Mission, Mahamat Saleh Annadif, said that for several months now, peacekeepers have been carrying out numerous security operations in central Mali to help reduce violence against civilians and to restore calm in areas where community tensions are reported.  He said they are also working to reduce the threat of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which is an issue in the Douentza region.   

These operations disturb the enemies of peace, Mr. Annadif said, but the UN remains committed to work alongside the Malians, for the Malians — and that statement, I think, has been released to you.   

Also, just to note and to give you some context, since the beginning of the year, five peacekeepers have been killed in Mali and 46 injured in hostile acts, and that’s just since January.

**Yemen 

Quick update from Martin Griffiths, who has been travelling.  He met today in Riyadh with the Saudi Deputy Minister of Defence Khaled bin Salman and other senior Saudi officials, as well as the US Special Envoy for Yemen, Tim Lenderking.  They discussed latest developments in the country, in Yemen, and ways to resume the political process. 

**Libya 

Ján Kubiš began his work as the Special Representative and Head of Mission for Libya (UNSMIL).  In the past days, he has spoken by phone with the President of the Presidency Council, Fayez Serraj, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohammed Siala, and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Agila Saleh.

The Special Envoy has also held telephone conversations with Mohammad Younes Menfi, the President of the Presidency Council-designate, and Abdul Hamid Mohammed Dbeibah, the Prime Minister-designate.  They discussed the way forward to ensure a smooth transition of power to the new unified interim executive authority.  Mr. Kubiš stressed that the UN’s commitment to a stable, prosperous, sovereign and unified Libya, building on the momentum generated by positive developments achieved in the past months. 

**Climate 

I want to flag that later this afternoon, the Secretary-General will meet… [inaudible] I would hope so.  Everything here is being recorded but things that need to be recorded aren’t always recorded.  I want to flag that this afternoon, the Secretary-General will meet virtually with his Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change.  He will hear youth priorities and perspectives on boosting climate action and ambition on the critical pathway to COP26 (26th Conference of Parties). 

The Youth Advisory Group consists of seven young climate activists, drawn from all regions.  They bring expertise on a wide range of issues.  The Group conducted a consultation with other young climate leaders from around the world late last year, and have published an outcomes report, available on the climate website: www.un.org/climatechange

**Security Council  

Back here this morning, the Security Council met on threats to international peace and security caused by terrorist acts.  The head of the UN Office of Counter Terrorism, Vladimir Voronkov, said that while ISIL has not developed a purposeful strategy to exploit the pandemic, the threat it poses to international peace and security is on the rise on the region again.  ISIL’s primary focus remains resurgence in Iraq and Syria, and some 10,000 ISIL fighters, including foreign terrorist fighters, remain active in the region. 

More tragically, Mr. Voronkov added, the international community has made hardly any progress in addressing the situation of the thousands of individuals, mostly women and children, suspected of having links with ISIL and being held in precarious conditions in the region. 

And as we mentioned yesterday on Al-Hol, Mr. Voronkov repeated the message that the already dire humanitarian and security situation in detention facilities and displacement camps is deteriorating even further, especially in Al-Hol.  Some 27,500 foreign children are still in harm’s way in the camps in north-east Syria, including about 8,000 children from some 60 countries other than Iraq.  Ninety per cent of them are under the age of 12.

Beyond the humanitarian urgency, the moral imperative and the legal obligations, Mr. Voronkov said, taking action is a strategic security imperative.  He reiterated the Secretary-General’s call to Member States for the voluntary repatriation of adults and children stranded in Iraq and Syria, with the consent of relevant Governments and in line with international law.  His full remarks have been shared with you. 

Michele De Coninsx, the head of the Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate, also spoke at the meeting. 

**Myanmar

On Myanmar, I just want to flag that the Director-General of the International Labour Organization (ILO), Guy Ryder, today expressed grave concern about the situation in the country.  Mr. Ryder urged military leaders not to interfere with the rights of workers, including civil servants, and employers to participate in peaceful protests.

ILO said there have been reports of intimidation and threats against workers and trade unionists peacefully protesting and that civil servants who participate in the protests have also been threatened with dismissal and penalties.  Mr. Ryder stressed that democracy and freedom of association are intrinsically linked. 

**Eswatini

A quick update from Eswatini on what our colleagues on the ground are doing there to address the pandemic:  The UN team, led by Resident Coordinator Nathalie Ndongo-Seh, has been ramping up its support for the country’s response. 

Eswatini has seen a surge of cases in recent months.  The UN team has contributed more than $8 million to national efforts to respond and recover from the social and economic impacts of the pandemic. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) has mobilized two teams of health experts and is also supporting efforts to procure and distribute vaccines. 

For its part, UNAIDS (Joint United Nations Programme against HIV/AIDS) has provided 5,000 hygiene kits to people living with HIV to prevent their exposure to COVID-19.  Meanwhile, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has helped create guidelines and trained 1,000 teachers ahead of schools reopening. 

The UN team is supporting authorities to provide food for orphans and vulnerable children, as well households headed by children. 

**Migrants

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is today calling on the European Union and its Member States to take urgent action to end pushbacks, collective expulsions, and the use of violence against migrants and refugees at the EU’s external land and maritime borders.  More information online.

**Pulses Day

We have a lot of International Days and today is one of my favourites.  It is World Pulses Day.  Pulses, also known as legumes, are edible seeds of leguminous plants cultivated for food.  Dried beans, lentils and peas are the most commonly known and consumed types of pulses. 

The theme this year — “Love Pulses for a Healthy Diet and Planet” — gives an opportunity to raise awareness and recognize the contribution of pulses to sustainable food systems and healthy diets.  The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) notes that pulses are critical in addressing the challenges of poverty, food security, human health and nutrition, soil health and environment, thereby contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

**Film — The Windermere Children

I wanted to flag an event tomorrow at 11 a.m. New York time, you are all invited to a conversation of the film The Windemere Children.  This biographical drama tells the little-known stories of some of the 300 orphaned Jewish refugees who began new lives in the Lake District of England in the summer of 1945 after the end of the Second World War, and the pioneering project to rehabilitate these child survivors. 

Panellists will include Mr. Michael Samuels, the director; Nancy Bornat, the producer; Joanna Millan, a Holocaust survivor; and Trevor Avery, historian and director of Lake District Holocaust Project.  More information online.

**Honour Roll

Our friends in Norway, Spain and Thailand have made the UN Comptroller very happy as they have paid their budget dues in full, so thanks to Oslo, Madrid and Bangkok.  The Honour Roll has now grown to 38.  We have one more day to go for countries to make it to the Honour Roll. 

**Questions and Answers

We’ll give Célhia a place on the honour roll today. 

Correspondent:  [inaudible]

Spokesman:  I know.  And you don’t even have to pay. 

Question:  Stéphane, in light of the two attack that took place in Mali, don’t you think that the mandate should be more robust?  Because obviously, nothing changed and it’s not stable.

Spokesman:  Look, it’s a good question.  The issue in Mali is not so much the mandate in itself, is the lack of political progress, is the lack of all Malian leaders joining the political discussion and laying down their arms. 

UN peacekeepers are not meant to be…  to conduct counter-terrorism operations on a regular basis.  They are peacekeepers.  For there to be a peace to keep, we also need political leaders to assume their responsibilities across the board. 

Edie and then James.

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  A follow‑up on Mali first.  Does the Mission have any idea of who was responsible for this horrific attack?  We know that Al‑Qaida and Islamic State groups have been active in that region.

Spokesman:  I haven’t seen any claims of responsibility.  I do know that there has been a lot of security incidents in the area.  And I think, as Mr. Annadif said, the UN presence disturbs the enemies of peace, and, so, very unfortunately, I think our colleagues in Mali and especially our peacekeeping colleagues have really borne the brunt of the violence that we’ve seen in Mali, and it remains the deadliest peacekeeping mission that we currently operate.

Question:  My question was really about, apparently, there was an attack from Yemen on the Abha Airport in Saudi Arabia.  Wondered if the Secretary‑General has any comment on that attack.

Spokesman:  Yeah, I mean, we’ve seen those reports.  We’re very alarmed by the reports of drone attacks by the Houthis on the Abha Airport in Saudi Arabia, and we, of course, condemn all attacks that target civilians or civilian infrastructure.  Mr. Bays?

Question:  Yes.  So, Loujain al‑Hathloul, the Saudi prisoner who’s been held for more than 1,000 days, the women’s rights activist, has been released, according to her sister on Twitter.  What is the UN’s reaction to that and the fact that she’s still apparently under probation and a travel ban?

Spokesman:  I haven’t seen that report, but I will take…  assuming that it has happened — we’ve seen reports that it will happen — we, of course, welcome her release.  But I think it is important that others who are in the same condition as her, who have been jailed for the same reasons as her, also be released and that charges be dropped against them.

Question:  Two…  couple of quick follow‑ups.  I do have more questions, but you can…  I’m sure you’ll come back to me later.  First, on Mali, you said you don’t know who is responsible.  That may mean that the UN does have some clues, but it raises the question about your intelligence in Mali and the capabilities you have for intelligence. 

Does the UN have what it needs to identify who these groups are that are causing very large casualties so far this year?

Spokesman:  Look, I mean, we do have capacity to, obviously, monitor the situation, to see what groups are in the area.  Do we have the deep forensic capability to actually go out and pinpoint who is responsible?  Not always. 

And it bears reminding that the investigation, the prosecution for these attacks, also is the primary responsibility of the Government of Mali, and they also need to investigate it. 

But we’ve worked in Mali in what is a very challenging and hostile environment.  There are…  I mean, Al‑Qaida and others are present.  There are also a lot of nebulous armed groups that are out there, though I think, given the level…  the complexity of the attack that we’ve seen, this was something that was clearly well planned.

Question:  My final follow‑up was, the readout you gave of Special Envoy for Libya, his new job, Mr. Kubiš’ first day of busy work, he seemed to have touched base with quite a lot of the important political players in Libya.  General [Khalifa] Haftar was not on the list.  Was that a deliberate snub?  Does the UN believe General Haftar belongs in Libya’s past rather than its future?

Spokesman:  No, I…  listen, we’re…  I can’t answer that one way or another.  I know that he’s making the rounds of calls.  I don’t know what his future lists of calls are.  I’ve just reported what he has made.  I would not read too, too much into it.

Yes, Ray?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  This morning, the USG (Under-Secretary-General) Voronkov, in his remarks to the Security Council, talked about the danger of ISIL, but he didn’t mention the ISIS ideology that fed and still feeding thousands of people around the world.  How can the UN and the international community avoid another ISIS scenario that happened years ago in Syria and Iraq because of this ideology?

Spokesman:  Well, I mean, the fact that he didn’t mention the ideology doesn’t mean that the ideology is not present.  I mean, I think what you state was a statement of fact.  We’ve seen that ideology from different…  whether it’s ISIL, whether it’s Al‑Qaida, still being able, very sadly, to grip the hearts and minds of way too many people.

Okay.  Sylviane, I think you have a question?

Question:  Yes, I have a question.  I have two question actually.  Thank you, Stéphane.  I have two questions.  One…  now that Ján Kubiš has taken his assignment in Libya, is the search for his replacement as a UN Special Representative for Lebanon is going fast?

And my second question…  you want me to say it now or later? Do you hear me?

Spokesman:  Yes.  Go ahead. 

Question:  Yeah.  The second question is, you just said that UN presence disturbs the enemy of peace.  There are numerous calls from different parties to put Lebanon under the United Nations supervision in order to help Lebanon from its famine and also of burden.  Is the security…  Secretary‑General hearing those calls, please?

Spokesman:  I mean, we’re seeing…  yes, on your second question, we see and we monitor through press reports the very vibrant political debate ongoing in Lebanon.  I think, through the work of the International Support Group of Lebanon, our acting Special Coordinator Najat Rochdi [sic; see below], we are there to help and support the people in Lebanon in whatever way we can and to continue to push for reform in the structures of Lebanon, but it is important that the voices of the people of Lebanon be heard by the Lebanese leaders.

On your first question, the search, yes, is ongoing as quickly as possible.  As soon as we have an update to share with you, we will.  In the meantime, Najat, who I think you know from her briefings here, is the acting Special Coordinator.

Okay.  We’ll go to James Reinl and then Toby.  For once, we can see Mr. Reinl.

Question:  Hello, Steph.  Happy Pulses Day.  I’ve got a question about the meeting in Riyadh with Mr. Griffiths, your envoy.  It’s with Mr. Lenderking, the new Yemen envoy for the Biden Administration, and obviously, this meeting is taking place after the change of US Administration and a US that is now saying to Saudi Arabia, this war has got to stop and we’re not going to give you any more guns and weapons to prosecute it. 

Is there anything you can tell us about these conversations that were taking place in Riyadh today that, in some ways, sheds a light or reflects this changing dynamic towards the conflict?

Spokesman:  Look, I think the changing…  the proof of the changing dynamic will be in the pudding.  We will need to see real progress on the political track, and I think Mr. Griffiths is seizing the positive signs that we’ve seen in different places on Yemen. 

I think, on the other hand, we’re also concerned about what I just mentioned, which was the attack by the Houthis on the airport in Saudi Arabia.  We’re concerned about the reports of new military offensives by the Houthis in Marib Governorate, as well as other parts. 

As we’ve said, the renewed fighting in that area is a real threat not only to the process but also to the Yemeni civilians who live there, many of whom are already internally displaced, which makes their life even more complicated and increases the suffering. 

I think any military escalation is detrimental to the political process that Mr. Griffiths is leading.  So, it’s very important that all the parties refrain from any military activity, refrain from any violence and that they recommit themselves to the political process.

Toby and then Abdelhamid. 

Question:  Hi, Steph.  Thank you very much.  My question today is a bit of a non sequitur and slightly abstract, but I hope you’ll bear with me.  It’s about the major changes that we could soon see in…  as regards climate change and how the industrial and technological sectors are responding. 

My question is, is the US worried…  I mean is the UN worried at all about profiteering and corruption involved that we might see in terms of how industries and Governments change their policies to adapt and mitigate climate change?  Thank you.

Spokesman:  Sorry.  I’m not sure I get your question.  Are you saying, are we worried about the risks of profiteering and corruption linked to what part of climate change?

Question:  Just linked in general to different industrial and technological behaviours.  I mean, the Paris Agreement and the Paris Accord outlined huge policy objectives, and I’m just wondering, does the UN…  is it concerned that there may be corruption in the way that these major changes are applied in the real world?

Spokesman:  Look, it’s a pretty high‑flying question you’re asking.  I think it will be very important that Governments monitor and report back in a transparent manner on all of their efforts to lower their carbon emissions, to reach carbon neutrality, to reach net zero. 

I think the more transparency there is in the reporting at the subnational and, obviously, in the national and international level, the better it will be for the process. 

And I wanted to correct myself in the answer I gave to Sylviane.  Najat Rochdi is the Officer in Charge of the Office.  She is not the acting Special Coordinator.  I wanted to give her a promotion, but I was told not to. 

Okay.  Abdelhamid?

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  The crisis between Sudan and Egypt on one side and Ethiopia on the other is not…  is far from over.  Recently, Sudan and Egypt asked to expand the mediation beyond African Union, and they called for the UN to play a mediation role. 

Ethiopia now is determined to start in July the second stage of filling the dam, and Sudan threatened that that is a threat to their national security, and they will not accept that. 

So, is the UN willing to take a role? Did the SG receive any invitation? Is he considering taking a role in this brewing crisis that needs to be addressed? Thank you.

Spokesman:  Look, it is a situation…  I mean, the situation you refer to concerning the dam continues to be one we’re watching closely, that we’re concerned at the lack of progress, in a sense.  But we are very supportive of the efforts and the mediations of the…  efforts of the African Union, which we continue to fully back. 

As a matter of principle, as we say in every situation, should all parties involved ask for our good offices, we always remain open, but that’s just a basic principle.  But right now, we are focussed on supporting the African Union efforts. 

Okay.  I don’t see any other questions in my chat, but I see one with my eyes, so Mr. Bays. 

Question:  I’ve got quite a few more, but first, the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect are sharing on Twitter some new satellite imagery showing what they claim is a systematic destruction of refugee camps in Tigray.  Can the UN confirm that there are refugee camps being destroyed?  And what is your reaction?

Spokesman:  I would ask you to check with our UNHCR (United Nations refugee agency) colleagues, because they have…  I know it’s something they are following, but I don’t have the up…  the real time updates on that.

Question:  President [Joseph] Biden reportedly going to be introducing sanctions on Myanmar.  The UN think that is a good idea?

Spokesman:  Look, unilateral sanctions are the purview of individual Member States.  Our message to the international community continues to speak…  encourage them to speak with one voice in delivering a clear message to the military authorities, and that is to stop, reverse and return to the democratic process.

Question:  While Fabrizio Hochschild is not in his post, clearly, it was going to be a very important post, this Tech Office.  Who’s actually running this Tech Office now?

Spokesman:  I think I answered that question yesterday as you were… 

Question:  I’m sorry.  I ran out of the room.

Spokesman:  No, you know, or paying…  playing on your phone.  I don’t know. 

Question:  Okay.

Spokesman:  No, no, it’s all right.  I can…  but for once I have an answer to a question, I might as well answer it.

Our colleague, Maria‑Francesca Spatolisano, has been appointed Officer in Charge in her personal capacity.  She will report to the Secretary‑General and the Chef de Cabinet on issues relating to the Office.  Her other day job is one of the Assistant Secretaries‑General in DESA (Department of Economic and Social Affairs).

Question:  Still a few more, if you can help me with them.  You give the honour roll every day.  Where are we with the financial crisis?  Do we have a crisis?  Will the escalators be turned on?

Spokesman:  No, I think you can rest assured that, in the foreseeable future, you will not have to walk two or three flights. 

We are slightly ahead on the honour roll as we were at the same time last year.  We’ll have a comparison tomorrow. 

Budgets continue to be tight.  The Secretary‑General will continue to manage the finances of this organization in a very prudent and conservative way.

Question:  Two last questions, and I’m not entirely sure that the…  on my ground on one of them.  First, it’s a long time since this building was refurbished now, which is good…  it’s all very nice, but the Library Building sits there.  What is the latest progress on what you’re going to do about the Library Building?

Spokesman:  There’s still no movement, as far as I know, on the Library Building.

Question:  But are there talks going on with the city or…

Spokesman:  Listen, I…  no talk…  immediate talks that I’m aware of.  I will check, but I haven’t…  it’s a question I haven’t asked in a while, but I will ask.

Question:  Okay.  And one more, which I’m really…  I’ve tried to get…  I’ve spoken to Brenden [Varma] about this, and I’ve tried to speak to the International Criminal Court (ICC), but there is possibly, I’m told, an election for the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, which is normally a consensus situation.  And I’m told there may well be elections that would be held in the General Assembly.  One assumes someone has to tell the UN if the ICC wants to have an election in this building.  Can you give us…  shed any light on this?

Spokesman:  I will try to shed light.  I mean, I see Brenden with a flashlight, who may have some more light. 

But if he… 

Question:  Well, I’ve asked him already.

Spokesman:  No, he’s shaking his head already.  If he can’t illuminate it, we will see what we can find out.

Correspondent:  Thank you. 

Spokesman:  Brenden, speak.  [laughter]

For information media. Not an official record.