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22 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.

Good afternoon.  Apologies for the late start. 

**Press Briefing Today

After we are done here, and then you have Brenden [Varma], then at 1 p.m., we will be resetting for a briefing by Jean-Pierre Lacroix, the Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations.  He will be here in the room to brief you on peacekeeping operations in Mali, the Central African Republic, as well as other issues related to peacekeeping. 

**Democratic Republic of the Congo

As many will have seen, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a WFP (World Food Programme) delegation was attacked, and three people died.  The victims have been identified as the Italian Ambassador to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, an Italian embassy official, as well as a WFP driver and national staff member. 

I do expect a formal statement shortly, but I can tell you we, of course, all send our deepest condolences to our colleagues at the Italian diplomatic service, as well as to the World Food Programme and the families of all those who died.

**Human Rights Council

Speaking in a video message at the opening of the forty-sixth session of the Human Rights Council, the Secretary-General said the pandemic has deepened pre-existing divides, vulnerabilities and inequalities. 

The failure to ensure equity in vaccination efforts, he added, is the latest moral outrage.  Vaccine equity affirms human rights.  Vaccine nationalism denies it. 

Turning to the issue of racism, Mr. [António] Guterres called for global coordinated action to defeat the grave and growing danger of resurgent neo-Nazism, white supremacy, as well as racially and ethnically motivated terrorism.

He also called for a special focus on safeguarding the rights of minority communities, and we continue to push for policies that fully respect human rights, religious, cultural and unique human identity, he added. 

Ending on a positive note, the Secretary-General said the pandemic recovery gives us an opportunity to generate momentum for transformation.  Now is the time to recover better, guided by human rights and human dignity for all, he concluded. 

**Environment

This morning, he also spoke by pre-recorded video message to the opening session of the UN Environment Assembly. 

He said Governments and people need to understand in their very DNA that all environmental, social and economic challenges are interlinked, and they must be tackled together. 

The Secretary-General stressed that we have no choice but to transform how our economies and societies value nature.  We must put the health of the planet at the centre of our plans and policies. 

Mr. Guterres also told participants of the Assembly that the UN is doing everything it can to support all UN meetings that are occurring virtually this year, including the biodiversity summit, scheduled for Kunming, China, and the COP26 Glasgow, in Great Britain, to ensure that all countries can participate in negotiations. 

“We all know that words are not enough.  Commitments must be underpinned by clear and credible plans.”

**Climate

And you will recall, on Friday afternoon, he also spoke with the US Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry at the UNA-USA’s (United Nations Association of the United States of America) Global Engagement Summit. 

He welcomed the US’ re-entry into the Paris Climate Agreement. 

And tomorrow, the Secretary-General will address a special session of the Security Council on the issue of climate.  We will get you those remarks as soon as we can, later today, for your review. 

**Myanmar

On Myanmar, in his remarks to the Human Rights Council, Mr. Guterres said that you can see in the country the undermining of democracy, the use of brutal force, arbitrary arrests, repression in all its manifestations. 

It is all coming together in a perfect storm of upheaval, he said. 

He called on the Myanmar military to stop the repression immediately, as well as to release the prisoners, end the violence, respect human rights and the will of the people that was recently expressed in an election. 

The Secretary-General stressed that coups have no place in our modern world. 

And in a tweet over the weekend, he called the use of lethal force, intimidation and harassment against all peaceful demonstrators “unacceptable”.

The UN country team also expressed its profound concern over the events on Saturday in Mandalay in which two people were reportedly killed and dozens wounded when security forces used lethal force against demonstrators. 

The team said the use of excessive force against demonstrators must stop and the fundamental right to peaceful assembly must be respected, along with other human rights such as the freedom of speech. 

For its part, UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) said that one of the two people reportedly killed in Mandalay was a child.  UNICEF spoke out against the use of force against demonstrators and called on security forces to prioritize the protection and safety of children and young people. 

And lastly, but not least, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy, Christine Schraner Burgener, also expressed her solidarity with the people of Myanmar.  She stressed that the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of Government, with the will of the people of Myanmar having been expressed by the elections in November.  And she continues her contacts with various parties. 

**Yemen

And turning to Yemen:  The Special Envoy, Martin Griffiths, is in Riyadh, in Saudi Arabia, today, where he is expected to meet in the next few days with Yemeni and Saudi officials and diplomats.  This visit is part of his efforts to achieve a nationwide ceasefire, alleviate the suffering of Yemeni people and resume the political process. 

Meanwhile, the fifth meeting of the Supervisory Committee on the Implementation of the Prisoners and Detainees Exchange Agreement between the parties in Yemen concluded yesterday. 

During the talks, the parties discussed strategies and possibilities to fulfil their commitments under the Stockholm Agreement.  Although the parties did not agree to releases during this round of talks, they are committed to keep discussing the parameters of a future expanded release operation. 

Martin Griffiths said that he was disappointed and he urged the parties to continue their discussions and consultations. 

Today, Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock made a virtual visit to Yemen.  He spoke by videoconference, by phone, to families in many different parts of the country, from Sana’a to Marib.  Mr. Lowcock also met COVID-19 first responders and discussed the economic crisis with the Governor of the Central Bank of Aden. 

This, of course, is in the run-up to 1 March, when the UN will convene a virtual high-level pledging event for the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, which will be co-hosted by the Governments of Sweden and Switzerland.  This event will mobilize resources to address the devastating needs of millions of people across the country for humanitarian assistance. 

As you know, the humanitarian crisis in Yemen remains the worst in the world.  More than 20 million people require some form of humanitarian or protection assistance, including 12.1 million who are in acute need, according to a humanitarian overview. 

**Ethiopia

Turning to Ethiopia, the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, took a virtual visit to Mekelle on Friday.  That’s the capital of Tigray.

The goal of the visit was to assess the impact of the conflict on the humanitarian situation in Tigray by hearing the personal experiences and observations of aid workers on the ground. 

Despite some improvements in the humanitarian response, ongoing insecurity, bureaucratic obstacles and the presence of armed groups are seriously hampering the delivery of assistance in rural areas.  As a result, the humanitarian response continues to be drastically inadequate compared to the magnitude of the needs across the region. 

We and our partners continue to engage at the highest levels with the Government of Ethiopia to negotiate access.  We renew the call for full access to aid organizations working in Tigray to scale up the response while ensuring that the assistance is principled and based on needs. 

In addition to access challenges, we need urgent funding in areas such as health, water, sanitation, education and protection.  We call on the international community to step forward and provide the necessary funding. 

**Democratic Republic of the Congo Statement

I do have that statement now that I had mentioned on the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

The Secretary-General strongly condemns today’s attack against a joint field mission of the World Food Programme (WFP) in Kibumba, near Goma.  The attack was perpetrated by unidentified armed combatants.  The attack resulted in the killing of three people, including the Italian Ambassador to the DRC, his bodyguard and a WFP national staff member.

The Secretary-General expresses his deepest condolences to the families of the deceased, as well as to the Governments of Italy and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  He further expresses his solidarity with the World Food Programme colleagues and the entire United Nations team in the country. 

The Secretary-General calls on the Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to investigate swiftly this heinous targeting of a UN joint field mission and to bring the perpetrators to justice.  He reaffirms that the United Nations will continue to support the Congolese Government and people in their efforts to bring about peace and stability, especially in the east of the country.

**Security Council — Somalia

The Security Council held an open video teleconference on Somalia and heard from the Secretary-General’s Special Representative, James Swan. 

He told Council members that the growing political tensions threaten Somalia’s State-building progress and even security unless they are resolved through dialogue and compromise in the interest of the country.   

Unfortunately, Mr. Swan said, instead we are seeing increased brinkmanship, pressure tactics, and tests of strength that can only heighten risks.   

He noted that this is a tense moment in Somalia, as both rhetoric and actions are escalating. 

Mr. Swan said the Somali people have waited long enough to see progress, and it remains fragile.

He urged all of Somalia’s political leaders to pull back from confrontation and to avoid risky winner-take-all tactics.  Instead, he said, this is a time to pursue dialogue and compromise to reach an inclusive and credible political agreement to hold elections as soon as possible, based on the 17 September model.   

**Haiti

This afternoon, the Council members and you will hear from the Head of our UN Mission in Haiti, Helen La Lime.  She will present the Secretary-General’s latest report and will brief council members on recent developments. 

And in response to questions I’ve been asked on the kidnapping of Dominican citizens, I can tell you that we have seen the news of this kidnapping out of Port-au-Prince.  The two Dominican citizens were part of a film crew, as well as their interpreter.  We are following the situation with concern and hope they will be swiftly released, safe and sound. 

**Cabo Verde — COVAX

A quick update from Cabo Verde, where… we don’t often get updates from there.  Our team on the ground is proud to inform that the country is confirmed as one of the first African countries to receive the first allocation of COVID-19 vaccines under the COVAX facility.  In the next few weeks, Cabo Verde will be able to purchase and deploy vaccines for nearly 200,000 people, which represents 35 per cent of the population.  The focus will be on the most vulnerable groups. 

For the past four months, the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF, under the leadership of the Resident Coordinator, Ana Patricia Graça, have been working with the World Bank to support the Government to develop a national vaccination plan and apply for COVAX.  Last week, the World Bank also approved an additional funding of $5 million for affordable and equitable access to vaccines. 

This is the first World Bank-financed operation in Africa to support a COVID-19 immunization plan and to help purchase and distribute vaccines under COVAX.  The additional financing will be used to buy 400,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines, as well as personal protective equipment including masks and other medical supplies to ensure an effective vaccine rollout. 

**Press Briefing Tomorrow

Tomorrow at 10:30 a.m., there will be a virtual briefing by Agnès Callamard, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions along with Caroline Horn, the senior legal adviser to Ms. Callamard.  They will be discussing the findings of Ms. Callamard’s investigation into the 8 January 2020 shooting down of a Ukraine International Airlines Flight that took place in the Islamic Republic of Iran.  That will be on the WebEx platform, if you want to join in-person or just follow it on UN webtv.un.org, to follow without asking questions. 

**Contributions

And we say thank you to our friends in Morocco.  Rabat has paid its 2021 dues in full.  We’ve gone past the half century mark.  We are now at 51.

**Questions and Answers

And I will give the floor to Célhia, who seems very excited to ask a question, or eager at least.  I don’t know about excited but eager.

Question:  About the DRC, the attack occurred on the road that has been cleared for travel without security escorts.  Why?  Isn’t it a rule that when you have officials, like an ambassador, to anywhere give escort to those officials?

Spokesman:  Look, I think the whole system is looking into exactly what happened, obviously, with the Congolese authorities.  As to details on how this joint mission was put together, I would ask you to talk to the World Food Programme.

Signore, and then we’ll go to James.

Question:  Two questions, also on the same subject.  Do you know what was the purpose of this specific mission?

And in Italy there are some reports that the responsible are Rwandese rebels.  Do you have any to element confirm that?

Spokesman:  Sorry, if you could take off your mask.  I heard the first part of the question, so I will answer that, which is that they were travelling from Goma to visit a WFP school feeding programme in Rutshuru, so they were on… that’s… they were taking the Italian Ambassador… the Italian Ambassador was going with them to visit this school feeding programme.

Question:  The second question is, in Italy, there are reports that the responsible are most likely Rwandese rebels.  Do you have any element to confirm?

Spokesman:  No, not at this point. 

James and then Edie. 

Question:  Yeah, just a little bit more on this attack, if I can.  So… I mean, I know we’re going to have to get more information off the Mission (MONUSCO), but the security for the Italian Ambassador was being provided by the UN.  Is that your understanding, that he didn’t have his own security; he’d signed up to go with the UN?  Would he have been given a security briefing by the UN before going on this?

Spokesman:  What I do know is that, sadly, his Italian bodyguard was also killed.  So, he had an Italian security officer with him. 

As for the security of the joint delegation, I think you would have to talk to WFP.

Question:  And in terms of who might have been responsible, is this an area where the ADF (Allied Democratic Forces) are considered the greatest threat at the moment?

Spokesman:  There are a number of rebel groups operating in the area, so I think, at this point, it’s… I don’t want to point in one direction or another.

Correspondent:  I have some other questions on other subjects but…

Spokesman:  You will yield the balance of your time. 

Edie… which there’s quite a bit.  So, Edie and then Dulcie. 

Question:  Okay.  I was also going to ask if somebody would be able to tell us… according to the AP story, that road had been deemed to be safe.

Spokesman:  That’s correct.  I mean, that’s what we’ve heard from our WFP colleagues, as well.

Question:  How are those decisions made, or does the UN Mission have any involvement in that?  And how close were peacekeepers to the actual site of where this happened?

Spokesman:  On your second part, we’d… I’ll have to check.  The decisions about areas being safe or not safe, those are internal decisions made by the UN for the security of the whole… of the UN family.

Question:  I had another question on Ethiopia and Tigray.  There’s a report that six students returning from a graduation ceremony in Mekelle were killed today, and I wondered whether the Secretary‑General had any comments on that.

Spokesman:  I had not seen that report, so let me take a look, and I will get right back to you.  But if it is confirmed, it is to be condemned in the most… in the strongest possible terms. 

Dulcie?

Question:  Yeah.  Do you have any details on the Pakistani peacekeeper who died over the weekend working for UNAMID [sic]?  The Pakistan Mission said it was an accident, but they didn’t have any details.

Spokesman:  No, my understanding, as well, is that it was from some… from what I recall, some type of a road accident, but let me see if I can get a bit more on that. 

Yes, sir?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  My question is about the comment by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) yesterday that they made an agreement with Iran that, from tomorrow, there will be less access to the nuclear sites.  Any comments from the Secretary‑General?

Spokesman:  No, that’s… you know, the IAEA is in the lead on these discussions, and it is up to them to negotiate and come to agreements with their Iranian counterparts.

Question:  And UNSG (Secretary-General) has asked for… multiple times asked for all parties to implement the nuclear agreement, the Security Council resolution, but is less access to the site a violation of those resolutions?

Spokesman:  No, I… that’s not for me to opine on.  What is important is that if agreements are taken that those agreements be abided by.

Mr. Vaccara?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  What happened in Congo, some question were already done, but I have a specific one.  The local governor of… declared to Al Jazeera that the Ambassador was taken out of the car.  There was an ask of money.  Looks like the people that were looking for money, and then because it was the… some other forces arrived.  They talking about rangers from a nearby park.  And then there was a shooting‑out, and then that’s when the Ambassador and his escort were killed. 

So, does it… do you have any information that say practically was… maybe was an attack just for money, but then because there was somebody else that intervened with the shooting‑out, and then that’s when… you know, when that… the people…

Spokesman:  Look, there are still a lot of details that need to be clarified.  Investigations will have to be taken on by… obviously, by the Democratic Republic of the Congo authorities, as well as by the Italians and by the UN.  So, I think, let’s… we need to wait a little bit until initial findings can be confirmed.

Question:  I have just a quick follow‑up, because you mentioned that… in fact, it’s one of the victim… the Ambassador was escorted by one carabinieri that… it’s not really an escort when it’s only one, but still, he’s a person that has weapons on him.  Is this… when the UN has its own escort, I mean, if the UN has… provides… has… does… this means that usually diplomats don’t bring over their own, or do you know about this?  Just to find out if the carabinieri was…

Spokesman:  Let… first of all, I don’t want to speak about the operational details of this joint visit and the investigation, because I don’t have the details yet, and we don’t want to speculate. 

What I can tell you, it is not out of the ordinary in any way, if there is an ambassador or representative travelling with the UN, for that person to also have their own security… a close protection officer.  That is not out of the ex… extraordinary.  In fact, that is within the ordinary.  But that’s just a principled answer.  It’s not… I’m not going to speak about the operational details of what happened in the eastern part of the Congo.

Iftikhar, and then we’ll go back to James for the balance of his time.

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  Again, a lot of questions have been asked about this tragic incident in DRC, but I would like to know whether MONUSCO has activated and is taking action to hunt down the attackers.

Spokesman:  Well, the peacekeepers have been fully mobilized.  We will be working with our Congolese counterpart in the investigation.

Mr. Bays?

Question:  Yes.  So, just a couple of loose ends on this tragic incident.  First, one assumes, if there was an ambassador present, there would have been a senior UN official, someone to accompany him.  Who was leading the delegation from…

Spokesman:  It was the World Food Programme who…

Question:  Who from?

Spokesman:  I don’t know who individually from the World Food Programme…

Question:  Do you know what level?

Spokesman:  No, no.  But I also think… and again, I don’t want to… I’m not speaking about this particular incident because we don’t have all the details, the investigation is ongoing.  It is also within the ordinary in places where the UN has programmes for local ambassadors to travel with various agency delegates to go visit programmes they may be funding one way or another.

Question:  So, one more follow‑up on that.  The Italian Ambassador, to your knowledge, was the only delegation as part of… there were no other diplomats from other countries involved on this trip, to your knowledge?

Spokesman:  That’s correct.

Question:  Okay.  Couple other subject areas, if I could.  A leading politician… politician, Seif Bamporiki, shot dead in South Africa, Rwandan opposition politician.  This is not the first time that there have been suspicious deaths of Rwandan opposition figures in South Africa.  Does the UN have any reaction?

Spokesman:  We would want to see this crime fully, fully investigated by the South African authorities.

Question:  And one on South Sudan.  This is from social media, so I would be interested to know if you have anything more on this and whether you can confirm this.  But this suggests that peacekeepers of Tigrayan origin are being detained and physically abused at Juba airport by Ethiopian soldiers, who, one assumes, are not of Tigrayan descent and that, actually, 15 of them are being protected currently by UNHCR (United Nations refugee agency).  Have you got anything you can tell us on that?

Spokesman:  Yes.  What I can do and confirm to you is that, this morning, 169 members of the Ethiopian contingent were due to rotate out of Juba and [be] replaced by fresh contingents, a part of a normal rotation.  I must say that the Ethiopians have been providing a very good support and work to our peacekeeping mission there. 

We’re trying to get the details, but I do understand about 15 members of the contingent chose not to board the flight at the Juba airport.  They have now asked for… they’ve asked to stay.  They are receiving support from the South Sudanese Ministry of Refugee Affairs. 

UNHCR is also aware, and they’re in contact with the South Sudanese authorities. 

It’s important to underscore that any person in need of international protection has the right to seek asylum. 

And UNHCR has consistently advocated that refugees and asylum‑seekers — having been confirmed or claimed to be in need of international protection — according to the principle of non‑refoulement, cannot be returned to their countries of origin if they feel their lives or freedom could be threatened. 

So, it is something we are following very closely.

Question:  Okay.  So, couple of questions on that.  They are now… these 15 who do not want to return to Ethiopia are now separate from the other force members, who, it has been suggested on social media, were in some way abusing them, but they are now separate, or are they still with other Ethiopian troops?

Spokesman:  No, my understanding is that the flight left, and they did not board… and they’re being kept…

Question:  But what I’m saying is, there’s no other Ethiopian soldiers or officers or anyone else who is having a say in their fate?

Spokesman:  No.  My understanding is they’re being…  No, they are… they have the right to claim asylum and to ask for protection.  As I say, UNHCR is following this with the South Sudanese authorities.  And to the best of my knowledge, they are in a safe place.

Question:  And last question, just to clarify, these were working as UN peacekeepers in the South Sudan Mission or in the Abyei Mission?

Spokesman:  South Sudan Mission, as far as I’m… yeah, I mean… yeah, South Sudan. 

Okay.  Signore, and then back to Edie.

Question:  Do you know, Stéphane, if the drone provided by Italy to MONUSCO are still operative and if, by chance, they were flying during the accident?

Spokesman:  No, I do not know.  I’ll check.

Edie?

Question:  On these 15 soldiers who were in South Sudan, can you confirm that they were Eritrean ethnicity?

Spokesman:  No, it’s not something I can confirm.  I think… no, it’s not… they’re Ethiopian citizens.  What… their ethnic background is not something I can confirm.

Question:  So, news as we speak that I know of, but you probably know about it already.  Apparently, tweeted… the Ethiopian Prime Minister has just tweeted, saying he has been speaking to the Secretary‑General.  Can you give us a readout on that call?  Did he talk about this specific case during that call?

Spokesman:  No, this is part…

Question:  And also, what was the Secretary‑General’s message for him with regard to Tigray?

Spokesman:  What I do know is that the Secretary‑General had two phone calls this morning, one with the Prime Minister of Ethiopia and one with the Prime Minister of Sudan, Mr. [Abdalla] Hamdok, and it is part of his continuing efforts to help defuse the tensions between Ethiopia and Sudan.  If there’s any more of a readout, I need… I haven’t had a chance to speak to the SG about it yet this morning.  Okay.  Brenden, say something, and we’ll wave.

For information media. Not an official record.