The following is a near-verbatim transcript of today’s noon briefing by Stéphane Dujarric, Spokesman for the Secretary-General.
Good afternoon. In a short while, we are delighted to welcome back to the briefing room the Executive Director of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), Natalia Kanem, and she is joined by Natalia Vodianova, a model and philanthropist and an impact investor, who is being announced today as UNFPA’s newest Goodwill Ambassador. So just bear with us.
As you may have seen from a statement issued today by the Prime Minister of Portugal, the Government of Portugal has written to the President of the General Assembly and the President of the Security Council, officially nominating António Guterres as a candidate for a second term as Secretary-General. The Secretary‑General is grateful and humbled by this support and will do everything he can to be worthy of that trust.
Earlier today, the Secretary-General, in a briefing on his Call to Action for Human Rights, said in the General Assembly that the health crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has quickly turned into an economic crisis, a humanitarian crisis, and a human rights crisis. He added that we now have a unique and historic opportunity to forge a world where every person is afforded dignity; where every society can withstand crises; and where everyone’s future is built upon a foundation of inalienable rights. He listed progress accomplished since the Call to Action was launched last year, but he said that our enduring challenge is to transform the promise of the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into real-world change on the ground. Transformative change will take the full commitment and support for everyone, he added. His remarks have been shared with you.
On Myanmar, we’ve been telling you about the impact that the military takeover has had on the freedoms of assembly and speech, among others. Today, the UN team in Myanmar says it is gravely concerned that the recent events will jeopardize the COVID-19 vaccination effort that is under way. Our colleagues say that Myanmar had developed a robust, meticulous national deployment and vaccination plan. It had already vaccinated 105,000 health workers as of 31 January. Also on Myanmar, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) team in the country said today that it is alarmed by the continued use of excessive force against children by security forces during ongoing demonstrations. Earlier this week, on 22 February, a five-year-old child was seriously wounded in Kachin State when he was reportedly shot by a member of security forces using a slingshot. As we told you earlier this week, a child was killed by security forces in Mandalay over the weekend. UNICEF is once again calling on security forces to refrain from violence, to exercise maximum restraint and for differences to be resolved through constructive and peaceful means, prioritizing the protection and safety of children and young people.
There are also reports that a ship carrying Rohingya refugees is in distress in the Andaman Sea. Our colleagues at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) today called on countries in the region to meet their international obligations and to ensure that all people onboard are immediately rescued and safely disembarked. The vessel has been at sea for more than 10 days and there has reportedly been loss of life on board. IOM once again stresses that saving lives must be a top priority and that a lasting regional solution to a regional problem must be found.
Turning to Yemen, our humanitarian colleagues are telling us that at least 8,000 people have been displaced in Marib Governorate in recent weeks due to the escalating hostilities. The vast majority of the displaced are women and children. This comes on top of already high levels of displacement and humanitarian needs in that governorate. Displacement to and within Marib accounted for two thirds of all displacements in Yemen last year. We and our humanitarian partners are scaling up support and planning. Newly displaced households are receiving food, hygiene kits, health care and other assistance. However, a worsening of the situation could quickly overwhelm existing capacities and force hundreds of thousands to flee. We continue to call for an immediate de‑escalation of violence in Marib and the rest of the country and obviously encourage all parties in Yemen to redouble their efforts to support the work of Martin Griffiths in achieving a political solution and a nationwide ceasefire as soon as possible. The Yemen high-level pledging event on Monday is a crucial opportunity for the international community to support the humanitarian response and show solidarity with the people of Yemen. Almost $4 billion, or rather $3.85 billion, to be precise, is needed to provide humanitarian assistance and protection to 16 million people in Yemen in 2021.
Just a quick update on the Safer tanker: You will recall that our colleague Mark Lowcock in his briefing to the Security Council last week gave an update on the situation of the tanker. And I can tell you that unfortunately, we have encountered some new delays after recent additional requests from the Houthis, who also refer to themselves as Ansar Allah. And those additional requests focused on logistics and security arrangements. We’re talking to them now to try to resolve these issues. Because of this, it’s now difficult to say exactly when the mission could be deployed given these developments. Unfortunately, we can’t finalize mission preparations until all of the issues are resolved. We understand that many Member States, including donors to the project, are extremely concerned by these new delays. We, of course, share those concerns. The UN remains eager to deploy the mission at the earliest possible opportunity. This mission is an important first step to avert an environmental and humanitarian disaster. As you will recall, there is about 1.1 million barrels of oil onboard the ship. A leak would have devastating ecological, humanitarian and economic consequences, not only for the people of Yemen, but for the entire region around the Red Sea. The mission will give us the assessment we need to formulate a permanent solution. It is already two years too late and cannot not be stalled any longer.
**Central African Republic
At the Security Council today, in a briefing about the Central African Republic, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, the Head of Peace Operations, renewed the call to strengthen the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) with an increase of 2,750 military and 940 police personnel. He pointed out that this request is not intended as a means for a military solution. The additional capabilities, Mr. Lacroix said, would strengthen the Mission’s ability to protect civilians, create the conditions for progress in the political process, and facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance. The increase would also contribute to enhanced protection of UN personnel and installations. In recent weeks, Mr. Lacroix added that some important progress was achieved against the CPC armed group, but the situation remains volatile. He noted that over a thousand trucks carrying life‑saving supplies, food and medical supplies required to fight the pandemic, remain blocked at the border with Cameroon, that very important road between Douala and Bangui. In this context, Mr. Lacroix said it is now essential that these democratic gains are preserved by completing the electoral process. He reiterated the urgency to initiate an inclusive and meaningful dialogue and recalled that the peace agreement remains the only viable framework for peace in the Central African Republic.
**Democratic Republic of the Congo
I want to take a moment today to pay tribute to our colleague Mustapha Milambo, who died in the brutal attack Monday near Goma, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. For 16 years, Mustapha served with commitment, dedication and bravery as a driver for the World Food Programme (WFP). In a social media post, David Beasley, the Executive Director of the World Food Programme, said he was like an older brother to many in the WFP office in Goma. He was always ready to lend an ear or to give advice. He added that he was known for his sense of humour and the fantastic team spirit he brought to his service for the World Food Programme. Mustapha was laid to rest yesterday. On behalf of the entire UN family, I would like to send our deepest condolences to his family and to his friends. As many of our colleagues who had the pleasure of working with him have told us, he will be greatly missed.
Turning to Ghana, where we have some good news on the vaccine front: Ghana has become the first recipient of COVID-19 vaccines from COVAX, receiving 600,000 vaccines today. In a joint statement, the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF called this a momentous occasion, with the arrival of vaccines critical to bringing the pandemic to an end. They stressed that the only way forward out of this crisis is to ensure that vaccinations are available for all. WHO and UNICEF noted that the shipments also represent the beginning of what could be the largest vaccine procurement and supply operation in history. COVAX plans to deliver nearly 2 billion doses of vaccines this year.
Heading south to Mozambique, where our humanitarian colleagues tell us today that the conflict and climatic shocks in the northern province of Cabo Delgado continue to drive increasing displacement and lead to a rapid deterioration of the humanitarian situation in that region. Nearly 670,000 people were internally displaced in Cabo Delgado, Niassa and Nampula by the end of last year. From those, almost 580,000 men, women and children were uprooted from their homes in 2020 alone. Our humanitarian colleagues warn that more than 950,000 people in the three provinces are now facing severe food insecurity. The region is also facing an outbreak of cholera, with nearly 5,000 cases and 55 deaths reported by mid‑February 2021, mainly among displaced people. This is happening amidst a severe disruption of services in health, water and sanitation and hygiene. Our humanitarian partners in Mozambique urgently require additional funding to scale up the response in Cabo Delgado. The Humanitarian Response Plan seeks $254 million to help 1.1 million people affected in Cabo Delgado and neighbouring provinces in 2021.
Moving to the Americas, in Mexico, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and IOM today began preparing individuals and families in the informal Matamoros camp for entry to the United States. This is in line with the US plan to terminate a policy known as the Migrant Protection Protocols that forced asylum-seekers to wait for their US immigration hearings in Mexico. UNHCR began in-person registration of some 750 people and IOM is conducting COVID-19 tests to ensure protection of public health. At the same time UNICEF is ensuring humane treatment of children and their families. This action by UN agencies comes at the request of the United States and Mexican Governments to assist with the re-entry into the US of an estimated 25,000 people who have active immigration proceedings in the US, but were returned to wait in Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols programme. More information online.
Today, the Secretary-General sent best his wishes to Costa Rica on the second anniversary of its National Decarbonization Plan. He congratulated Costa Rica for its recently updated nationally determined contribution in the Paris Agreement. Costa Rica is also developing a Just Transition Strategy to create stable and well-paying green jobs, and to turn the current moratorium on exploring and exploiting fossil fuels into law.
Quick update from Colombia, where our team led by the [acting] Resident Coordinator, Jessica Faieta, have been supporting the authorities to join the COVAX facility for vaccine roll‑out, which began just a few days ago. Colombia is one in a handful of countries in Latin America and the Caribbean in the first phase of the COVAX-related vaccine rollout, with the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) and working with authorities to prepare for this effort. Colombia is also one of the 31 countries that are using a platform developed by WHO, UNICEF and the World Bank to evaluate countries’ readiness for COVID-19 vaccines. The work done in Colombia is also being led by the health local authorities and PAHO, with UN entities, non‑governmental organizations and other national partners. The focus is to boost preparedness for the vaccine roll‑out at the local level, reaching the most vulnerable populations, as well as monitoring, evaluation and documenting lessons learned.
I just wanted to flag that the UN system in Ecuador issued a statement last night expressing solidarity with the families of those killed and injured in the violent events that took place in three prisons in Ecuador. The UN team on the ground called for a prompt and impartial investigation into the events and for those responsible to be brought to account. Further, the UN in Ecuador stressed that the crisis should be managed in adherence with the Constitution and international human rights standards. Our colleagues also called on the authorities to address the root causes of this situation. They expressed readiness to support the authorities in these efforts. Two more quick notes.
A report today by WFP warns that the COVID-19 pandemic risks reversing a decade of hard-won gains in global efforts to provide nutritious food to the world’s most vulnerable children through a daily free meal in school. According to the State of School Feeding Worldwide report, 1 in 2 schoolchildren, that’s 388 million children worldwide, were receiving school meals before the pandemic struck. This was the highest number in history. The report notes that by April 2020, 199 countries had closed their schools and 370 million children were suddenly deprived of what was for many their only nutritious meal of the day. WFP calls for global action to get coverage back to pre-pandemic levels and to expand further. The report stresses that in a post-COVID-19 world, school feeding programmes are even more of a priority investment. Efficient school meals programmes yield returns of up to $9 for every $1 invested.
**Noon Briefing Guests
Tomorrow at 11 a.m., there will be a virtual briefing on the launch of the Financial Integrity for Sustainable Development Report by the High-Level Panel on International Financial Accountability, Transparency and Integrity for Achieving the 2030 Agenda, otherwise known as the FACTI Panel.
And we want to say “shukran” and thank you to our friends in Kuwait City, as Kuwait has now paid its regular budget dues in full. Let's go to Ms. Lederer.
**Questions and Answers
Question: Thank you, Steph. Two questions. On the Safer tanker, can you give us any details on the latest things that the Houthis are asking for? We know that there was an issue with something needed for insurance that they were not providing. Are there any other details? And secondly, are… is there any update on when the advance team going to look at the monitoring mission prospects in Libya is going to actually get on plane and go to Libya?
Spokesman: On your first question, their requests have to do with logistics and security arrangements. I mean, there… we are working as diligently as possible on a field where sometimes the goalposts seem to shift. We are determined to get this mission there as quickly as possible, but this… as we've said before, this is not a matter of just sending UN staff to an area. This is having to procure highly specific and technical equipment, including a tugboat and a barge and people with very, very pointed experience who are able and willing, a private sector company, to go on this first assessment mission. So, we are in constant dialogue with Houthis, the Ansar Allah, and trying to resolve the issues as quickly as possible. On Libya, we're continuing our efforts to deploy the… kind of a small initial multidisciplinary advance team with the UN experts and security. There… we're trying to get them deployed as quickly as possible, but I don't have a timeline to share with you. James?
Question: Couple of questions, first a quick follow‑up on the tanker. Can you tell us, all these delays, what now is the best possible timeline for you to start the work? And how… given you talk about goalposts being moved, given all of these delays? Could you sum up for us the level of frustration in the Secretariat and from the Secretary‑General, knowing the potential environmental consequences of this?
Spokesman: I don't know if "frustration" is the right word. I think "increased worry" is the right expression. We are… every… I mean, we've been talking about this for, I think, two years now. By the grace of God, there has not been a major leak. The more we wait, the chances of a major leak are increasing. We're… time is not on anyone's side, and it's not about us. It's about the devastating environmental impact that it would have on the region. If there was a major leak, first of all, the ports around Hudaydah would be closed. Hudaydah is a major lifeline for that area of Yemen in terms of importing food and commercial goods. One can only imagine the devastating ecological impact it would have on the region and on countries surrounding Yemen on the… bordering the Red Sea, who rely and whose population rely on the Red Sea for fishing and for tourism.
Question: Two more quick questions, if I could. The conviction in Koblenz today, crimes against humanity, seems to be a step forward with regard to accountability in Syria?
Spokesman: Sorry I didn't hear the…
Question: The conviction today in Koblenz, in Germany for… against a former regime official for crimes against humanity in the German courts that seems to be a first step for accountability for crimes in the war in Syria. Has the UN got any comment?
Spokesman: We welcome, I think, any… we welcome any decision that will bring… that brings accountability for the crimes that have been committed during the Syrian conflict. This is not a process that we were involved in, in any way, obviously.
Question: And one more question on accountability somewhere else. The Special Tribunal in Lebanon comes to the end of its mandate, current mandate, at the end of the month. There have been, I believe, discussions between the Secretary‑General and the Security Council about extending it. The problem, I think, is the money for this. And I believe the SG wants to get money instead now, because Lebanon can't afford it, and other donors don't seem to be coming up with money, from the General Assembly. Could you update us?
Spokesman: I can't, because I haven't… I need to be read in on the latest on that, but I will… hopefully, someone will tell me something, and I can tell you. Ray?
Question: Thank you, Stéphane. As you know, Lebanon is one of the countries that benefit from the COVAX vaccine programme. Recently, there have been controversy in this country. Members of the Parliament who are not… who don't meet the requirement to get vaccinated, they get vaccinated, and one of them, they admit on TV that he gets the vaccine, although he doesn't meet the requirement, and everybody in social media is condemning this. Do you have any comment on that? And also, I have a question regarding the Department of State statement issued this morning regarding the candidacy to get a member seat on the Human Rights Council. The statement said… it criticized membership rules that allow countries with atrocious human rights records to occupy seats they don't merit. Any comment on that? And also any com…?
Spokesman: Well, first of all, we welcome the US re‑engagement with the Human Rights Council, which, obviously, now goes further with their declared candidacy. That's an election in which we're not involved. The issue of who gets elected to what bodies is one that Member States have to discuss. So, that's for them to discuss, but we, obviously, welcome this further step of re‑engagement by the United States. Your first question was on Lebanon. Listen, I will say this, and this goes really for everything… every country. I think we… the Secretary‑General's been very clear on the need for vaccine equity, and that not only applies between countries, it also applies what happens within countries. We have seen in many countries more marginalized groups being even more marginalized. It is very important that public health measures ensure that everyone has equitable access to the vaccine, and it is very important for those who have the means or the power not to abuse the system, and that goes for every Member State of this Organization. Okay. Let's go the video. James Reinl?
Question: Hi, Stéphane. Thank you so much. I've got two questions. They're probably both a bit long. The first one is another question on the Safer oil tanker. Obviously, as you say, it's been two years. The UN keeps on going to the Houthis saying we want to do this. The Houthis are basically, like you say, moving the goalposts. We can wait another month or two months or three months, and you're going to come back to us and say, yeah, they've moved the goalpost again. I'm just wondering, is the SG considering any other type of way to get this mission executed, perhaps even by Chapter 7 use of force in the Security Council? Second question is on Libya. The interim Prime Minister [Abdulhamid] Dbeibah is set to announce his Cabinet in the next couple of days. He's under mounting allegations of buying votes during the electoral process and of corruption. Does the SG stand behind him?
Spokesman: Look, it's not for the SG to stand behind one political figure or another. There is a political framework that was agreed by the Libyan parties within the framework of UN talks. It is very important that whatever proc… the way the process runs is done in a transparent and an honest manner, and we fully trust that all Libyan leaders will adhere to those principles. On the tanker, I think I will let you kind of imagine how a Chapter 7 discussion, which would be up for the Security Council, could evolve. Our focus is on doing this with the support and the agreement that we need from the de facto authorities. We want — and this not only applies to the tanker but to everything that is going on in Yemen — that all those who have power in Yemen put the interests of the Yemeni people first. This includes trying to fix the tanker. This includes stopping the fighting. This includes facilitating humanitarian access. Abdelhamid?
Question: Thanks. Can I do a quick follow‑up on Libya? Is UNSMIL [United Nations Support Mission in Libya] and the UN aware of these allegations of vote‑buying, and is it investigating?
Spokesman: The new Special Representative, Mr. [Ján] Kubiš, and his team are following the process very closely, indeed. Abdelhamid?
Question: Thank you, Stéphane. I have two questions on Palestine. First, this week, two Palestinians were detained at the checkpoints, claiming they have knives. And the second is this Palestinian who was murdered in June last year at the checkpoint in Bethlehem. There is an international human rights group called Forensic Architecture, based in London, issued a statement qualifying that murder as extrajudicial killing. It said in its report, he posed no threat to the Israeli soldier or to any property. And also his body is tainted by Israel nine months later. And on another… so, that's one question, why there is no statement from the new coordinator of peace process in the Middle East? So far, he did not issue any statement regarding any incident of that magnitude in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.
Spokesman: Thank you. You will see that the Special Coordinator will report, as all Special Coordinators have done, I think, very transparently and fully to the Security Council. We will check with them on these specific incidents that you've mentioned…
Correspondent: This incident… when [Nickolay] Mladenov was the coordinator, he issued a statement about Ahmad Erekat, who was murdered at Bethlehem checkpoint because it was… they let him bleed to death. There was a statement, because it's not a regular thing just to report at the end of the month…
Spokesman: No, no, I understand. I understand. We will check with the Special Coordinator's office.
Question: Another question… may I?
Spokesman: Elena… yes, please. Go ahead.
Question: Okay. An American reporter, when he said half of the Israeli population were vaccinated and I can guess that only Jewish half, he was accused of being anti‑Semite. However, I want to quote what the Israeli health minister said on 20… 21 June… on 21 January. He said, Israeli obligation to vaccinate Palestinians is as much as the obligation to the health of the dolphins in the Mediterranean. So, what… how you call that kind of a statement?
Spokesman: Look, I'm not going to start commenting on what was said on SNL [Saturday Night Live]. It's not for me to get into. I haven't seen the statement from the Israeli minister you refer. We have… we have called from here for Israel to do greater cooperation with the Palestinian Authorities in line with its obligations to ensure that the vaccine gets to the population… the Palestinian population in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Elena Lentza?
Question: Hello. Thank you, Stéphane. My question is about how the Secretary‑General has received the official support by the Government of Portugal for a second term. Of course, this was no surprise, and it was being worked for some time. We know that the Portuguese President has talked on the phone with António Guterres today, but we read some notes, but we don't know… there wasn't anything specific about the… his response, of the Secretary‑General's response. So, I want to ask you if we can have a more complete statement about how he's feeling, because he was Prime Minister of Portugal?
Spokesman: I mean, the Secretary‑General had a number of conversations with Portuguese leaders this morning, and he called to express his thanks. And I think his reaction is that he is both grateful for the support and humbled by it. And moving forward, he will do everything he can to be worthy of the support expressed officially by the Government of Portugal for his candidacy for a second term. Okay. Stefano, and then we'll go to James, and then we have to go to our two Natalias, who have been very patient. Stefano?
Question: Thank you. Thank you. Stéphane. About the tragic death of… in Congo. The Italian Foreign Minister today in Parliament said that he asked the UN… not only the investigation, but that there is a fact, that he said also that he had contact also with the Secretary‑General about, so not only with the World Food [Programme]. So, my question is, what kind of contact he had with Secretary‑General? Did he talk to him? Because in the past, I mean, this is a situation, in few months, we had Italian Foreign Minister contacting Secretary‑General twice for an Italian serving abroad that… death and circumstances where there is a UN investigation going on. How… did the Secretary‑General assure the Foreign Minister that this time the investigation will be in… you know, will be in… done in the speedy way and not waiting for months and months before we know what happened?
Spokesman: Two… couple of things. First of all, it's, obviously, an extremely tragic coincidence that we're dealing with the deaths of two… of three Italian citizens in different parts of the world in a UN context. The Secretary‑General has been in touch with the Italian Government through conversations he's had with the Permanent Representative of Italy to the United Nations, and of course, the UN has pledged its full cooperation with the Italian authorities. As we mentioned, we will be conducting a security review of the incident and working cooper… in full cooperation on the criminal investigations. They are… investigations always need to be speedy, but more importantly, they need to be thorough. That's what really matters. And in terms of just moving forward, the… on a public facing, our colleagues at WFP in Rome will be handling questions from the media on this case. James, and then we'll go to our guests.
Question: Just a quick follow‑up on the Secretary‑General and his letter from the Portuguese Government. Does… I mean, a lot of this procedure is not really written down. It's based on precedent rather than…?
Spokesman: So much at the UN is.
Question: Yes. Understood. But, does the Secretary‑General believe that this sort of adds to the legitimacy of his bid? I mean, why does he think it's important that he has the endorsement of a member… of his Member State?
Spokesman: Well, I mean, I think, for anyone… no, let me put it this way. I think now… he is officially a candidate now that there's a letter from his Government putting him… nominating him. Prior to that, as… the wording he had used in his exchange of letters with the President of the General Assembly, President of the Security Council was that he was available to run for a second term. The… it is not for him… it's not for the Secretary‑General and it is not for António Guterres to quantify or qualify what makes a candidate legitimate. He's focused on himself. He's focused on his work, continuing to do his work as Secretary‑General. He's focussed on himself as a candidate. It is up to the President of the General Assembly, the President of the Security Council to talk about the legitimacy of candidates. Okay…
Question: This is Joe Klein. Stéphane, can you hear me? Joe Klein, very quick question.
Spokesman: Very, very, very quick, James… Joe, please. Very quick.
Question: Okay. Yeah. On the issue of vaccinations and cooperation of Israel being asked to do more in terms of getting vaccines to the Palestinian Authority, isn't it true that, under the Oslo Agreement, the care… health care of the… those in the West Bank and Gaza and specifically including vaccinations are the responsibility of the Palestinian Authority, and Israel has said that it will cooperate in getting Russian vaccine doses ordered by the [Palestinian Authority] into the West Bank… and why isn’t that [inaudible] right now?
Spokesman: Joe, what I have said and I will say again is that Israel has worked very closely with the UN and its partners throughout the course of the pandemic to ensure that equipment and supplies have been delivered throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territory. We've also encouraged Israel to address the priority needs of the Palestinians in those territories, which are critical to support the broader efforts of the Palestinian Government to control the pandemic and also in line with Israel's obligations under international law. That's just… that's our position. Okay. I want to, first of all, thank for their patience the two Natalias.