4 March 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.


In a short while, I will be joined by my colleague, Ramesh Rajasingham, who is the Acting Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs.  He’s here to brief on his recent visit to Burkina Faso.


A couple of updates, country updates for you.  On Myanmar, the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator, Ola Almgren, tweeted out that yesterday was a tragic day for Myanmar and stressed it is not acceptable that dozens of unarmed and peaceful protestors were killed and many more injured.  Mr. Almgren stressed that the perpetrators must be held to account.  For its part, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said today that, as of yesterday, at least five children and multiple young people and adults have reportedly been killed.  At least four children have been severely wounded.  More than 500 children have also been arrested arbitrarily, according to UNICEF.  UNICEF condemns in the strongest possible terms the use of force against children, including the use of live ammunition, and the arbitrary detention of children, and calls on security forces to immediately refrain from violence and to keep children and young people out of harm’s way.

Also on Myanmar, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, today called on the country’s military to stop murdering and jailing protestors after another day of deadly violence across the country.  This is the moment to turn the tables towards justice and end the military’s stranglehold over democracy, Ms. Bachelet said.  Update for you on the representation of Myanmar here at the United Nations: so, in addition to the communications which we have received in the past few days concerning the Permanent Representative of Myanmar, [Kyaw Moe Tun], we have also received a communication yesterday from the Permanent Mission of Myanmar, informing us that the Deputy Permanent Representative of Myanmar, Tin Maung Naing, has submitted his letter of resignation to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Myanmar, and recalling that Kyaw Moe Tun remains the Permanent Representative of Myanmar to the United Nations.  Upon request by the Chair of the Credentials Committee, this communication has been circulated to the members of the Committee.


Turning to Yemen, our humanitarian colleagues tell us that significant displacement is being reported in Marib Governorate, especially in Sirwah District, as fighting continues along several frontlines in recent days.  More than 14,000 people have been displaced so far.  Aid agencies are warning that as many as 385,000 men, women and children could be forced to flee as a result of the offensive.  Many of them may have to go to crowded displacement sites where services are overly stretched.  We along with our partners continue to respond and have reached more than 11,000 people with food baskets, emergency shelter kits and other forms of urgent lifesaving assistance.  Also, we are aware of reports of an alleged Houthi [who also call themselves Ansar Allah] attack earlier today against a Saudi Aramco facility in Jeddah.  While we are unable to comment on the veracity of the claims, we reiterate our condemnation of all attacks targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure, which are in violation of international humanitarian law.

Also on Yemen, I can tell you that we are deeply concerned by the recent reports of increased Houthi cross-border attacks against Saudi Arabia.  We note with further concern wider escalatory actions by all parties to the conflict in Yemen, including airstrikes, as well as the continued military offensive by the Houthis in Marib, as we just talked about.  These actions undermine prospects for peace and regional stability and are detrimental to the ongoing diplomatic efforts to end the conflict.  We call on the parties to refrain from further fanning the flames of conflict and remain committed to advancing the political process to reach a comprehensive negotiated settlement.  We also have an update for you on the Safer oil tanker:  We continue to discuss several pending logistical issues for the mission with the Houthis.  As you heard a few weeks ago from Mark Lowcock, these issues are a major reason why we had to delay the planned deployment that was supposed to happen this month.  The discussions, however, have been proceeding and we recently got permits for mission personnel to travel to Yemen.  But, so far, we don’t have concrete solutions for some of the other pending issues.  Until those other issues are resolved, we are not in a position to spend more donor money to rent a vessel or estimate a new timeline for the mission.


Turning to Ethiopia, Mark Lowcock, the Emergency Relief Coordinator, briefed the Security Council today.  He focused on the current humanitarian situation, access to the region, and action needed to scale up humanitarian deliveries.  Mr. Lowcock pointed out that at least 4.5 million people in Tigray need assistance, according to official estimates.  Many people in rural areas remain inaccessible and food security is a major concern.  Access to water, hygiene and sanitation services are largely disrupted across Tigray, increasing the risk of disease outbreaks, including water-borne diseases, measles and COVID-19.  Health services are also disrupted, with only 22 per cent of the 205 health facilities in Tigray being fully functional.  Mr. Lowcock said that, despite the recent progress, much more needs to be done to get aid to people who need it throughout Tigray.  He emphasized the need to dramatically scale up humanitarian assistance throughout the province by facilitating independent need assessments; deploying humanitarian staff throughout the province; restoring basic communications and banking services — and he also called for increased urgent funding for humanitarian operations.

Also on Ethiopia, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, stressed the urgent need for an objective, independent assessment of the facts on the ground in Tigray.  She said she continues to receive distressing report of sexual and gender-based violence, extrajudicial killings, widespread destruction and looting of public and private property by all parties.  She stressed that there are also reports of continuing fighting in central Tigray.  The High Commissioner noted that a preliminary analysis of the information received indicates that serious violations of international law, possibly amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity, may have been committed by multiple actors in the conflict.  These include the Ethiopian National Defence Forces, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, Eritrean armed forces and Amhara Regional Forces and affiliated militias.


A tragic note that we received from our colleagues at the International Organization for Migration (IOM):  They say that at least 20 people have drowned off the coasts of Djibouti after smugglers threw dozens of migrants — fellow human beings — overboard.  This happened yesterday and this is the third such incident on the Gulf of Aden in the past six months.  The migrants were just trying to reach Yemen.  Survivors are receiving medical treatment at the IOM Centre in Djibouti and they tell us that at least 200 migrants, including children, were crowded aboard the vessel.  Thirty minutes into the journey, the smugglers forced 80 of them overboard and threw them into the sea.  COVID-19 mobility restrictions have drastically reduced travel on this route.  However, IOM is concerned that, as restrictions ease, more migrants will attempt the dangerous journey, raising the prospect of future tragedies.  IOM, and of course all of us, are calling for the prosecution of crimes committed by smugglers and human traffickers, as well as for new migration pathways to allow people to pursue work opportunities abroad in a safe, legal and dignified manner.


Our colleague Atul Khare, the head of the Department of Operational Support, is in Sudan this week.  In Khartoum, he had discussions with Government officials, mainly focusing on the drawdown and liquidation of the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID), underscoring that, in line with relevant Security Council resolutions, the drawdown period would be completed by the end of June this year.  Liquidation will take an additional 12 to 18 months.  He sought the support of Sudanese officials to ensure an orderly and safe withdrawal of the mission, including for the handover of team sites.  He further emphasized that the majority of assets would be handed over to the Government for civilian end use, supporting the priorities of the Government.  You will recall that there was an issue with the looting of the site not too long ago.  During the visit, a framework agreement on this issue was also signed between Mr.  Khare and the Sudanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  He will be there until Sunday.

**Democratic Republic of the Congo

Meanwhile, Mark Lowcock travelled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but only virtually.  He made a virtual visit to Beni today — the town, located in the east of the country, and home to a decades-long protection crisis.  He spoke to internally displaced families, as well as host communities.  The people he spoke to said they wanted peace, to return to their homes, and to feel safe.  Mr. Lowcock’s visit a highlighted the resilience and generosity of Congolese communities hosting displaced people.  With 5.2 million men, women and children displaced, the Democratic Republic of the Congo currently has the second-largest number of internally displaced persons in the world.  The country also hosts 527,000 refugees from neighbouring countries.  More information online.

**COVID-19/Mental Health

Just a couple of COVID notes before we go to your questions.  UNICEF today says that at least 1 in 7 children — that’s 332 million children globally — have lived under required or recommended nationwide stay-at-home policies for at least nine months since the start of the pandemic.  The agency warns that this is putting their mental health and well-being at risk.  In response, UNICEF is supporting governments and partner organizations to prioritize and adapt services for children.


Some good news on COVAX:  Lesotho and Sudan received vaccines through the COVAX Facility yesterday.  Our UN teams on the ground are supporting authorities to roll out their vaccination campaigns.  More than 800,000 doses of the vaccine arrived in Sudan’s Khartoum, following the arrival of 4.5 metric tons of syringes and safety boxes that UNICEF also delivered on behalf of COVAX last week.  This will support the initial vaccination of health‑care workers and people above the age of 45 with chronic medical conditions.  Lesotho received an initial batch of 36,000 doses of the vaccine.  The shipment travelled from India via the Middle East to South Africa by plane, and then on to the capital, Maseru, by road.  Health‑care workers are being trained and vaccinations will start in the coming days, first in the capital then across the country, with the initial doses targeting all health‑care workers.

**Women’s Basic Income

A new report by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) says that a temporary basic income for hundreds of millions of women in developing countries could prevent rising poverty and widening gender inequalities during the pandemic.  The report, released ahead of International Women’s Day, shows that a monthly investment of 0.07 per cent of developing countries’ gross domestic product (GDP) could provide reliable financial security to 613 million women living in poverty.  More information online.

**Food Waste

An interesting note on food waste from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).  An estimated 931 million tons of food, metric tonnes that is, or 17 per cent of all food available to consumers in 2019, went into the trash of households, retailers, restaurants and other food services.  That’s according to a new report by UNEP.  To give you an idea, this amount roughly equals 23 million fully loaded 40-ton trucks — bumper-to-bumper, enough to circle the Earth seven times.  The report shows that most of this waste comes from households, which discard about 11 per cent of the total food available.  UNEP said that at a time when climate action is still lagging, 8 to 10 per cent of global greenhouse‑gas emissions are associated with food that is not consumed.  Reducing food waste would cut greenhouse emissions.  More information is available online.

**Food Price Index

The Food Price Index for this month, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), food commodity prices rose for the ninth consecutive month in February, with quotations for sugar and vegetable oils increasing the most.  In February, the FAO Food Price Index was 2.4 per cent higher than the previous month and up 26.5 per cent from a year ago.  Significant rise in food prices.

**Senior Personnel Appointment

Today, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, is announcing the appointment of Cherith Norman Chalet of the United States as Assistant Secretary-General for General Assembly and Conference Management in the Department for General Assembly and Conference Management.  She will succeed Movses Abelian of Armenia, who holds the position of Under-Secretary-General for General Assembly and Conference Management.  Ms. Chalet brings many years of experience in foreign policy and international issues and has considerable knowledge and involvement in the UN intergovernmental machinery.  You will recall her most from her time as a US ambassador and representative to the General Assembly, as well as Security Council and funds and programmes.  More in her bio.

**Guest Tomorrow

Tomorrow, we will be joined by Vincent Martin, the UN Resident Coordinator in Guinea.  He will join us virtually to brief on the situation in Guinea, particularly the challenges due to COVID-19 and the resurgence of Ebola.  I’m going to take a water break, if you don’t mind.  Now I will go to James.

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Okay.  Tigray, please.  When this started, the Ethiopian Prime Minister told the Secretary‑General it was going to be a quick operation.  The military operation is still ongoing.  It's four months today.  Can you give us an update on the Secretary‑General's view of the situation, what diplomacy is under way, and as the Security Council meets on this issue as we speak, what the Secretary‑General wants the Security Council to do?

Spokesman:  So, the Secretary‑General has had a number of conversations with Prime Minister Abiy [Ahmed] in the last few months.  I mean, his message to him privately and publicly are the same, which is to increase the humanitarian access, stop the fighting, and work on issues of reconciliation.  We continue to be very concerned by the overall the situation.  I think Mr. Lowcock alluded to some improvement on humanitarian access and a lessening of bureaucratic hurdles.  But, I think the headlines that we've seen about human rights violations, mass killings, sexual violence is extremely concerning, and the Secretary‑General fully supports the statements made by the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Question:  A quick follow‑up, and it's about that statement of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, because she talks about the role of Eritrean forces.  She says those reports have been corroborated.  Whenever we've asked you, you say the UN has no proof of whether there are Eritreans there.  Now part of the UN is saying they are there so… and they seem to be, in multiple reports, guilty of some of the worst abuses.  Your reaction to the… to what the Eritrean troops are doing in Tigray.  And can you update us?  You've told us what contact the Secretary‑General has had with the Prime Minister of Ethiopia.  In these four months and with these persistent allegations of Eritrean forces, can you tell us whether he's spoken to the President of Eritrea?

Spokesman:  I'm not aware that the Secretary‑General has spoken to the President of Eritrea.  We have colleagues on the ground, who have had contacts with all the major players.  I think the High Commissioner for Human Rights is acknowledging what has been in the public domain, and I think she's been very clear in listing the groups and the entities who could be guilty of crimes against humanity, of more crimes… I'm… let me just rephrase… who could have possibly committed these crimes.  And the Secretary‑General, I think, fully backs her call for independent investigations.

Question:  You say who could possibly commit it.  It says in her… the office has managed to corroborate information.  She's proved it.  So, I mean, are you going to condemn what she has proved Eritrean troops are doing in Tigray?  And is it time for the Secretary‑General to pick up a phone to the President of Eritrea?

Spokesman:  Listen, we condemn…  The Secretary‑General is working on all the possible diplomacy that he can.  I mean, I was just paraphrasing what she was saying.  We have… we fully back what she says and her position.  Célhia and then Edie.  We'll go down the line.

Question:  Stéphane, Emma Reilly, who works for the Office the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and is a human right lawyer, has repeatedly alleged that the human right office, in general, shared the name of China's opponent with the Government… China's Government, and she said that this is the only exception that the UN has made.  Is that true?

Spokesman:  No.  We don't agree with her description of our policies.  I think, contrary to her claims, at no time has any activist been placed at risk by the human rights office's practices of responding to enquiries from Member States requesting for confirmation of the names of activists accredited to attend the Human Rights Council sessions.  Since the start of the Human Rights Council in 2006, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights stopped providing lists of those accredited to attend.  Instead, in response to specific enquiries from Member States regarding names of individuals, the Office confirmed the names of well‑known people for whom confirmation of their names presented no additional risk, given that they were already in the public domain.  From 2015, given the limited nature of the practice, the Office ceased providing confirmation to Member States that individuals were accredited to attend sessions.  Edie?

Question:  Thank you very much, Steph.  Perhaps you saw the video of the arrest of Associated Press journalist Thein Zaw as he was photographing Myanmar security forces charging at anti‑coup protesters.  And the video shows him being quickly surrounded, held in a chokehold and having handcuffs put on him.  Authorities have charged Thein Zaw and five other members of the media with violating a public order law that could see them imprisoned for three years.  Does the Secretary‑General have any comment on these arrests?

Spokesman:  I think the video is extremely disturbing to anyone who sees it.  I mean, I've seen it.  The Secretary‑General and the UN family has repeatedly called on every country to allow journalists to do their job free of harassment, free of arrest, free of violence.  I think we have seen in Myanmar in recent days harassment, arrests and physical attacks on journalists.  Those must cease.  And those journalists who have been detained, along with the other people who have been arrested, should also be freed.

Correspondent:  I have a follow‑up on the letter that you received and that you read out, and you said that the General Assembly Credentials Committee had circulated it to Member States, I believe.

Spokesman:  Correct.

Question:  What is the significance or is there any significance to the Committee circulating that letter?

Spokesman:  I mean, it's basically we're keeping the Committee… the Credentials Committee informed of these changes and these letters as we come.  I mean, I think it's only normal when you have a situation of uncertainty, as one could describe it, that these things be shared with the Committee.  Okay.  Evelyn?

Correspondent:  Thank you, Steph.  Good seeing you in person.

Spokesman:  Nice to see you in person.

Question:  Right.  Couple questions.  You mentioned yesterday, I believe, or the day before that the SG spoke to relevant Governments about the atrocities in Myanmar.  Is… did he speak to China, which has yet to condemn…?

Spokesman:  Yes, he's spoken… I mean, he's had… let me put it this way.  He's spoken to… I think the issue of Myanmar has been raised in one way or another with all the permanent members of the Security Council, with prominent members of ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations], including the presidency, Brunei.  Some of these calls were done at the foreign minister level.  Some of these calls were done with the permanent representatives.

Question:  Right.  And a brief question, has a successor been named to Mr. Lowcock?  I assume it will be a Brit, but…

Spokesman:  It will be announced when it is announced, when you see white smoke.  Okay.  We'll go to Tobias, and then we'll come back to you, Carla.  Toby?

Question:  Thank you very much, Steph.  Yesterday, we heard from Special Envoy [Christine Schraner] Burgener speaking about Myanmar, and she made the point that not all of the armed ethnic militias in the country and maybe very few of them have fallen in line behind the Tatmadaw in terms of their takeover of the Government.  How worried is the UN of a full‑scale civil war?  And is… we're hearing mostly about protests now, but how concerned is the Secretary‑General about a civil war in the country?  Thank you.

Spokesman:  Look, I think the coup is having many knock‑on effects.  We've talked about basic human rights, basic… the basic rights of people to live in a free and democratic society.  We've talk about the impact on the humanitarian work that we do.  We've talked about the impact of COVID, but it clearly will and is likely already having an impact on the efforts that had been ongoing to bring the various armed groups, armed ethnic groups, into a successful peace process.  So, I think it would be right to say that we're concerned that the events in Myanmar have derailed or are delaying or are having a negative impact on basically all the critical facets of life in Myanmar.  Carla?

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  You may already have mentioned this.  It came to me as a very sad surprise.  One of the three video workers at the stakeout died.  Damian, his name was.  Do you know anything about that? And is the UN planning any kind of — what can I say — memorial to him?

Spokesman:  I think we mentioned this quite a while ago.  Abdelhamid?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  And I apologize for not putting the video.  I have two questions.  First, Stéphane, as a follow‑up to my question yesterday, I ask bluntly if the UN will apologize to Mr. [Pierre] Krähenbühl.  He has been falsely and politically targeted for misconduct, and he was found innocent.  And he is asking for a clear‑cut apology from the UN so that, to clear his name, he would be maybe available for future posts in the UN.  That's one thing.  And my second question… yes, please.  My second question about the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory is regarding the COVID‑19.  The Authority declared one-month emergency.  The situation is going out of hand.  The situation… the availability of vaccine is very dire, yet Israel today announced selling vaccine to Denmark and another country in northern Europe.  I forgot the name of the second country.  Is that fair treatment of the people under occupation?

Spokesman:  We are working with our Palestinian partners in an effort to help with the vaccine availability and distribution through COVAX and other means.  We've also been in contact with the Israeli authorities in the manner of which I've already highlighted a number of times.  I think what is important is that there is global solidarity across the board for access to the vaccine.  On your first question, I think Farhan [Haq] shared with you what we had to say, and we put it into the record yesterday, and I have nothing else to add on that.  Okay.  James, and then we'll go to our guest, who's been very patient.

Question:  Sorry.  I'm thinking of things to ask you as I speak.

Spokesman:  Then I'll have to get things to answer you as you speak.

Question:  Yes.  Well, let me start with this one, Afghanistan.  Zalmay Khalilzad, the US envoy, has been visiting Kabul.  And there's some reports that he's suggesting now an international conference on Afghanistan that would be organized by the UN.  Is the UN aware of these reports?  Has it had early discussions with the envoy about setting up some sort of conference?

Spokesman:  We… all I can tell you is that we are aware of these reports and have nothing to add at this point.

Question:  Okay.  A quick check for you.  I know you don't like talking about appointments and we have to wait for the white smoke, but Western Sahara, it's coming up to the two‑year anniversary.  What is the reason why, for two years, the Secretary‑General has been unable to find a personal envoy to do this job?  Does no one want the job?

Spokesman:  Let me put it this way.  It's not the easiest job on the UN roster.  It's a critical job.  The Secretary‑General has been trying very hard to fill the position, but as in a lot of these appointments, not all the levers are in his hands, but he is doing his bit.

Question:  And the last, you probably are aware, because you've quoted part of it, but Mr. Lowcock has just finished speaking, I'm told, in the Council, and I'm told that among the things that he said was what we were talking about earlier, that Eritrean troops were present.  He said it was abundantly clear to everyone that they were present and that they should now leave.  Is that also the Secretary‑General's view? Is he calling on Eritrean troops to leave Tigray?

Spokesman:  Yes.  Okay.  I think we are done for my bit.  If I can ask Ramesh to come up and do his bit.

For information media. Not an official record.