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8 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.

**International Women’s Day

All right.  As you all know, today is International Women’s Day, so Happy International Women’s Day! The theme this year is “Women in leadership:  Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world on the way to the Generation Equality Forum.”

This morning, the Secretary-General took part in the virtual dialogue with the Group of Friends on Gender Parity.  He said that, for the past year, we have been dealing with the impact of the pandemic on all our work, including our efforts on gender parity, but added that the pandemic cannot be used as an excuse to put gender parity efforts on hold.

“Gender parity is a necessity, not an add-on extra.  A global pandemic makes it more important [than ever],” he said.

The Secretary-General stressed that we need to make a strong commitment and a conscious effort to make up any lost ground.

When it comes to the UN, he said, we are on a positive trajectory towards gender parity.  We achieved the goal of 50-50 gender parity amongst senior leadership ahead of schedule.  In the Secretariat, the proportion of women in the professional categories and above has increased to over 41 per cent from 37 per cent in 2017.  However, in field operations, progress has been slow.  The gender balance there is 31 per cent women and 69 per cent men.

He outlined various measures to ensure that qualified female candidates are hired and to monitor the accountability and implementation of recruitment policies, and called on Member States to support these efforts.

He also had a video message for the Day, which is available online.

Staying on the topic, UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) today released a report that says that 10 million additional child marriages may occur before the end of the decade.  School closures, economic stress, service interruptions, pregnancy, and parental deaths due to the pandemic are putting the most vulnerable girls at increased risk of child marriage.  The UN Children’s Fund added that even before the pandemic, 100 million girls were at risk of child marriage in the next decade, despite significant reductions in several countries in the past years.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) today warned that the impact of the pandemic is threatening the lives and rights of refugees, displaced and stateless women and girls.  UNHCR called on the international community to support programmes that combat gender inequality, including gender-based violence, and promote the expansion of education, and vocational and self-reliance initiatives.

**Peacekeeping

And on this International Women’s Day, our peacekeeping colleagues report that Bangladesh, for the first time, is deploying four justice government-provided personnel (GPPs), all of them are women.  They will depart to their respective missions, and that will be the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) and the UN Mission in Somalia (UNSOM), this month.

Bangladesh responded to a call for nominations for women justice officers, thereby helping to achieve gender parity goals for government-provided personnel in line with DPO’s (Department of Peace Operations) Uniformed Gender Parity Strategy.

**Myanmar

And moving on to Myanmar, where the UN team there said that women across the country are once again demonstrating their leadership and agency following more than one month of political instability and violence.

The team there says that, across Myanmar, they see women — young and old — leading the call for peace, justice and democracy.  They do so with courage, braving bullets and beatings, death and detention, challenging patriarchy and social norms in the process.

Our colleagues on the ground in Myanmar reiterated the Secretary-General’s call for Myanmar’s military and police to ensure that the right of peaceful assembly is fully respected and that demonstrators are not subjected to reprisals.  It also echoed the Secretary-General’s strong condemnation of the violent crackdown and the use of lethal force.

They are deeply concerned over the reported occupation by security forces of a number of public hospitals in Myanmar, calling this completely unacceptable.  The team says that hospitals are, and must remain, places of sanctuary and unequivocal neutrality — to ensure that patients undergoing medical care are safe.  This is particularly essential during a global pandemic.

And on that, I just want add that the Secretary-General himself, as you have been asking me, is following the developments in Myanmar very closely, notably in the Sanchaung district of Yangon, where hundreds of peaceful protestors have been barricaded inside residential apartment complexes for hours.  He calls for maximum restraint and urges for the safe release of all without violence or arrests.

Many of those trapped are women, who were peacefully marching in commemoration of International Women’s Day.

We again call for respect of the rights to freedom of assembly and expression of the people of Myanmar as they demonstrate peacefully and express their hopes and desires for the future of their country.

Last one on Myanmar:  Our humanitarian colleagues tell us that the situation in the country remains dire and that aid operations have been disrupted by the coup.  More than 1 million people — identified at the beginning of the year as needing assistance, including more than 350,000 internally displaced people — still need help.

Our humanitarian partners across the country are making all efforts to resume life-saving activities but the operating environment remains difficult.

There are continued disruptions to communication, transportation and supply chains, as well as shortages of cash for operations due to limitations.  Banking services and market prices in some areas are rising as a result.

Our humanitarian colleagues warn that COVID-19 testing capacities and vaccination planning have also been severely impacted.

**Yemen

Turning to Yemen:  We condemn the multiple drone and ballistic missile attacks reportedly carried out yesterday against multiple locations in Saudi Arabia for which the Houthis, who also call themselves Ansar Allah, have claimed responsibility.

We also are concerned about Saudi-led Coalition air strikes reportedly carried out yesterday on Sana’a and Hudaydah, apparently in response to the initial attacks. 

We urge all parties to abide by their obligations under international humanitarian law.

It is really quite simple — such actions are detrimental to the mediation efforts being carried out by our Special Envoy, Martin Griffiths, who will continue to work with all parties to advance the political process to reach a negotiated settlement to end the conflict.

**Equatorial Guinea

And the Secretary-General expresses his deep condolences to the people and Government of Equatorial Guinea following the explosions yesterday in the port city of Bata.  The explosions killed at least 15 people, left over 500 people injured and caused extensive damage.  The UN is in close contact with the authorities to discuss how we can support them in responding to the tragic incident.

**Sudan

And our colleague Atul Khare, the head of the Operational Support Department (DOS), has completed his visit to Sudan and is now in Kenya.

In his last days in Sudan, he travelled to Abyei, where he met with the staff and leadership of the UN Mission there (UNISFA), as well as with members of the UN country team.

Mr. Khare held a meeting with Ngok Dinka community leaders and the Government of South Sudan Chief Administrator.  In Diffra, he met with Misseriya community leaders and representatives of the Abyei Joint Oversight Committee.

Finally, in Abyei, Mr. Khare saw a COVID-19 hospital supported by the UN Mission, as well as other capacity-building measures.

**Libya

You will have seen that the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) welcomes the convening of a formal House of Representatives session today in Sirte.  The session will deliberate on a vote of confidence for the cabinet list proposed by the Prime Minister-designate.  The Mission is pleased with the significant number of House of Representatives members participating in the session.

The Mission says that this session is an important step towards meeting the long-standing aspiration of the Libyan people to reunify the country and all State institutions.

**Central African Republic

And in the Central African Republic, our Mission there (MINUSCA) continues to support the preparations for the 14 March legislative elections.

As part of the Mission’s efforts to facilitate a conductive environment to hold these elections, Mission colleagues in Marcounda met on Friday with the local commander of the CPC/FPRC groups.  The commander expressed his commitment to facilitate peaceful legislative elections in Marcounda and the surrounding areas.

Also, this week, the Mission is also completing the deployment of election materials in all 16 prefectures.  And the Mission is providing security in the context of the elections.

**Paraguay

A couple of a few more notes:  In Paraguay, over the weekend, the country’s Resident Coordinator, Mario Samaja, and our team there expressed deep concern over the violence that took place on Friday in the capital, Asunción.

The team called on authorities and all Paraguayan society to refrain from any acts of violence and abide by the rule of law.  They ask all to continue taking the necessary measures to prevent the spread of COVID.

They also renewed their commitment to the Government and to the people of Paraguay in this crucial moment to respond and recover better from the pandemic.

**Africa — COVAX

COVAX — more good news.  More doses of the COVAX-backed COVID-19 vaccines were delivered to nine African countries:  Mozambique, Togo, Ethiopia, Malawi, Liberia, Djibouti, Sao Tome and Principe, Uganda and Mali.

This morning, Mozambique and Togo have received a total of nearly half a million doses.  The first phase of vaccination starts off with health workers and other at-risk people.

Yesterday, COVAX delivered 2.2 million doses to Ethiopia, with vaccinations to begin in the coming days.

Malawi, Liberia, Sao Tomé and Principe, and Mali received vaccine on Friday.

Djibouti will start vaccinations on 11 March.  And in Uganda, which received more than 850,000 doses of vaccines from COVAX will start in phases.

**Secretary-General — Crime

And you will have seen over the weekend, on Saturday, the Secretary-General delivered remarks to the opening of the 14th UN Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, that is taking place in Kyoto.  Those remarks were shared with you.

**Secretary-General — Somalia

And also, over the weekend, we issued a statement in which the Secretary-General strongly condemned the deadly terrorist attack that took place in Mogadishu on Friday.

**Questions and Answers

I will take a water break and then Célhia and then James.

Question:  Stéphane, since the arrest on 3 March of Ousmane Sonko, the opposition leader of… in Senegal, demonstration that already caused the death of at least eight people.  What can the UN do to try to ease tensions in Senegal?

Spokesman:  Well, we have our country team on the ground.  For the Secretary-General, his call is clear, and that is for all actors to exercise restraint, explore avenues for dialogue.  And he reiterates his call for security forces to safeguard the citizens’ right to peaceful protest.

He will continue to follow the situation and, of course, expresses his condolences to the families of those protesters who died during the demonstrations.

Question:  I have another question.

Spokesman:  Yeah, please.

Question:  I’m James today.  [laughter]

Women’s Day, if I’m right, started in 1977.

Spokesman:  Sorry.  What started in 1977?

Question:  Women’s Day.

Spokesman:  Women’s Day, yes.

Question:  But since then, nothing has been really done for the woman, and their lives all over the world are more and more difficult.  So, what is the point of such a day?

Spokesman:  Listen, I think the point of such a day is to refocus the world’s attention on the gains that have been made but also on the enormous challenges that remain, I mean, and I think as the Secretary-General said, the pandemic has set things back across the board, whether it’s on economic power; we see that women are often the first ones to lose their job and the last ones to gain… to take them, access to health care, the risk to girls, as we’ve outlined through marriage… through early… through child marriage, and a whole host of other issues.

I think, if you look across the media landscape, the fact that there is an International Women’s Day helps get coverage to these issues.  So, if it is only to bring attention to these issues which are not always well reported during the year — and they should be — I think that would be, for me, the point of it.

Do you have a third question because… no, it’s okay.  [laughter]

Correspondent:  [inaudible]

Spokesman:  Yeah.  It’s okay.  We’ll go to James.  I’m sure you’ll come back and then we’ll go to the…

Question:  Afghanistan, is the US planning to convene a meeting of foreign ministers on the subject of Afghanistan?

Spokesman:  Well, I think that’s a question for the US.  We’ve been following the reporting closely.  We’re aware of what was reported in the media through this letter that was leaked over the weekend.  We continue to support any effort to reach a peaceful resolution to the conflict, and we stand ready to assist, if so requested by the parties.

Question:  So, you haven’t had a request at this stage from the US to convene such a meeting.

Spokesman:  We have not officially received the letter.  We’ve seen it because it was in the media, but we have… as far as I’ve checked, we have not received the letter officially.

Question:  And given what was in the letter, which is this idea of fast-tracking the diplomatic process, is the Secretary-General worried that a hurried process could mean that things like democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of the media and, on International Women’s Day, women’s rights and girls’ education could end up being compromised?

Spokesman:  Look, I don’t want to prejudge what is being discussed, but I think the issues that you’ve raised are ones that we’ve been raising for quite some time with the ongoing process, especially on issues relating to the rights of women.  This is something that we have encouraged and, I would say, strongly encouraged, if not more, the parties to ensure that whatever deal is worked out through whichever mechanism, it is not done on the backs of the rights of the Afghan women, who have suffered so much during this conflict.

Okay.  Iftikhar, and then we’ll go to Edie.

Correspondent:  Thank you, Stéphane.  My question was on Afghanistan, which James asked, and you replied.  Thank you very much.

Spokesman:  Okay.  My pleasure.  Edie?

Question:  Thank you very much, Steph.  I’m actually working from home today.  One follow-up question on Myanmar.  There’ve been two reported deaths in the north, and I wondered… I know you were talking about what was going on in Yangon, but I wondered whether the Secretary-General had any comment on those.

And, secondly, in Yemen, there was a fire yesterday at a detention facility in Sana’a that caused a significant number of deaths and severe injuries, and I wondered whether the UN had any further details.

Spokesman:  On your first question, we are… I don’t have any reports on those deaths.  Our… we can ask our country team.  We have expressed repeatedly our condemnation at the deaths that have occurred, and we’ve called for people’s right to live, basic right to live, and, obviously, to express themselves peacefully to be respected.  But we will check.

We are checking with our colleagues at IOM.  The facility in Yemen was managed by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).  Take a look what they said.  I don’t have anything more besides what they’ve already put out.

But this underscores, obviously, the dire and very dangerous situation for human beings in Yemen, including migrants and refugees, who are seeking a better life.

Okay.  We’ll go to James Reinl.

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  This is a quick follow-up on the stuff you were telling us about Libya, this meeting in Sirte, the vote of confidence.  It was meant to take place today, the vote.  Do you happen to know, is it going to take place today?  And if not, when is it being pushed back till?

Spokesman:  No, the only thing I knew is they were meeting today.  We can check with the Mission what the exact latest is.

All right.  Philippe?

QuestionBonjour, Stéphane.  I have three question, if I may.  The first one, it’s yesterday evening, Meghan and Harry accused the royal institution to… about racism.  Have you any comment on that?

Did you hear the question?

Spokesman:  No, no.  I’m trying to formulate an answer.  Look, I think… I don’t have any specific comments on the interview.  Obviously, issues… we stand strongly against any issues of racism, but I’m not going to insert myself into that story.

Question:  Okay.  Second question on Myanmar, there was apparently a doctor, Dr. Sasa, S-A-S-A, was named Special Envoy to have a link with UN.  Did you have any contact with this man already?

Spokesman:  Yeah, I’ve seen that report.  I… we’ve checked.  So far, as far as I know, we’ve not had any contact, but we’ll continue calling to people who may have had contact with him, but I’m not aware of any contact.  [He later added:  “We have received the letter.  UN officials, including the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy, have been in contact with elected parliamentarians as part of ongoing contacts with key stakeholders.”]

Question:  Okay.  And third question, it’s also on Afghanistan.  James told you about the meeting… the foreign ministers meeting, but there’s also another meeting asked by US with Afghan and Taliban between Turkey or with Turkey.  It’s not very clear.  Do you have any comment of this second meeting?

Spokesman:  No.  We… as I told James, we’ve seen the letter through what was shared to us by… on the media and by the media.  We have not received officially.  Our basic line is that we will continue to stand by and assist the parties, if so requested.

Correspondent:  Thank you.

Spokesman:  Okay.  Toby?

Question:  Hi.  Thank you, Steph.  Two quick questions.  The first is, do we have an update on the investigation into the UN’s tech envoy and his behaviour?

And also, who is conducting that investigation?

Spokesman:  That is being done by our colleagues in the… of OIOS, the Office for Internal [Oversight] Services and investigations.  And that is ongoing.

Question:  When can we expect some sort of decision on it?

Spokesman:  I don’t know.  I think, as it comes with all investigations, we want them to be done as quickly as possible but also as thoroughly as possible for the benefit of all parties involved.  So, I cannot give you a date.

Question:  And second question is, with the leaked letter regarding Afghanistan and this being International Women’s Day, what is the UN’s feeling at the moment with the status of women’s rights in Afghanistan?  Can you… a broad-stroke general assessment of the risks and situation would be helpful.

Spokesman:  Look, I would say that, on paper, there are strong rights.  I think what we have seen in Afghanistan, like many other conflicts, women are the first ones to suffer.  But the gains… it would not… I don’t think one could say that the gains of women in Afghanistan over the last few years have been deeply cemented.  I think we have to continue to be vigilant, and as the peace process moves forward, we have to make sure that the rights of women are embedded, cemented and front and centre.

Okay.  We’ll go to Abdelhamid and then Gloria.

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  I have two questions, the first, India.  Today, they detained number of a Rohingya refugees, and they’re saying they will put them back into Myanmar.  Are you aware of this development and any comment by the UN Secretary-General?

Spokesman:  I have not seen it.  We will check, but it is… our position and the Secretary-General’s position on refugees, I think, is very clear and applies to every Member State, is that refugees should never be returned against their will to the place where they come from.  There is a strong belief in the policy of non-refoulement.

Your second question?

Question:  And the second question, Al Jazeera today issued some documents about United Arab Emirates dismantling its military base in Assab in Eritrea and taking all these military equipments to Ras Barani air base, Egyptian air base, near the Libyan border.  Did that cause any concern to the UN?

Spokesman:  I… while I do watch and read Al Jazeera very closely, I had not seen those reports, but I will look to see what there is.

Gloria, and then we’ll come back to [audio feedback]…

Question:  Yes.  I have two questions, please.  One is about the vaccines.  They’re very fragile.  What is their life span, the ones that are going to be in Africa?

And also, do they have the proper refrigeration there, which is one of their big problems in Africa?  One is the life span.  Here, even in New York, we heard — I don’t know if it’s rumours — that some of the vaccines had to be thrown out because they didn’t have the proper refrigeration…

Spokesman:  I don’t… [audio feedback] I don’t know off the top of my head… you have to mute your microphone.

Okay.  I don’t know off the top of my head the life span.  The issue of refrigeration is, indeed, a critical one, and it is one that the UN country teams, in just about every country where we’re working with the Government, is very much focused on.

Mr. Bays?

Question:  Yeah, quick follow-up… [audio feedback].  Quick follow-up to Philippe’s question.  I’ve been in touch with Dr. Sasa in the last couple of hours, and he sent you — and I saw it last week — a letter to the Secretary-General.  Could you check?  Because he wrote to the Secretary-General on the day of the Security Council meeting, I understand.  Well, I’ve seen the letter.  [cross talk]

And secondly…

Spokesman:  You seem to get a lot of letters before I do.  [laughter]

Question:  And the other thing that I wanted to ask you about was, you mentioned very briefly the bombing in Mogadishu.  Clearly, there are people who want to undermine democracy, who might be timing this to coincide with the current political crisis in the country.  What is the Secretary-General’s view on this?  How concerned is he?  And what’s his message to the political leaders in Somalia?

Spokesman:  The message for the political leaders is not to get side-tracked by spoilers.  There will always be spoilers in these types of situations that will push for violence and bloodshed, and the political leaders in Somalia need to continue to try to find unity and put the best interests of the Somali people first and foremost.

Okay.  Unless I hear another bid, we’re closing this auction.  And we shall see you all mañana.  Thank you.

For information media. Not an official record.