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17 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.

Welcome to all of you, to everyone tuning in from even the non-continental United States, in the upper reaches.  I think, James, you are our first participant from Alaska.  Welcome!

Good afternoon.  I’ll start off with a couple of notes on Mali and on the Sahel.

**Niger

First with Niger, where we strongly condemn Monday’s attack that targeted and killed or injured dozens of civilians in the Tillabéri region of the country. 

We convey our deepest condolences to the families of the victims, and to the people and Government of Niger, and wish a speedy recovery to those injured. 

And I expect a more formal statement from the Secretary-General shortly.

The Head of the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), Mohamed Ibn Chambas, also issued a statement condemning the attack.  And he urged the Nigerien authorities to take the necessary steps to ensure that those responsible for this despicable attack are arrested and brought to justice. 

Mr. Chambas reiterated his solidarity with the people and Government of Niger, as well as the continued support of the United Nations for the country, and all of the countries of the region, in their efforts to prevent and combat terrorism and violent extremism. 

**Mali

And from Mali, the Head of the UN Mission there (MINUSMA), Mahamat Annadif, expressed his deep condolences to the families of the victims and the Government of Mali, following an attack on Malian forces near Gao. 

Many soldiers were injured and thirty-three were killed in an attack by unknown combatants.  The UN peacekeeping mission there says they evacuated the injured soldiers to their hospital in Gao. 

The UN Mission continues to work with the authorities on what additional support it can provide. 

**Central African Republic

Moving on to the Central African Republic.  Following last Sunday’s legislative elections, the UN Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) reports that the vote counting, as well as the transfer of election results from polling stations to the regional branches of the National Elections Authority, is under way. 

UN peacekeepers are providing security for the safe transportation of all of the ballots.  That is, of course, in cooperation with the national security forces.  Yesterday, the elections authority began releasing provisional results over local radio.  The results are released by polling station, starting with Bangui, where 14 out of the 16 constituency seats were being contested. 

Meanwhile, our humanitarian colleagues tell us that their partners have resumed assistance in Bria, in the Haute-Kotto Prefecture, and surrounding areas last week.  Operations there were suspended at the end of February, due to the risk of clashes between armed groups and national defence forces.  There are over 73,000 displaced people in Bria.  This is one of the country’s largest concentration of displaced people. 

The overall humanitarian situation remains concerning.  There are nearly 250,000 Central Africans displaced internally or as refugees in neighbouring countries. 

Our humanitarian colleagues also tell us that the number of attacks against humanitarians has spiked, particularly at the beginning of the year.  The Central African Republic is now one of the most dangerous places to work for humanitarian workers.

And a couple of days I want to flag, which are on very important issues. 

**Islamophobia

In a video message to mark the International Day [against] Islamophobia, the Secretary-General said that anti-Muslim bigotry is sadly in line with other disturbing trends we are seeing globally.  That includes a resurgence in ethno-nationalism, neo-Nazism, stigma and hate speech that target vulnerable populations — including Muslims, Jews, and some minority Christian communities, as well as others. 

Mr. [António] Guterres notes that the Holy Quran reminds us that nations and tribes were created to know one another.  Diversity is a richness, and not a threat, he said in his message, adding that fighting discrimination, racism and xenophobia is a priority for the United Nations.  That is why, he said, he launched a first ever of its kind UN Strategy on Hate Speech as well as a Plan of Action to Safeguard Religious Sites. 

**Racism

Also to be noted, Monday will be the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.  In a message that is being issued today, the Secretary-General says that racism is a deeply rooted global evil that transcends generations and contaminates societies.

He adds that we see racism in the pervasive discrimination suffered by people of African descent.  We see it in the injustices and oppression endured by indigenous peoples and other ethnic minorities.  And we see it in the repugnant views of white supremacists and other extremist groups. 

Wherever we see racism, he says, we must condemn it without reservation, without hesitation, and without qualification.   

He appeals to young people everywhere, as well as educators and leaders, to teach the world that all people are born equal. 

**UN Food Systems Summit 

I want to flag that today, in a press release, [it was announced] that the pre-summit gathering for the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit will take place in Rome, from 19 to 21 July. 

Under the leadership of the Secretary-General and the Prime Minister of Italy, Mario Draghi, the pre-summit event will bring together the efforts and contributions of a global engagement process to shape ambition to transform food systems. 

The event will take place in a “hybrid” virtual format over three days.  Many people will participate in person at the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) in Rome, while others from around the world will be engaged on a vast virtual platform. 

The UN Food Systems Summit will take place in September alongside the General Assembly, here in New York. 

**Myanmar

And on Myanmar, I want to flag that our team on the ground says they continue to be deeply disturbed by and concerned over the more than 2,000 people arbitrarily detained for their participation in peaceful protests or political activity.  The team is also condemning the use of force against children, with at least 15 having been killed; that’s according to the UN’s Children Fund (UNICEF). 

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) says that migrants in Myanmar are among the most impacted by the current crisis. 

IOM says that an estimated one in four people in Myanmar are migrants.  They are either internal migrants or international migrants.  Violent crackdowns have occurred in areas hosting large numbers of internal migrants. 

IOM calls for an immediate cessation of violence, as well as for the protection and recognition of the fundamental rights and aspirations of migrants, of the vulnerable, and of all the people of Myanmar. 

They will continue to work and to do their utmost to support the migrants in Myanmar, despite the difficult conditions. 

**Yemen

On Yemen, I just wanted to flag that we, along with our humanitarian partners, released the 2021 Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan.  The plan seeks $3.85 billion to provide urgent, lifesaving help to 16 million people.  Some 20.7 million Yemenis need some kind of humanitarian assistance, including 12.1 million people in acute need. 

As a reminder, just to give you some context, I think there are 28 or 29 million people living in Yemen.

Yemen continues to be the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and the largest aid operation.  Famine is stalking the nation, with more than half the population facing acute food insecurity and record levels of acute malnutrition among children under five. 

Last year’s Plan was only 56 per cent funded, and as you will recall, it forced us to close some critical programmes.  We are doing everything we can to help, but we need adequate funding as needs continue to rise. 

At the high-level pledging event that took place in early March, donors pledged only $1.7 billion for the response — that’s less than half what is required. 

As he said, the Secretary-General said, the pledges represent at best a down payment.  We urge donors to quickly disburse their pledges and scale up funding for the humanitarian response to save lives.

And if people have not yet pledged, it is never too late to do so.

**COVAX

A couple of good news, COVAX stories:  The State of Palestine today received its first batch of more than 60,000 doses of vaccines from the COVAX facility.  The Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Tor Wennesland, welcomed the arrival and encouraged all to get vaccinated.  He said that vaccines being sent to the West Bank and Gaza will be critical in the fight against the pandemic and for socioeconomic recovery. 

The UN team continues to support the Government of Palestine in accessing vaccines through COVAX and also appreciates the Israeli coordination in facilitating these deliveries. 

In Uzbekistan, our team there said that the first batch of 660,000 doses of the vaccine arrived [yesterday] via COVAX.  This is about a third of the more than 2.2 million doses that Uzbek authorities are scheduled to receive in the coming months through COVAX. 

UNICEF has been supporting the national deployment as well as a communications campaign to address people’s hesitation towards the vaccine.  For its part, WHO (World Health Organization) has helped train frontline health workers for the vaccination rollout. 

And finally, in Fiji, the first phase of vaccinations of frontline health workers started last week with the arrival of 12,000 doses of the vaccine earlier this month.  Fiji is the first country in the Pacific Islands to receive COVAX doses.  WHO and UNICEF have helped the country prepare for the vaccine’s arrival and its rollout, including supporting the much-needed cold chain for the distribution. 

**COVID-19 — South Asia

And staying on COVID:  In South Asia, a new report by the UN says that drastic cuts in essential public health services across the region due to the pandemic may have contributed to 228,000 additional child deaths last year.  Around 11,000 additional maternal deaths are also expected. 

Clinics and other facilities have been closed and many vital nutrition programmes halted as the region continues to battle to contain the virus. 

UNICEF stressed that it is absolutely vital that these services be fully restored for children and mothers who are in desperate need of them, and that everything possible is to be done to ensure that people feel free to use them. 

**Guests Tomorrow

Tomorrow, we have a guest.  There will be experts from the Food and Agricultural Organization.  We will be joined virtually by Maximo Torero, the FAO’s Chief Economist, and Dominique Burgeon, the FAO’s Director of the Geneva Office and Director, ad interim, of the Office of Emergencies and Resilience.  They will be here to brief you on their latest report on the impact of natural disasters and crises on agriculture and food security. 

I will stop talking, and I will start listening. 

**Questions and Answers

Célhia?

Question:  Stéphane, I would like to understand what is going on in Mali, because almost every week, you’re telling us that 10 people died or five, or now it’s 23.  So, my question is, what is the Mission doing?  And should the Security Council change the mandate?

Spokesman:  Look, I…  it is…  the violence that we’re seeing is also due, I think, to the lack of political movement.  And I think it is very important that those parties in Mali…  and, as you know, which is undergoing a transition.  We know what happened last year, and we’re working with the national partners and international partners to ensure a smooth transition, but it is very important that all political actors and some of the non-political armed actors reconvene and re…  recommit, rather, to the peace agreements and the accords that have been signed for the sake of the people of Mali.  And, as you see, the security situation is not going in the right direction.

Edie, and then we’ll go to Nabil.

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  A group of eminent former and current human rights experts put out a report today looking back at the Secretary‑General’s list over the past ten years of countries that violated the rights of children in armed conflict.  And they raised cases that they believe should have been on and either weren’t or were taken off, including Saudi Arabia, Myanmar’s military, Israel over its actions against Palestinian children and others.  I wonder what the…  can you tell us, please, what the Secretary‑General’s reaction is?

Spokesman:  Sure.  First of all, I have to say we appreciate the views expressed.  We have worked…  really since the start of the mandate, the office has worked diligently with many partners, including NGOs (non-governmental organizations), and everyone is working towards the same goal:  improving the protection of children and wiping out the scourge of children being forced as combatants and, of course, as victims of conflict. 

The Secretary‑General’s report is one critical tool that is meant to generate action.  I think, year after year, the report and the associated work of all our colleagues on the ground and in New York is to change behaviours in the most difficult circumstances.  Our goal is to end and prevent grave violations against children.  Each year, we report on progress and setbacks. 

There’s a lot of focus on the list per se, but I think it’s also critical to read the full narrative in the reports every year, which lays out in detail how children are impacted by the conflict and the work that is being done to better protect boys and girls, notably through Plans of Action.  And I think we have seen, over the years, improvements in some areas with Plans of Action being signed by different combatants.

There’s always going to be discussion among people of the conclusions of the report, the methodology, the observations, the recommendations.  We stand by them, and we’re always happy to engage with relevant partners in how to improve the system.

Okay.  Nabil, and then we’ll go to the screen.

Question:  Thank you.  So, I’m sure you’ve seen the latest report on Libya, the Panel of Experts, and it’s actually shocking how much details we can read in the report — Member States and names of people, companies, a long list of violators to the arms embargo in Libya.

So, can you share with us, what’s the SG’s reaction on these facts?  How does he think that the arms embargo can be implemented more effectively on Libya?

Spokesman:  You talk about the arms embargo and the issue of mercenaries and foreign fighters.  The sanctions imposed by the Security Council are very clear.  The Secretary‑General has called out repeatedly for them to be enforced. 

How are they better enforced?  Member States need to obey and follow what the sanc…  what the Security Council has decided.  It’s very clear.  It’s a matter of people…  of Member States and others living up to the conditions and the commitments put forward by the Security Council.

Question:  And another question on Lebanon.  It seems that the country is running out of cash and demonstrators are back in the streets.  Do you have a message to the political leaders in the country, especially that they have failed until now in reaching an agreement and forming a new Government?

Spokesman:  Listen, we continue to look at the situation in Lebanon with concern.  The message from the United Nations to the Lebanese leadership is pretty clear.  They need to form a Government without delay that responds to the very legitimate needs and calls that we’ve been hearing from the people in the streets and to undertake the structural reforms to address the worsening socioeconomic situation.

Okay.  Richard Roth?

Question:  Hello there, Mr. Spokesman.  Can you hear me?

Spokesman:  I can hear you, and I can see you.  I mean, I can barely…  I can see you in the shadows.  I’m not 100 per cent sure it’s you, but I do recognize your voice, Richard.

Question:  Your audio went down at the sight of me.

Mr. Bays is on the line.  I don’t know if he’s in Alaska, but let me ask a question or a follow‑up on what he’s been asking about.  Can you tell us anything new on the Afghanistan process?  Has the UN firmly…  formally been approached to “host” it, or is this a Turkish affair?  I’m asking for a friend who’s not part of the talks. 

Spokesman:  Okay.  We continue to be in discussions with key players, whether, in no particular order, the United States, the Russian Federation, the Qataris, the Turks.  Our aim is to best support the people in Afghanistan in reaching peace and in ensuring that the gains that have been obtained over the last years, especially on the rights of women, are not lost in any political discussion.  But I don’t have any firm dates or meetings to announce for you as of yet.

Okay.  Iftikhar?

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  My question was asked by Richard Roth just now, but I want to ask you, will you be releasing the text of the message of the Secretary‑General that you read out about Islamophobia, because I don’t see it on the line?

Spokesman:  Okay.  We will make sure…  I think it was released.  We will send it out again if it wasn’t, but it will be posted, as well as the video message on the elimination of racism.

Correspondent:  Okay.  Thank you.

Spokesman:  Okay?  Any other questions?  Wave your hands if you something. 

Yes, Ibtisam and James, yes.

Question:  Hi, Steph.  I have first a follow‑up on Edith’s question regarding the Secretary‑General report and the list.  As a matter of fact, the [inaudible] that Edie mentioned, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar, et cetera, all…  I mean this critique was already said before.  And we saw, as a matter of fact, that the situation actually became worse the last few years and, still, he is insisting not to put the countries on the list.  The list is important because it does put countries under pressure. 

So, you saying you should look also into the details.  Yes, it’s important, but it’s under…  his list undermines somehow what’s going…  what is being reported in the reports themselves.

Spokesman:  No, Ibtisam, I’ll respectfully disagree with you in your analysis.  I think the narrative goes into great detail.  The list is also very important, and it’s a tool.  And as I said, we are always open to a dialogue with NGOs, and we’ve been, in fact, involved in a dialogue with the NGO that briefed you earlier.  But we stand by the report and the methodology, which I think speak for themselves.  And we will report again in June of this year on what’s happened in the previous year.

Question:  Okay.  I have another question on the issue of United Kingdom and the increase of their nuclear weaponry arsenal.  Do you have a comment on it?

Spokesman:  Yes.  In addition to what I said yesterday, we welcome the UK’s reaffirmation in the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, [Development] and Foreign Policy of its commitment to a world without nuclear weapons to disarmament, arms control and the Treaty on the Non‑Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). 

But we do express our concern at the UK’s decision to increase its nuclear weapons arsenal, which is contrary to its obligations under Article VI of the NPT.  It could have a damaging impact on global stability and efforts to pursue a world free of nuclear weapons. 

At a time when nuclear weapon risks are higher than they have been since the Cold War, investments in disarmament and arms control is the best way to strengthen the stability and reduce nuclear danger.

Question:  I have a follow‑up.  Do you believe such a decision will have a negative impact on the negotiation regarding the Iran issue and the Iran deal and how this…  what this will do to that ability to hold such negotiations?

Spokesman:  Look, I think that’s a question best left to analysts and journalists to try to predict what will happen.  We’ve expressed our concern at the UK decision.  We also very much hope that all the parties to the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) will redouble their efforts to, in a sense, revive what was a very important diplomatic agreement.

Correspondent:  Thank you.

Spokesman:  Mr. Bays?

Question:  Hello there.  I have…  yes, I have two follow‑ups, and then I have a question.  Let’s do the follow‑ups one by one. 

On Afghanistan, there is…  you’ve mentioned the various diplomacy going on around the world.  The first piece of that is the Russia talks.  Who is participating on behalf of the United Nations?

Spokesman:  I need to get back to you on that, because I was trying to get confirmed, and I was not able to.  But we’ll send out a note as soon as we know.

Question:  Okay.  On Nabil’s question about Libya and the Panel of Experts Report, you said it was the obligation now of Member States.  So, can I just test that a bit further?  For example, the founder of Blackwater, Erik Prince, is named for his role in breaching sanctions.  Does the UN believe it’s the responsibility of the US Department of Justice now to investigate this, find out whether he breached sanctions and, if he did, to bring him to court?

Spokesman:  Look, the conclusions of the panel, which, as you know, is independent and reports straight to the Security Council, not to the Secretary‑General.  It’s…  the work of Panel of Experts is very important.  As a follow‑up, it’s the job of the relevant Libyan authorities, including judicial and other branches, as well as any other Member State concern, to decide on any follow‑up. 

I mean, the present…  the information presented by the panel is transparent.  It’s 500 pages, and we hope that every Member State goes through it, reads it, and takes the appropriate action. 

Question:  And one new question, if I can.  Sudan’s Prime Minister [Abdalla] Hamdok has written to the UN, to the AU (African Union), to the European Union, and United States now to formally request mediation in terms of the dispute that Sudan has with Ethiopia over the GERD (Grand Ethiopian Renaissance) dam.  Does the UN have any response to that?  Is the UN going to actively mediate now? 

Spokesman:  I can confirm that we did, indeed, receive the letter from Prime Minister Hamdok.  We are…  my response to you — and, of course, we will respond to him, as well — is that we reiterate our readiness to support all efforts towards reaching an agreement of the…  on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.  Mr. Guterres welcomes initiatives to move the negotiations forward and awaits agreement from all the parties as to how the UN can best support the process.

I just…  go ahead, Nabil, and then I have a statement on Niger I want to read out.

Question:  So, can you please clarify what you mean by the last statement on Sudan?  Because we know that there is a track with the African Union; there is a Quartet group, and there is a lot…

Spokesman:  To put it in plainer English, as always, all the parties involved in any dispute, any conflict, all need to agree together on mediation, support, negotiation.  So, we’re basically…  we’re waiting to…  we’re waiting for an agreement from all the parties on how we can best support the process.

Question:  So…  one more follow‑up.  So, you mean the parties should decide themselves, or is the SG doing something to…

Spokesman:  We’re continuing discussions, and the AU is, as well.  But I mean, basically, if you and I have a dispute and we want Edie to mediate, we both have to agree that she is willing to mediate, which I’m sure she would be, as a matter of principle.

Correspondent:  I hope so.

Spokesman:  Yes.  Though it will never come to that, Nabil. 

I want to read out a statement on the attack in Niger, which I alluded to earlier:  The Secretary‑General strongly condemns the attack on 15 March by unidentified gunmen in Banibangou in the Tillabéri region of Niger.  He expresses his deep condolences to the bereaved family and wishes a swift recovery to those injured. 

He urges the Nigerian authorities to spare no effort in bringing the perpetrators to justice. 

The Secretary‑General reiterates the commitment of the UN to continue supporting Niger in its efforts to counter and prevent terrorism and violent extremism, promote social cohesion and achieve sustainable development.

Okay.  Any other questions? Excellent.  We will move to Mr. [Brenden] Varma, ready or not.

For information media. Not an official record.