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19 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.

Sorry and apologies for this usual delay.  I have a couple of statements I want to start with, and then we will inform you on other things.

**Myanmar

I first will start with a statement on Myanmar:  The Secretary-General strongly condemns the continuing brutal violence by the military in Myanmar.  The killing of peaceful demonstrators and arbitrary arrests, including journalists, is utterly unacceptable.

The military continues to defy calls, including by the Security Council, to end violations of fundamental human rights and return to the path of democracy.  A firm, unified international response is urgently needed.

The Secretary-General will continue to stand with the people and their aspirations to achieve a peaceful, stable and prosperous Myanmar.

That statement is being shared with you as we speak.

Also on Myanmar, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) and Save the Children said today in a joint statement that the occupation of schools across the country by security forces is a serious violation of children’s rights.

As the acting Resident Coordinator, Andrew Kirkwood, just told you a short while ago, the agencies said this will worsen the learning crisis for almost 12 million children and youth, who already experienced widespread school closures due to the pandemic.

Save the Children, UNESCO, as well as UNICEF, call on security forces to vacate occupied premises immediately and ensure that schools and educational facilities are not used by military or security personnel.

**Republic of the Congo

I also have a statement on the Republic of the Congo:  Ahead of Sunday’s presidential election in the country the Secretary-General calls on all stakeholders in the Republic of the Congo to work towards a peaceful electoral process.

He stresses the need to respect civil and political rights, notably the right to vote.

He encourages the media and social media users to promote social cohesion and he calls on all stakeholders to refrain from hate speech or incitement to violence and, of course, to resolve any disputes through dialogue and legal channels.

The Secretary-General stresses that peaceful, inclusive and credible elections are essential for sustainable peace in the Republic of the Congo.

**Racial Discrimination

And this morning, the Secretary-General spoke at the General Assembly commemorative meeting for the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which is marked this Sunday.

The Secretary-General said that much of today’s racism is deeply entrenched in centuries of colonialism and enslavement.  He said that we see it in the pervasive discrimination and exclusion suffered by people of African descent and in the injustices and oppression endured by indigenous peoples and other ethnic minorities.

We see it in the repugnant views of white supremacists and other extremist groups, as well as in anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim hatred, the mistreatment of some minority Christian communities and other forms of intolerance and xenophobia.  He added that we also see racism in the recent abhorrent violence against people of Asian descent, unjustly blamed for COVID-19.

The Secretary-General stressed that wherever we see racism, we must condemn it without reservation, without hesitation, without qualification, and he added that combating it demands action every day, at every level.

**Sexual Abuse and Exploitation

Just to let you know that the Secretary-General’s report on “Special measures for protection from sexual exploitation and abuse” is out as a document — and we shared it with you — and is also up on the website.  As you know, this is the annual update, looking back at 2020, on our efforts to prevent and respond to this scourge in line with the Secretary-General’s strategy.

Just to give you a quick update:  The report this year reflects the changed reality in every country that was brought on by the pandemic, and how our teams adapted their methods to continue their work without disruption.  Despite the pandemic, we continued to improve and expand our efforts to reach out to victims and provide them with assistance.  And our guests today at the briefing — Jane Connors, who is the UN’s Victims’ Rights Advocate, and Christine Besong, who is a Victims’ Rights Advocate in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, will be our guests shortly.

Last year, the number of UN entities that submitted action plans to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse more than quadrupled from 50 in [2019] to 207, that is the number of UN entities participating.  That shows an increased commitment within the UN system to address this issue.  We also increased our work across the system and with implementing partners to ensure they have reporting mechanisms and address allegations that are in line with UN standards.

These are just a few examples of the long-term effort which, as you know, we continue to work on.  Lots more on that report

**Syria

A quick note from Syria, where I can tell you that the UN on the ground is saddened by reports of the killing of a humanitarian worker in Idleb Governorate yesterday.  The humanitarian worker was caught up in the crossfire between two armed individuals.  A family member was also injured.

That brings up to 15 the number of humanitarian workers killed in north-west Syria in the last 14 months.  I would say the number of documented killings of humanitarian workers.

The enormous aid operation across Syria would be impossible without the extraordinary commitment and endurance of front-line humanitarian workers, many of them Syrians who are directly affected by the crisis.

Humanitarians must be able to carry out their critical, life-saving work.  The safety and welfare of all humanitarians must be respected at all times.

**Senegal

And Jean-Pierre Lacroix, the head of the Peace Operations Department, will be travelling to Senegal, where he will arrive on Sunday.  He will be there until 23 March.

He is expected to meet with President Macky Sall, as well as other high-ranking Government officials, including the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Defence Minister.

He will discuss developments in peacekeeping and thank Senegal for its continued contributions to our peacekeeping efforts around the world.

**Central African Republic

And speaking of peacekeeping efforts around the world, in the Central African Republic, the UN Mission there (MINUSCA) continues its multifaceted support following last Sunday’s legislative elections.  As of yesterday, the Mission has supported the transportation of documentation related to the provisional results from the 16 prefectures to the National Electoral Authority’s data processing centre in Bangui.

We also have an update on the support provided by the peacekeeping mission to the National Disarmament, Demobilization, Reintegration and Repatriation Programme.  Since December 2018, 2,860 combatants from 14 armed groups have been demobilized and disarmed.  In addition to this, over 2,000 weapons, with close to 120,000 rounds of ammunition and explosives have also been collected.  That is quite a lot.  The programme is ongoing, as well as the Community Violence Reduction (CVR) programme, which targets to reach 3,600 people this year.

Meanwhile, in Kabo, in the Ouham Prefecture, the Mission dispatched patrols to provide security and ensure the protection of civilians.  This happened after a humanitarian worker in the town was shot and injured by CPC combatants.

**Peacekeeping — Women

Also on peacekeeping, our colleagues in that Department have launched their annual report on women, peace and security.  It is entitled “Leaders and Changemakers — Women Transforming Peace and Security amidst the Pandemic”.

The report discusses the progress made and the challenges remaining towards women’s full, equal and meaningful participation in peace and political processes.  This is a key priority of the Action for Peacekeeping initiative.

Despite the challenges posed by COVID-19 — from the Central African Republic to Lebanon and beyond — women leaders in peacekeeping have played critical roles in conflict prevention and resolution.  They have helped build trust across communities and promote peaceful solutions to political crises.

**COVAX — Latin America

A couple of COVAX updates, this time from Latin America:  Our UN team in Paraguay is proud to have supported the arrival this afternoon of a batch of 36,000 doses of vaccine from COVAX.  Some 4 million doses are expected to arrive this year in Paraguay.

The UN team has supported the country’s response and recovery plan, focusing on the most vulnerable groups and on protecting women and children against violence.  We are also working to protect indigenous peoples by supporting the health response.

And Guatemala last week received more than 81,000 doses through COVAX.  This was the first shipment of more than 6 million doses expected to arrive through COVAX to vaccinate 20 per cent of the population — that’s about 3 million human beings.

The UN team is helping women, including women who are the heads of their households, increase their access to social programmes.  We are working to ensure that people in Guatemala with disabilities are part of the national protection scheme.

**Water

And the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) today said that globally, over 3 billion people are at risk of disease because the water quality in their rivers, lakes and groundwater is unknown, due to a lack of data.

UNEP researchers surveyed more than 75,000 bodies of water in 89 countries and found that more than 40 per cent were severely polluted, suggesting that the world is falling behind on a global push to provide safe drinking water to all of humanity.

The data was released ahead of the World Water Day.

**Forests

And Sunday is the International Day of Forests.  This year’s theme is “Forest restoration:  a path to recovery and well-being”.

In his message, the Secretary-General says that humanity’s well-being is linked to the health of our planet and that of forests.

**International Days

And if you like international days, there are a few more coming up.  This weekend we have the International Day of Happiness and French Language Day — frankly, I think that the two should be combined — and, we should add to it the World Poetry Day.  And over the weekend we also have International Day of Nowruz, we wish a happy Nowruz to all those who celebrate it, and it is also the World Down Syndrome Day.  Okay.  It’s a lot of days.

 **Questions and Answers

Célhia, let’s take some questions.  Then we’ll go to our guests.  Yes, Madame.

Question:  Stéphane, will Jean-Pierre Lacroix meet with Ousmane Sonko, the opposition leader, while he will be in Senegal?

Spokesman:  I’m not aware that he will.  He’s there to focus on meeting with the authorities in dealing with… his remit is really dealing with the peacekeeping issue, but I will check if we know anything more about his schedule.

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

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  There’s a report that the last two international staffers from the World Food Programme (WFP) have left North Korea, the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea).  Can you confirm that they actually are gone?  [mic noise]

Spokesman:  Sure.  What I can tell you is that our office… sorry.  Somebody has their microphone open.

What I can tell you is that our office in the DPRK remains open and is functioning.  It continues to work remotely for the benefit of the people of the DPRK with our national UN personnel.

After more than a year in-country, UN international staff have travelled home to see their families, and they’re expected to return to Pyongyang as soon as COVID-19 border-related closures are lifted for UN staff.

The strict COVID-prevention measures have impacted humanitarian operations in the DPRK, causing reduced operational capacity, stock out of essential humanitarian supplies, and delay of delivery of humanitarian programmes.

We are working with the Government also to support a COVAX vaccination campaign and hope it will provide an opportunity for staff to return and scale up their return.

So, I mean, to put it in more plain language, they’ve been there for quite some time.  They needed to go home.  And obviously, the border closures don’t… won’t allow them to come back immediately, but as soon as they’re able to, they shall come back.

Ray?

Question:  Merci, Stéphane.  There has been another Houthi attack by a drone that hits Aramco refinery in the capital, Saudi capital, Riyadh.  Any comment on that?  Thank you.

Spokesman:  Look, I haven’t directly seen that report, but if it is, in fact, confirmed, I think we have spoken out firmly against these drone attacks that target civilian infrastructure, that target civilians, and they are not acceptable.

Okay.  Let’s go to the screen.  Majeed, I think you had a question?

Question:  Yes, Stéphane.  Thank you so much.  My question is a bit long, give me some chance.  It’s about a report that came out on Syria about Afrin on the border with Turkey.  You know Afrin?  The report says, since the beginning of the Turkish operations three years ago, when they took over the town of Afrin, it says, the number of Kurds in those… in the town was reduced from 95 per cent to less than 20 per cent.  And there are reports of… they’ve been forced out of their homes, it’s basically a report of ethnic cleansing.

My question is, I don’t… we never hear about any of the violations on the killings or these tactics to force people out of Afrin from Mark… Mr. Mark Lowcock’s reports, from Geir Pedersen, other high-level UN officials.  Why this silence when it come to the violations committed by jihadi Islamic groups that are backed by Turkey, but on the other hand, they’re very focused on a violation that’s committed by the regime and Russian-backed [inaudible]?  Why the discrepancy…?  [cross talk]

Spokesman:  I will look… I had not seen that report.  I will look at it.  I believe we’ve… there has been some reporting from different parts of the UN, notably on our human rights colleagues, but let me… send me the report, and we will have a look at it.

Question:  And just follow-up on that.  In term of change of demography and then… like, there are attempts all over Syria of… to change the demography for political purposes…

Spokesman:  I mean, we have… Majeed, we have stood out very clearly against any forced change in the demography of any town, whether it be in Syria, whether we’ve seen that also in Iraq and anywhere.  People have a right to live where they want to live.  That’s a basic principle.

Correspondent:  Thank you.

Spokesman:  Okay?  Any other questions?  Let me see if there’s any questions in the chat.

I think we have someone from Sky News who did want to ask a question.  Go ahead.

Question:  Sky News has documented numerous human rights abuses in the Tigray.  How concerned is the deteriorating situation there?  And what more can be done diplomatically to end the violence?

Spokesman:  We’re extremely concerned about the situation in Tigray, whether it’s on the humanitarian or whether it’s on the human rights.  And that is why we have consistently called for greater access for both.

On the humanitarian front, we’re seeing a positive movement in terms of how the Government is dealing with allowing more humanitarians to come in.

On the human rights issue, we have called for full investigations of all the reports of violations that we have heard about, and I can tell you that our colleagues at the UN Office for Human Rights have received a request from the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission for a joint investigation into allegations of serious human rights violations by all sides in Tigray.

The Human Rights Office has responded positively, and we’re in process of putting in place plans for a joint investigation.  I think it’s very important for the sake of justice that these investigations move forward.

Okay.  Before we go to our guests, any questions here or on the chat?

Correspondent:  Yes.  Yes.

Spokesman:  Speak now or… Ah.  Go ahead.  Yes.  Go ahead, Evelyn.

Question:  Right.  Okay.  On… in Myanmar, I have a couple questions, first of all, is there a senior coordinator for the human rights workers, or are they still working on a low level?  Has the UN managed to send someone in there?

And secondly, do they at all relate news of atrocities in case there’s accountability?

Spokesman:  Yeah, I mean, we have… there’s a human rights component in the UN office.  And I think, as you’ve seen, our colleagues at the Human Rights Office have been consistently reporting on the number of deaths, the number of detentions, and the human rights situation is something that we’ve been reporting on very forthrightly and very transparently.  [cross talk]

Question:  Sorry.  It’s my error.  It’s humanitarian workers.  There are quite a few there, but is there a senior person now coordinating?  [cross talk]

Spokesman:  There is, the acting humanitarian coordinator.  He just briefed you at 11, Andrew Kirkwood.  [cross talk]

Correspondent:  I see.  Right.

Spokesman:  But I… the briefing will be up on the WebTV very soon.

Correspondent:  Right.

Spokesman:  Iftikhar, I see you, and I’m waiting to hear you.  So, go ahead.

Correspondent:  I have another question.

Spokesman:  Sorry.  Go ahead, Evelyn.  Then we’ll go to Iftikhar.

Question:  On Myanmar, has the Secretary-General been in touch regularly with ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations)?  Because they seem to be totally irrelevant in this controversy.

And second, my last question is, has the Secretary-General or anyone else been in touch with the commercial interests in Myanmar like Total to ask them to put pressure on the Government?

Spokesman:  I’m not aware of any contacts between the Secretary-General and any commercial interests.  I think that… I don’t know if it’s being done at the country level.

ASEAN is far from irrelevant.  I think ASEAN is a critical partner for us, for the international community, and the Secretary-General has been in touch with ASEAN leadership, as has the Special Envoy, who’s put a very special focus on her contacts with ASEAN.

All right.  Iftikhar?

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  Any update on the new personal representative of the Secretary-General on Afghanistan?  When is he going to become operational?

Spokesman:  No, I mean, what I can tell you is that we’re continuing our consultations with various parties on the… what the participation of the UN would look like in the next steps.

Okay.  I think we are ready to go to our guests unless there’s another question.

Excellent.  Jane, if I could ask you to come up and take the stand, as they say.

For information media. Not an official record.