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26 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 Farhan Haq, Deputy Spokesman for the Secretary-General.

Hello.  Good afternoon, everyone, and happy Friday.

**Financing for Development

We have a reminder that on Monday, the Secretary-General’s Policy Brief on debt and liquidity will be published.  We will send you embargoed copies this afternoon.

Also on Monday, the Secretary-General, along with the Prime Minister of Jamaica, Andrew Holness, and the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, will convene the meeting on “Financing for Development in the Era of COVID-19 and Beyond”.

They will also hold a press briefing at 11 a.m.  The Secretary-General will be in the press briefing room and the two leaders will join virtually.

And to remind you that will replace the daily noon briefing on Monday.

**United States

Early Monday afternoon, the Secretary-General will meet virtually with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.  This is part of the Secretary of State’s “virtual visit” to the United Nations on Monday.

We intend to webcast their opening remarks, both on our own WebTV and on the State Department’s website.  The Secretary-General and the Secretary of State will talk for a few minutes.

**Senior Personnel Appointment

I have a senior personnel announcement to tell you about.  Today, the Secretary-General is appointing Annadif Khatir Mahamat Saleh of Chad as his new Special Representative for West Africa and the Sahel and the Head of the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel, known as UNOWAS.

Mr. Mahamat Saleh succeeds Mohamed Ibn Chambas of Ghana, to whom the Secretary-General is grateful for his dedicated service and effective leadership at the helm of UNOWAS.

Mr. Mahamat Saleh, who has served as Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Mali and Head of the UN Mission there — MINUSMA — brings to the position extensive national and international experience, having taken part in several peace processes in Africa, including in Niger, the Central African Republic and Sudan.

More on this on our website.

**Myanmar

In a statement, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy on Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, said she remains deeply disturbed by ongoing violence committed by the country’s security forces.

Tomorrow, Armed Forces Day, marks Myanmar’s liberation from foreign power.  The Special Envoy said that ensuring peace and defending the people should be the responsibility of any military, but in Myanmar, the Tatmadaw has turned against its own citizens.  Women, youth and children have been among those killed.

The Special Envoy calls for the release of all those detained, including President U Win Myint and State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

As Myanmar’s Thingyan New Year approaches in April, the Special Envoy appeals for basic rights and democratic norms to be upheld in the greater interest of the nation’s prosperity under civilian rule.

The Special Envoy will continue to amplify the Secretary-General’s call for a firm, unified international response, bilaterally and collectively towards the restoration of the democratically elected Government of Myanmar.  She also supports the Security Council’s calls for a peaceful solution through constructive dialogue and practical reconciliation in the interests of the people of Myanmar.

Also on Myanmar, the World Health Organization (WHO) in the country strongly condemns attacks on health-care providers and sites since the military takeover on the 1st of February.

WHO says that, between 1 February and 24 March, there have been 32 attacks on health-care facilities and staff, resulting in two deaths and six injuries.  Dozens of facilities and several ambulances have been affected in 12 states and regions.

WHO says the continuing use of force against health-care workers, including the reported occupation by security forces in hospitals, is taking a devastating toll on Myanmar’s health system.

As the WHO Director General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has said, the destruction of health facilities and attacks on health workers must stop.  Now more than ever, health workers, health supplies and health facilities must be supported, functioning and serving all people, he has stressed.

**Yemen

The Special Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, is on a visit to Oman.  During his visit, Mr. Griffiths will continue pursuing his mediation efforts with the goal of securing a nationwide ceasefire, opening Sana’a airport, allowing fuel and other commodities into Yemen through Hudaydah ports and resuming the political process.

Mr. Griffiths met today in Muscat with Ansar Allah’s chief negotiator, Mohammed Abdulsalam.  They discussed the urgent need to agree on opening Sana’a airport, easing restrictions on Hudaydah ports, entering a nationwide ceasefire and resuming the political dialogue under the UN framework.

**Syria

Turning to Syria, the fifth EU-UN Brussels conference on Syria will take place on 29 and 30 March.  Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it will be held in a virtual format.

The event is intended to renew and strengthen the international community’s political, financial and humanitarian commitments to support the Syrian people, the neighbouring countries and the communities most affected.

The Secretary-General will have a video message at the opening segment of the ministerial-level conference starting at 8 a.m., New York time, on 30 March.

The event will be livestreamed on the EU’s website and also on OCHA’s (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) Facebook page.

**Ethiopia

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) today said that it has gained access to the Shimelba and Hitsats refugee camps in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region for the first time since November 2020, amid ongoing security concerns.  During a joint mission to the area with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, UNHCR found both camps completely destroyed, and all the humanitarian facilities looted and vandalized.

UNHCR reiterated the joint UN call for all parties to urgently enable the free and safe movement of affected people in search of safety and assistance, including across international and within national borders, regardless of their ethnic identification.  We call for the right to seek asylum to be fully respected.

**Philippines

In the Philippines, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and partners are helping more than 51,000 people affected by the recent armed conflict in Maguindanao in the south of the country.

More than 10,000 families were displaced after fighting began on 18 March between the Government and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.

IOM has deployed teams to provide technical support in setting up camps.  It is also providing supplies, as well as training on how to address COVID-19.

**Deputy Secretary-General — Arab States

The Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohammed, took part today in the first meeting of a new platform bringing together UN entities in the Arab region in support of sustainable development.

Ms. Mohammed stressed the importance of regional collaboration to respond to challenges that know no borders, including the COVID-19 pandemic.  She said that we must turn such challenges into an opportunity to recover better together through increased solidarity.

In the Arab States, COVID-19 has exacerbated an already precarious economic situation in many parts of the countries, leading to increased poverty and inequality.

**COVAX

I have a COVAX update for you, today from South Sudan and Sri Lanka.

South Sudan received an initial batch of 132,000 doses from COVAX yesterday and will kick off its national vaccine campaign shortly.

The first doses will go to health-care workers and people over the age of 65.  The UN team is supporting authorities to roll out vaccines in all 80 counties and has trained health-care workers.

The Secretary-General’s Special Representative, David Shearer, said that the UN won’t rest until vaccines are brought to those most in need across the country.

In Sri Lanka, the UN team there, led by Resident Coordinator Hanaa Singer-Hamdy, has been working together with our partners to support the country’s efforts to prevent, respond and vaccinate people.

More than 260,000 doses arrived through COVAX earlier this month as part of an initial allocation of nearly 1.5 million doses scheduled to arrive in the coming months.  These first doses will go to frontline workers, people over the age of 60 and people with comorbidities.

The UN team has helped Sri Lanka address the pandemic and prepare for the vaccine rollout, including through ensuring that the cold chain is in place.

**COVID-19 — Seafarers and Aircrew

Today, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the International Labour Organization (ILO), the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the International Organization for Migration and the World Health Organization released a joint statement on the prioritization of COVID-19 vaccination for seafarers and aircrew.  The five organizations stressed that maritime and air transport are two essential activities that underpin global trade and mobility and are key to a sustainable socioeconomic recovery.

According to them, as of January 2021, it is estimated that some 400,000 seafarers are stranded on board commercial vessels, long past the expiry of their contracts and unable to be repatriated.  A similar number of seafarers urgently need to join ships to replace them.

The organizations reiterated their call upon countries that have not done so to designate seafarers and aircrew as key workers.

The full statement is available online.

**Earth Hour

Tomorrow, people around the world will mark Earth Hour, which encourages individuals, communities, and businesses to turn off non-essential electric lights, for one hour.

In his message to mark the event, the Secretary-General said that we must all do our part to safeguard the planet and that Earth Hour is a reminder that small actions can make a big difference.

The UN is taking part, as in previous years, by having lights at Headquarters go out at 8:30 p.m.  New York time.

**Financial Contribution

And one piece of welcome news as we head into the weekend — Romania has paid its regular budget dues in full, for which we are very grateful.  The number of fully paid-up Member States has reached 77.

And now I turn the floor over to you before we go to Brenden Varma, the Spokesperson for the President of the General Assembly.

**Questions and Answers

Maggie, you have a question.

Question:  Farhan?

Spokesman:  Yeah.

Question:  Hi.  Sorry.  I record you on webcast, so I’m on a bit of delay.  Question:  On the COVAX, in the GA meeting today, the rep of India said that they are delivering 200,000 doses of vaccine tomorrow in Denmark for UN peacekeeping.  And then the Chinese rep said that they are also… they’ve also pledged 300,000 doses to UN peacekeeping.  And I know these aren’t new pledges, but the math adds up to 500,000 doses when you have about 110,000 peacekeepers.

So, if everyone gets two doses, that’s 240,000.  So, what are you going to do with the other 250,000 or so doses of these vaccines that you’re being offered?  Will they go to COVAX, or will they go to UN staff or to people in the communities where the peacekeepers work?  Like, what’s… is there a plan for them?

Spokesman:  Well, first, we’ll need to see how many doses actually go.  Obviously, if it’s the case that we have extra, we’ll have to see what we do with that.  At this stage, we’re not quite at that, because as far as I’m aware, we’re only guaranteed to receive some portions of these doses that have been pledged.

It is the case that we expect tomorrow that India’s shipment, initially to Denmark for onwards transmission to the peacekeeping missions, will take place.  And we expect to have more details for you on Monday after those shipments have happened.

But, yes, if we have more than we need, we’re clearly going to distribute what we can in a fair way.  But right now, we have to be sure that we get sufficient amounts.  And of course, I would also like to reiterate our gratefulness to those countries and all those who have pledged to help our peacekeepers and our other staff.

James, you have a hand up?  James Bays.

Question:  [inaudible] I wanted to ask you about, first, was the… can you hear me, Farhan?

Spokesman:  Yeah.  Now I can.  Yeah.

Question:  Can you hear me?

Spokesman:  Yes.  Got it.

Question:  Two new stories of the day.  The first one is the Taliban are saying that, if there are still foreign troops in Afghanistan after the 1st  of May, they will attack them.  Does the UN or UNAMA (United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan) have a reaction?

Spokesman:  Well, we’re aware of this… remarks that have come out.  Obviously, we’re hoping that whatever differences there are can be worked out.

For our part, the UN supports efforts to achieve a peaceful resolution to the conflict in the country, and we stand ready to assist if we are so requested by the parties.

Question:  And the other day’s news question I wanted to ask you was, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is saying that Eritrean forces will now be leaving Tigray.  What is the UN’s reaction?

Spokesman:  Yes.  On that, what I can say is that the Secretary-General takes note of the outcome of the recent meeting between President Isaias [Afewerki] of Eritrea and Prime Minister Abiy of Ethiopia in Asmara.  He welcomes the decision on the withdrawal of Eritrean forces from the Tigray region of Ethiopia.  He expresses the hope that the announcement would be followed by tangible and speedy implementation on the ground to further facilitate the necessary assistance to civilians.

You will recall that, as announced yesterday, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights have agreed to conduct a joint investigation into the human rights violations and abuses allegedly committed by all parties in the context of the Tigray conflict.  The Secretary-General welcomes this step as part of the much-needed accountability process for the victims.

And with that, we’ll turn…

Question:  A quick follow-up if I can, Farhan, on that statement you’ve just read.  Is the Secretary-General confident that he can believe the word of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed?  Because I remember the Secretary-General, in this room, saying that he had been told by the Ethiopian Prime Minister there were no Eritrean troops in Tigray.  He… the Secretary-General told us that he had confronted him — and that was his word — with that fact and had been told there were no troops there.  So, clearly, the Ethiopian Prime Minister has lied to the Secretary-General in the past.

Spokesman:  Well, as you know, he’s had more conversations since then with Prime Minister Abiy, and I can confirm that this question about the withdrawal of Eritrean troops is something that has come up in their discussions.

Edie.  Edie Lederer?

Question:  Yeah.  Thank you very much, Farhan.  Two follow-up questions also.  On Myanmar, you read a statement from Christine Schraner Burgener.  What is the status of her travel plans?  I know that she was planning to visit the region even though the military in Myanmar has said that this is not the time for her to visit there.

Question:  At this stage, we don’t have any particular travel to announce.  The discussions she’s having are still continuing, and of course, we remain committed to the idea that we want her to have a successful visit in Myanmar as soon as possible.

Question:  And on Yemen, you said that in the meeting with… between Martin Griffiths and the Houthi leader that they generally agreed on a lot of issues.  At least I believe that’s what you said.  So, what’s the next step?  What’s the holdup now?

Spokesman:  Well, the next step is that the Special Envoy is engaging with all key stakeholders in the region to advance his own proposal for a nationwide ceasefire, for the re-opening of Sana’a airport, allowing additional food and commodities to enter Hudaydah Port and resuming a political process to end the conflict after six years.

So, he will have to engage with a number of stakeholders on this, but any good signs and any positive discussions help move us forward on this path, and we’re hoping that can continue.

Célhia de Lavaréne?

Question:  [inaudible] COVID-19 on the rise in South Sudan, in the Mission, UNMISS.  Do you have numbers?  Because some ministers from the Government have accused the UN to spread the virus.  Do you have the number for the Mission?

Spokesman:  Yes.  Wait just a few seconds, and I can probably get you the precise numbers for the Mission.  As you know, there are certain areas where different peacekeeping missions, different contingents have had spread.  We are… whenever those arise with any of the peacekeeping missions — and this happened a few times over the past year — we’ve tried to make sure that they are quarantined, that those contingents are kept apart from other places.  So, we are doing what we can to prevent nationwide spreads from infections among peacekeepers.

And that is what we have been doing in South Sudan, as well.  We took immediate action to keep the involved contingents separate from others and from the society around them.

Anyway, I will try to get you the numbers of the South Sudan while we take a few more questions.

Correspondent:  Thank you.

Spokesman:  Okay.  Thanks.  And in the chat, I see Gloria has a question.  So over to you, Gloria.

Question:  Yes.  It’s about the proposal to close two of Kenya’s refugee camps.  And as I understand it, they’re only given two weeks to vacate, in the areas of Dadaab and Kakuma, wherever they are.  But Kenya has been such a strong point for the UN.  This is surprising.  They’re one of our best countries working with the UN as a base.

Spokesman:  Yeah.  And we’ve known about this… the usefulness of the Dadaab camp for quite some time.  I fully agree with you that we’ve needed this, and the UN Refugee Agency has said that they are concerned about the impact this decision would have on the protection of refugees in Kenya, including in the context of the pandemic.  The agency will continue its dialogue with the Kenyan authorities on this issue.

And UNHCR urges the Government of Kenya to ensure that any decisions allow for suitable and sustainable solutions to be found and that those who continue to need protection are able to receive it.

So, we’ll continue with those discussions and see where we go from there.

Alan Bulkaty has a question.

Question:  Thank you very much, Farhan.  Do you hear me okay?

Spokesman:  Yeah, I do.

Question:  Can you talk a little bit more about the talks about the negotiations between the SG and the Secretary Blinken?  What are they going to discuss?  And is the SG going to discuss the current state of relations between the P5, between the Russia and United States, in particular?  Thank you.

Spokesman:  I hate to put this off for a bit, but as you’re fairly well aware, we don’t talk about these meetings until they’ve happened.  We do hope to have both the Secretary-General and Mr. Blinken speak on camera, and you’ll be able to hear what they have to say, and we’ll try to get any further details of their discussions on Monday itself.  [cross talk]

Question:  Will there be a stakeout afterwards?

Spokesman:  It’s not a physical meeting.  They… Mr. Blinken will be in Washington.  The Secretary-General will be in New York, but it will be done virtually, and so, you’ll see them on camera.

Now, regarding Célhia’s question about the numbers, we have numbers of 409 affected people in the UN Mission in South Sudan.

Abdelhamid, you have a question.

Question:  Thank you, Farhan.  Last Sunday, the Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki was returning from a meeting in The Hague with the ICC (International Criminal Court) officials.  Excuse me.  Israel… as he crossed the Jordan River, they confiscated his permit, or what is called VIP card, which is part of an agreement, according to Oslo Accords.

So, first, are you aware of this incident?  Do you have any statement?

And a follow-up to the same question, if Israel acts as the occupying Power when it comes to the movement of Palestinian officials, why they don’t act as occupying Power when it comes to the vaccines and distribution of the vaccines to the Palestinian people?  Thank you.

Spokesman:  Okay.  Taking the second part of your question first, we have appreciated the cooperation we have had with authorities in Israel regarding helping us to distribute vaccines, and we are going to continue doing that.  As you know, we’ve already started with our delivery of COVAX vaccines to the Palestinians.

Regarding the first part of your question, obviously, we hope that the rights of all Palestinians, including of the authorities of the Palestinian Authority, will be respected by Israel.

And with that, I’m going to turn the floor over to Brenden Varma, and I wish you all a very happy weekend.  Take care, everyone.

Okay.  Wait…  [cross talk]

Question:  There had been some talk of a possible press encounter after the Secretary-General’s meeting with Secretary of State Blinken with both of them participating.  Is that a possibility, or is that not a possibility?

Spokesman:  Given the logistics, no, that’s not going to happen.  You will get to… they will talk… they will have opening remarks for the press prior to their meeting, and so, you will get to hear that, and it will be webcast, but there won’t be a press encounter.

You will have a press encounter with the Secretary-General on Monday but that will be the one he has with the Canadian and Jamaican Prime Ministers.

All righty.  Brenden, are you there?

For information media. Not an official record.