The following is a near-verbatim transcript of today’s noon briefing by Stéphane Dujarric, Spokesman for the Secretary-General.
Good afternoon and happy almost Friday, I guess. As a reminder, tomorrow is an official UN holiday so the building will be closed and we will not be briefing and I’ll be back in person to brief you on Monday.
**Senior Personnel Appointment
I want to start with a personnel announcement, which is a bit of an open secret, but we do want to make it officially. Today, the Secretary-General is appointing Joanna Wronecka of Poland as his new Special Coordinator for Lebanon.
Ms. Wronecka succeeds Ján Kubiš of the Slovak Republic. to whom the Secretary-General is grateful for his commitment and leadership.
Ms. Wronecka brings over 25 years of experience to diplomacy, international security and Middle East affairs. As you know, she has served since 2017 as the Permanent Representative to the UN — including during Poland’s two-year stint on the Security Council in 2018 and 2019, and before that as the Under Secretary of State for Arab and African countries, development cooperation and Polish-UN relations at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Warsaw. So we welcome her.
Moving on to Syria, I have an update for you on the cross-border operation, which the Secretary-General spoke about earlier this week and underscored the importance of.
In March, 920 trucks carrying humanitarian assistance crossed from Turkey into north-west Syria through Bab Al-Hawa. This is the only crossing open to the UN at this point. Over 1,000 trucks of UN assistance cross through Bab al-Hawa every month, as authorized by the Security Council.
We along with our humanitarian partners delivered assistance to 2.4 million people, on average, every month in 2020, including food for 1.7 million people through the cross-border operations.
We provide most of the emergency food assistance, of which 70 to 80 per cent is delivered through the World Food Programme.
Aid deliveries also complement and support programmes of international and Syrian non-governmental organizations providing indispensable assistance and services to millions of people, such as health services. There are no Government services in some of these areas.
Despite the large cross-border operation under way, needs continue to outstrip the response. We estimate that people are worse off today than they were nine months ago when the cross-border access was last reviewed.
The number of people in need has increased by over 20 per cent this year to 3.4 million people. Some 1.6 million people live in camps and informal settlements, with COVID-19 continuing to spread and the price of a basic food basket rising by 200 per cent in Idleb over the last year.
The Secretary-General has said that all channels should be made, and kept, available to deliver life-saving aid to people in need across Syria. A sustained, large-scale cross-border response remains necessary to address the enormous humanitarian needs of people in north-west Syria.
The renewal of the cross-border authorization in Security Council resolution 2533 of 2020 for an additional 12 months is essential.
Staying in the region, the Special Coordinator for the peace process, Tor Wennesland, today welcomed progress made towards the Palestinian elections.
He said he is encouraged by the completion of the candidate submissions to the Central Elections Commission. He called this an important step in the nomination process for the forthcoming Palestinian Legislative [Council] elections.
He called for all to respect the electoral process and to resolve any disputes in a peaceful manner through official legal mechanisms. He stressed that all people must work towards protecting the people’s right to vote and to decide on their own political future, particularly young people.
The Special Coordinator added that the holding of credible and inclusive elections across the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including in East Jerusalem, is a crucial step towards renewing the legitimacy of national institutions, re-establishing Palestinian unity and charting a way back to meaningful negotiations to realize a two-State solution.
We will continue to support this election process.
Moving on to Yemen, our colleagues there tell us that the humanitarian situation continues to worsen. With fuel and food prices at double or even triple the pre-conflict averages and the depreciation of the Yemeni rial, the threat of hunger for millions is a reality.
Our humanitarian colleagues are warning that by June this year, half the Yemeni population, that is 16.2 million human beings, will be facing crisis levels of food insecurity. Some 50,000 Yemenis are already facing famine-like conditions.
Against this backdrop, the spread of COVID-19 is rapidly on the rise, with some of the highest number of cases reported since the pandemic began. We, along with other humanitarian partners, are providing food assistance to 9 million Yemenis a month — along with water, sanitation and hygiene, health, nutrition and other aid. However, the operation needs immediate support to address the funding gap.
To date, the 2021 Humanitarian Response Plan has only received 12 per cent of the $3.85 billion needed to fund the aid operation. We call on all donors to immediately disburse their pledges and scale up their fundings and those who have not pledged, to do so.
Turning to Myanmar, the UN Human Rights Office for South-East Asia today called on States in the region to protect all people fleeing violence and persecution in Myanmar.
The Office also called on countries to ensure that refugees and undocumented migrants are not forcibly returned, given the rapidly deteriorating human rights situation inside the country.
It said that more than 500 peaceful protestors have been killed by security forces and 2,600 others have been detained since 1 February. New fighting has also flared between the military and some ethnic armed organizations, including in Kayin State, where recent airstrikes have forced thousands of civilians to flee.
For its part, UNHCR also urgently calls on countries across the region to offer refuge and protection to all those fleeing for safety. It is vital that anyone crossing the border, asylum seekers in another country, can access it.
The agency stresses that it is a proven fact that humane border practices can be upheld amid public health and other border control measures, to ensure that people in need of protection can access territory and asylum.
And a follow up to the situation in Niger and the survivors of last week’s deadly attack in the Tahoua region. Our colleagues at UNHCR are telling us that most of the victims were internally displaced people who had already fled violence. Six refugees from Mali were also among the 137 people killed, according to the latest reports. Shelters and granaries were burned to the ground during the attack. Cattle were stolen or killed.
An estimated 1,400 people from the area are now on the move, trying to escape the threat of violence.
UNHCR and its partners are continuing to gather information from survivors. They are also providing humanitarian aid and counselling for them.
A couple of COVAX updates today from Egypt and then Suriname.
In Egypt, nearly 900,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses arrived last night. Egypt’s national vaccine system is prioritizing health workers, the elderly, people with chronic diseases. The UN team, led by Resident Coordinator Elena Panova, is working closely with the Government to ensure that no one is left behind in the vaccination plan. Our team will continue helping authorities implement public health and social measures, such as access to water and sanitation as well as mask wearing.
And in Suriname, the country received 24,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines earlier this week, with more set to arrive through this year to vaccinate 20 per cent of the country’s population. The first batch will go to priority groups.
Meanwhile, in Papua New Guinea, the UN team continues to support the roll-out of the national vaccine programme. We helped with planning, training, coordination and logistics ahead of the inoculation of health workers, which started two days ago. Papua New Guinea will be receiving a first shipment of nearly 290,000 doses this month from COVAX. The UN team is also working to address misinformation on COVID-19 and the vaccine.
Turning to Venezuela, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) says that more and more women and girls are facing the deadly consequences of the continuing crisis in the country. UNFPA warns that the health system is collapsing and international funding for sexual and reproductive health services is urgently needed.
The challenges facing women and adolescent girls in Venezuela include rising rates of adolescent pregnancy, rising rates of maternal mortality, lack of access to free contraceptives and rising gender-based violence, including rape and sexual slavery, among others.
UNFPA is asking for $26.7 million to save the lives and protect the rights of 1 million women, adolescents, and girls in the most vulnerable communities in Venezuela. The funds will be used for life-saving sexual and reproductive services and a multi-sectoral response to gender-based violence, including psychosocial support and post-rape treatment for survivors.
**World Autism Awareness Day
Tomorrow is World Autism Awareness Day. In his message for the Day, the Secretary-General stressed that as we work together to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, one key goal must be to build a more inclusive and accessible world that recognizes the contributions of all people, including persons with disabilities. The Secretary-General points out that recovery is also a chance to rethink our systems of education and training to ensure that persons with autism are afforded opportunities for realizing their potential.
He emphasized that breaking old habits will be crucial. For persons with autism, he adds, access to decent work on an equal basis requires creating an enabling environment, along with reasonable accommodations. That message is out as a press release.
**Press Encounter Today
At 4 p.m. today, the President of the Security Council for the month of April, Ambassador Dang Dinh Quy of Viet Nam, will brief you on the Council’s programme of work for the month.
I am happy to end the week with some positive news. Thank you to our friends in Managua as Nicaragua has paid its regular budget dues in full taking us up 83 fully paid-up Member States.
And, so, I will now attempt to answer your questions. And let’s see who is in the room.
**Questions and Answers
Let’s go to Edie and then James.
Question: Thank you, Steph. Question on Hong Kong: Does the Secretary‑General have any comment on the conviction today of seven of Hong Kong’s leading pro‑democracy activists on charges of unlawful assembly stemming from demonstrations two years ago?
Spokesman: I mean, I think the Secretary‑General has repeatedly said that there should be no prisoners of conscience in the twenty-first century, and he’s always underscored the importance of the right to peaceful assembly.
Question: And he didn’t think something like that, as important as that, was worth a formal statement?
Spokesman: I was asked a question, and I’ve answered it.
Question: Okay. I have some questions on some other subjects, if that’s okay. Palestinian elections, you just read out to us, given that Marwan Barghouti, the Palestinian prisoner, is now producing his own list to rival that of the Fatah list, there clearly is a bit of an upset. Does the Secretary‑General commit and urge the rest of the international community and the rest of the Quartet to respect the results of this election, whatever the outcome?
Spokesman: Yeah, I mean, there… Elections are to be organized. They should be, they should reflect the will of the people. And, obviously, it is about respecting the outcome, as in any other election that is organized fairly and openly.
Question: On Myanmar, we saw the comments of Christine Schraner Burgener, the UN Special Envoy, calling for significant action by the Security Council. The Security Council met yesterday afternoon, and the Security Council didn’t decide to do anything. Is the Secretary‑General frustrated? And does he hope that an ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nations) country presiding over the Security Council could bring some progress in the next month?
Spokesman: Look, I think we can… Let’s see what actually the Security Council winds up agreeing to. I think we can always benefit from a stronger and more direct and more unified response from the Security Council on this issue.
I think we have, we very much look forward to the presidency of Viet Nam, which, as you mentioned, I think, is… it, being a regional country, I think, has an important role to play.
Question: Last one for me today, which is on the Secretary‑General’s selection. We’ve just heard from Brenden that there are now six applicants in addition to Mr. Guterres, who is a candidate. We know the Secretary‑General has said repeatedly, in everything he does, he’s in favour of transparency, yet these other six candidates are left in limbo. You like sporting metaphors. They seem to be taking part in the game, but no one seems to have decided the rules. So, is the Secretary‑General, out of fairness, frustrated by this?
Spokesman: Look, the Secretary‑General is a candidate in this selection process. He does not make the rules. He, I mean, he’s on the pitch, if we can continue in that direction. He is not the referee.
He is open to any system that Member States choose, and he will participate openly, and he is ready to answer questions from Member States.
Question: [inaudible] hurry up and make the rules, do you think?
Question: They should hurry up and make the rules, given the process is already under way? Does he think that?
Spokesman: Well, I mean, my understanding, there are rules in place. If Member States wish to adjust them or change them, that’s up to them.
Question: Thank you, Stéphane. I have… when Madame Joanna Wronecka will take… will be going to Lebanon?
Spokesman: I think as soon as possible.
Question: And another question. It’s about the call… Patriarch Rai call on neutrality. This is becoming a big call. Do you listen, does the Secretary‑General listen to his call about neutrality in Lebanon?
Spokesman: Sorry. What was the… I didn’t…
Question: The neutrality, the neutrality of Lebanon, la neutralité de Liban.
Spokesman: I mean… I didn’t see the exact call, but the Secretary‑General has always called for the international community to support the integrity of Lebanon, to support Lebanon in whatever way we can, free of any undue influence.
Question: But this is a call for neutrality, a call to the United Nations to help Lebanon in…
Spokesman: I need to look at… I need to look at what the Patriarch said. Thank you.
Correspondent: Thank you.
Spokesman: Okay, Elena Lentza
Question: Oh, hi. This is about Mozambique. I wanted to ask if you have any updates on Mozambique, and the main question is also that the Secretary-General has said that Mozambique needs $254 million to overcome a triple crisis, and, for now, only 1 per cent is funded. Then, the WFP (World Food Programme) has its own needs of funding to give help to 50,000 people, and UN needs money for many, many causes. How concerned is the Secretary‑General about the lack of funds?
Spokesman: We are very concerned about the lack of, the lack of funds for humanitarian operations across the board. The vast majority of them are severely underfunded. Mozambique, I believe, is one of those. We see the growing and critical needs in Mozambique. The situation is still not clear because people are still coming out. We have a hard time reaching people. We’re doing our best, but we would urge donors to give generously to all of the appeals, the humanitarian appeals.
All right. I don’t see… oh, Abdelhamid, go ahead. Oh, and then I… go ahead, Abdelhamid.
Question: Stéphane, I have two questions, one on the Palestinian elections. Sorry, I missed the statement. But the Palestinian Authorities say that they are going ahead with the preparation for the elections. However, the [inaudible] of Jerusalem must be given the chance to participate in the elections. There is… they say there are no elections without the people of Jerusalem. Israel so far is silent. We don’t know they will allow it or not.
So, did the [Secretary-General] or his Special Representative speak to any Israeli official to allow the people of East Jerusalem to participate in the elections?
Spokesman: Look, I think the Special Coordinator has said that the holding of these elections, including… in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including in East Jerusalem, is a crucial step forward towards the renewal of the legitimacy of national Palestinian institutions, among others. This is a message that he is conveying both privately and publicly.
Okay. Alan Bulkaty… sorry, do you have another one? You’re muted.
Correspondent: Yes, I do.
Spokesman: Go ahead.
Question: Somebody… okay, thank you. On Monday, 30 March, a Palestinian prisoner was released after 20 years of jail. He served 20 years. His name is Majd Barbar, B‑a‑r‑b‑a‑r, his last name. On the next day, 31st, he was celebrating with his family and friends, his release. They had set up a tent, and there were about, hundreds of people were celebrating. Israeli occupation forces invaded the tent, shooting rubber bullets and teargas, injuring 12 people, and they arrested him less than 24 hours after his release, he’s still in jail. The… Are you aware of this…
Spokesman: I am personally not aware, but just send me an email with the details, and I will ask our colleagues in Jerusalem.
Correspondent: I will. Thank you so much.
Spokesman: Okay, thank you. Mr. Bulkaty.
Question: Today, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that, I quote, “the migration crisis in the United States is becoming humanitarian disaster,” she said. She also said that the US treatment to the migrants to, in those detention centres can be qualified as a gross violation of human rights. And she added that urgent UN and humanitarian rights NGOs’ intervention is needed. Any comment on this? Do you think that…
Spokesman: We have…
Question: [inaudible] this situation?
Spokesman: It’s not for me to agree or disagree with my esteemed colleague. What I can tell you is that we have spoken about, here, how the UN is helping migrants in Mexico who have been asked to wait for immigration hearings that are taking place in the US. We have provided humanitarian assistance in general, working with the Mexican Government. We have also spoken out, in very clear terms, against the detention of migrants and others in the United States.
Okay, anyone else? Otherwise, I wish you all a very, very happy long weekend, a happy Easter to those of you who celebrate it. If you don’t celebrate it, enjoy the day off. Have some lamb, and we’ll see you back on Monday. Take care.