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13 April 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.

Good afternoon.

**Afghanistan

As you saw a short while ago in a joint statement, the Republic of Turkey, the State of Qatar and the United Nations, said that they are co-convening a high level and inclusive conference from 24 April to 4 May between the representatives of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taliban.  Turkey will be hosting the conference in Istanbul.

The statement said that the co-conveners are committed to supporting a sovereign, independent and unified Afghanistan.  It adds that the overriding objective of the Istanbul Conference on the Afghanistan Peace Process is to accelerate and complement the ongoing intra-Afghan negotiations in Doha on the achievement of a just and durable political settlement.

Participation in the Conference and its agenda have been the subject of extensive consultations with the Afghan parties.  The Conference will focus on helping the negotiating parties reach a new set of shared, foundational principles that reflect an agreed vision for a future Afghanistan, a road map to a future political settlement and, of course, an end to the conflict.

The co-conveners said that their expectation is that the Conference will provide an important opportunity for all parties to reiterate support for the people of Afghanistan on their path toward an inclusive peace, stability and prosperity.

**Security Council ‑ Kosovo

This morning, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Kosovo, Zahir Tanin, briefed the Security Council by video link.  He said that a strong desire for change was expressed in Kosovo’s recent elections.

Mr. Tanin said that the expectations expressed were for a shift in the responsiveness of a government to the real hopes and needs of its voters, for greater equality of opportunity, accountability, and the rule of law.

On the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr. Tanin briefed the Council on the alarming infection rates in Kosovo and said that Kosovo remains under relentless pressure from the spread of COVID-19.  He urged Member States to accelerate vaccine-related support for Kosovo, amid global struggles to ensure vaccination supplies.

**Saint Vincent and the Grenadines

Turning to the situation in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines:  The World Food Programme (WFP) today said that its staff with expertise in food security, cash and social protection, vulnerability analysis and logistics have now arrived in Saint Vincent.  They are working closely with the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency and national authorities to identify and address immediate needs and strengthen the logistics response.

According to the World Food Programme, the eruption of La Soufrière volcano has displaced an estimated 16,000 to 20,000 people, out of a total population of around 100,000.  Initial estimates indicate that 3,500 persons are in shelters as of 12 April.  Other evacuees are being housed in private homes.  Neighbouring countries are also making plans to host potential evacuees.

WFP is currently planning for food, cash or voucher assistance to evacuees, including in neighbouring areas.  WFP has nearly 2,800 ready-to-eat meals on standby to be used.

For its part, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and its partners are also on the ground providing humanitarian assistance to approximately 4,800 children in need.  Within 24 hours of the eruption, UNICEF provided an estimated 9,000 people, including children, with access to safe water and hygiene services in the evacuation shelters.

UNICEF says they need about $925,000 to cover needs for the next six [weeks].

Tomorrow we hope to bring in by videoconference some UN staff on the ground who can give you a vivid picture of what is going on.

**Ethiopia

Turning to Ethiopia, we have an update on the nutrition situation in Tigray.  Our humanitarian colleagues tell us that multiple displacement sites have reportedly not received food and other assistance since the conflict started five months ago.

While nutrition data remains inadequate, available data indicates alarming malnutrition rates.  Out of more than 69,000 children in Tigray screened for malnutrition, more than 1,900 cases of severe acute malnutrition have been identified and more than 17,700 cases of moderate malnutrition.

We, along with our humanitarian partners, continue to provide services at health facilities.  This includes supplementary feeding programmes for hundreds of children and breastfeeding mothers, as well as transportation of nutrition supplies.

The World Food Programme says they are targeting nearly 867,000 children and about 415,000 pregnant and breastfeeding mothers in 78 districts throughout Tigray through its feeding programmes.  Since February, more than 95,000 children and women in 15 districts have been reached.

The humanitarian presence is gradually increasing with improved access in Tigray.  As of 6 April, there are 186 UN staff supporting the humanitarian response in the region, most of them obviously national staff with more than 1,500 more aid workers with NGOs (non-governmental organizations).

**South Sudan

The UN Peacekeeping Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) is telling us that its peacekeepers have assisted victims of a cattle raid in Bouda, in Warrap state.

Working with local authorities and the South Sudanese army, the peacekeepers assisted in the treatment, recovery, and evacuation of 27 people.  Among those injured were women, children and youth.  At least 19 people were killed in this incident.

The UN Mission has established a number of temporary bases in conflict-prone areas to protect civilians and deter violence.  In this case, it has allowed peacekeepers to respond quickly and effectively to help wounded civilians and monitor the area of the attack.

Meanwhile, in Aweil town in the state of Northern Bahr-el-Ghazal, the Mission conducted training for 15 directors of the South Sudan National Police Service.  The training focused on crime prevention, human rights, including in relation to children, and the role of the police in protecting and promoting the rights of detainees.

**Sudan

We have an update on the situation in El Geneina, in Sudan’s West Darfur.

UNHCR (United Nations Refugee Agency) tells us that following intercommunal clashes that we spoke about a few days ago, 1,900 people have sought refuge in Chad.

El Geneina is only 20 kilometres from the Chadian border.  The refugees are currently being hosted just 200 metres inside of Chad, across the border.

The agency says that conditions on the ground are dire, with displaced families staying in the open, with barely any protection from the elements, in an area where temperatures can rise up to 40 °C during the day.  Food and water are also urgently needed.

UNHCR, along with government counterparts and humanitarian partners, are on the ground to coordinate the response.  The priority is to relocate the refugees to a safer place where essential assistance and access to health care can be provided, and quarantine measures for COVID can also be implemented.

**Mozambique

And in Mozambique, the UN Children’s Fund today warned that the Cabo Delgado region is facing a large and likely long-lasting humanitarian situation.  UNICEF said it is concerned about the rising rate of malnutrition, and also about cholera, which is not yet under control and is spreading to other provinces.

For its part, the sister agency, World Food Programme, said they are appealing for $82 million to ramp up its response in northern Mozambique.  More than 950,000 people in the region are facing severe hunger, according to our friends at WFP.

The World Food Programme also said that while there were certain places humanitarian workers could access, the security situation was not stable enough to travel to Palma and is expected to remain intermittently difficult for several months to come.

**Djibouti

I just want to flag a tragic story, in the midst of tragic stories.

The UN Migration Agency (IOM) is telling us that at least 42 people have died after a boat operated by smugglers capsized on its way to Djibouti in the early hours of Monday.  The boat was transporting approximately 60 migrants, who were escaping the conflict in Yemen.

Every year, tens of thousands of young African migrants from the region make the dangerous journey from countries like Somalia and Ethiopia through Djibouti and Yemen in search of work in the Gulf.  The pandemic is forcing many of them to turn back due to widespread border closures that have reduced access to Gulf States.  It is unknown what caused this vessel to capsize.

Despite the dangers, the number of migrants arriving in Djibouti is continuing to increase.  In March, over 2,300 migrants arrived from Yemen, compared to 1,900 in February.  Most were trying to head home to Ethiopia and Somalia.

In both Djibouti and Yemen, IOM is providing food, water, medical care and counselling for survivors of such tragedies.

Last month, the agency launched the Regional Migrant Response Plan for the Horn of Africa and Yemen.  They are asking for $99 million to support the needs of migrants in those areas.

**Brazil

Quick update from Brazil, on our work there to help with COVID.  There are over 13.5 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 350,000 people have died from the virus.

The UN team continues to support local responses, reiterating the importance of preventive measures and focusing on vulnerable groups, including indigenous communities.

More than 180 Warao indigenous people in the northern regions of Natal and Teresina received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.  UNHCR produced information material in the Warao language to support the campaign.  IOM provided health care to the indigenous community, reaching 200 people, and delivered disinfection kits to three health units to assist 7,200 people.

For its part, UNICEF continues to provide health and nutrition support to more than 300 pregnant and breast-feeding women impacted by the lockdowns [in] Belem and Ananindeua while UNHCR and the World Bank launched policy research on work permits to support socioeconomic recovery.

**COVAX

And Comoros received 12,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses yesterday from the COVAX facility.  The UN team there continues to support the Government and other local partners on the vaccination rollout.

This newly arrived shipment will continue to increase the coverage of targeted populations, including frontline workers, people over 60 years of age, those with comorbidities, and schoolteachers.  The Government launched the national vaccination campaign over the weekend, with WHO and UNICEF’s help.

And in Zambia, 228,000 doses of the vaccine have arrived yesterday.  Authorities will launch a vaccination campaign tomorrow at the University Teaching Hospital in Lusaka, with the help of the UN.

**Ramadan

And lastly, in a tweet, the Secretary-General expressed his best wishes to those celebrating Ramadan:  “May the Ramadan lessons of solidarity, compassion and mercy be an inspiration to all of us ‑ now more than ever.”

And from Libya and Somalia to Yemen and Iraq, the UN’s Special Envoys and Representatives wished a blessed Ramadan to those who are observing the season.  They expressed their hopes that the coming month would help to bring people together and overcome differences.

Speaking of differences, let me take your questions.

**Questions and Answers

Célhia and then James.

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  In Mali, the Spokesperson for the MINUSMA (UN Mission in Mali) announced that the prominent leader Ould Sidatti, who was one of the signatures of the peace accord, was shot dead this morning.  Is the UN preoccupied by the violence?  And what does it mean to the peace accord?

Spokesman:  Well, we… first of all, I would say we are, of course, saddened by the killing of the Azawad leader following the attack in Bamako.  As you mentioned, we’ve all… our colleagues in MINUSMA have expressed their condolences to the family and to the movement.

We will continue to support the Malian Government in any way we can on the implementation of the peace process but also, of course, very importantly, on the investigation the Government said it would announce.  We very much hope that this heinous act will not make the peace process, which is already difficult enough, more difficult.

Mr. Bays and then Edie.

Question:  I have some Afghanistan questions.  Some are follow-ups on the talks you’ve announced, but first, reports from Washington that the US President is planning to pull all troops out of Afghanistan by 11 September, which would mark the twentieth anniversary of the start of that military operation.

Your reaction?

Spokesman:  Sorry.  You do need to add a question mark.  It helps.  That being said, I just saw the report as we came in.  I don’t have an immediate reaction to this point.  Our focus right now is on the talks.

Question:  So, I have a couple of quick follow-ups on your statement, then.  The Taliban look like they’re not going to the talks.  Do you have a reaction to that?

And also, there’s been some guiding principles for these talks that have been leaked, suggesting that there needs to be a ceasefire from all parties.  Can you confirm there needs to be a ceasefire?  And what is your understanding of the Taliban position and what have they told you?

Spokesman:  My understanding is that there are still internal deliberations going on within the Taliban.  I cannot speak for them.  An invitation was extended to them.  We very much hope to see them participate.

I’m not going to start commenting on leaked documents and even less so on trying to prejudge the negotiation process.

Question:  Two very quick follow-ups on your statement.  The co-conveners, Turkey, Qatar and the UN.  Why is the US not there?  This was the US’ idea.

Spokesman:  I think that’s a question you have to ask for… to the US.  There [were] widespread consultations at many levels involving many parties, and this is something that was, obviously, agreed upon.

Question:  And final, final, I promise, question on this, you talk about… well, the co-conveners talk about the aim of having a sovereign, independent and unified country in Afghanistan.  That is the aim of these talks.

Is the UN, as one of the co-conveners, still committed to a democratic Afghanistan, to an Afghanistan with freedom of expression, and an Afghanistan with equal rights for women?  Is the UN committed to those three things?  [cross talk]

Spokesman:  We are committed to the people of Afghanistan.  We are committed to ensuring that the gains that have been made are not lost, and that is especially true for women in Afghanistan.

Question:  [inaudible]

Spokesman:  It should be… I mean, we always believe… I mean, that goes without saying.  We always believe that people have a right to the basic democratic principles and a Government that reflects those… their wishes.

Ms. Lederer, and then we’ll go to Mr. Gladstone.

Question:  Okay.  Two follow-ups on Afghanistan and then a question.  First, on the Taliban, how important is it that the Taliban participate in these talks?  And if they don’t show up, what can the talks achieve?

Spokesman:  Well, listen, it is very… I’m not going to prejudge what may or may not happen.  It is, obviously… when you are talking about the future of Afghanistan, I think it is important to have both the representatives of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taliban, but I’m not going to start going into hypotheticals about what will or may not happen.  We understand deliberations are still going on, and we very much hope they will participate.

Question:  Secondly, who is going to represent the United Nations at the talks?

Spokesman:  Well, we expect that, through modern technology, we can expect the Secretary-General to kick off, but obviously, all those details are still being worked out.

Question:  And on Iran, does the Secretary-General have any comment on the Iranian announcement today that it plans to significantly boost enrichment of uranium to 60 per cent purity?

Spokesman:  I’ve seen those media reports.  What we very much hope and what we’ve always called for is for Iran to abide by its obligations under various international treaties, IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) or… and JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action).

Rick?

Question:  Hi, Steph.  Can you hear me?

Spokesman:  Yeah.

Question:  I have a couple dumb follow-ups on Afghanistan.  Is there any significance to the timing of this conference coming?  Why is it happening now?  And why aren’t Afghanistan’s immediate territorial neighbours invited?

Spokesman:  I mean, a large number of people were invited.  We hope to be able to share the invitation list soon.  In terms of the timing, I mean, I think we’ve all seen there were a number of different initiatives in the last few weeks and months, and we have a coalescing around this date.

Yeah, go ahead.  Please, go ahead.  [cross talk]

Question:  I have one other unrelated… totally unrelated question.  Can you update us on what’s happening, if anything, to replace the Guernica tapestry outside the Security Council?  Is there some effort under way to find another version of the tapestry or some other piece of art to adorn the wall?

Spokesman:  You know what?  At this point, I would just say that we remain in touch with the Rockefeller family.

Maria Khrenova, welcome back.  It’s nice to see you back.

Question:  It’s nice to be back.  Thank you, Stéphane.  Hi, everyone.  So, I actually have three questions, I think.  Yeah.  On Security Council meeting today, you didn’t mention that it was stopped at some point because of symbols and flag or… on the background of Kosovo’s representative.  So, I wonder what’s the Secretariat position on the rules for this new format of VTC Security Council meetings and on background for these meetings.  And I will have a couple more questions.

Spokesman:  Okay.  It’s a very good question.  I didn’t mention it because I wasn’t aware.  I wasn’t following it live.  I think that’s a question that should also be addressed to the presidency, but I will check on my end, as well.

Let’s go to number two.

Question:  Yeah.  Also, I wondered if you have any comment on the talk between the US and Russian Presidents, which seems to be kind of important, taking into account that there was escalation in Ukraine and the Russian ambassador in US is still in Moscow for consultations.

Spokesman:  Well, for a whole host of reasons, I think it is extremely important for the work that goes on here in the UN on peace and security that there be an open and positive dialogue between Moscow and Washington to permanent members of the Security Council.  So, we would support any dialogue between the two.

Let’s go to number three.

Question:  Yeah.  Last one is on whether you have any comments on letter of Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to UN Secretary-General.

Spokesman:  No, the letter was received, and it will be circulated to General Assembly and Security Council as we have requ… as it has been requested.

Correspondent:  Thank you.

Spokesman:  All right.  Philippe?

Correspondent:  Thank you, Stéphane.  I think James was before me but… anyway, I… [cross talk]

Correspondent:  Don’t worry about me, guys.  Edie and James both asked my question.

Correspondent:  Okay.  [cross talk]

Spokesman:  I’m glad we have global cooperation here.  Yeah.

Question:  I’m going to ask my question.  It’s a follow-up to Edie’s question, in fact.  I just want to be sure… to understood the conference of Afghanistan would be virtual or in person?  And I understand that… yeah, go ahead.

Spokesman:  Go ahead.

Question:  So, I want first to understand if it’s virtual or in person.  You said that the Secretary-General can attend at the beginning or at the end, so same question.  It would be virtual or in person?

And also, the representation of UN, because you have two Special Envoy for Afghanistan.  Who is going to represent UN at this conference, I mean, during the 15 days?  Thank you.

Spokesman:  That detail I will be able to share with you a bit later.

And in terms of virtual, I assume there will be some people physically in Istanbul, and others will be virtual.  I mean, I think, like every major conference these days, there has to be a bit of flexibility and sometimes, despite the best planning, people are not able to travel.  So, I have no doubt that our gracious Turkish hosts have made arrangements to be flexible.

Question:  So, hybrid meeting?

Spokesman:  That’s the operative word for our lives these days.

Okay.  Abdelhamid?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  I want to follow up with a question I ask you yesterday about an attack committed by Israel against Syria and another against Iran, and you said in your statement, “We call on all parties to observe restraint.”

My question, is that a fair characterization of a situation?  When there is a clear-cut aggressor and the other party is a victim of aggression, when you say, “We call on all parties for restraint,” aren’t you qualifying between… or equating between aggressor and the party that received aggression?

Spokesman:  Abdelhamid, I’m here to express our position.  I think the questions you raise are very valid questions, and it could be asked for many conflict areas in the world, but I think they are best answered by journalists such as yourselves and analysts.  I have nothing else to add to what I’ve already said in those… in terms of those areas.

All right.  I see Mr. Bays reaching for his six… his holster.  [laughter]

Question:  Yes.  Go back to Afghanistan, if I can.  You say in the statement that these talks in Turkey are to complement the talks in Doha.  I don’t understand the difference.  I don’t understand what is supposed to be achieved in Turkey and what is supposed to be achieved in Doha.  It sounds from your statement that Doha talks are not superseded.  So, does it go to Turkish… because… I mean, it’s not as though you’ve got the international community in one and the two parties in the other.  You’re bringing the two parties to Turkey.

Is the idea for actual face-to-face negotiations between the two parties in Turkey, or is the idea that they go back to Doha for that after they’ve been sort of buoyed by the international community?  Can you just explain how it works?

Spokesman:  Yeah, I mean, one has to see it in a bit of a flexible way.  You have… as you mentioned, you have the sessions in Doha, which are face to face.  This is a way for the international community to bolster the work of the parties and to show a united front in a path forward for Afghanistan.

Question:  Because there has been… there was progress in Doha with regard to the US and the Taliban but not with regard to the Afghan Government and the Taliban.  Is this because you see Doha as deadlocked?

Spokesman:  No, I don’t think anyone sees anything as deadlocked.  I think we think the international… this is a representation of the unified will of the international community to try to help the parties move forward.

Question:  And one very different question, on vaccines, fresh concern about vaccines in the US, concerning Europe about AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson.  I know it’s not the SG’s job to weigh in on which vaccines are safe, but it is his job to… for the public messaging that you want as many people vaccinated as possible.  How worried is he that the current health concerns around the world about different vaccines are going to stop or reduce vaccine take-up?

Spokesman:  Well, I think the concern is not so much about what is coming out of medical… the medical authorities.  The concern is what is coming out of disinformation.  I think it is very important that people listen to medical advice, follow the advice of experts.  The disinformation is a concern to us, but I also think that Governments and including the UN need to do a really good job in terms of hearing people’s concerns, because some of those are not just based on disinformation.  So, I think we also need to make sure that the public information campaigns actually speak to the concerns of the people.

Carla?

Question:  Thank you.  Just returning to the missed Guernica, you had mentioned that there are ongoing conversations with the Rockefeller family.  Does that mean there’s some hope that the great painting, tapestry may be returned?

Spokesman:  Hope is my middle name.  [laughter]

All right.  On that note, I don’t think you’re getting a PGA (President of the General Assembly) briefing, and we shall see each other mañana.

For information media. Not an official record.