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14 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.  I will start off with the release from UNFPA, the UN Fund for Population.

**UNFPA

Nearly half of women in 57 developing countries are denied the right to decide whether to have sex with their partners, use contraception or seek health care.  That’s according to the UN Population Fund’s 2021 flagship State of World Population report, which was released today.

 “The fact that nearly half of women still cannot make their own decisions about whether or not to have sex, use contraception or seek health care should outrage us all,” said the Executive Director of UNFPA, Dr. Natalia Kanem.  “In essence, hundreds of millions of women and girls do not own their bodies and their lives are governed by others.”

The report’s findings show that only 55 per cent of women are fully empowered to make decisions over health care, contraception and the ability to say yes or no to sex.  In addition, the report adds, only about 80 per cent of countries have laws supporting sexual health and well-being.

The report also notes that 20 countries or territories have “marry-your-own-rapist” laws, where a man can escape criminal prosecution if he marries the woman or girl he raped.  In addition, 43 countries have no legislation addressing the issue of marital rape.

All of that is online.

**Security Council

Moving on to the Security Council.  Pramila Patten, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, briefed Council members this morning.

She presented the findings of her office’s 2020 annual report, which covers 18 country situations and documents over 2,500 UN-verified cases of conflict-related sexual violence.  She called for concerted efforts to ensure that survivors of sexual violence are not obscured beneath the long shadow cast by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ms. Patten said the chronic underreporting of wartime sexual violence has been compounded by COVID-19.  Proactive measures to help survivors safely come forward and seek redress have become more urgent than ever, she told the Members of the Council.

Turning to Tigray and the situation there, Ms. Patten said that women and girls have been subjected to sexual violence with a level of cruelty beyond comprehension.  She said the report presented today records allegations of over 100 rape cases since hostilities began in November last year.  Her Office has engaged with authorities at the highest level and will continue to closely monitor the situation, calling for restraint, humanitarian access, service provision, and effective investigation.

Her remarks have been shared with you.  And at about 1:15 p.m., there will be a virtual stakeout by Ambassador Dang Dinh Quy, President of the Security Council and Permanent Representative of Viet Nam.  And he will be joined by Ms. Patten.  And they will be speaking to you virtually.

**Ethiopia

Staying on the topic of Tigray:  Despite improvements in access, active conflict continues in some areas restricting the humanitarian response, according to our colleagues in the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Given the highly fluid displacement situation and access constraints, the actual number of displaced people remains unknown.

According to official figures, an estimated 1.7 million people were displaced across the region, as of 27 March.  Gross violations and abuses against civilians, including sexual violence, also continue to be reported.

Despite challenges, our humanitarian partners are scaling up the response.  At least 1.4 million people have received double allocations of food rations in 12 targeted districts, as well as in Mekelle and Shire towns.  More than 160,000 newly displaced people have been provided with emergency shelter and vital relief items.  More than 630,000 people have accessed clean water through water trucking.

But the humanitarian response is still inadequate to reach the estimated 4.5 million people that need lifesaving assistance.  We urgently need more funding to scale up our response.

**Afghanistan

Turning to Afghanistan, the UN Mission there (UNAMA) today released a report showing the number of civilians killed and injured in Afghanistan during the first three months of 2021 has been significantly higher than a year ago.

The Afghanistan Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict 2021 First Quarter Report documents 1,783 civilian casualties, with 573 people killed and 1,210 people injured.  This represents a 29 per cent increase compared with the same period last year.

The UN Mission notes that of particular concern is the 37 per cent increase in the number of women killed and injured, and a 23 per cent increase in child casualties compared with the first quarter of 2020.  The overall increase in civilian casualties was mainly driven by the same trends that caused the increase at the end of last year:  ground engagements, improvised explosive devices and targeted killings.

That information is online.

**Yemen

Our friend Martin Griffiths, the Special Envoy for Yemen, is today in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates.

He was there to meet with the president of Yemen’s Southern Transitional Council, Aidaroos Al-Zubaidi, and they discussed the latest developments in Yemen.  Mr. Griffiths stressed the unique international momentum to support an inclusive political settlement to the conflict to reach sustainable peace.

He will also meet with UAE senior officials on the status of the current negotiation efforts to agree on a nationwide ceasefire, urgent humanitarian measures and the resumption of the political process.

And I believe Mr. Griffiths will brief Security Council members this week, probably tomorrow.

**Libya

For his part, our Envoy for Libya, Ján Kubiš, concluded his first visit to the African Union in Addis Ababa.  He held discussions with senior AU officials on ways to strengthen the UN-AU cooperation in support of Libya and the region.

Mr. Kubiš expressed his appreciation for the continuous and strong productive engagement of the African Union in the UN-facilitated Libyan dialogue under the Berlin process framework.

**Democratic Republic of the Congo

Earlier today, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Head of the Mission there (MONUSCO), Bintou Keita, arrived in Beni, in the eastern province of North Kivu.  She is there to discuss the current situation in the province.  Ms. Keita is scheduled to meet with local authorities, the leadership of the national security forces on the ground, as well, of course, as UN personnel, including the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) of the Peacekeeping force.  She also intends to meet with civil society representatives to explore the way to defuse tensions to move forward.

Ms. Keita is also concerned by this week’s deadly clashes between communities that occurred in the city of Goma, in the context of protests against the Mission, humanitarian workers and national institutions.  She reiterates the right to protest must be exercised peacefully at all times.

Meanwhile, the UN Mission continues to work with the Congolese authorities at the national and provincial levels to defuse tensions.

**Myanmar

The Country Team in Myanmar tells us they remain deeply concerned over the ongoing use of force against children, including live ammunition.  The Country Team continues to call on security forces to refrain from violence and to keep children and young people out of harm’s way.

According to UNICEF, as of 13 April, that would be yesterday, at least 51 children have been killed by Myanmar security forces and almost 1,000 children have been arbitrarily detained.

**COVAX

A couple of COVAX notes:  You just heard about our work in the Eastern Caribbean from Didier [Trebucq], and I want to add that just a week ago, several Eastern Caribbean countries received their first batches of COVAX vaccines backed by the COVAX facility.

In addition to Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada and Saint Lucia received 24,000 doses each, while Dominica received nearly 29,000 doses.  Saint Kitts and Nevis got nearly 22,000 vaccines.  So far, nearly 3 million doses have been delivered across 29 countries in this region alone, with more on the way.

Meanwhile, Niger received today more than 350,000 doses of the COVAX-backed COVID-19 vaccines.  These first doses of vaccines will primarily target frontline workers, teachers, and people who are at the greatest risk of contracting the virus.  The vaccines will help vaccinate 20 per cent of the priority population, supporting the UN-backed national vaccination plan that includes migrants and refugees, in addition to aid workers.

And the UN team in Samoa, on the other side of the world, led by our friend Simona Marinescu, the Resident Coordinator — she and her team continue to support authorities on the vaccination roll out and also addressing the multiple impacts of the pandemic.  The country received 24,000 doses of the COVAX-backed vaccines on Friday, which will enable authorities to vaccinate about 20 per cent of those over the age of 18, focusing on at-risk groups.

Samoa is the sixth country in the Pacific to receive vaccines through COVAX.  Another batch is expected in May.

**World Chagas Disease Day

Today is the World Chagas Disease Day.  Chagas disease is prevalent among poorer populations in Latin America but is increasingly being detected in other countries and continents.  It is often termed as a “silent and silenced disease” as the infected majority have no symptoms or extremely mild symptoms.  It is mostly transmitted when humans come into contact with faeces and/or urine of infected blood-sucking triatomine bugs.

Without treatment, the disease can lead to severe cardiac and digestive problems and become fatal.

According to WHO (World Health Organization), there are approximately 6 to 7 million people infected with Chagas disease worldwide, with 10,000 deaths, every year.  WHO stresses that raising awareness of the disease is essential to improve the rates of early treatment and cure, together with the interruption of transmission.

**Financial Contribution

We end on some very good news.  Beijing has paid its budget dues in full.  So first, we say thank you to China and they have brought us to the nice-looking number of 88.

**Questions and Answers

Célhia?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  Regarding the 53 countries in which women can’t dispose freely of their body, I guess they’re all part of this… the UN.  Right?

Spokesman:  Yes.  If you’re talking about UN Member States, that’s correct.

Question:  Okay.  Can’t the UN name and shame those countries?

Spokesman:  I believe the list of the countries is included in the report.  [cross talk]

Question:  But maybe it’s not enough.

Spokesman:  Well, I mean, you know, with all these reports, our task is to bring attention to issues that are frankly not reported enough on and this one being, obviously, a critical one.  I think the report is full of data and information.

Our work, through the UN, is to work with these countries to help the situation.  Others, NGOs (non-governmental organizations) have a different role to play.  We work with these countries to try to improve the situation and the fundamental human rights of women in these countries.

Question:  It’s not irony that those countries are part of the UN?

Spokesman:  Look, it’s a serious subject, so I don’t want to… there are ideals in this Charter which every country has signed on to, as well as the Universal Human Rights Declaration.  What we want to see is that all of those countries reach and implement these ideals and these basic human freedoms.

Philippe?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  Myanmar and your Special Envoy, can you give us an update of her trip?  Where is she?  Is she…  [cross talk]

Spokesman:  She’s still in Thailand following the COVID restrictions, so she remains in her hotel room, and I understand she’s working the phones.  But I have no… and she’s talking… as we had mentioned, she had planned also to have conversations, obviously, with Thai authorities and with ambassadors who are accredited to Myanmar who may be currently in Thailand.

James and then Edie.

Question:  I’d like to come back to Afghanistan because 24 hours later, some of the things we were talking about yesterday are slightly more definitive.  So, it’s very clear now… it’s been announced that the US troops and NATO troops are pulling out by September, by 11 September.  What is the reaction from the Secretary-General?

Spokesman:  Look, we’re not going to comment on these military decisions.  Our focus… the UN’s focus remains on finding a political accord, on finding an accord that will lead… that will be good for the people of Afghanistan, and that’s where our focus is.

Question:  The problem is the things are linked.  The Taliban spokesman has put out a statement:  “Until all foreign forces completely withdraw from our homeland, the Islamic Emirate,” i.e.  the Taliban, “will not participate in any conference.” What is your reaction to the fact the Taliban have said no to your new peace conference on the 24th?

Spokesman:  Look, we’re continuing to engage with all stakeholders with the aim of successful negotiations by the parties to reach a sustainable peace.  So, statements are going to be made in public.  We continue to engage in private.

Question:  Does it not highlight the fact, though, you have very little… or the international community has very little leverage over the Taliban if those international forces are going to pull out?  And aren’t there deep worries given the rise in civilian casualties?

Spokesman:  Yeah, I mean…

Question:  You may be heading… you may be drifting now towards another civil war like the one… [cross talk]

Spokesman:  The issue of Afghanistan has been on the UN’s agenda for more than 20 years.  Successive Secretaries-General have had to deal with this issue.

We don’t hold… I mean, it’s no screaming headline that we don’t hold all the cards, but we will continue to move forward in encouraging those who hold the cards and those who have the power to work in the same direction.

Edie?

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  In Somalia, the President has signed a law extending his own term by two years without… with the approval of the House but not of the Senate.  What is the reaction of the Secretary-General?

Spokesman:  I will just give you a brief headline that the Secretary-General yesterday spoke to Mr. [Mohamed Abdullahi] Farmajo.  As we’ve said publicly from here, we’ve expressed our concern, but I’m expecting a more detailed update for you on that shortly, hopefully.

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

Question:  Thanks very much.  So, on Afghanistan, does the UN anticipate keeping its Mission there in the country in light of what’s happening, the US withdrawal, etc.?  And, if so, does it have a new agenda in mind?  Thanks.

Spokesman:  Well, I mean, the UN Mission continues to be there under mandate from Member States.  I’m not aware of any plans at all for the UN to pull out.  The UN has been present and has remained present in Afghanistan through decades.

Question:  Right, but there’s going to be a change in government, most likely.  So, is the UN prepared for that possibility — that the Taliban leading the Afghanistan…?

Spokesman:  We are, obviously, very much aware of what may or may not happen, and that continues to be in our calculus as we do our forward planning, but the UN is not about to abandon the people of Afghanistan.

Okay.  Toby and then Evelyn.

Question:  Thanks, Steph.  I know that you speak for the Secretary-General and not the President of the General Assembly (PGA), but the PGA was in Turkey and then Qatar, and then we just had this announcement on Monday of the peace talks sponsored by the UN, Turkey and Qatar.  So, was the point of the PGA’s visit, to your knowledge, to set up the Istanbul talks?

Spokesman:  I have very little knowledge of a lot of things, and I have absolutely zero knowledge about what the PGA was doing.  [laughter] And I don’t mean that to be dismissive at all.  I literally don’t know.  I think that’s a question… Brenden [Varma] is back.  He’s not briefing today, but you can always reach him.

Evelyn?

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  To follow up on Dulcie’s question, the Taliban is generously… has said that it will allow girls to stay in school till the fifth grade or so.  In other words, their position on women has absolutely not improved.  We know the UN position on women.  Is there any particular outreach happening because of the withdrawal of troops on the women’s question?

Spokesman:  I mean, we… [cross talk] Our leadership on the ground has been in touch with the Taliban leadership, and we’ve often talked about that.  Our principles on the equality of rights for men and women, on the need for… to ensure that the political… the rights that women have regained in Afghanistan are not disposed of continues both in public and in private.

Iftikhar?

Question:  One more question.

Spokesman:  Sorry.  Yeah, go ahead, Evelyn.  And then we’ll go to Iftikhar.

Question:  The UNFPA report, the controversy over reproductive rights has been going on since the Beijing conference, and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better.  Is there any outreach from the Secretary-General to help the countries that are really fighting UNFPA?

Spokesman:  I mean, we… this is an issue that often comes up in bilateral conversations.  This is an issue that, obviously, Dr. Kanem is in the lead on.  I mean, you have various things.  You have what UNFPA is able to do on the ground working with government partners, NGO partners, and then you also have the multilateral political debate of… that Member States have and here in adopting resolutions, and we know where that is and the challenges that are made clear, especially when it comes to discussing the issue of women’s fundamental human rights and especially on reproductive rights.

Mr. Iftikhar Ali?

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  Just a very simple question.  Will the Istanbul conference on Afghanistan go ahead even if Taliban, a principal party to the dispute, doesn’t show up?

Spokesman:  We have 10 days to go.  We’ve announced our plan and the invitations, including to the Government of Afghanistan and to the Taliban, but I’m not… 10 days out, I’m not going to start making prediction.  When I make predictions, it usually fails.

Okay.  Let’s go… Ibtisam and then back to James.

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  Just a follow-up on Afghanistan and Taliban.  Who is, from the UN, in contact with the Taliban?  And could you say more to that?  And then I have a question on Palestine.

Spokesman:  Miss Deborah Lyons has often been in contact with the Taliban leadership.

Question:  But did she get any confirmation…? I mean…

Spokesman:  There’s… I can only tell you about… I can’t share you what has been or not been said.

Question:  On Palestine and UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees), so, last week — and you talked about it — the US donated $150 million, I think, if I’m not mistaken.  How disappointed are you, actually, given the fact this number is not even… it’s almost half of the… what they were giving before they stopped and given the fact, also, that the US aid to Israel is $3.6 billion, and it doesn’t go actually to the poor people in Israel.  It’s mostly military aid.  So, can you…

Spokesman:  The history of bilateral aid between the US and Israel is… has been clear for a long time.  Our focus is on what we can get for UNRWA.  We’re grateful for this… I think, this return of the United States to UNRWA and a very vocal return.

Obviously, as with any donors, we’re happy when we get money.  We’d be happier if we got more money.  I mean, that’s a fact.  But we very much hope that the US decision will also move other donors who had left when the US left to return and return with generosity.

Question:  Is there any update regarding… I saw some news reports about death cases from COVID.  Do you have any updates?

Spokesman:  No, but we can get one for tomorrow.

Okay.  Mr. Bays?

Question:  Two more questions, first a request.  Still, with the virtual Security Council, we do not get as much press interaction as we normally will do.  You said to the Martin Griffiths briefing, important briefing on Yemen.  Could he please do a stakeout with us?

Questions…  In response to Edie, you revealed the Secretary-General had spoken to President Farmajo.  I know you say a full statement is coming out, but obviously, your words are much more powerful when you speak them from the podium.  So, could you just answer this simple question?  Does he support the President’s plan to extend his Government’s rule?

Spokesman:  As I said, we’ve… the Secretary-General has expressed his concern at the political situation, and I would also refer you back to the strong words of unity from the United Nations, the African Union, and IGAD (Intergovernmental Authority on Development) that were issued over the weekend.

Question:  And one more question, on the Security Council meeting today, SRSG (Special Representative of the Secretary-General) Patten’s comments on rape and sexual violence in Tigray, a level of “cruelty beyond comprehension”, given the severity of this crisis on all aspects of the Tigray crisis, does the Secretary-General believe the Security Council should now be doing more?

Spokesman:  I think, as in many of these cases, our work on the ground will… can only be helped by a strong and unified voice from the Security Council.

Okay.  I see no one.  I hear no one.  I ignore no one.  And I will see you tomorrow.

For information media. Not an official record.