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

**Cyprus

Hello, and good afternoon, everyone.  I’ll be on first, and then after that, you’ll hear in the room from the Spokesperson for the President of the General Assembly, Brenden Varma.

This morning, the Secretary-General hosted a plenary session of the informal 5+1 talks on the Cyprus issue.

He’s currently holding bilateral meetings with the various delegations as the talks continue.

As we mentioned, he will host a dinner for the delegations this evening.

We expect discussions to continue on Thursday.

**COVID-19 — Media

The Secretary-General had a video message for an event this morning entitled “COVID-19:  How do we prevent the pandemic from becoming a media extinction event?”

He said that the events of the past year have reminded us that access to reliable information is more than just a basic human right — it can also be a matter of life and death.

The Secretary-General said the pandemic has been accompanied by an enormous concurrent “infodemic” which has jeopardized the health of millions of people worldwide, undermining confidence in vaccines and science, and dividing communities and countries.

He also noted that the pandemic has had another very dangerous side-effect:  it has accelerated the financial decline of many public interest media organizations.  Newspapers alone lost an estimated $30 billion last year.

The Secretary-General stressed that maintaining independent, fact-based reporting is an essential global public good, critical to building a safer, healthier and greener future.

**India — COVID-19

I know you’ve been asking about our support to India during the current surge in COVID-19 cases.  Our team there, led by Resident Coordinator Renata Lok Dessallien, is supporting the authorities’ response to the pandemic by providing equipment and supplies, including to local governments.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) are procuring equipment and supplies, including 7,000 oxygen concentrators and 500 nasal devices for oxygen supply, as well as oxygen generating plants, COVID-19 testing machines, and personal protective kits.

WHO is also helping to set up mobile hospital units and is providing for laboratories.  Some 2,600 WHO field officers have been immediately deployed to support health authorities to curb the spread of the pandemic.

In the western state of Maharashtra, the second most populous in India, UNICEF has engaged experts to work on risk governance.

The UN team is also continuing its campaign highlighting the three Ws:  Wear a mask, Wash your Hands, Watch your distance and stay six feet apart.

**Mongolia — COVID-19

Meanwhile in Mongolia, the UN team, led by the Resident Coordinator Tapan Mishra, continues to support the country’s vaccination campaign.

Since March, Mongolia has received more than 90,000 doses from COVAX to reach up to 20 per cent of the country’s 3.2 million people.

More than 740,000 people have received their first dose and more than 200,000 have received their second dose.

UNICEF and WHO have provided technical, financial and logistical support to the Government for its campaign.  UNICEF and the World Bank helped build a new central facility to store vaccines.

WHO has trained health-care workers on administrating vaccines, among other support to authorities.

**Burkina Faso

And on Burkina Faso, I can say that the Secretary-General strongly condemns the killing, on 26 April, of two Spanish journalists and an Irish [national], following an attack by unidentified gunmen on their convoy at the Pama Reserve in eastern Burkina Faso.

The Secretary-General expresses his condolences to the families of the victims and to the Governments and peoples of Burkina Faso, Ireland and Spain.  He calls on the authorities to swiftly identify and bring the perpetrators to justice.

**Syria

Today the Security Council held a meeting to discuss Syria.  Geir Pedersen, the Special Envoy for Syria, briefed the Security Council this morning and warned that, despite more than a year of relative calm by Syrian standards, this month reminded us of the potential for the situation to further disintegrate or rapidly deteriorate.

He said that there has been a significant escalation in north-west Syria.  This included strikes on a UN-supported and -notified hospital in western Aleppo close to densely populated camps for displaced people, and on the Syrian-Turkish border where UN cross-border humanitarian deliveries take place.

Mark Lowcock, the Emergency Relief Coordinator, also briefed the Council and said that it is pretty clear that the COVID-19 virus spread is rapid but also accelerating.  In the UN, he said, we are doing what we can to provide support, including by enhancing surveillance capacity, by providing personal protective equipment and by providing training for medical workers, as well as supporting the roll-out of vaccination campaigns.

He said that in north-west Syria, millions of people remain pressed up against the border in an active war zone, dependent on aid that is delivered across the border from Turkey.  Our data show those people are worse off now than they were nine months ago, he added.

Mr. Lowcock said that every month, the cross-border operation reaches some 2.4 million people who depend on it for food, medicines, shelter and other vital supplies.  A failure to extend cross-border authorization would sever this lifeline, he warned.

**Appointment

I have an appointment for you.  The Secretary-General today announced the appointment of Alain Noudéhou of Benin as his new Deputy Special Representative in the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and the Resident Coordinator in Mali.  Mr. Noudéhou will also serve as Humanitarian Coordinator.

Mr. Noudéhou succeeds Mbaranga Gasarabwe of Rwanda, who will complete her assignment at the end of May.  The Secretary-General is grateful to Ms. Gasarabwe for her stewardship of development and humanitarian efforts in Mali since taking up this role in 2015.

Mr. Noudéhou brings to the position extensive experience in international development and humanitarian affairs.  He most recently served as Deputy Special Representative in the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), and Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator in South Sudan.  His bio will be made available to you.

**Somalia

Turning to Somalia, in a statement released today, the acting Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia, Cesar Arroyo, expressed concerns over mass displacements in Mogadishu.  Mr. Arroyo noted that initial estimates indicate that between 60,000 and 100,000 people have been forced to flee their homes following an outbreak of violence on 25 April.

Those displaced include vulnerable internally displaced persons who had sought refuge in the Somali capital but have again fled to find refuge at the outskirts of the city.  The Humanitarian Coordinator said that apart from displacing innocent civilians, the initial violence has created uncertainty and fear of disruptions of humanitarian assistance to hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people across the city.

Mr. Arroyo pointed out that the situation has flared up at a time that Somalia is experiencing a full-fledged drought, a significant rise in COVID-19 cases and a serious desert locust infestation.  Despite increased needs, the humanitarian response remains grossly underfunded.

**Sahel

Moving to the Sahel, our colleagues tell us that the humanitarian situation in the region is worsening fast because of escalating conflict, rising food insecurity and COVID-19.  In 2021, almost 29 million people in the Sahel will need assistance and protection, 5 million more than at the start of 2020.

According to our humanitarian colleagues, from 2015 to 2020, violent attacks increased eight-fold in the Central Sahel and tripled in the Lake Chad Basin.  Insecurity is disproportionately impacting children and women.  Incidents of gender-based violence are also spiking, with widespread risks of women and girls being abducted, married by force, sexually assaulted and raped.

Across the Sahel, 5.4 million people are internally displaced due to activities of armed groups, as well as intercommunal violence and military operations.

Our humanitarian colleagues warn that food insecurity is at record peaks.  In the Lake Chad basin alone, 6.2 million people are projected to face hunger this year, almost 2 million more people than last year.  In the Central Sahel regions, in the countries of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, 3.4 million people will face a food crisis during the 2021 lean season.

In 2021, the Humanitarian Response Plan to help six countries in the Sahel will require a total of $3.7 billion.

**Elsie Initiative

This morning, the Elsie Initiative, a UN Trust Fund that supports uniformed women’s deployment to peace operations, announced its first five recipients — Liberia, Mexico, Niger, Senegal and Sierra Leone — during a high-level virtual event.  The Fund, which is managed by UN-Women, also launched its Second Programming Round at the event.

While progress has been made towards achieving the military and police gender targets set in the UN’s Uniformed Gender Parity Strategy, UN-Women warned that if progress continues at the current pace, it will take 30 years to reach gender parity for military troops, 12 years for formed police units, eight years for individual police officers and seven years for military observers and staff officers.

Created in 2019, the Elsie Initiative Fund for Uniformed Women in Peace Operations has so far received $27.9 million in contributions and pledges from Australia, Canada, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and the United Kingdom.  It seeks additional funding to help accelerate the pace of change towards the increased meaningful participation of uniformed women in UN peace operations.

**World Day for Safety and Health at Work

Today is World Day for Safety and Health at Work.  This year, the aim of the Day is to raise awareness and stimulating dialogue on the importance of creating and investing in resilient occupational safety and health systems, drawing on both regional and country examples in mitigating and preventing the spread of COVID-19 at the workplace.

In a video message, the Director-General of the International Labour Organization (ILO), Guy Ryder, stressed that a strong, resilient, occupational safety and health environment is vital for crisis recovery and prevention.

And that is it from my part.  Before we turn to Brenden, I’ll take your questions.

**Questions and Answers

First question goes to Majeed Gly.

Question:  Thank you so much, Farhan.  I have two questions.  The first one is the same question I asked you earlier about the… a new Turkish military operation on the border with Iraq.  As you know, Iraq is objecting to these military activities.  Turkey is saying it’s targeting PKK fighters.  Do you have anything more on that?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, what I can tell you is that the Secretary-General has been closely monitoring developments in northern Iraq.  He urges maximum restraint and renews his call to avoid any escalation which would undermine regional stability and security.  He encourages diplomatic efforts at finding peaceful solutions to regional issues.  And that’s it from me.

Question:  And on Syria, today, Mr. Pedersen repeated what the Secretary-General has mentioned about the large-scale cross-border response for the additional 12 months.  He said they are essential.  But when the Secretary-General and Mr. Pedersen say large-scale cross-border response, what do they mean by that?  I mean, how many cross-border, according to the United Nations assessment, is necessary for Syria to say that is enough?  Is there a number?  Is there any assessment that could give an idea of what is enough by… according to the UN’s assessment?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, Mark Lowcock, in his periodic briefings to the Security Council, has also given details about what kind of traffic is needed.  We would actually like more cross-border points, if possible.  But certainly, we at least need the ones that we have to continue to be in operation.  And I’d just draw your attention to his various briefings, including what he said earlier today.

Question:  And so just… so I clearly understand, you asked for additional cross-border… crossings… border crossings on top of what’s already open.

Deputy Spokesman:  Yes, and we have been making that point clear for many months now.  Obviously, we accept the findings and the determination of the members of the Security Council in this regard, but we have been very clear that we need to have as much humanitarian traffic flowing across those points as we can get.

Correspondent:  Thank you very much.

Deputy Spokesman:  Thank you.  Kristen in the room.

Question:  Thank you, Farhan.  Farhan, I don’t know if you noticed, but this week, New York eased up on many COVID restrictions, including office capacity.  Do you have any update on when UN staff will be returning to the building?

And does the Secretary-General have any objections to the Security Council meeting in person in the chamber now under its current setup?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, we’re continuing our plans to return to the building, and it’s gradually going to be stepping up, we expect.  Among other things, in addition to the changes in the New York rules, more UN staff are themselves receiving vaccinations in accordance with the appropriate procedures in the United States.  And so we expect, as that happens, more people will be able to come to the building.

There’s no official change of phase to announce at this point.  So, we will continue to evaluate those circumstances, and we’ll let you know once we go to a phase of heightened staff presence in the building.  At this stage, we’re still at one that essentially caps off at about 20 per cent of the building, but we’re actually and have remained somewhat below that level in recent months, as you probably have noticed just from being in the building yourself.

And you had asked something else?

Question:  Security Council, is there any objection by the Secretary-General to the Security Council meeting in chambers?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, not from our side, because, as you’re aware, of course, the Security Council themselves are the people who determine these.  What we have been trying to do is provide them with the best advice about safe and healthy procedures, and so, we’ve been providing advice to the Council members.  But ultimately, the determination will be in their hands.

Question:  Okay.  So, just to clarify, there’s no objection to them meeting in the Council at this time if they’re open to it and they so decide?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, let me put it this way.  We’ve been giving them the health expertise that we have on this, and as part of that, we’ve been making our concerns known about different room sizes and capacities as that happens and trying to make clear what the safe spacing of people in the different rooms in the building would be.

Having said that, of course, once they receive that information, it is the decision of the members of the Council that we will respect.

Question:  And just a technical follow-up, when you say about less than 20 per cent of staff in the building right now, do you know what that means in hard numbers now compared to before?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, hold on.  I actually have the latest numbers for Tuesday.  So, in those numbers, the total number of swipes on Tuesday was 1,315, which included about 570 for staff.  So, that’s a rough determination of where we stand.  It’s a little bit more than we’ve had in recent weeks, insofar as it’s above 1,000 swipes but… as opposed to somewhat below it, but we’re still at a fairly low level of presence in the building, which I assume is visibly obvious to you.

Question:  For sure.  And it was about 10 — sorry, last one — about 10,000 swipes per day pre-pandemic, would you say?  Is that right?

Deputy Spokesman:  Roughly that, although pre-pandemic is so long ago that I’ve actually forgotten.  [laughter]

But yeah, roughly that.  Yes.

Correspondent:  Thank you.

Deputy Spokesman:  Thanks.  Iftikhar?

Question:  Thank you, Farhan.  There are signs of thaw in the relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, according to a statement by the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.  And this followed secret talks between the two countries, facilitated by Iraq.  Any thoughts on this?

Deputy Spokesman:  No, no real comment from our side.  We’ll evaluate these developments as they come up.  Obviously, we welcome any efforts by the countries in the region to build and to normalize their relations with each other, but I don’t have anything… any solid information on this to provide to you.

Mr. Sato?

Question:  Hi, Farhan.  How are you?

Deputy Spokesman:  I’m fine, thanks.

Question:  Yeah.  My question on Myanmar.  So, yesterday, you told us that the Special Representative [Christine Schraner] Burgener is now in the… a very sensitive diplomatic process.  So, can you tell us the upcoming… her schedule?  Is she back to the Bangkok or still in the Jakarta?  Thank you.

Deputy Spokesman:  As of now, she is back in Jakarta… sorry, sorry, back in Bangkok having visited Jakarta.  So, she has returned to Thailand and will comply with the quarantine procedures for Thailand as she goes about making her calls and doing her work.

Thanks.  I do not see… oh, and by the way, Kristen, by… for reference, my colleague informs me that on 4 March 2020, we had 11,000 swipes into the building.  So, that was sort of the baseline by which we’re judging ourselves.

Okay.  Apostolos?

Question:  Hi, Farhan.  On Cyprus, having heard yesterday in private the views of all the participants, the Secretary-General, what was the message he sent them today at his remarks… in his remarks at the plenary session?

Deputy Spokesman:  I don’t have the remarks to share.  I mean, you’re well aware of what the Secretary-General’s position has been on Cyprus, and he has reiterated that.  Stéphane [Dujarric] did brief the press in Geneva yesterday about this process, and he made clear in that briefing that the Secretary-General is going into this meeting with a very realistic attitude and that he has encouraged the parties to be creative in their approaches.  Beyond that, I don’t have any specific details to share while these discussions go on.

Correspondent:  Thank you.

Deputy Spokesman:  Thanks.  And I don’t see any further questions in… either in the chat or in the room.  So, if that’s it, I will turn the floor over to my colleague, Brenden Varma.  Brenden, over to you.

For information media. Not an official record.