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12 May 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.

All right.  Good afternoon.

**Secretary-General/Moscow

A quick update on the Secretary-General’s travel:  he landed in Moscow a few hours ago.  He is currently meeting with the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov.  After that, he will be doing a press stakeout.  We hope to have that video on UN WebTV, so you can follow it, and then we will obviously share a transcript of his remarks.

**Security Council/Middle East

I received, this morning, quite a few questions about the briefing that the UN Special Coordinator, Tor Wennesland, provided to the Security Council in a closed session.  What I can tell you is that Mr. Wennesland briefed the Council this morning on the situation on the ground, as the situation on the ground continues deteriorating into “the most serious escalation between Israel and Palestinian militants in years”.  We are very concerned by the growing civilian casualties in both Gaza and Israel and deeply saddened by the reported deaths of children in Gaza.  The Secretary-General and Mr.  Wennesland have both reiterated that Hamas and other militants’ indiscriminate launching of rockets and mortars from highly populated civilian neighbourhoods towards civilian population centres violates international humanitarian law and is unacceptable and has to stop immediately.  While recognizing Israel’s legitimate security concerns, Mr. Wennesland also reiterated that Israeli authorities must also abide by their responsibilities under international law and that Israeli security forces should exercise maximum restraint, calibrate their use of force to spare civilians and civilian objects in the conduct of military operations.

The Secretary-General is particularly appalled that children continue to be victims of violence.  They should be afforded special protection from any form of violence.  He and his Envoy have called on the international community to take action to enable the parties to step back from the brink and return to the previous understandings that have maintained a relative calm in Gaza and avoid a descent into chaos, with the massive casualties and immense damage to civilian infrastructure that would result.  Mr. Wennesland reminded the Council members that it is the civilian population on both sides that bears the burden of war and that the most vulnerable are at the ones at greatest risk of suffering.  He also highlighted that these devastating cycles of violence, which destroy the lives and futures of Palestinians and Israelis alike, will only stop with a political solution to the conflict, an end to the occupation and a realization of a two‑State solution on the basis of UN resolutions, international law and existing agreements, with Jerusalem as the capital of both States.

**Middle East/Humanitarian

And, on the humanitarian front, our humanitarian colleagues say that the current risk of escalation will likely worsen the humanitarian situation, especially in Gaza, where the health sector has been struggling to provide basic services for years and has been further burdened further by COVID-19.  Funding for the humanitarian response is critical.  The Humanitarian Response Plan for the Occupied Palestinian Territory, asking for $417 million to help 1.8 million vulnerable Palestinians, is only 29 per cent funded.

**Middle East/Children

And from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the Executive Director of UNICEF, Henrietta Fore, said today that at least 14 children in the State of Palestine and 1 child in Israel have been reportedly killed since Monday.  She noted that another 95 children in Gaza and the West Bank — including East Jerusalem — and three children in Israel have reportedly been injured in the past five days.  Ms. Fore said the situation is at a dangerous tipping point, with the level of violence and its impact on children being devastating.  In any war, she said, children — all children — suffer first and the most.  Ms. Fore called on all sides to end all violence and de-escalate tensions, urging them to protect all civilians, especially children.

**Security Council

And this morning, after the Security Council members heard from Mr. Wennesland, they held an open meeting on Yemen.  The Special Envoy, Martin Griffiths, told the Council that, despite redoubled efforts in recent months to reach a peaceful resolution to the Yemen conflict, he unfortunately could not report today that the parties are closing in on a deal.  Instead, he said, there has been relentless military escalation by Ansar Allah in Marib and continued restrictions on imports through Hudaydah contributing to severe fuel shortages.  There have also been restrictions on Yemenis’ freedom of movement across the country, including the continued closure of Sana’a airport, as well as the absence of a political process, which deprives Yemenis of hope that an end to the conflict is near.  Mr. Griffiths said the Ansar Allah’s offensive in Marib, which has been ongoing for more than a year, has caused an astonishing loss of life.

And also briefing the Council was Mark Lowcock, the Emergency Relief Coordinator, who said that the humanitarian crisis in Yemen is trapped in a relentless downward spiral.  He said that famine is still stalking the country, with 5 million people just a step away from starving.  COVID-19 is still surging, pushing the health‑care system to collapse.  Mr. Lowcock underlined that famine, disease and other miseries are not simply “happening” in Yemen, but that the war is imposing them, on Yemen.  As long as the war continues, they will keep getting worse, he said.  He called for urgent action on protecting civilians, increasing humanitarian access, stepping up funding, improving the economy and making progress towards peace.

**Myanmar/Humanitarian

And on Myanmar, our humanitarian colleagues tell us that, on the ground, they are concerned by the impact of the continued clashes in the north and north‑eastern parts of the country between the Myanmar military and ethnic armed organizations, as well as amongst ethnic armed organizations themselves.  In Kachin State, for example, some 10,000 people have fled their homes due to renewed fighting.  In northern Shan, more than 12,000 men, women and children have been displaced since the start of the year.  More than half of those families remain displaced.  And our colleagues in Myanmar also tell us they are also concerned by the situation in the south-eastern parts of Myanmar, where more than 40,000 people have been uprooted since February due to attacks by the military and the Kayin National Liberation Army, including air strikes, artillery and mortar shelling.  Several thousand people crossed the border to Thailand and India to escape the violence.  The UN and our partners are working to help some 1 million people in conflict-affected areas of Myanmar.  Their efforts are hampered by insecurity, as well as [lack] of access and funding.

**Secretary-General/Myanmar

And yesterday afternoon, we released a statement on Myanmar, saying that 100 days since the Myanmar military takeover has left hundreds of civilians killed, including numerous arbitrary arrests and other human rights violations, the Secretary-General renews his call on the country's military to respect the will of the people and act in the greater interest of peace and stability in the country.  The Secretary-General also encourages the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to swiftly follow through on its own commitments, and the international community to support regional efforts, to bring an end to the repression by the military.  He also calls on the international community to respond to the increased humanitarian needs.  The Secretary-General’s Special Envoy, Christine Schraner Burgener, is in the region and continues to engage intensively with key stakeholders, including in light of the broader ramifications of the crisis.  She continues to promote coherent international action.  The Secretary‑General, for his part, will continue to stand with the people of Myanmar.

**Somalia

Moving on to Somalia, which is experiencing a double climate disaster:  recent torrential rains are causing the loss of lives and flash flooding, about two weeks after a drought was declared in the country.  Our humanitarian colleagues warn that the combined effects of drought and flooding may worsen the situation in Somalia, where more than 2.7 million people are food insecure.  More than 80 per cent of Somalia was facing moderate to severe drought conditions when seasonal rains started in parts of the country in late April and earlier this month.  At least 25 people have died in various parts of the Somalia due to the floods, among them 9 children who lost their lives when their house flooded in the Banadir region, earlier this week, and the Juba River has now burst its banks, and there are reports of flooding in the northern part of Somalia.  We, along with our partners, have reached at least 353,000 people in drought-affected areas with assistance.  Urgent efforts are under way to respond to flash flooding.  Despite increasing humanitarian needs, Somalia’s 2021 Humanitarian Response Plan, requiring $1 billion to help 4 million people, is only 19 per cent funded.

**Ethiopia

And turning to Ethiopia, where we were told that, while there is some positive news on Tigray’s humanitarian access, the situation remains fluid and unpredictable.  Blockades by military forces have, in recent days, severely impeded access in rural areas where humanitarian needs are most severe.  Armed hostilities reportedly continued in North-Western, Central, Eastern, South-Eastern and Southern Zones.  Of the 3 million people targeted to receive emergency shelter and non-food items, only 347,000 people, that is about 12 per cent, had been reached since 3 May.  With the start of the rainy season, our humanitarian colleagues warn that it is critical that aid agencies can provide minimal dignified shelter for the displaced.  An estimated 5.2 million people in Tigray, that is more than 87 per cent of the population, need food assistance.  Between 27 March and 5 May, the Government, the World Food Programme (WFP) and other partners have provided food aid to more than 1.2 million people in 32 districts.  Water trucking to nearly 730,000 people [is ongoing].

**Democratic Republic of the Congo

A quick update from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the Head of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), Bintou Keita, is in the eastern region of the country, for a week-long visit.  Today, in Goma, she met with the new authorities in the North Kivu Province.  They were appointed following a state of siege announced by the President for an initial period of 30 days in North Kivu and Ituri Provinces.  Speaking to the media, she said that discussions with the Governor and Vice‑Governor of North Kivu were focused on clarifying roles and responsibilities, adding that there was a “renewed hope” and that, thanks to all efforts, as well as the trust and contributions of the population, she is hopeful that the security situation will improve.

**Central African Republic

And in the Central African Republic, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) continues to provide support for the conducting of the next legislative elections, as part of their electoral mandate and to ensure the protection of civilians.  Earlier this week, with the support of MINUSMA, the National Electoral Authority began the deployment of trainers from Bangui to the prefectures.  They will train members of the National Electoral Authority involved in the legislative elections, which takes place on 23 May.  They will also supervise the training of polling station personnel.  And the Strategic Communication and Public Information Division of MINUSMA also continues to provide support to enhance media coverage of the elections.  In the view of the growing threat of misinformation, the dissemination of accurate and reliable messages is even more vital.

**COVID-19

A couple of COVID related items.  You will have seen that the World Health Organization (WHO) Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, led by Helen Clarke and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, released their findings.  For his part, the Secretary-General has been briefed on the report’s recommendations.  He welcomes the dynamic leadership of the Panel.  He hopes the report will bring attention to the critical issues highlighted and will prompt Governments to implement its recommendations.  We fully support the full package of recommendations.

**COVAX

And today, in Kosovo, a second batch of COVID-19 vaccines from COVAX was received with the help of UNICEF.  The vaccine campaign kicked off there in March after Kosovo received its first shipment of COVAX.  More doses are expected to arrive in a few weeks.  The Philippines has also recently received another shipment of COVAX-backed vaccines.  Some 4.5 million doses have been committed to the country through COVAX in total.  We provided support for the national vaccination campaign, which targets priority groups first.

**Financial Contribution

And I want to thank our friends in Port au Prince [in Haiti] for paying their budget dues in full to the 2021 budget, which brings us up to 101 members.

**Holiday

And tomorrow, as you know, is Eid al-Fitr and the UN will be closed.  We will, as always, will be available to you by via electronic means, but we will see you back here on Friday.  And I'm sorry, but I have to sit down.  I cannot stand anymore.  All right.  Célhia, please.

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Stéphane, about the WHO, [inaudible] that WHO knew of sex abuse claims by Dr. Diallo in Congo during the Ebola crisis but did nothing.  Do you know anything about it?

Spokesman:  Yes, I do know some things about it, as I also…

Correspondent:  I'd love to know.

Spokesman:  I also read what is printed.  First of all, I think we are aware of these, obviously, aware of these allegations, but, I think, as always, when we talk about sexual abuse, it's important for us to be very clear, to say that every allegation of sexual abuse is to be taken seriously and is taken seriously.  We, obviously… much has been done in the DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo] on this issue, but we, obviously, need to be vigilant and need to do more.  In whatever context these abuses take place, we know that the risk of sexual abuse is an ever‑present danger, and it breaks the trust of the very people we are meant to be… there to serve.  All allegations need to be investigated, and all victims need to be heard.  I know WHO's looking into this matter, so I think you should ask them for any further information.  And I know, from speaking to them this morning, that they are scheduled to make some comments a bit shortly.  Okay.  Ms. Saloomey, please.

Question:  Thanks, Stéphane.  I'm wondering if the Secretary‑General has any reaction to the Security Council's inability to come together on the situation in the Middle East and issue any kind of a statement?  Would that have been helpful?

Spokesman:  Well, we don't think that all hope is lost.  We always… any international situation will always benefit from a strong and unified voice from the Security Council.  We hope that Council members find, have the ability to issue a statement.  Ibtisam?

Question:  A follow‑up, first, on that.  So, the Security Council, the failure of the Security Council to issue a statement has to do, according to diplomatic resources, to… with the refusal of the US to do so, and the US was the only country who opposed that.  Do you have any comments on that?

Spokesman:  Look, you, obviously, speak to more diplomats and have access to more diplomats than I do.  I… and I'm not questioning at all what you're saying.  It's just I'm not able to comment on the inner workings of Council members.  We hope that whatever issue there is gets resolved, and we would, as always, we would want to hear a strong, unified message from the Security Council.

Question:  On your statement regarding the security concerns of civilian Israelis, do you believe that Palestinians, civilian Palestinians, have also security concerns and that you should comment on them and take them into consideration?

Spokesman:  I think, I think we have… we have commented on it.  And I think each case of the use of force needs to be analysed, investigated and dealt with.  As we've said, Palestinians have the right to demonstrate peacefully, express themselves without fear of harm, and we've consistently called on Israel to refrain from excessive force in such contexts.  Civilians, whether in Israel, whether in the occupied Palestinian territory, should not be made the target of acts of terror or subjected to rocket attacks.

Question:  Last one, for now at least.  But, I mean, a follow‑up on that.  As a matter of fact, you did condemn the launching of missiles by Hamas to Israel, but you did not condemn… the SG did not condemn the killing of Palestinians and attacks on Al‑Aqsa Mosque and other places and on civilians.  My question is, and I know we asked these questions in the last few days.  My question's actually is the Secretary‑General afraid to take any action or to… any statement on this issue because he's standing for elections and afraid from the American support that they will not support him if he does so?

Spokesman:  No, no… no.  That's the short answer.  The Secretary‑General has repeatedly condemned the use of force against civilians.

Correspondent:  Including Palestinian civilians…

Spokesman:  Civilians are civilians.

Correspondent:  No, but you…

Spokesman:  I'm just say… I'm answering your question to the best of my ability.  Toby?

Correspondent:  But, you didn't… yeah.

Spokesman:  No.

Question:  So, the question, is he afraid…?

Spokesman:  No.  I think I answered that first part by saying no.  Toby?

Question:  Thanks, Steph.  So, follow‑up from yesterday, do Palestinians have a right to self‑defence?  I think there was some legal hesitation there or something…?

Spokesman:  I think, as I just told Ibtisam, each case of use of force must be analysed, investigated, and dealt with on its own terms.  And I'd refer you to what I've just said to Ibtisam.

Question:  Do they have like a common‑sense right to self‑defence?

Spokesman:  Any use of force needs to be analysed.  It needs to be investigated, dealt with on its own terms.  No civilians, whether Palestinians, whether Israelis, should be made the target of terror, of rocket attacks.  Civilians need to be protected.

Question:  Second question is, how concerned should we be about war right now?  I mean, are we on a warpath?  Who… what did Mr. Wennesland say in that regard?

Spokesman:  I think we are very concerned about an escalating spiral of violence.  The… as we've just… any violence, any increase in the spiral of violence will just continue to hurt the future of Palestinians, of Israelis.  Our position has been clear that the only solution to this is a political solution based on existing UN resolutions, based on the end of the occupation and the realization of a two‑State solution.  Okay, Alan?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  A little bit different topic, do you have any updates on the activities of UN groups at the area of Nagorno‑Karabakh conflict, be it humanitarian or de‑mining or anything?  Thank you.

Spokesman:  Yes.  I think we would… we would like to see… excuse me, we would like to have the unhindered humanitarian access in Nagorno‑Karabakh, as we ask for in other parts of the world.  To date, this has not been possible because we've not received the necessary authorization from the Azeri authorities.  However, we are hopeful that we'll see progress on this soon.  Okay.  Liling, and then Abdelhamid.

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  A follow‑up on the question about the sexual allegations involving the World Health Organization, was the Secretary‑General aware?  When was he made aware?  What's his response?  And to what extent can the SG assert his zero‑tolerance policy on the WHO where it comes to sexual abuse and exploitation?

Spokesman:  Look, we've been aware of some of the allegations that have already been reported.  Our reaction is that every case needs to be fully investigated.  Every victim needs to be heard.  If there are… if there is wrongdoing by UN staff, by NGOs, there needs to be accountability in that regard.  We work with WHO as part of our kind of unified UN‑wide system approach to sexual exploitation and abuse, and I know, from speaking to them this morning, they are more than fully aware of the situation.  I think they'll have a bit more to say a bit later on.  Okay.  Abdelhamid, and then Evelyn.

Correspondent:  Thank you, Stéphane.  I have couple of questions.  I hope you'll bear with me also.

Spokesman:  I always do, Abdelhamid.

Question:  Thank you.  Can you qualify what going on in Gaza now as an act of aggression?

Spokesman:  I'm not… I'm going to qualify it as an extremely dangerous and ever‑growing cycle of violence that will hurt, first and foremost, civilians.

Question:  Okay.  The statement you have just said on Mr. Wennesland did not put the background of what happened, which started in Jerusalem and started exactly on Friday evening when Israeli security forces invaded Al‑Aqsa Mosque, brutalized the worshippers and left 300 people wounded.  That is how it started.  Why he didn't put that background before he talks about…?

Spokesman:  Mr. Wennesland… this is sort of the highlights of, the expression… let me put it this way.  This is the expression of our opinion and our analysis of the situation.  In his closed briefing to the Security Council, I know he also reported the facts on the ground.  You had another question?

Question:  One more question, Stéphane.  Do people under occupation have the right to resist their occupiers?

Spokesman:  Look, I think I've answered that question.  There's a body of international law, international humanitarian law, and you're free to consult it.  Evelyn.  Evelyn?

Question:  Sorry, can you hear me now?

Spokesman:  Yes, ma'am.

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  When do you expect a replacement to be named for Mr. Griffiths on Yemen?

Spokesman:  I would first have to announce that he has a new job, which I don't believe I've had.

Question:  Ah, but he does, doesn't he?  And secondly, on WHO, the group analysing the pandemic for WHO, one… I wondered if you or the Secretary‑General reacted to one of their findings, which was that after China revealed the problem or the disease, the virus, there was no world leaders that took up the slack and began to publicize it and decided to do something, the lack of international response…?

Spokesman:  I think the Secretary‑General has been very clear from the beginning about the lack of coordinated national responses from Member States.  He's also been very clear about the fact that, you know, WHO's gotten a lot of criticism, but a lot of that criticism is because the way it has been set up by Member States, the way the governance exists by Member States, doesn't really give the organization much teeth.  And he's always said that the international public health system needs to have a bit more teeth.  Okay, on that dental note… Stefano?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  Today, the United States, UK and Germany hosted an event on the situation on the Province of Xinjiang in China, on the human rights situation there.  And I think no… Michelle Bachelet and no one from the UN participated with a speech or anything.  So, is, what does Secretary‑General think about… I mean, we know that the Chinese Mission here was, issued a statement where they were very upset about this, and many countries participated, but other country didn't participate.  What the Secretary‑General think about this event?  Does he think it was important to be held or if it was a provocation?

Spokesman:  Look, Member States hold events here all the time.  This is part of what the UN is all about.  It's not for the Secretary‑General to opine on events organized by Member States.

Question:  Just a quick follow‑up.  Was… the fact that there was not participation by office of the UN… I mean, for example, from the office of Bachelet, was something to do… I mean, is this something normal, or what… what does Secretary‑General think?

Spokesman:  You should… first of all, I think the High Commissioner herself has expressed, on a number of occasions, serious concerns about the situation for human rights in Xinjiang.  There are also the discussions ongoing about access.  My understanding is that her office did receive an invitation, that she was unable to attend, but I would encourage you to ask our human rights colleagues in Geneva about more details on that.  Okay, Toby, and then I'm going to go see a back doctor.

Correspondent:  Sorry, Steph.  I hope you're all right.

Spokesman:  If you see me do the briefing lying down on Friday, I think you'll get… you'll figure out the answer to that, yes.

Question:  Prone on the dais.  Just a follow‑up to Stefano's question, did you receive, did the Secretariat receive any other invitations from the UK, US or Germany for briefers on…?

Spokesman:  No.  My understanding is the invitation went to our human rights colleagues.  Yeah.  Betul, wherever you are.

Correspondent:  Thank you, Steph.  Sorry.  I don't have a video today.  A follow‑up question on that meeting today at the UN, since the Human Rights Commissioner has no access to China's Xinjiang region to investigate the human rights violation, there were some calls at today's meeting for the Secretary‑General to set up an investigation team, just like he did in Syria.  Did he consider setting up a UN investigative team to… because there's no access by the UN to that region at the moment.

Spokesman:  Look, I think we have made very clear the Secretary‑General's position on the situation in Xinjiang.  As you know, he has raised it on a number of occasions, as we've said here in his, with his interlocutors in China.  We very much hope that the discussions between the High Commissioner's office and the Chinese authorities on a possible visit will bear fruit.  And as for, in theory, the setting up of any sort of investigation, inquiry, into any place in the world, that would require a mandate from a legislative body.  I think as, and I will leave it there.  Okay.  Thank you, all.

For information media. Not an official record.