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17 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.

**Middle East

Not surprisingly, we will start with the situation in Gaza and in Israel.

Our colleagues on the ground in Gaza have reported continued Israeli air strikes on Gaza, as well as outgoing rocket and mortar fire by Palestinian groups into Israel.

We continue to receive reports of significant displacement of Palestinians, with over 38,000 internally displaced people seeking protection in 48 schools run by UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees) across the Gaza Strip.  Over 2,500 people have been made homeless due to the destruction of their homes.

Forty-one education facilities — including schools, two kindergartens, an UNRWA vocational centre, and a higher education facility — have been damaged, according to our people on the ground.

The power supply across Gaza has been reduced to six to eight hours per day, on average, with a number of feeder lines not functioning.  That, in turn, disrupts the provision of health care and other basic services, including water, hygiene and sanitation.

The Humanitarian Coordinator, our colleague, Lynn Hastings, has appealed to the Israeli authorities and Palestinian armed groups to immediately allow the UN and our humanitarian partners to bring in fuel, food, and medical supplies and to deploy humanitarian personnel in Gaza.  All parties must always adhere to international humanitarian and human rights laws, she said.

The World Food Programme (WFP) has started providing emergency assistance for more than 51,000 people in north Gaza in response to rising humanitarian needs.  This is especially strong among families in that area.

However, the closure of crossings into Gaza may soon cause a dearth of commodities, including food, and this is bound to push up food prices.  WFP warns that prices of fresh produce are already on the rise, as farmers are unable to reach their land.

We continue to actively engage all sides towards an immediate cessation of fire between Israelis and Palestinians.

Our Special Coordinator, Tor Wennesland, is working tirelessly with all sides to restore calm.

For his part, the Secretary-General, as you saw in yesterday’s [Security Council] meeting, continues to urge a halt to fighting in his remarks to the VTC (video teleconference) meeting of the Security Council yesterday, saying, “Fighting must stop.  It must stop immediately.  Rockets and mortars on one side and aerial and artillery bombardments on the other must stop.”

He said that the hostilities have already caused unconscionable death, immense suffering and damage to vital infrastructure.  The Secretary-General added that he was appalled by the increasingly large number of Palestinian civilian casualties, including many women and children, from Israeli strikes into Gaza.  He said he also deplores Israeli fatalities from rockets launched from Gaza.

**Bougainville

Turning to Bougainville, the Secretary-General welcomes the beginning, this week, of consultations between the Government of Papua New Guinea and the Autonomous Bougainville Government.  This follows the referendum on the political future of Bougainville that was held in late 2019.  The consultations are an important step in the implementation of the Bougainville Peace Agreement, which the United Nations has consistently supported since its signing in 2001.

**Sudan

Turning to Sudan, the Secretary-General sent a pre-recorded video message to the International Conference to Support the Sudanese Transition, which was hosted by the Government of France.

Mr. [António] Guterres said that we have a responsibility to help Sudan consolidate its democratic transition, rebuild its economy, and deliver sustainable peace and development for all its diverse society.

The Secretary-General commended the Government of Sudan for undertaking difficult economic reforms and for its peacemaking efforts with both the signatories and non-signatories of the Juba Peace Agreement.

Mr. Guterres stressed the importance of donor support to help Sudan turn the page on its economic crisis.

**South Sudan

To the south of Sudan, in neighbouring South Sudan, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative there, Nicholas Haysom, expressed his alarm over the fresh escalation of violence in Pibor.

He pointed to the likelihood of revenge attacks, the further displacement of thousands of civilians, and threats to the distribution of life-saving food aid.

You may recall that a UN human rights report found that, last year, thousands of fighters from Dinka, Nuer and Murle militias conducted coordinated attacks on villages.  Those attacks killed and wounded hundreds of men, women and children.

Mr. Haysom called on authorities to prevent a repeat of this violence, to take steps to address the root causes and fulfil its responsibility to protect civilians.

For its part, the UN Mission (UNMISS) is setting up temporary bases and stepping up patrols to deter violence.  It also is working to promote reconciliation through peace conferences.

**Abyei

Staying in the area, in Abyei, the UN peacekeeping mission there (UNISFA) spoke out today against an attack in the village of Dungup, in which 11 people were reportedly killed.

Unidentified people attacked a Dinka community early yesterday morning.  The injured are being treated at a UN Mission hospital.

UN peacekeepers have stepped up their patrols to protect civilians and to search for the perpetrators of the attack.

The Mission said this attack could lead to an increase of inter-community tensions and is calling for a defusing of tensions in that area.

**Myanmar

From Myanmar, our UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) office in the country today called for an immediate halt to the violence and for security forces to protect children in the town of Mindat, in western Chin State, following an uptick of violence over the weekend.

Martial law was imposed in the area on 13 May.

The UN Human Rights Office is investigating credible reports of at least six people being killed over the weekend, as well as of arbitrary detentions and arrests.

To date, our colleagues tell us that at least 797 civilians, including dozens of children, have been killed by security forces since the military seized control of the Myanmar Government on 1 February.  Thousands more have been injured.

**Development Reform

Tomorrow, at 10 a.m., the Secretary-General and the Deputy Secretary-General, Amina J. Mohammed, will kick off a three-day virtual session with Member States on the state of the UN development system.

During this session, organized by the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), top UN officials at global, regional and country levels will discuss with Member States the ways to address the unparalleled challenges brought by the pandemic.

Last year alone, close to 250 million people received essential services backed by UN teams.  Nearly half of them are in the least developed country group, including 42 per cent of them in landlocked developing countries and 2 million in small island developing States.

The session will be live on http://webtv.un.org/.

**Work/Heart Disease

A new analysis by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) shows that long working hours led to 745,000 deaths from stroke and ischemic heart disease in 2016.  This is a 29 per cent increase since 2000.

The study concludes that working 55 or more hours per week is associated with an estimated 35 per cent higher risk of a stroke and a 17 per cent higher risk of dying from ischemic heart disease, compared to working 35 to 40 hours a week.

**COVAX

A couple of COVAX updates for you:

The Dominican Republic received its second batch of COVID-19 vaccines from COVAX last Friday.  The Resident Coordinator from the UN, Mauricio Ramírez Villegas, welcomed this development.

And also receiving its second [COVAX shipment] on Friday was Uruguay.  The new batch of more than 50,000 doses will be used in the country’s national vaccination campaign.

**Global Road Safety Week

Today marks the start of the sixth UN Global Road Safety Week.  The so-called “Love30” campaign promoted during the week is calling on policymakers to limit speeds to 30 km/h on streets where pedestrians, cyclists and others who are most at risk mix with motorized traffic.

This year, the Week also aims to build momentum towards the launch of the Global Plan for the Decade of Action for Road Safety, which will be 2021-2030.

Every year, more than 1.3 million people die in road traffic crashes — that’s one person every 24 seconds.  In high-income countries, one in three deaths on the roads is attributed to speed.

**LGBTIQ+

Today is the International Day against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia.  In his message for the Day, the Secretary-General says that LGBTIQ+ people around the world face discrimination simply because of who they are.  This has only worsened with the pandemic.

Since the start of the pandemic, the United Nations has documented a worsening of discrimination, violence, hate speech, social and economic exclusion, stigma and obstacles in accessing health care, education, employment and basic services faced by the LGBTIQ+ community.

The Secretary-General says that we need to take concrete steps to repeal discriminatory laws, address violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics, and combat the root causes of these injustices.

He calls for all of us to work together for an inclusive world where everyone can live free and equal in dignity and rights, no matter who they are, where they live or whom they love.

**World Telecommunication and Information Society Day

Today is also World Telecommunication and Information Society Day.  In his message for that Day, Mr. Guterres notes that digital technologies sustain life, work, health and learning for billions of people.

But he points out that in the face of COVID-19, businesses, Governments and the digital community have proven resilient and innovative, helping to protect lives and livelihoods.  Yet, he says, 3.7 billion people, that’s almost half the world’s population, remain unconnected to the Internet.  And the majority of the people who are unconnected are women.

**Virtual Press Encounters

A couple of events to flag for you:

The Permanent Representative of Mexico to the UN, Ambassador Juan Ramón de la Fuente, will brief reporters virtually, following this afternoon’s Security Council briefing on the International Criminal Court (ICC) and Libya.

Tomorrow, at 11 a.m., in the Press Briefing Room, there will be a briefing by Ambassador Sofiane Mimouni, the Permanent Representative of Algeria and Chair of the Arab Group for the month of May.  He will be joined by Ambassador Abdou Abarry, Permanent Representative of Niger and Chair of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) for May.  The two will be joined by Ambassador Riyad Mansour, Permanent Observer of the State of Palestine to the UN.  That will be in this room at 11.

I’ve done my bit.  Up to you now.

**Questions and Answers

Yes, Iftikhar.

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  In your opening remarks, you painted a very grim picture of the situation in Gaza, but please tell us, where do the United Nations’ diplomatic efforts to bring about de-escalation stand?

Spokesman:  We are continuing, through our Special Coordinator, to be in touch with all the relevant parties on the ground to try to, A, establish an immediate cessation of hostilities, a ceasefire, and also to be able to have humanitarian aid reach Gaza where it is most needed.

Question:  Any sign of progress?

Spokesman:  Well, I think, sadly, Iftikhar, I think you can answer that question for yourself.  We’re seeing the situation on the ground.

For some reason, I can’t see the room.  So, if there’s a question in the room, take the mic.

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  Thanks, Steph.  It’s Edie.  A quick follow-up on what Iftikhar just asked, what has the Secretary-General himself been doing?  He said yesterday that the UN was actively engaging all sides.  Is he himself engaged in this process?

Spokesman:  Yes, he has had a number of contacts, but contacts at different levels are being had.  The focus right now is on the work that Mr. Wennesland is doing, but the Secretary-General remains fully engaged in the situation with… as I said, with his contacts at various levels and especially speaking to Mr. Wennesland.

Question:  I have another… my question is about the media group Reporters Without Borders asking the International Criminal Court to investigate Israel’s bombing of buildings housing the Associated Press and other media organizations in Gaza as a possible war crime.  The media watchdog said, in a letter to the court’s chief prosecutor, that the offices of 23 international and local media organizations had been destroyed over the past week.  Does the Secretary-General support such an investigation?  And what is his comment about the destruction of so many media organizations’ offices?

Spokesman:  Look, I’m not going to comment on the ICC… on the call to the ICC.  The Secretary-General was extremely disturbed to see the destruction of the media building.  It is clear that journalists who operate in Gaza need to be able to do so without fear of harassment, of destruction of their offices and so forth.

We don’t have… and I think it would be very… we don’t have any additional information about the incident, but I think it would be very important to elucidate what exactly happened.

Okay.  Again, I don’t see… Sorry.  [cross talk]

Question:  And what about a quick follow-up… a quick follow-up.  I know you were just talking about the building that houses AP and Al Jazeera, but what about Reporters Without Borders saying the offices of 23 international and local organizations have been destroyed?  Shouldn’t that be investigated also?

Spokesman:  I… completely, as well.  I mean, I think nothing should be done to get in the way of journalists doing their work.

All right.

Question:  Steph, can I…

Spokesman:  Yes, go ahead, Toby.

Question:  Can I just follow up on…

Spokesman:  Yes.

Question:  Thanks.  Would… does the UN call on Israel to release the evidence that there were legitimate military targets in that building?  Is that something that the UN needs to see from Israel?

Spokesman:  Look, I think clarity should be had into exactly what happened.

Question:  And then, just as long as I have the floor.  [cross talk]

Spokesman:  Okay.  Yeah, go ahead.  And then… I don’t know who’s behind… I think Kristen’s behind you, but go ahead, Toby.  Go ahead.

Question:  Can I… okay.  Can I have a… can we have an update on Christine Schraner Burgener?  The US announced new sanctions today.  What’s she doing?  Where is she, and who’s she talking to?  Thank you.

Spokesman:  She is in Thailand.  As you know, she had met with Thai officials, I think, on Friday.  She continues to be in touch with all relevant interlocutors but no update on her travel as of now.

All right.  Miss Saloomey, go ahead.

Question:  Stéphane, given the Secretary-General’s been engaged on the Middle East situation and given he said that a unified statement from the Council would be helpful, I’m wondering if you can give us any insight into any conversations he’s had with the United States.  It’s very clear from China and other sources in the Security Council that it’s the US that is resistant to this.  Do you have any insight into what their objections are to the statements that are being proposed and what’s his reaction to that?  [cross talk]

Spokesman:  No, nothing in…

Question:  Do you have any reaction to that?  What is he saying to the United States?  [cross talk]

Spokesman:  Okay.  Nothing to… no insights that I’m able to share with you at this point.  I would restate the need for a very strong and unified voice from the Security Council, which we think would carry weight.

Okay.  Anybody else in the room?  And then we’ll go to the chat.

Question:  I’ve got one more on… can you…

Spokesman:  Yeah.  Go ahead, Toby.

Question:  Can you hear me, Steph?  The US National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, has asked… has said the US is doing quiet diplomacy, which does not sound like that’s consistent with getting a unified voice out of the Security Council on this matter.  Does the UN have a comment on that strategic difference?

Spokesman:  No, I… listen, it’s not for me to comment on the strategic… on the choices that Member States make and how they engage in diplomacy.

Betul, and then we’ll go to Abdelhamid.

Question:  Hi, Steph.  Can you hear me?

Spokesman:  Perfectly.

Question:  Hi.  Thank you.  Steph, there’s been also calls to set up an international protection mechanism for the Palestinian civilians, given the fact that there is no action from the Security Council following three meetings, and there is no de-escalation on the ground between the parties despite the Secretary-General’s calls to end the fighting immediately.  Is that something the Secretary-General would support, this international protection mechanism?

Spokesman:  Well, our focus right now is on getting an immediate cessation of hostilities, [delivery] of any humanitarian aid and, obviously, trying to get a political process back on track.  And I think, as the Secretary-General said in his remarks, the longer this conflict goes on, the longer this cycle goes on, the more difficult it is to get to where we want to be, which is a two-State solution.  Everything should be done to protect civilians, Palestinian civilians that are under… in Gaza and all civilians.  But it is also… in terms of any mechanism, I think that’s something that we’d have to see some sort of proposal from Member States.

Question:  Is that something he would support, because… [cross talk]

Spokesman:  I think… We’d have to see… there are all sorts of meeting reports.  I think we’d have to see what exactly is being proposed.

Abdelhamid?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  I have two questions on the speeches given by both the Secretary-General and his Special Envoy, Mr. Wennesland.  Mr. Wennesland said, “in response to Hamas firing rockets,” so… “Israel start bombardment”.  So, he gave the… he was apologetic for Israel.  He gave excuse for Israel, when he knows and you know and everyone knows it wasn’t like that; it started in the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood.  That’s the whole episode started.  Why he has to say, “in response to Hamas firing rockets, Israel started bombardment”?  That means there is a reason for its right to destroy Gaza?  Right?  My…

Spokesman:  I… you can do the analysis of his… [cross talk]

Question:  It’s not analysis…

Spokesman:  No, no, Abdelhamid, let me finish.  You’re free to do the analysis.  He reported on a certain amount of time.  I mean, I think we can all spend a long time about who started what and when.  For us, we’re trying to be looking in the immediate… what the immediate needs, and that is a halt to the aerial bombardment and to the artillery into Gaza, a halt of the rockets and the mortars coming out of Gaza.

And your second question?

Question:  I am just… again, I don’t want you to answer, but I’m just questioning the sequence of events, which it didn’t start by firing on.

My second question about the speech of the Secretary-General, he kept calling on both parties, both parties are calling in them.  So, he put it like on equal footing, both, a very strong power for a State, a nuclear State like Israel, with air force, with airports, with so much firepower, equal with those militias who are firing primitive rockets.  When he calls on both sides, that means they are on equal footing.  That’s my… again my question.  Why he doesn’t…

Spokesman:  I… again, I think what “both sides” implies is that, on one hand, we are seeing aerial bombardment and artillery from Israel.  On the other hand, we’re seeing groups like Hamas and others fire rockets and mortars into Israel.  So, it’s not a question of equal… the question that two… there are two sides that are firing at each other, and that’s what the sentence is about.

Question:  So, is killing two children equal to killing 51 children, Stéphane?  [cross talk]

Spokesman:  I’m not…  Abdelhamid, I’m not going to get into a distressing and morbid body count.  The child of one… the life of one child is the life of one child.

Correspondent:  I do agree with you.

Spokesman:  And each child has a right to live in peace and security, no matter where that child is born.

Okay.  I don’t see any other questions, but I see a very sharply dressed Brenden Varma.  So, I will leave you in good hands.

I hope to be back in person tomorrow, but that is beyond my control.  Thank you.

For information media. Not an official record.