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19 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.

**Security Council

Just starting off with this morning, as you saw, the Secretary-General spoke at the Security Council virtual open debate on peace and security in Africa.

One year into the COVID-19 pandemic, he said, it is clear that the crisis is feeding many drivers of conflict and instability.  But, he added, recovery from the pandemic offers an opportunity to address the root causes of conflict, put prevention at the forefront of our efforts, and implement the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, as well as the African Union’s Agenda 2063.

African Governments themselves, he said, have shown great commitment to fight the pandemic by establishing an Africa task force for a unified continent-wide approach.

However, limited supply and access to vaccines, as well as insufficient support for the pandemic response, are delaying the recovery.

The Secretary-General renewed his call for an equitable and sustainable vaccine roll-out worldwide.  He also reiterated his appeal for measures to alleviate the debt burden that threatens to cripple the recovery in many low- and middle-income developing countries, particularly in Africa.

His remarks have been shared with you.

**Occupied Palestinian Territory

Turning to the situation in Israel and Gaza, in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.  In a flash appeal, the UN Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, said today that it urgently seeks $38 million to respond to the immediate needs and to carry out essential emergency interventions in Gaza.  UNRWA said that activities cover an initial 30-day emergency response, from the start of the escalation on 10 May, and will support up to 50,000 individuals seeking safety in 50 designated emergency shelters.

Regarding funding, Mark Lowcock, the Emergency Relief Coordinator, said that the UN’s Humanitarian Coordinator on the ground, Lynn Hastings, hopes to release $14 million from the Humanitarian Fund for the Occupied Palestinian Territory.  The Emergency Relief Coordinator called upon donors to accelerate their contributions to the Fund without delay.

He added that the crossings with Gaza need to be opened for the entrance of essential and humanitarian supplies, including fuel and basic services and supplies to help curb the spread of COVID-19 virus.

And the Secretary-General, from his part, said that we are seeing immense human suffering and extensive damage to homes and vital infrastructure in Gaza.  He called on the international community to ensure adequate funding for our humanitarian operations there.

And as a reminder, the Secretary-General will address the General Assembly tomorrow in a special session on the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.  We will share his remarks with you under embargo as soon as we get them.

**Mali

Moving on to Mali.  I just want to highlight a joint communiqué issued by the UN Mission, the African Union and ECOWAS — that is the Economic Community of West African States.  They met as members of the local committee to monitor the transition and initiated consultations to facilitate the successful conclusion of the transition.

In the communiqué, the Committee members took note of the decision by the President of the Transition, Bah N’Daw, to reappoint Prime Minister Moctar Ouane to his functions.

They reiterated their strong support for the leaders of the transition and encouraged them to persevere in their efforts to ensure a transition that is as inclusive as possible, balanced and based on respect for the principles of good governance.  The Committee also underlined the need to respect the agreed transition timetable.

The Committee members also reiterated their appeal to all stakeholders to spare no effort to meet the challenges facing Mali, and to place the interests of Mali and its people above all other considerations.

**Niger

And staying in the region, in Niger, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is telling us that in the western region of Tillabery, more than 10,000 men, women and children have fled their homes since last Friday.  This follows violent attacks by non-State armed groups in the Anzourou district, near the border with Mali.

The registration of displaced people and the provision of food, education, water and sanitation hygiene is ongoing.

As you are aware, in recent months, those regions of Tillabery and Tahoua, along the borders with Mali and Burkina Faso, have experienced escalating cross-border attacks.

The number of internally displaced persons in Tillabery has nearly doubled over the past year and a half:  from 57,000 in December 2019, to 102,000 in May this year.

Across Niger, 2.3 million people are likely to be severely food insecure during this year’s lean season because of insecurity, drought and floods.

About 3.8 million people need humanitarian assistance in the country.  Aid agencies seek $523 million to help the most vulnerable 2.1 million of them.  So far, only 7 per cent of the required funding has been received.

**Syria

And turning to Syria, the Secretary-General’s third report on children and armed conflict in Syria is out today.  It shows that more than 2,700 children were killed or maimed between July 2018 and June 2020, by air strikes, explosive remnants of war and indiscriminate ground shelling of civilian-populated areas.  Meanwhile, more than 1,400 children were recruited or used by at least 25 parties to conflict.

The report covers a two-year period which witnessed the outbreak of the pandemic and the imposition of related restrictions as of March 2020.  The actual number of grave violations is, therefore, believed to be higher than the 4,724 that are verified in the report.

The report also highlights the emerging trend of transnational recruitment, in which children were recruited and trained in Syria before being trafficked to Libya to participate in hostilities by armed groups.

**Lebanon

And in Lebanon, the International Support Group for Lebanon, which includes the UN and other international partners, met in Beirut today to take stock of the situation in the country.  In a statement issued afterward, the group’s members lamented the ongoing political stalemate in the government formation process.  The International Support Group once more called on Lebanon’s leaders to set aside their differences in the national interest and to delay no further the formation of a fully empowered government capable of meeting the country’s urgent needs and implementing long overdue reforms.

The International Support Group has also called for elections to take place on time in order to preserve Lebanon’s democracy in the context of the ongoing crisis.  It urged all relevant Lebanese authorities to initiate timely preparations in accordance with the electoral calendar.

**Myanmar

And turning to Myanmar, our colleagues there are still gravely concerned over rising levels of displacement since the military takeover of the Government on 1 February.

Since then, as you know, there has been widespread violence against civilians across the country.  Clashes between the Myanmar Armed Forces and ethnic armed organizations in border areas has intensified.

UNHCR (United Nations Refugee Agency) said that in Myanmar, as of last week, approximately 60,700 women, children and men have been internally displaced.  More than 1,700 refugees have crossed into Thailand in March and April, most of whom subsequently returned to Myanmar, and an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 have sought safety in India.

The UN team in Myanmar called on all countries across the region to offer refuge and protection to all people seeking safety, while humanitarian workers should be granted access to help them.

Our colleagues again call on the military to refrain from violence and the use of, disproportionate use, including the use of live ammunition.

**Belarus

A quick note from Geneva, where the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, today announced the appointment of three high-level experts to the UN Human Rights Office’s fact-finding mission on Belarus.  They will assist the High Commissioner in conducting a comprehensive examination of alleged human rights violations committed in Belarus since 1 May 2020, including the possible gender dimension of such violations.

**COVID-19 — Bangladesh

And an update on COVID from Bangladesh, where our UN team there, led by our Resident Coordinator Mia Seppo, is helping to address the multiple impacts of the pandemic.

We have stepped up our efforts in the areas of risk communications, community engagement and supplying oxygen.

Since last June, our team has trained more than 1,400 local community health workers.  We also have helped to visit more than [2.2 million households] and screened 280,000 people for COVID-19.  Our colleagues are also distributing locally produced masks.

The UN team brought together hundreds of people from the Government, private sector, civil society and others to design, implement and monitor a collective plan of action to respond to the pandemic.  Through this approach, more than 50 million people have been engaged in spreading messages on how to prevent the spread of the virus.  Also, half a million Muslim leaders helped to disseminate messages in nearly 240,000 mosques around Bangladesh.

**Global Trade Update

And on a related note, a report released today by UNCTAD, the UN Conference on Trade and Development, shows that world trade recovery from the COVID-19 crisis hit a record high in the first quarter of 2021, increasing by 10 per cent year-over-year and 4 per cent quarter-over-quarter.  According to the Global Trade Update, trade in goods during the first quarter of 2021 was higher than the pre-pandemic level, but trade in services remained substantially below average.

The report notes that the impressive rebound continued to be driven by the strong export performance of East Asian economies, whose early success in pandemic mitigation allowed them to rebound faster and to capitalize on booming global demand for COVID-19 related products.

The Global Trade Update pointed out that trade will continue growing in 2021, with the overall forecast indicating an increase of about 16 per cent from the lowest point of 2020.

**Protected Areas

And just two more notes:  A report released today by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and its partners says that while countries have made progress towards the global target on the number of protected areas, it is falling short on commitment on the quality of these areas.

Today, 16.6 per cent of all and inland water ecosystems and 7.7 per cent of coastal waters and the ocean are within documented protected and conserved areas.  This puts countries on track to exceed the 17 per cent target set by countries 10 years ago.  However, UNEP said that just designating these areas is insufficient and stressed that they need to be effectively managed and equitably governed to realize their many benefits.

The report also calls for existing protected and conserved areas to be identified and recognized, by accounting for the efforts of indigenous peoples, local communities and private entities, while recognizing their rights and responsibilities.

More information is online.

**Noon Briefing Guests Tomorrow

And lastly, tomorrow, I will be joined by Elliot Harris, the UN’s Chief Economist, along with Nazrul Islam, the Lead Author of the World Social Report 2021, which is produced by our colleagues in the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA).

**Questions and Answers

Ms. Lederer?

Question:  Thank you very much, Steph.  Does the Secretary-General have any comment on [United States] President [Joseph] Biden’s call to [Israeli] Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu to significantly de-escalate the situation in Gaza and Netanyahu’s recent comment saying that he’s determined to press ahead?

Spokesman:  I’m not going to comment on those comments.  What I will say is what our position is, is that we want to see a stop to the fighting as soon as possible.  We want to see a stop of the fighting immediately.

There needs to be a halt to the aerial attacks, to the rockets, to the artillery strikes going from one side to the other.  Civilians need to be able to live in peace.  We need to get that humanitarian aid into Gaza.

For our part, our Special Coordinator, Tor Wennesland, is actively engaged with all sides on the ground in order to work towards that end.

Betul, and then we’ll go to James.

Question:  Steph, my question on the SG’s report on children and armed conflict in Syria, does this report detail how many children have been trained and sent to Libya and how were they sent and who were training them?  Do you have any more details, or does the report have all those details?  [cross talk]

Spokesman:  I think both you and I need to read the report fully.  No, I say this… I just got the note.  I haven’t looked… I mean, the report, as usual, is full of data and well researched, so I would just…

Question:  Would you happen to know how many children?

Spokesman:  No, I don’t, but it’s… it should be in the report, which is public.

Mr. Bays, welcome back.

Question:  Thank you.  Couple of questions on the situation in the Middle East.  France has come out with a draft Security Council resolution.  How important does the Secretary-General believe it is that the Security Council now speaks with one voice?

Spokesman:  Very.  We think a unified and strong voice from the Security Council actually carries weight, not only in this situation but in other situations of conflict.

Question:  What we’re seeing on the ground, does the Secretary-General believe these are war crimes?

Spokesman:  Our focus right now is on seeing an immediate cessation of hostilities.  I think that will be for all… for others and for different parts of the UN to look at afterwards.

Question:  And what’s the Secretary-General himself been doing?  You’ve talked about what Mr. Wennesland is doing.  I remember covering in 2009, when there was a similar conflict, Ban Ki-moon got on a plane, and he went to Tel Aviv, and he raised issues with the Israeli Government at the time.  Does the Secretary-General feel he should, perhaps, follow the example of his predecessor?

Spokesman:  Each Secretary-General has his own methods of engaging in these types of events, and we will let historians compare and contrast 2009 to 2014 to 2021.  The Secretary-General has been fully engaged and following it very closely.  He’s raised this issue with… in contacts with the Russians, with the Americans, with the King of Jordan, with the Palestinians, with the Israelis soon.  But he has really empowered his man on the ground, Tor Wennesland, to engage in very, very active diplomacy in order to bring about an immediate cessation of hostilities.

Question:  Sorry.  Very quick follow-up because you said with the Israelis soon.

Spokesman:  Yes.

Question:  Are you saying that the Secretary-General in all of this period of bombardment by Israel and rockets from Gaza has not spoken to the Israeli Prime Minister?

Spokesman:  There has been no direct contact with the Secretary-General and Mr. Netanyahu…

Question:  Why not?

Spokesman:  Because the… it is… we are doing what we feel would be the most efficient in order to get to where we are, and that is the diplomacy on the ground, the contacts that are being had on the ground.

Betul?

Question:  So, just a follow-up on James’ question, we were told that the US does not support the French initiative to circulate this draft resolution.  What is your reaction?  There is, obviously, no unity in the Security Council… [cross talk]

Spokesman:  No, the fact that there is no unity is a fact.  The fact that we would like to see unity is our position.  The Council is the master of its domain.  The Council members will debate, and they will act accordingly.  I mean, I… we can’t tell them what to do.  We can… we’ve expressed what we would like to see but…

Célhia?

Question:  To follow-up on James’ and Betul’s questions, do you really think that the Secretary-General is doing enough to stop that war?  Because Kofi Annan himself went in 1998 to Iraq and stopped the war that was coming.  So, is he doing enough?

Spokesman:  Listen, I’m not going to compare the situation in '98 in Iraq to this current situation.  The Secretary-General has a very specific approach.  It is not one that involves very public diplomacy.  That’s his approach.  I can tell you that he is in daily multiple-times contact with Tor Wennesland, who is engaged in very, very active and deep contacts on all sides trying to get to where we want to be.

Yes, sir.

Question:  Hi, Stéphane.  It looks like there will be a number of foreign ministers tomorrow attending the special session of the UNGA (United Nations General Assembly).  Does it mean that, in September, we will see a better presence compared to last year?

Spokesman:  I don’t know.  We’re, obviously… as you know, we will be bringing to Member States various options on the re-opening.  There’s going to be a meeting this afternoon with the General Assembly.  Member States will have to make some decisions, obviously, taking into account the current situation on the ground in New York State, what… and the US so… but the Secretary-General will have a number of bilateral meetings with the foreign ministers tomorrow morning before the meeting.

Question:  [inaudible]

Spokesman:  I will start working on my song and dance routine.  [laughter]

Célhia?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  So, if the efforts on the ground… as you mentioned, that’s the strategy right now is to work from the ground and try to approach the Government of Israel.  If that doesn’t work, do you have a time frame in terms of maybe when the Secretary-General maybe have a call or decides…

Spokesman:  Look, things are being decided on a day-to-day basis, what is the best tactic in the Secretary-General’s mind to try to bring an end… trying to bring an end to this conflict.  His position, publicly, is very clear and has been well documented.

Question:  Just a follow-up.  A ceasefire, you… the efforts are advancing?  What is the new approach?  We know that France’s President, President [Emmanuel] Macron, said he had been talking to the parts… the leaders of Palestine, as well as Israel.  The President of the United States, as Edith mentioned, had a call.  Where that stands, what the countries are… is anything that the Secretary is coordinating?

Spokesman:  Well, I mean, there are, obviously, discussions going on between Governments, as well.  I mean, we know there are other parties involved in trying to get… to bring peace and to see a halt to the fighting.  I think everybody is working in the same direction.

Célhia, and then we’ll go to the screen.

Question:  Regarding those foreign ministers that are… who are coming tomorrow, will they get tested?  I guess they won’t go on quarantine.

Spokesman:  I think that’s an issue between them and the host authorities, the host country.

Okay.  Toby and then Maggie and then Abdelhamid.

Question:  Hi.  Thanks, Steph.  I have two questions today, one on Palestine and the other on Myanmar.  On Israel-Palestine, we saw normalizations of diplomatic relationship with the past year between Israel and several other countries in the region, and now we’re seeing some of the worst violence between Palestinians and Israelis that we’ve seen in years.  Does the Secretary-General feel that any of these normalizations were damaging to the dynamics in the region?

Spokesman:  I’m not… that’s an analysis best left to you, Toby.  I’m not equipped to do that kind of spot analysis, if you’ll apol… if you’ll excuse me.

Question:  Okay.  That’s fair.  My question on Myanmar, then, is, look, it’s been almost three months, a quarter of a year, since… 1 February, since the coup, and we haven’t heard very much recently from Miss [Christine] Schraner Burgener at all.  Is she still viewing this situation as dynamic, or has it calcified into a new political scenario that requires new political tools?

Spokesman:  That’s… it’s a good question.  I mean, obviously, the situation hasn’t moved at all in the right direction.  How much it has calcified is something to be debated.  We’re try… we would hope to try to arrange something with the envoy and you guys in the next few days or early next week, so you have a chance to speak to her and she still… she remains in the region.

Okay.  Maggie and then Abdelhamid.

Question:  Steph, quick follow-up, please, has Tor Wennesland called Prime Minister Netanyahu or anyone from the UN… maybe Ms. [Rosemary] DiCarlo?  I mean, has anyone spoken directly with the Prime Minister?  [cross talk]

Spokesman:  Mr. Wennesland has been in touch with Israeli decision makers at various key and critical levels.

Correspondent:  Nobody has spoken directly with the Prime Minister.

Spokesman:  I’m not going to go into the details of his contacts, so I’m not saying yes or no.

Question:  Why is that, like, such a secret?  Normally, you’re very okay with it.  [cross talk]

Spokesman:  Because, I think, right… because right now, for us, the focus is on the success of his efforts rather than detailing those efforts in a play-by-play.

Abdelhamid?

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  I want to follow up with a question that James had, Betul and Edie, about the activities of the Secretary-General and his Special Envoy, Mr. Wennesland.  So, the SG so far, he has not contacted any Israeli officials.  He’s not prepared to go to the region, and Wennesland is engaged, but we don’t know what kind of engagement.

I want to ask you specifically, can you give us a rundown of what he’s doing, Mr. Wennesland?  Did he leave his office in Jerusalem?  Did he leave his office?  [cross talk]

Spokesman:  Abdelhamid, I did not say that Mr. Wennesland was going about his normal work.  He is having deep and extensive contacts with all the key actors involved.  And if you’ve asked me if he’s left… I don’t know… did you ask me, what, if he’s left his office?

Question:  Yeah, if he left his office in Jerusalem.

Spokesman:  I have no doubt that he has stepped out of his office to speak to various people.

Question:  Does he…

Spokesman:  This is not normal times.  I understand the need from your end to have as much of a detailed play-by-play, but I’m not able to go into that, as I don’t want to do anything that would jeopardize his work.

Question:  The other thing you just said, that UNRWA was asking for $38 million for emergency relief, is the Secretary-General is willing… is he willing to also release some money from the emergency fund that he has in his control?  [cross talk]

Spokesman:  Yes, we are working on that, and we hope to have an announcement on a CERF (Central Emergency Response Fund) allocation very soon.

Question:  Yesterday, Steph, you said that Israel had not allowed some of the humanitarian shipment going into Gaza.  Is there any development in that area also?

Spokesman:  The crossings remain closed.  We very much [hope] that both the Erez and the Kerem Shalom, which is the one used for goods, that those crossings are open as quickly as possible.  They were closed yesterday while we were trying to get things in for security reasons.  So, the shipments… there were shipments of vaccines for state kicks… aid kits, food and other emergency medicine that was not able to get in.

Okay.  James?

Question:  You’re being very cagey on one question you’ve been asked repeatedly, which is the contact that the Secretary-General or anyone at the UN has had with the Israeli Prime Minister.  I would argue it’s important for us to know whether the man who’s leading a military operation bombarding the people of Gaza is refusing to take the UN’s calls.

Spokesman:  I understand your position.  I’m not going to go any further from my end.

Question:  Okay.  Couple of other questions, then, if I can.  Actually, I have one more… you’ve said that you’re very much focusing on ending the conflict.  We understand that, but clearly, it draws attention to the wider issues of this conflict, which has been festering, and no one’s been doing anything; the Security Council’s not been doing anything, for a very long time.

I had an interesting Twitter exchange last week with the former French ambassador, Gérard Araud.  He said… [cross talk]

Spokesman:  Every Twitter exchange with Gérard Araud is interesting.

Question:  “The two-State solution has been dead for some time,” he told me.  And then, talking about Security Council, ambassador says, “They have nothing else, so they pretend.”

Does the Secretary-General believe the two-State solution is dead, that Israel’s already built on top of the Palestinian State, or should there be some fresh thinking now?

Spokesman:  Listen, no one is ever against any fresh thinking, but I think, as we’ve said, the longer this conflict goes on, the longer the underlying political issues are not solved, the more difficult it will get to that goal that we’ve always called for, which is two States, Israel and Palestine, living in peace side by side.  The more time passes, the more difficult it will be to get to that goal.

Question:  And if I may, I have two other questions on other subjects, if you don’t mind.  What… and I’ve not been listening to this briefing every single day for the last couple of weeks, but what is the latest on those talks that we were told were so important in Turkey on Afghanistan?

Spokesman:  Discussions are… the last we left it is that they would be held some point after Ramadan.  Ramadan has passed, as you and I well know, but I have nothing… the discussions are still ongoing.

Question:  And another one, and it’s something happening later today, the Russian Foreign Minister and the US Secretary of State are meeting in Iceland.  And the word is that is talk to try and prepare for a summit between their two leaders, two permanent members of the Security Council who have very difficult relations.  How important does the Secretary-General see a meeting between President Biden and [Russian Federation] President [Vladimir] Putin?

Spokesman:  I mean, I think to have… for the United States and the Russian Federation to have open dialogue and to have cooperation on so many of the critical issues that they have to deal with at the UN would be a positive thing.

Okay.  I don’t see any other questions, but I do see Brenden [Varma].

Oh, Abdelhamid, did you want to ask something, or you’re just saying goodbye?

Question:  Yeah.  Did the Secretary-General express, directly or indirectly, any admiration of the heroic resistance of the Palestinian people in resisting an oppressive army, which reminds us of the colonial power trying to subjugate an innocent people under occupation for over 54 years and a Gaza under siege for over 13 years?  Did he see that picture of a resilient people?

Spokesman:  I think what the Secretary-General sees are civilians who are suffering and proving resilient in extremely difficult circumstances and people who deserve to be helped and deserve to be helped by the international community, and we hope that they will through funding to our humanitarian appeals.

Question:  Steph, can I ask one more… from Toby, NHK?  [cross talk]

Spokesman:  Go ahead, Toby.

Question:  Thanks, sorry.  This is sort of a strange question, but just to follow up on James on, like… in the political process, Oslo Accords were before my time, and I don’t really have a practical image in my head of how this kind of diplomacy… how the UN facilitates this kind of diplomacy.  Like, what would a political dialogue facilitated by the UN to create a political process for reconciliation and the two-State solution, which is this theoretical concept that we always hear about, what is that… what has that looked like in the past, and what would that look like now?

Spokesman:  I would encourage you to buy a couple of books to look at what that looked like in the past, and I think there’s a movie version of the Oslo play.  It’s coming out on HBO next week.  [laughter]

But… in all seriousness, what we want to see, what we’ve always called for, are direct face-to-face discussions between the parties, between the Israelis and the Palestinians, to settle a number of these final settlement issues so we can get to what we want to see, what is based on UN resolutions, which is two States, Israel and Palestine, living side by side.  And we — and I know a lot of other actors — will do whatever it can to help bring that about.

Thank you.

For information media. Not an official record.