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20 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.  Apologies for the delay, but as you know, there’s a lot of simultaneous events and quite a lot of news going on today.

**Noon Briefing Guests Today

Once we’re finished here, I will be joined by our good friend and colleague, Elliot Harris, the UN’s Chief Economist and Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development along with Nazrul Islam, the lead author of the “World Social Report 2021”.  The report was produced by our colleagues in the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA).

**Middle East

The Secretary-General this morning told the General Assembly that the past 10 days have witnessed a dangerous and horrific surge in deadly violence in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, particularly Gaza, and in Israel.  He appealed to all parties to cease hostilities, now.  And he called repeatedly on all sides for an immediate ceasefire.

The Secretary-General said the fighting has left thousands of Palestinians homeless, and forced over 50,000 people to leave their homes and seek shelter in UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees) schools, as well as mosques, and other places with little access to water, food, hygiene or health services.  If there is a hell on earth, he added, it is the lives of children in Gaza today.

Mr. [António] Guterres said the UN will launch a full humanitarian appeal for funding as soon as possible, and that he is also working on releasing funds from the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF).  He added that access for humanitarian goods is paramount.

A revitalized peace process is the only route to a just and lasting solution, the Secretary-General said.  It is imperative that we keep this long-term vision alive.  His full remarks were shared with you.

And a number of you had asked me in this room and online about the work of our Special Coordinator [for the Middle East Peace Process], Tor Wennesland, and in response to those questions I can confirm to you that Mr. Wennesland is currently in Qatar as part of our efforts to restore calm in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory, especially Gaza.  We are actively engaged with all the relevant parties for an immediate ceasefire.

For his part, the Secretary-General continues his intensive contacts with the parties and pertinent regional and international stakeholders.  He held a group meeting today with Arab ministers to discuss the current situation and he reiterated that we will continue its tireless efforts to bring about a ceasefire, to ensure humanitarian access, and to achieve a political solution that ends the occupation and realizes the two States living side by side in peace and security.  The Secretary-General also has a number of bilateral meetings later in the day.

**Security Council

For its part, Security Council members met virtually this morning on Sudan.  The Secretary-General’s Special Representative and the Head of the UN Mission there (UNITAMS), Volker Perthes, said that the Paris Conference which the French Government organized earlier this week clearly demonstrated the international community’s continued support for Sudan’s return to the international community.

You will recall that the Secretary-General had a video message to that Conference.

At today’s Security Council meeting, Mr. Perthes encouraged all of Sudan’s international and domestic partners to continue supporting the country as it implements key economic and political reforms.

Regarding the peace process, he said the UN Mission will act as a facilitator, supporting the role of South Sudan as a mediator, and the parties when required.  We are also working to ensure meaningful participation of women in the talks.

**Ethiopia

Turning to Ethiopia:  Our humanitarian colleagues are informing us that there have been increased incidents of denial of relief cargo movements and confiscation of humanitarian vehicles and supplies by parties to the conflict in Tigray.  Military at checkpoints are aggressively searching humanitarian vehicles and regularly demand that humanitarians provide proof of permission from local authorities or the military.  Sporadic fighting and military reinforcements are being observed across the region.

Access in some areas, however, is feasible but remains volatile.  Our humanitarian partners are gradually scaling up the response, but not yet keeping pace with the needs.  There are 5.2 million people targeted to receive food assistance, but only about 1.8 million people have been reached with assistance since late March.

UNICEF [United Nations Children’s Fund] and its partners screened more than 172,000 children under 5 years of age and found moderate acute malnutrition at 19.6 per cent of that population.

The UN, with our partners, are seeking $853 million for the Northern Ethiopia Humanitarian Response Plan until the end of the year; but there is a significant shortfall of more than $500 million, with $200 million needed immediately before the end of July.

**Peacebuilding Commission

I just want to flag a statement issued today by the Peacebuilding Commission, following a meeting earlier this week on building and sustaining peace through institutions.  The Commission expressed concern over recent challenges in the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and preserving hard-won peacebuilding gains around the world due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Peacebuilding Commission called for the ramping up of collective efforts in strengthening effective, accountable and inclusive public service institutions.  It also called for bold new mechanisms to help countries address crippling debt, which has been sharply worsened by the pandemic.

We had that statement distributed.

**COVAX — Malawi

A couple of COVAX updates for you:  The UN team in Malawi, led by Resident Coordinator Maria Jose Torres Macho, continues to support the authorities to fight the pandemic and address its multiple impacts.

Malawi received its first shipment of Astra Zeneca doses from COVAX in March.  Malawi was among the first countries in Africa to roll out vaccines.  Today, more than 335,000 people in the country, including those most at risk, such as health workers and the elderly, have received the vaccine.

**COVID-19 — Thailand

The UN team in Thailand, led by Resident Coordinator Gita Sabharwal, is supporting authorities’ vaccine rollout process.  This includes upgrading and renovating laboratories, procuring equipment for local development of vaccines and boosting training and capacity to enable vaccination.

The UN team has also been sharing technology to improve electronic health records as part of the national COVID-19 vaccine reporting system.

We are also actively engaged with communities to address misinformation, boosting vaccine uptake with campaigns that have reached over 26 million people so far.  Targeted campaigns are also reaching migrants and people in prison.

As of this week, [over] 2.3 million vaccine doses have been administered; 65 per cent of them are first shots.  The country aims to cover 70 per cent of the population by the end of the year.

**Myanmar

And in next door Myanmar, our colleagues from UNICEF and the UN Educational, Scientific [and Cultural] Organization (UNESCO), together with Save the Children, today said they were concerned for the more than 12 million children and young people who have not had access to organized learning for more than a year.

They warned that the consequences for their education, personal development, psychological well-being and future opportunities are already profound and will continue to grow.  Children in the poorest and most remote communities are likely to be the most affected.

The three agencies stressed that attacks on places of learning and education staff and the occupation of education facilities are unacceptable.  They must be protected from conflict and unrest since these are places where children should be safe and empowered to learn and develop.

**World Bee Day

Today, as you may know, is World Bee Day, which aims to raise awareness of the importance of pollinators, the threats they face and their contribution to sustainable development.  This year, the theme of the Day is “Bee engaged — Build Back Better for Bees”.

Today, bees, pollinators, and many other insects are increasingly under threat from human activities.  Close to 35 per cent of invertebrate pollinators, particularly bees and butterflies, and about 17 per cent of vertebrate pollinators, such as bats, face extinction globally.

Pollination is a fundamental process for the survival of our ecosystems.  Nearly 90 per cent of the world’s wild flowering plant species depend, entirely, or at least in part, on animal pollination, along with more than 75 per cent of the world’s food crops and 35 per cent of the world’s [global agricultural land.]

**Questions and Answers

I’m at your disposal.  Yes, Pam?

Question:  Quick question about the Secretary-General’s meetings, bilaterals, with all the foreign ministers who are in town, has he heard about any start-up of the Quartet for negotiations on the Middle East?  And has he heard any news that’s being reported about a possibility of a ceasefire on Friday?  Thanks.

Spokesman:  No, there’s nothing yet to announce on a Quartet meeting.  Mr. Wennesland remains in touch with his envoy partners.  Yes, Abdelhamid?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  Both the Foreign Minister of Turkey and the Foreign Minister of Pakistan called for protection of the Palestinian people.  And if the UN failed to do that, they said it could be a coalition of the willing to send some civilians to be deployed in Palestinian territories to protect the Palestinians.  What is your intake or what’s the SG’s point of view on that?

Spokesman:  We’ve seen… I mean, I’m not going to… I can’t comment in real time on the speeches.  For our part, we think the best way to protect civilians immediately would be a halt to the fighting and an immediate ceasefire.  All right.  See if we have any questions online.  Okay.  I think we will then go to…

Correspondent:  Sorry.

Spokesman:  Hello?

Correspondent:  Hi.  Hi.  It’s Melissa Heikkilä from Politico.

Spokesman:  Hi, Melissa.  How are you?

Question:  I have a question.  Hi.  I’m good.  Thanks.  I have two questions.  About the investigation that came out today on harassment scandals surrounding the tech envoy Fabrizio Hochschild, the stories show that the Secretary-General’s Chef de Cabinet’s office knew of having complaints in December, and the OIOS [Office of Internal Oversight Services] interviews took place in early January, weeks before his nomination.  Now, the SG has said that he takes harassment very seriously, and yet has seemingly failed to do his due diligence in this case.  Why did Guterres proceed with the promotion when some of his staff had a preview of the trouble that lay ahead?

And my second question is, the tech envoy’s office has a budget until the end of the year, and yet the tech envoy has been on paid leave for almost six months.  Do you think this case and investigation will harm the long-term survivability of the position and office?  Thank you.

Spokesman:  Okay.  On your second part, I think the two are separate.  There is an office of the tech envoy, which has an officer-in-charge and acting head.  The work of that office continues.  The… and that continues.  What is also continuing is the investigation.  As we’ve said numerous times, we want the investigation to be very thorough but as speedy as possible, while being very thorough in the interest of fairness for everyone involved.

As for your first question, I think I’ve… we’ve communicated on this, and I will repeat what I said on 27 January, which was that the Secretary-General was not aware of the allegations that were made to OIOS or being reviewed by OIOS.  He was informed on 27 January that the OIOS had received complaints and would launch an investigation.  As you know, OIOS works independently from the Secretary-General on these investigations.  The Secretary-General took the action that he did at the time, which was to place Mr. Hochschild on administrative leave.  Once… the Secretary-General will now… will take the action necessary once the investigation has been concluded and gone through the process.

On the emails, I would say that these were general enquiries, and the person was referred to the appropriate office for action.

Okay.  We will now go to our [inaudible].  Elliott, are you with us?

For information media. Not an official record.