13 August 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.


Good afternoon.  Thank you for your usual patience.  Just to let you know, that I do expect the Secretary-General to be at the Security Council stakeout at 2:30 p.m. to deliver a statement on the current situation in Afghanistan.  We will give you a heads up before he comes down.  You will have seen already in a tweet today, the Under-Secretary-General [for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs] Rosemary DiCarlo, said she is deeply concerned about the situation in Afghanistan and noted that yet again, civilians are bearing the brunt of the violence.  She underscored that one thing is clear from the country’s recent history:  durable peace and development will not be achieved militarily.

As an example of what is being done to civilians on the ground, I just want to share some humanitarian numbers with you.  Due to the conflict that we’re seeing across the country, many people are arriving in Kabul and other large cities trying to seek safety for themselves and for their families.  The humanitarian community has verified 10,350 internally displaced people who have arrived in Kabul between 1 July and 12 August — that is, yesterday.  Most of the displaced people are either renting accommodations or being hosted by friends or family, but, unfortunately, a growing number are staying in the open.

Twenty inter-agency assessment teams have now been deployed in Kabul.  As of yesterday, we, along with our partners, have provided food, health, household items, and water and sanitation assistance to some 6,900 men, women and children who have been displaced in Kabul.  In Kunar Province in eastern Afghanistan, since 25 July, tens of thousands of people have been displaced by escalating conflict.  To date, some 14,000 internally displaced people from Kunar have been identified to receive aid.  We along with our partners have provided food to almost 4,000 people, and 3,900 people have received emergency shelter and relief items such as kitchen sets and mobile teams are providing basic health and nutrition services.  For its part, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it is particularly worried about the impact of the conflict on women and girls.  Women and children make up some 80 per cent of the nearly a quarter of a million Afghans forced to flee since May.

**Sahel — Flooding

Turning to the Sahel, where heavy rains and floods in parts of the region in recent weeks have claimed dozens of lives in Chad and Niger, impacting more than 100,000 people.  We, along with our humanitarian partners, are working with the Governments of Chad and Niger to help provide health services, food, shelter, water, hygiene and sanitation assistance.  In Chad, for example, the World Food Programme (WFP) has distributed food to 2,600 households.  Our colleagues tell us that the rain has destroyed homes in the two countries, which are already dealing with previous flooding, as well as conflict, food insecurity, malnutrition, and health challenges, and of course including the pandemic.  The people of the Sahel region are caught in a vicious cycle of floods and droughts as a result of weather variability that is worsened by climate change.  Two out of three people in the Sahel make their livings from agriculture and livestock, which are heavily impacted by natural disasters.

**Democratic Republic of the Congo

UNHCR today said it is gravely concerned about incidents of widespread and systematic sexual violence against Congolese women and girls, perpetrated by armed groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Tanganyika Province.  Just in the past two weeks, humanitarian partners in the Kongolo and Mbulula health zones have recorded 243 incidents of rape, 48 of which involved minors, in 12 villages.  This is an average of 17 reported attacks each day.  The actual figures are thought to be even higher as reporting of gender-based violence remains taboo in many communities.  UNHCR notes that of the $205 million required for its operation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it has received just 36 per cent to date.

**Fiji — COVID-19

A COVID-19 update to you from Fiji:  our UN team in Fiji, led by the Resident Coordinator, Sanaka Samarasinha, continues to support the response by working to ensure there are enough supplies and equipment for testing, treatment, communications and vaccines.  Fiji has received more than 250,000 doses from COVAX, with more coming, as well as doses donated by other countries.  More than half a million adults — or 90 per cent of the target population — have received their first dose, while more than 30 per cent are fully vaccinated.  The World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) have been providing supplies, including oxygen concentrators, water and sanitation kits and masks.

**Financial Contribution

Lastly, we are up to 121 Member States who have paid up their budget dues in full and we say thank you to our friends in the Central African Republic.  Edie?

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Thank you very much, Steph.  Can you update us on the status of UN staff and humanitarian actions, and with the United States and some other embassies send… getting a lot of their staff out of Kabul, what’s the current situation with the UN staff?

Spokesman:  The current situation is that we’re evaluating, literally on an hour-by-hour basis, the security situation, both in Kabul and in other locations.  There is no evacuation of UN staff going on.  We’re, obviously, assessing different places, where to lighten the footprint.  But, we’re continuing, as I mentioned… I mean, as I said just now, we’re… in a number of places, notably in Kabul, we’re continuing to deliver the aid that we can.

Question:  And just as a follow-up, what’s happened in Herat and Kandahar, the second and third largest cities, that have fallen to the Taliban?   What’s happened with aid deliveries and UN staffing?

Spokesman:  We remain with a very light footprint in those places.  I do not have operational details of what we’re actually being able to deliver directly.  James and then Célhia and then Michelle.

Question:  With regard to your operations around Afghanistan, the Taliban spokesman recently posted a picture of a UN plane arriving — arriving or leaving; it wasn’t clear on the tweet — in Badakhshan.  Is the UN conducting flight… it wasn’t clear whether the UN were flying that plane; I assume they were.  Is the UN conducting flights to and from Taliban-controlled areas from Kabul?

Spokesman:  We are… as needed, we are relocating some staff, both international and very much national staff, from different places into Kabul.  I mean, I haven’t seen that tweet, but I will…  I’m happy to look into it.

Question:  Well, certainly the Taliban spokesman said it was the first flight from what they call the Islamic Emirate.  So, if you could look into it… and whether there are plans for other flights and whether you feel that both sides will allow you to continue aid deliveries by air across the front lines?

Spokesman:  Right.  Yeah.  I mean, we very much want to continue to deliver aid to those who need it at a moment where aid is extremely important.  And as in many different places, we work with de facto authorities.  We work with all sorts of authorities.

Question:  Last one from me for now.  What is the latest on the Doha talks?  We saw the statement that was issued, but, in some ways, it’s been overtaken by events.  What is going on now?  Where is the Personal Envoy of the Secretary‑General, Jean Arnault?

Spokesman:  Mr. Arnault is expected back in New York a bit later this afternoon, so I hope to catch up with him.  Célhia and then Michelle, then Iftikhar.

Question:  Stéphane, the US announced that they’re sending 4,000 soldiers, I believe, to evacuate their own people.  Could they send more to protect the population?  That’s my first question.  And let’s say the Taliban says or take Kabul and form the government, will the UN recognize this government, and will they have a seat at the GA [General Assembly)?

Spokesman:  Célhia, your experience at the UN is slightly greater than mine.  No, okay.  We’re… we’ll say we’re on equal footing.  You know very well that the issue of recognition of who gets to sit in the seat behind a particular name of a country is a decision to be taken by Member States through the Credentials Committee.  The Secretary-General is not in the business of recognizing countries or governments.  That’s a Member State issue.  As for questions about US defence policy, I think you need to ask the US Defense Department.  Michelle Nichols?

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  Afghanistan again.  In those areas taken over by the Taliban where you say the UN still has a very light footprint, what is the UN seeing?

Spokesman:  I think for obvious security reasons of staff, I… we’re not going to report beyond what we’re… the numbers we’re reporting in terms of displacements and humanitarian needs.  What is… the reporting of what is going on in the battlefield is not something we’re going to get into.  Iftikhar… oh.  Yes, you may.

Question:  Sorry, but just in terms of rights abuses and…?

Spokesman:  Yeah, no, and I think we will… as soon as we are able to report back, we will report back on things that are within our mandate.  Iftikhar Ali.  Nice to see you Mr. Iftikhar.

Question:  [Inaudible] 2:30 p.m. is the next day in our part of the world.  But can you…?

Spokesman:  You need to use your microphone, sir.

Question:  Oh.  I said, with ten-hour time difference, 2:30 p.m. is the next day in our part of the world.  So, can you give us a head-up on what the Secretary-General is about to say, very briefly?

Spokesman:  You know, stealing great quotes from one’s boss is never good for one’s career.  So, I appreciate your needs, Iftikhar, but I need… you need to think of my job security.  In all seriousness, I mean, the Secretary-General, of course, expresses his deep, deep concern about what is going on on the ground, about the security and safety of civilians, and the need for the parties to work together towards a political settlement.  He just landed back in New York yesterday, and he feels it’s very important for him to speak directly to you on this very important topic.  Célhia, and then we’ll go to the screen.

Question:  The UN Security Council is working on the statement condemning the Taliban.  So, what?  Yeah.  I mean…

Spokesman:  Célhia, it’s really…  This sounds like a question you should answer in an analysis piece.  Mr. Abdelhamid?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  I have also a question on Afghanistan, then on Palestine.  On Afghanistan, do you have the numbers of UN staff killed in Afghanistan since 2001?  If not, at least 2021.  Twenty years of deployment of UN staff in Afghanistan, how many staff we lost, if you have them available, please?

Spokesman:  Good question.  I have to see if we have those numbers.

Question:  My second question, in the city of Hebron in occupied West Bank, Israelis are constructing a parking lot and an elevator.  It will take Jewish-only visitors to the Haram al-Ibrahimi, which is a very sacred place for Muslims.  And it will… the elevator will take directly to the mosque without any organization.  Now Israelis are dividing the days when the Israeli can visit and when the Muslims can go and pray.  So, the construction has started, and yet there’s no word from the UN.  And every time I ask about this, I’ll end it with this question:  Where is Tor Wennesland?

Spokesman:  I think Mr.… let me look into this particular case.  Mr. Wennesland, as you know, has been reporting regularly, and his office is fully functional, and we report as we are mandated and outside of our mandate cycles, as well.  Yes, Carla?

Question:  Thank you very much.  I have actually two and a half questions.  The first has to do with the climate report.  I would have asked this earlier but… the Secretary-General said we have until 2040 before the climate disasters become irreversible.  That’s 19 years.  So, given the fact that there has been great recalcitrance in even acknowledging the existence of climate change by a large portion of the population, at least in my country, what are the chances that the global community will come together and do what’s necessary in order…?

Spokesman:  I mean, Carla, it’s a very deep question.  What the Secretary‑General is saying is that time is short, but it’s not too late.  Your second question?

Question:  Well, actually, the first question was, what are the chances where you can…?

Spokesman:  Let’s hope the chances are good.  I mean, I don’t know how to answer that question except to say that it’s not too late, but we need concerted efforts from Governments, from civil society, from businesses and from individuals.  Your second question?

Question:  My colleague from Germany — now, I may have misheard it because I was watching this from outside — said something about the Chinese making an effort to have sanctions lifted from North Korea.  And I know you’ll probably refer me to the Security Council on this, but does the Secretary-General have anything to say about this?  And what are the chances that this will…?

Spokesman:  I think you answered your own question.  Sanctions are a Security Council affair.  The Secretary-General said very clearly that sanctions should always avoid hurting people and making a humanitarian situation worse.  Michelle and then Dulcie.

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  With the Taliban now taking the second and third largest cities in Afghanistan, people are now looking to when they might move on Kabul.  Does the UN… has the UN been given any indication or have any indication of when that might happen?

Spokesman:  Short answer is no.  Dulcie?

Question:  Hi.  Have you seen my question in the chat?

Spokesman:  If you could repeat it, I’d rather not read questions.  Thank you.

Question:  Yeah, sure.  Are you still in… is the UN still in contact with the Taliban regarding the UN presence in Afghanistan?

Spokesman:  The UN remains in contact with all the parties to the conflict.

Question:  So, how often do you talk to the Taliban?

Spokesman:  We remain in contact…  I mean, I don’t know what the frequency of phone calls are, but I know that contacts are remaining… are continuing, as they are, obviously, critical to the situation on the ground.

Question:  And what do they say?  Do… do… I mean…?

Spokesman:  Dulcie, I think for obvious reasons…

Question:  Are they saying…?

Spokesman:  For obvious reasons, I cannot speak for the Taliban or anyone else.  I can only speak for the UN.  And given the very sensitive and dangerous nature of this situation, I can just tell you that we have contacts with them.

Question:  And why isn’t the UN planning to evacuate your national and international staff?

Spokesman:  We are… as I said, we are looking at different place… at how we lighten our footprint, but the security situation is being assessed on an hourly basis.

Question:  Who is doing the security assessment?

Spokesman:  Our security professionals who are both on the ground in Kabul and in New York.

Question:  It’s a version of a question I asked yesterday, but clearly, things have moved on so fast since yesterday.  The Taliban now have taken… among the provinces, they’ve taken Logar Province, which is right at the gates of Kabul, right at the gates of Kabul.  How concerned is the UN, to follow up from Michelle’s question, of urban warfare in the capital?  And how worried are you about what that could look like?

Spokesman:  I’ll give you the same answer which, I think, I gave you or Michelle yesterday, is that urban warfare in Kabul would be catastrophic.  I mean, we’ve already through… the Mission has already pointed out the horrendous impact on civilians of urban warfare in Kandahar, in Lashkargah, in all of these cities.  One can only imagine with horror what it would look like in Kabul, a city whose population in a sense is increasing on a regular basis because of the fighting going on outside of the city.

Question:  Given that picture of what it could look like, are there… is there contingency planning?  Is there a possibility that the UN might be ready or have plans for a complete evacuation of the whole UNAMA [United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan] Mission?

Spokesman:  There [are] always contingency plans for the best case and for the worst case.  At this point, we are remaining.  We’re remaining in Kabul.  As I said, we have footprints in other parts of the country to fulfil our mandate and help civilians and alleviate the suffering of civilians as much as we can.

Correspondent:  My last one, you said a little earlier it wasn’t the Secretary‑General’s role — and I know how this building works — to recognize who sits in a seat for a particular country, yet the statement from Doha, which the UN is one of the parties signed up to, says:  “Participants reaffirm they will not recognize any government in Afghanistan that is imposed through the use of military force.”

Spokesman:  I think only those that have the authority to recognize can withhold recognition, but it remains… it, obviously, remains… it is an issue, but the statement does not alter my answer about who has the authority to recognize.

Question:  Does the UN believe that any government that does impose itself totally on Afghanistan by force should be viewed as a pariah?

Spokesman:  I mean, those… we do not believe imposing authority by force is the right solution.  Okay.  Oh, Michelle.

Correspondent:  Don’t sound so disheartened.  You made me lose my train of thought now.  I’ll ask you later.

Spokesman:  Sorry.  All right.  Thank you much.

For information media. Not an official record.