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22 October 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.

**Guest Today

Good afternoon.  Since I know you all had a lot of questions about Ethiopia and I didn't want to answer them, we asked our colleague Gemma Connell, who is the head of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Regional Office for Southern and Eastern Africa, and obviously, covers Ethiopia.  And she's joining us virtually from Nairobi, which is her home base.  So, I thought we would turn it over to her first, and then we will go to our regularly scheduled briefing.  So, Gemma, thank you very much for doing this on very short notice, and you have the floor.

Gemma Connell:  Stéphane, thank you so much for having me.  Just to check that you can hear…

Spokesman:  We can hear you perfectly, and we see you everywhere we need to see you.

Gemma Connell:  Okay.  There might be a slight delay on the line, but I'll give it my best shot.  So, thank you so much for having me, colleagues.  It's a pleasure to be with you today, and thank you for your interest in the plight of the people in Ethiopia, who have been caught up in the conflict there.  Let me just start with the events of today.  As many of you are now aware, a UN humanitarian flight that departed Addis Ababa this morning was forced to turn back in the midst of its flight after air strikes began in Mekelle.  I can confirm that the Government was informed of that flight before it took off and, of course, also confirmed that the flight was forced to turn back in mid-air because of the events on the ground.

While we're still ascertaining all of the facts in relation to this event, we're, obviously, concerned about what has taken place today and what it means for humanitarian operations in northern Ethiopia moving forward.  But let me come to the people, because that's who we're there to serve.  As you all know — and these facts will not be new to you — as of today, there are around 7 million people in northern Ethiopia in desperate need of humanitarian assistance.  That includes over 5 million people in Tigray region, and the other 2 million are split between Amhara and Afar.  There are many, many people who have been displaced.  Of those, many have been displaced from their home, more than once have been forced to flee, are without shelter.

We have rates of acute malnutrition that are rising every day and not just among children.  Nearly half of the pregnant and lactating women in Tigray are also now acutely malnourished, and those of you who are women in the room and those of you who have been pregnant or breast‑fed know exactly what that means, which is that there are consequences for the mother and the child.  So, every time we talk about these figures, we have to centre them on the people that we are referring to, and these are people in northern Ethiopia who have been desperately affected by this conflict.

So, let me then come to the response.  As you are all also aware and as Stéphane briefs you every single day, we are facing major challenges, delivering the life‑saving assistance that is urgently required on the ground in northern Ethiopia.   In Tigray, only around 15 per cent of the trucks that should have reached Mekelle have reached Mekelle since the middle of June… sorry, middle of July.  That is absolutely inadequate.  We have to be getting more aid supplies in, and we have to be getting every aid supply in that is required.  That includes, most importantly right now, the fuel that we need to deliver the assistance.  If we are without fuel on the ground inside of Tigray, we are unable to move the vehicles that are required to get life‑saving assistance to people's hands and into their mouths.  So, fuel has to move.  As of today, there are 14 trucks of fuel that are in Semera — that's in Afar — waiting to move to Mekelle.  We desperately need those fuel trucks to move, because we need that fuel on the ground to fuel literally the humanitarian operation.

We also need cash.  If we don't have cash on the ground in Tigray, our staff and their families are unable to get themselves the food that they require to continue on their own lives while, at the same time, serving others.  If we don't have cash on the ground in Tigray, we're unable to buy the supplies that we need for the basic day‑to‑day operations.  And beyond that, of course, we need aid supplies, 90 trucks a day of food — you've all heard that before — and another 10 trucks every day of other items, essential medicines, nutritional supplies, all of the other things that we require to save lives inside of Tigray.

But it's not just in Tigray that we're having challenges.  We're also, especially because of the conflict that has escalated in the last two weeks, facing very significant challenges to reach people who have been extremely hard hit by this conflict in the neighbouring regions of Amhara and Afar.  It is absolutely vital that we're able to move into areas where people have been newly displaced.  We spoke to colleagues on the ground.  We know that there are people who are fleeing for their lives, and those are the people that we have to be able to reach.

So, with the conflict escalating and with all of the other barriers that you're aware about, we are facing many, many challenges on a daily basis.  But we are absolutely not giving up, and this is a message that I want to share with you all today.  For the people inside of Tigray, 400,000 of whom are facing catastrophic food insecurity, we are not giving up.  We have many staff who have remained on the ground even when they have to be in bunkers.  They are still there, and they are still completely dedicated to delivering the assistance that is required.

Outside of Tigray, we're continuing to work every single day to scale up our operations on the ground in Amhara and Afar.  More than 700,000 people have been reached with food assistance in those two regions since August, and that shows you how hard we are working every single day to make sure that people, wherever they are, whoever they are, if they are in need of life‑saving assistance, we are trying to reach them.  So, Stéphane, let me stop there by way of opening remarks.  I'm very happy to take questions.

Spokesman:  Thank you very much.  We'll go first to Edie Lederer, Associated Press.

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Thank you very much, Gemma, for doing this briefing.  I have two questions.  First, on the issue of fuel especially, since you've gotten in humanitarian aid but not fuel, what is OCHA's assessment of why all the food… the fuel trucks are being blocked?

Spokesman:  Go ahead, Gemma.

Gemma Connell:  Thank you so much.  We don't have an assessment on that fact, to be honest.  All we know is that, each day, we reiterate the fact that we need that fuel on the ground in Tigray, and we will continue to reiterate that fact.  It is a matter of fact that, without the fuel, we can't move the supplies, and regardless of what the reasons are for that, that is the reality.

Question:  And can you make clear to us whether the aid being blocked is being blocked by roadblocks put up by the Government, by other forces, including the Tigrayans?

Gemma Connell:  Thank you so much for the question.  It's a really important one.  So, there [are] a multitude of factors that are hindering our ability to get the right amount of trucks in every single day.  One of them are the approvals from the Federal Government.  That differs on the basis of different supplies.  The other is the challenges that we face at checkpoints along the route.  So, there have been times when we've had permission to move from the Federal Government and then have proceeded to move and been stopped at a checkpoint.  This is in areas that remain within the control of the Afar regional forces of the Federal Government.  And we have also faced challenges where we have community resistance, where communities have stopped us and prevented our ability to move because of their own frustration because they are not receiving the assistance that they believe that they deserve.  Now, put all of those together, and it is a very, very challenging situation.  So, we continue to work every single day with the Federal Government, who are continuing to engage with us on a daily basis, especially on these urgent requirements.  We continue to engage with the Afar Regional Government, who have been supportive as much as they can.  And we continue to engage — and this is absolutely critical — with the communities on the ground because we have to explain, what are the challenges?  Why are there so many trucks going to Tigray?  That's because there are so many people there who are virtually at risk of losing their lives and, at the same time, to explain to those communities that we are striving to reach them as quickly as we can.

Question:  And one final question.  On today's flight that did not achieve its end, what are the implications?  Are you going to try again tomorrow, or do you think that trying to fly aid in at this point is too risky?

Gemma Connell:  That is a matter that we're going to have to look at over the course of the coming hours.  We're still figuring out the exact details of what occurred today, but most certainly, until we have those details figured out and until we're able to ensure that we are able to move forward with the guarantees that we need to be able to fly our teams safely, as I'm sure you can imagine, we will have to look at what we're able to do.  So, we will be assessing all of this in the coming hours as more of the details come to light and as we're able to figure out what is feasible.  I should note that the air strikes and the escalation of the conflict, in general, have had major consequences.  So, we've not had a single truck, as well as the challenge of the flights, that's been able to get into Tigray since 18 October.

Spokesman:  Thank you very much.  We'll go to the screen to take some questions.  Michelle Nichols at Reuters.  Michelle?

Question:  Hi, Gemma.  Thanks so much for jumping on this at last minute.  I just wanted to ask you a bit further about… you mentioned the malnutrition, and we've, obviously, heard that some 400,000 people are on the verge of… or in famine‑like conditions.  What's the sort of update on that?  And what evidence are you seeing of that?  Obviously, it's hard for media to get in.  What sort of visuals are you seeing, of sort of how desperate the situation actually is?  Thank you.

Gemma Connell:  Thanks so much for the question, and nice to hear a familiar accent.  Let me just preface this by saying that one of the biggest challenges we have right now in terms of fully understanding the situation ourselves is the lack of fuel.  So, without that fuel, the teams that go out to do what we call, in technical speak, community screening, which is to say checking how many children in a community are facing malnutrition, those teams right now are unable to move because we have to prioritise the incredibly limited supplies of fuel that we have available for the most urgent tasks.  That being said, the teams that go out speak consistently to this, especially in rural areas.  And here we have to acknowledge those who are able to get to urban centres, who are able to get to facilities for treatment, they are the people who are able to move.  So, in those centres, we're still seeing extremely concerning rates of malnutrition.  Now, you can imagine that, once we get out of those urban areas and we get to those communities who are unable to travel, who are too weak to move, those rates are even higher.  So, this is what teams are telling us on the ground.  It is extremely difficult for us right now to come with these statistics that I know everybody wants.  That's because of the challenges we're facing, but what we are seeing is consistent, and what we are seeing is a consistent deterioration of the situation, both for children and, as I mentioned earlier — and this is a grave concern — for pregnant and lactating women, which, of course, has also consequences for the children they are carrying and the children they are feeding.

Question:  And just a quick follow‑up on the fuel trucks.  I know you, obviously, are in a bit of a tricky spot when it comes to sort of saying who exactly might be to blame for those fuel trucks not getting in, but on a very basic level, can you sort of tell us where… where do these fuel trucks come from to get to Mekelle?  How do you… where do you find this fuel, and where does it come from?

Gemma Connell:  Thanks, Michelle.  I'm not going to be able to go into the… maybe the procurement details that you'd like me to today, but what I can say is that this is fuel that the United Nations procures through our usual procedures, and then we transit that up to the staging point at Semera, where it's waiting to travel into Mekelle.  Now, what we need is the green light for that fuel to move, and that is absolutely critical.  Without that, our operations will, quite literally, come to a grinding halt in the not‑too‑distant future.  So, that fuel is procured in all of the usual manners.  It's handled by the logistics cluster, the World Food Programme (WFP), which are skilled and highly skilled at dealing with these matters across every single crisis that we work in and have all of the measures in place to ensure that that fuel is going to go to the humanitarian operations on the ground in Tigray.

Question:  And you're waiting on the green light from?

Gemma Connell:  The Government.

Correspondent:  The federal Government.

Gemma Connell:  That's correct.

Spokesman:  Thank you.  Rick Gladstone, The New York Times.  Rick?

Question:  Thank you.  Thank you, Gemma, for the briefing on short notice.  I had a couple of questions about the flight that was aborted today.  Can you elaborate [inaudible] cargo of that flight? We know there were 11 people on the flight.  Can you say anything more about who they were?  And is this the first time that a humanitarian… a UN humanitarian flight has been aborted in a trip to the Tigrayan capital?

Gemma Connell:  Rick, sorry, you were coming through a little broken, but I hope I got the question okay.  So, just to confirm that the passengers on today's flight, the 11 passengers that you mentioned, they were humanitarian personnel travelling into Tigray to be part of the humanitarian response.  Out of respect for those colleagues, who I'm sure you can imagine have had a very difficult day, I'm not going to go into any further details about who and which agencies.  Suffice to say, they were all humanitarians travelling to be part of this response.  In terms of whether or not this is the first time we've had a flight turn around, we've had flights turned around because of weather, but this is the first time that we've had a flight turn around, at least to my knowledge, in the recent past in Ethiopia because of air strikes on the ground.

Spokesman:  Thank you.  Thank you.  Any other questions before we let… we release Gemma?  Excellent.  Gemma, thank you so much again for doing this on very short notice, and we hope to be able to call on you in the future.  Take care, and enjoy your weekend.

Gemma Connell:  Thank you, Steph.  Thank you, colleagues.  Pleasure being with you all.

**Peacebuilding Commission

All right.  Back to our regularly scheduled programming.  Speaking at a virtual meeting of the Peacebuilding Commission on his Our Common Agenda report and the New Agenda for Peace, the Secretary‑General said the choices we make today could result in further breakdown, or a breakthrough to a better, more sustainable future.  He highlighted areas that require particular effort and attention, such as a recommitment to the non‑use of nuclear weapons and a timetable for their progressive elimination.  He also told members of the Commission that we need to recognize the links between all forms of violence, as well as to strengthen strategic foresight and capacities to identify and manage new risks.  The Secretary‑General also said that we need to massively invest in prevention and peacebuilding, and also to put women and girls at the centre of our efforts.  His full remarks were shared with you.

**Syria

As you may have heard, Geir Pedersen, the Special Envoy for Syria, spoke to journalists in Geneva just a few moments ago, and he detailed the agreements reached over the course of the past five days and said that there were ups and downs over the week, and he called today’s discussion a big disappointment in which, he said, we did not achieve what we hoped to achieve.  The Special Envoy said that all sides did not come to a common understanding today, adding that in the end, we would need an understanding among all three delegations on commonalities, which has not been reached.  There has also been no agreement to a date of the next discussions.

**Democratic Republic of the Congo

Quick update on the travels of Jean‑Pierre Lacroix, the head of the UN Peacekeeping Department.  As you now he is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  He is in Goma today where he is meeting with the military governor of North Kivu to discuss the political and humanitarian situation and the Mission’s support to the Congolese Army against armed groups to address the security challenges.  He is also meeting with Mission staff to express his support and appreciation for their work.  In Kinshasa earlier in the week, Mr. Lacroix met with President Felix Tshisekedi to discuss the security and political situation in the country.  In his meetings with representatives from civil society organizations and political parties, he reiterated the hope for a transparent and [peaceful] process towards the 2023 presidential elections.  Mr. Lacroix will conclude his visit to the DRC in Beni on Sunday, where he will meet with peacekeepers in charge of the operations there.

**Bosnia and Herzegovina

Also, travelling is Assistant Secretary‑General Miroslav Jenča, who today wrapped up a four‑day visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina.  He met with members of the Presidency, as well as the Foreign Minister, leaders of political parties, and civil society organizations, among others.  Mr. Jenča reiterated the Secretary‑General’s call for a redoubling of efforts towards strengthening reconciliation, trust, mutual understanding and social cohesion.  In particular, he stressed the need for enhanced constructive dialogue among all communities as a necessary basis for finding sustainable solutions to the peaceful and prosperous future of the country.  Mr. Jenča also noted the Secretary‑General’s call to all those in a position of power to refrain from denying the seriousness of all atrocity crimes, including genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, that have been adjudicated by international justice institutions.

**Afghanistan

Moving to Afghanistan, our humanitarian colleagues are telling us that between 1 September and 15 October — just a few days ago — we, along with our partners, have provided 4 million people with food assistance in the country.  We have also reached 790,000 people with primary health care, provided treatment for acute malnutrition to more than 85,000 children and supported more than 27,000 people with psychosocial services.  In addition, we assisted 165,000 drought‑affected people with water trucking, reached more than 39,000 children with community‑based education activities and supported nearly 54,000 people with standard non‑food assistance.  The humanitarian community in Afghanistan remains concerned about attempts to leverage humanitarian assistance for political purposes.  Humanitarian action should never be conditioned to political, development, human rights or other non‑humanitarian objectives.  Donors are urged to ensure that transactions and other activities required for humanitarian operations are excluded from the scope of sanctions regimes to allow humanitarian activities to continue without any impediments.  The Flash Appeal we’ve been telling you about remains about 45 per cent funded.  We continue to urge donors to convert pledges into hard cash.

**Haiti

Turning to Haiti.  Colleagues across the street at the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) say that more children and women have been abducted for ransom between January and August this year than during the entire year in 2020.  According to UNICEF estimates, based on official sources, 71 women and 30 children were abducted in the first eight months of this year.  Last year, 59 women and 37 children had been abducted.  If we look at total numbers — so far this year, according to UNICEF, 455 kidnappings have been reported.  As a comparison, in all of 2020, there were 234.  Most of the kidnappings are taking place in Port-au-Prince, and the vast majority of them are Haitians.  UNICEF said to improve the reporting of incidents and the assistance to children in need, they supported the reactivation of a free hotline, operated by the national child protection agency.  This line is to be used alongside a helpline for the Brigade for the Protection of Minors.  The agency urges all relevant actors to refrain from targeting children and women and calls upon the Government of Haiti to take action needed to address gang violence against children.

**Myanmar

UNICEF is also giving us an update from Myanmar, where they continue to step up its efforts to help tens of thousands of women and children.  Across the country, UNICEF and its partners have reached nearly 47,000 children under the age of 5, as well as thousands of pregnant and lactating mothers, with nutritional supplements, including in camps for internally displaced people.  UNICEF continues to seek humanitarian access to all areas affected by conflict — to provide health and nutrition assistance.  We again call on all parties concerned to ensure humanitarian access so that people who have been displaced or are otherwise impacted can receive help.

**Iran/COVID-19

Quick update on COVID‑19 from Iran:  our team there, led by Resident Coordinator Stefan Priesner, continues to support authorities’ response to the health, humanitarian, and socioeconomic needs of those impacted by the pandemic.  We are also focusing on helping the most vulnerable people, including refugees, undocumented Afghans who have been living in Iran for years, and thousands of people who have recently crossed into Iran from Afghanistan.  Our team says that daily death rates are declining as more people are getting vaccinated.  The World Health Organization (WHO) says more than 72 million vaccines have been administered so far, easing pressure on hospitals and health care.  The UN team helped to deliver more than 12 million doses of vaccines through COVAX.  Iran also received more than one million doses bilaterally.  We are working to secure the donation of more vaccines, including a significant number for Afghan refugees through COVAX.  And we are there to help with the logistics to store vaccines.

**Mali

The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) is telling us that its Human Rights and Protection Division has concluded a three‑day visit to Gao yesterday.  Our colleagues were there to assess the deterioration of the security situation and the impact on human rights, with a particular focus on the violations and abuses committed against civilians.  The delegation met with regional authorities, traditional and religious leaders, as well as members of civil society and young people.  The goal of the visit was to find consensus on the need to work in synergy to avoid a protection crisis and improve the protection of civilians.

**Libya

I was asked two questions on Libya yesterday.  One on monitors and I can tell you that yesterday, on 21 October, we proceeded with the initial deployment to Tripoli of a small team of UN ceasefire monitors tasked with supporting the Libyan Ceasefire Monitoring Mechanism.  They will work in concert with Libyan monitors assigned by the 5+5 Joint Military Commission.  Additional monitors will be deployed incrementally in tandem with the Libyan monitors of the Libyan‑led monitoring mechanism, including in Sirte, once the necessary security and logistical arrangements are in place.  And on foreign fighters, I think it was Ray who asked me about the foreign fighters in Libya, following the 8 October agreement of the 5+5 Commission on a comprehensive Action Plan for the gradual, balanced, and sequenced process of the withdrawal of mercenaries, foreign fighters and foreign forces from Libya, and further to the 21 October ministerial meeting chaired by the Foreign Minister in Tripoli, we hope that the international community will offer strong support for the implementation of the Action Plan, including from countries in the region.

**World Development Information Day

Sunday is World Development Information Day.  The Day aims to draw the attention of the world to development problems and the need to strengthen international cooperation to solve them.  And I want to flag too that Sunday is also the first day of Disarmament Week, as well as the start of the Global Media and Information Literacy Week.

**United Nations Day

More importantly, Sunday is what day?  What day is 24 October?  You are good.  24 October is United Nations Day.  In his message for the Day, the Secretary‑General highlights that 76 years ago, the UN was created as a vehicle of hope for a world emerging from the shadow of catastrophic conflict.  Today, he said, the women and men of the UN carry this hope forward around the globe.  The Secretary‑General noted that COVID‑19, conflicts, hunger, poverty and the climate emergency remind us that our world is far from perfect.  But they also make clear that solidarity is the only way forward.  The Secretary‑General says that the values that have powered the UN for the last 76 years — peace, development, human rights, and opportunity for all — have no expiry date.  Mr. [António] Guterres calls on all to unite behind these ideals, and live up to the full promise, potential and hope of the United Nations.

**Noon Briefing Guest

On Monday, we will have a briefing by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Administrator, Achim Steiner, who will brief on the results of UNDP’s People's Climate Vote, and new insights from G20 countries.  Edie?

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  Does the Secretary‑General have any reaction to the flight to Mekelle being aborted by air strikes?  And has he been in contact with officials on the ground in the Government?

Spokesman:  Contacts with officials continue at various levels.  I have no new… I mean, as you know, the Secretary‑General is often on the phone with Prime Minister Abiy [Ahmed].  I don't… that's not happened today, as far as I know.  I think this illustrates just one more example of the direct impact of conflict on our humanitarian operations, plain and simple.  Right now, our flights are suspended.  You heard from Gemma the lack of access for fuel trucks, for cash, all the basic necessities that fuel our humanitarian operations so we can help the millions of people in Tigray that are in desperate need of help.  Madame?

Question:  Stéphane, in Mali, the people responsible for the violation of human rights, are they mercenaries, or who are they, mainly?

Spokesman:  The people responsible for the violation of human rights in Mali are all those… and I would say… I think I can use the term men, because I think the vast majority are men, who use weapons in violations of every international norm, who use weapons to violate the most basic human rights of people.  And I would refer you to the various human rights reports that the Mission has put out.

Question:  But are the mercenaries involved?

Spokesman:  I would, again, refer you to the reports that we've put out, which are clear and public.  Okay.  Yes, Alan?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  The authorities of Kosovo today announced that they are expelling two Russian diplomats from Pristina, and Moscow already said that those… first of all, Moscow doesn't recognise independence of Kosovo, and second, those diplomats were working under the auspices of UNMIK (United Nations Mission in Kosovo) so they were credited by UNMIK.  So, Pristina doesn't have the right to expel them.  What's the position of the UN?

Spokesman:  Let me look, and if you can send me some details, I will have a look as soon as the briefing is over, as I had not seen that report.  Okay.  If anyone on the virtual screen has a question… fine.  I will not wait any longer, and I will leave the space to Madame Monica [Grayley] to speak on behalf of the GA President, and I wish you all a wonderful weekend.

For information media. Not an official record.