Daily Press Briefing by the Office of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General
Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York
11 March 2020
The following is a near-verbatim transcript of today's noon briefing by Stéphane Dujarric, Spokesman for the Secretary-General.
Good afternoon. Just to wrap up a bit on COVID-19, you will have seen that, in response to questions, the Secretary-General said that very important measures are being taken here at UN Headquarters and the situation is being assessed on a daily if not hourly basis. He also expressed his total commitment to cooperate with the authorities of the Host Country, as well as the state and city authorities, to be a part of the efforts here in New York to keep everyone safe. Yesterday, the World Health Organization (WHO), United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) issued new guidance to help protect children and schools from the transmission of COVID-19. The guidance provides critical considerations and practical checklists to keep schools safe, as well as advice for national and local authorities on how to adapt and implement emergency plans for schools. We do expect Dr. Tedros [Adhanom Ghebreyesus] to brief the press in Geneva, if he hasn't already done so, very shortly.
Also on WHO, but on Syria, the World Health Organization condemns in the strongest terms the attacks on health care that have been a hallmark of the complex humanitarian situation in Syria, which this month enters its tenth year. A total of 494 attacks on health care workers and installations were confirmed between 2016 and 2019, of which more than two thirds, or 337 attacks, were recorded in Syria's north-west. The data show that attacks on health in Syria peaked in 2016 and were the lowest in 2019, likely due to the reduced size of the area where active fighting has been taking place. The total death toll on health care in Syria between 2016 and 2019 is 470. We continue to be deeply concerned for the safety and protection of millions of civilians in the north-west Syria following more than three months of violence in the area. We're continuing to scale up our response, including protection, shelter, water, sanitation and hygiene. The UN sent 927 trucks in February and 1,227 in January, carrying life-saving assistance for millions of people in north-west. The UN urges all parties to ensure the protection of civilians and civilian infrastructure, in line with obligations under international humanitarian law, and to ensure safe and sustained humanitarian access to people affected by the crisis.
Back here, the Security Council is holding an open meeting today on countering terrorism and extremism in Africa. Briefing Council members was Under-Secretary-General for Political [and Peacebuilding] Affairs, Rosemary DiCarlo. She said that, today, Africa is moving forward with its own agenda of progress, peace and prosperity. But, she said, the continent continues to see the threat of terrorism and violent and extremism, which continues to grow in some areas, despite our efforts to prevent and counter it at the national, regional and international levels. She added that, as the Secretary-General stated, we cannot address terrorism without addressing underlying factors. She also said that we must address poverty, weak governance, intercommunal tensions, gender inequality, youth unemployment, illicit activities such as the trafficking in weapons and people, and the use of new technologies and social media to recruit, inflame and incite.
The humanitarian situation in Mali continues to deteriorate due to escalation of violence, particularly in the northern, eastern and central regions; that's according to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. As of today, more than 86,000 people have been displaced in the Mopti region since 2018, bringing the total number of displaced to 218,500 across Mali. With the spread of hostilities to the centre of the country, there are about 8.7 million people, or [more than] 45 per cent of the country's population, who are now impacted by the crisis. The Humanitarian Response Plan for this year targets 3.6 million and requires $390 million in funding.
**Central African Republic
And this update from the Central African Republic, where the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) reports that the security situation in Ndélé, in the Bamingui-Bangoran Prefecture, continues to be tense. Heavy gunfire was reported today, after fighting between factions of the FPRC [Front Populaire pour la Renaissance de la Centrafrique]. At least 13 combatants were killed and there is an unconfirmed number of injured. The number of civilians seeking security around a UN Mission camp has now increased to 3,000. The Mission reports that peacekeepers are actively patrolling and securing key areas in the city and that all UN personnel are safe.
Let's have a little bit of good news. We say thank you to our friends in South Africa and Spain, who have paid up in full to the regular budget, bringing it up to 68. Maggie?
**Questions and Answers
Question: Steph, on COVID watch, you said hourly and daily changing. Can you tell us how… if there's… I asked you about it Monday, I believe, but can you tell us if there's been any change to the impact on your operations from the spread of the virus? Worldwide, not just here, I mean.
Spokesman: No, exactly. I mean, just here, the President of the General Assembly, the Bureau of ECOSOC [Economic and Social Council] who are all, I think, in discussions looking at the calendar of conferences, a number of, I think, are already being altered or postponed, including the biodiversity conferences, as far as I know, as well as parts of the programmes of the Indigenous Forum. Various headquarter stations, whether it's in Geneva or Vienna, are also taking measures that are specific to those headquarters. On the humanitarian front, the agencies are assessing how and where humanitarian operations are being disrupted to try to identify solutions as quickly as possible. To date – and, again, I'd have to stress, to date – the UN and all of our humanitarian partners are maintaining humanitarian operations while taking the utmost precautions to ensure staff safety. UN agencies are also currently assessing where and how humanitarian operations are being disrupted, and we're also constantly balancing the need to continue, obviously, the UN's critical work in the field with the requirement to protect public health.
Question: And one follow-up. In the UN community, last night, it was confirmed that a teacher at UNIS [United Nations International School] had tested positive, and the school's now closed until after spring break. Has there been any directive or recommendation to parents of kids at UNIS who work in Headquarters to self-quarantine?
Spokesman: I think the school put out an email yesterday, which had some direct messaging from the City's Department of Health on precautions that should be taken.
Question: But, has the UN asked staff here who have children at the school to work from home?
Spokesman: Communication… I mean, we're encouraging, as a general rule, telecommuting as… in order to reduce our footprint, and staff… and communications to staff will be ongoing. Joe?
Question: Yes. I want to go back to the recent meeting between the Secretary-General and [United States] Secretary of State [Michael] Pompeo, and I have two questions flowing from that. As you know, one of the topics that was discussed, at least according to the State Department readout, was the so-called blacklist of firms doing business with Israeli firms in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. I'm wondering what specifically the Secretary-General is doing in response to that, and I have in mind what impact will it have on UN procurement from those businesses listed on that blacklist? My second question is, in the readout that your office provided, there was a reference to the Host Country Agreement. Didn't go into any details. I'm just wondering whether the issue of potentially barring the issuance of visas to the ICC [International Criminal Court] Prosecutor and… whose visa, I believe, has… was revoked last year, and also investigatory staff, was that specifically discussed?
Spokesman: Not that I'm aware, and I think we all have to double-check exactly what happened with the visa of the ICC Prosecutor. As you know, there has been an issue, which we have raised publicly and privately, with the issuance of visas for certain delegations who want to work here at the UN. I can only speak to the readout we put out. In terms of the list, as we've always said in the past, this was a decision taken by the… this was a mandate given to the High Commissioner for Human Rights by the [Human Rights] Council. She acted on that mandate. As any UN Secretariat official there, she has no choice but to act on the mandate. And I have nothing further on the list as of now.
Question: I think in conjunction with the discussions surrounding the issuance of the list, it was partly for the purpose, at least as stated at the time, to impact on the procurement decisions of the UN and potentially other Member States. So, I'm just wondering, were there any deliberations under way, to your knowledge, within the Secretariat governing procurement from those listed businesses?
Spokesman: Not to my knowledge, which is sometimes rather limited. Yes, sir, Mr. Gladstone.
Question: Hi. Thank you. Has… forgive me if this has been asked before. Has Secretary-General [Antonio] Guterres or any other members of the hierarchy been tested for coronavirus?
Spokesman: No, the Secretary-General has not been tested. You know, we are following the recommendations of the local health authorities, and we have… the UN does not have tests… we are not… we do not have the capacity or the capability to conduct tests. We would rely on the New York City, state and federal authorities.
Question: One other quick follow-up. Do you have, like, a percentage of the number of people at the Secretariat… or I should say the people who work here at the UN Headquarters, how many, percentage-wise, are not coming to work out of an abundance of caution?
Spokesman: We are… you know, we had aimed for 40 to 50 per cent reduction in the footprint. I think we'll have to figure out… it will take a couple of days to get the figures of where we are. The directive went out earlier in the week. Obviously, in order for people to telecommute, we have to make sure they have the right tools, IT tools and so forth, so they're able to do their work fully. But, we'll try to harvest some numbers on that. Ms. Lederer? Sorry, and then…
Question: Thank you, Steph. Have there been any other… any cases reported at UN Headquarters? We know about UNIS, but, I mean, in the Headquarters complex. And also, as a follow-up to the last question, what have… we know that there was a simulation of how the Security Council might operate if UN Headquarters closed. Has anything similar been done about how the Secretariat and the Secretary-General would operate?
Spokesman: Well, you know, we… all… first of all, let me say, I've not been made aware that any case of COVID-19 has been reported to the Secretariat staff. Obviously, we're all on heightened alert. If that changes, I will advise you. There is a pretty robust business continuity plan in place, which was really triggered a few years ago after the events of Hurricane Sandy. If you'll remember, the garage was flooded. We lost a lot of our IT. And I think that really pushed the Secretariat to see how we could operate remotely. All departments now have one. All departments have been asked to test it. I'm sure they… almost all… they all have. We, for instance, in our office, are now working… about half the staff is working from home. We have the capacity to do press briefings from my living room, remotely. In fact, we've been in touch with UNCA [United Nations Correspondents Association] to figure out how that… how you would participate in those briefings. So, we're all ready for something that we hope will not happen. Evelyn?
Question: Thank you. On Syria, is there any update on the ceasefire?
Spokesman: No, I have nothing new from that. Madame and then…?
Question: Hi. Is there anything concrete, like a document, that's online somewhere on the business continuity plan?
Spokesman: No, I mean, the business continuity plans are not public documents. I mean, it's basically to make sure that each office knows what they would have to do, who would work from where, the tools they need, phone trees, I mean, just the basic business continuity plan, as, I'm sure, most of you in your news organizations have for a time of crisis.
Question: Thanks. Harvey Weinstein, 23 years, what does the SG's gender justice team make of that?
Spokesman: Look, I think the… what we've always said is that there needs to be accountability for violence against women. There needs to be accountability for sexual violence, and we've seen the New York City… the New York judicial system play out. We don't comment on court decisions. It's not… sorry. When we said when the conviction came… the guilty verdict came through that this was, indeed, a turning point.
Question: Does the UN have any sense of how the virus… whether the virus is affecting at all the population in North Korea? And are there any steps in place…?
Spokesman: No, I do not. I do not here. It may be something you want to check with WHO. I'll see if I can find out. Maggie?
Question: On your business continuity plan, is there any scenario under which you see this building closing? And who's in charge… is there, like, some ASG [Assistant Secretary-General], USG [Under-Secretary-General] in charge of overseeing all of this? And who is that?
Spokesman: Yeah, I mean, the Secretary-General serves as the chief administrative officer of this building. So, obviously, the decision would be made in his name. There is a medical director who has also a specific role to play. We are… obviously, we will be guided by recommendations from the New York City Health Department and other local authorities. I think we want to… like any other institution in this city, we want to make sure to keep everyone safe. We also don't want to feed any panic, and I think all these decisions need to be made on sound scientific and medical advice.
Question: Also, I'm hearing now that… from my colleagues outside the room, that this has been raised to a pandemic level by the WHO. Do you have any reaction?
Spokesman: I mean, it's the WHO's decision to do that. It's their responsibility and decision to do that. This will… may have an impact on some of the decisions that are taken here, but we'll be updating you on that. Yep?
Question: Different subject. Joe Biden and António Guterres, they've both been in the business for a long time. Can you… do you know if they've got any history together, meetings? Have they ever cooperated on any projects?
Spokesman: I do not know. Sir, Mr. Roth, and then Zach, yeah.
Question: Maggie asked my pandemic question. I mean, it's a word you don't hear often. Do you know if the UN system… how many times a pandemic has been declared in any UN operation or field offices…?
Spokesman: You know, the declaration of a pandemic is the responsibility of the World Health Organization. How many times they've done that, I do not know off the top of my head, but I'm sure that's something that some of your colleagues in Geneva may be asking Dr. Tedros. Zach?
Question: Thanks, Stéphane. You mentioned Syria reached a… almost a 10-year mark for war… entering its tenth year, several Special Envoys to Syria to try to resolve the conflict. Has the Secretary-General come to an assessment at how well the UN has done to help resolve the conflict after nine years?
Spokesman: Well, you know, it depends what part of the UN you're talking about. Right? I mean, we unders… we can all observe the situation in the Security Council. For the part of the Secretariat, for the Secretary-General, we have done whatever we can on the ground to try to deliver humanitarian aid, to try to relieve the suffering of the people of Syria. We have also never given up on the political track through our various envoys, whether it was Mr. [Kofi] Annan, Mr. [Lakhdar] Brahimi, Mr. [Staffan] De Mistura, Mr. [Geir] Pedersen. They have never lost hope. This Organization will continue to push for a political process, and we'll also continue to try to do whatever we feasibly can to get humanitarian aid in. What we need to see is greater unity on the part of the Security Council, and we need to see those who have their finger on the trigger stop shooting, stop bombing, stop air strikes and those who have an influence on those parties to push them in that direction. Yep?
Question: This question literally is the type Evelyn always calls a housekeeping question, and maybe you've announced this over the last week and a half, so I apologize. Has the UN…?
Spokesman: I only do light housekeeping.
Correspondent: Though you are an expert in North American elevators. Escalators.
Spokesman: Escalators, yes.
Question: Has the UN system, however meagre, regarding cleaning of the building and many of these reporter offices are… are locked, so how do they get in there…?
Spokesman: Yes, we've increased… sorry. I'm… let… I shall give you the consideration to finish your question before I answer it.
Question: Many of the journalism offices are locked, and I don't think the cleaning staff has access, so what… how much deep cleaning is…?
Spokesman: Well, we have noticeably increased the overnight staff to clean all public surfaces, elevators, escalators, doors. More staff have been hired. They have upgraded the cleaning fluid to… disinfectant fluid to what is being referred to as hospital-grade in order to try to keep this building clean. There are a number of hand-sanitizing stations that have been added that are being refilled as quickly as possible. So, we're very much focused on the cleanliness of this building. As for the cleanliness of your individual offices, I think that's a question to raise with our colleagues in MALU [Media Accreditation and Liaison Unit]. I will not go there, given our history. Rick?
Question: Yeah, I have a follow-up to Maggie's question. Have there been discussions among your senior staff and Mr. Guterres about what it would take to completely close down the UN Headquarters?
Spokesman: There have been discussions on what would happen, obviously, and what we would need to do to keep the building going, and there have been discussions, as well, as to what events would trigger it.
Question: What would those events be?
Spokesman: I'm not going to go into those details.
Question: And has… and forgive me. One other quick follow-up. Has the UN Headquarters ever completely shut down ever?
Spokesman: It shut down after 9…
Spokesman: I'm all for community-based answers, but let me try it first, and if it doesn't work with me, I'm always welcome to your input. It shut down a short while after 9/11, as it did after Hurricane Sandy and then, obviously, snowstorms once in a while – when we still used to have snowstorms in the city. Yes, sir?
Question: One more teeny-weeny housekeeping. Were we going to have Mark Lowcock today, and has that been rescheduled?
Spokesman: Yes, that's being rescheduled for a time to be scheduled later. Maggie. But thank you for remembering.
Correspondent: Steph, I'm really sorry to ask you about this…
Spokesman: No, that's okay.
Question: …and I do it with great reluctance, but there was… it's come to our attention that one of the officers from the Department of Safety and Security died tragically earlier this week at his home, but there have been a lot of rumours going around about it, and I was wondering if you had any statements to put those to rest…?
Spokesman: Sure, I can confirm that, very sadly, one of our wonderful colleagues from Safety and Security fell off his building, which is on 45th Street and 2nd Avenue. The NYPD [New York Police Department) is investigating, though there's absolutely no indication of any foul play. Okay. Thank you.
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