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Daily Press Briefing by the Office of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General

Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York

12 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 starting off with a bit of an update for you on COVID-19 and at UN Headquarters.

The Secretary-General has taken the decision the decision to cancel all United Nations system sponsored side events at Headquarters, from 16 March until the end of April, effective [immediately].

He strongly urges all Member States to consider cancelling all side events for the meetings that they are sponsoring.

The Secretary-General will be communicating with Member States and staff in a short while to update them on the preparation measures the UN has undertaken to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Since the beginning of the outbreak, the Secretary-General said that we have been balancing the safety and security of staff and representatives of Member States with the need to ensure that the work of the Organization continues, here and around the world.

The Secretary-General will say in a letter to Member States that a three-phase response activation system to manage and coordinate health emergencies is in place, and that UN Headquarters in New York is currently in phase two, which is an active risk reduction mode.

He said this includes taking measures for social distancing in the workplace and assessing the criticality of travel and meetings against associated risks.

As you know, the UN building has been closed to visitors and the Secretariat has instituted arrangements for staff to telecommute to reduce the population density in the building, thereby reducing the risk of transmission.

In a video message released yesterday, Mr. [Antonio] Guterres said that its classification as a pandemic is a call to action and a call for responsibility and solidarity.  He stressed that, as we fight the virus, we cannot let the fear go viral.

Together, the Secretary-General added, we can still change the course of this pandemic, with the best science telling us that, if countries detect, test, treat, isolate, trace and mobilize their people in the response, we can go a long way to mitigating transmission.

He called on every Government to immediately step up and scale up their efforts, and he added that we must move forward with resolve and without stigma.


Turning to Syria, and I have a statement regarding the start of the tenth year of the conflict in Syria:

The Syrian conflict has entered its tenth year, yet peace still remains far too elusive.  The brutal conflict has exacted an unconscionable human cost and caused a humanitarian crisis of monumental proportions.  Millions of civilians continue to face protection risks, over half the population has been forced to flee their homes with millions living in precarious conditions as refugees and 11 million continue to require life-saving humanitarian assistance.  We have seen nine years of horrific atrocities, including war crimes.  Nine years of human rights abuses on a massive and systematic scale, eroding international norms to new depths of cruelty and suffering.  Tens of thousands are missing, disappeared, detained, subjected to ill-treatment and torture.  Untold numbers have been killed and injured.  There must be no impunity for such horrific crimes.

Throughout the conflict, the humanitarian system has used all available means to get aid to those who need it – from airdrops to crossline deliveries to cross-border deliveries.  In 2019, the UN and our partners reached over six million people each month throughout Syria.  In January of this year, food assistance for around 1.4 million people was delivered via the cross-border mechanism alone, as were health supplies for almost half a million people and non-food items for more than 230,000 people.

The steps to end the suffering of the Syrian people are well known but must be realized.  First, the 5 March Additional Protocol to the Memorandum on Stabilization of the Situation in the Idlib De-Escalation Area agreed between Russia and Turkey must lead to a lasting cessation of hostilities that paves the way to a permanent ceasefire nation-wide.  Second, the parties need to return to the UN-facilitated political process mandated by resolution 2254 (2015), which remains the only viable path to end the conflict and offer lasting peace to the people of Syria.

The Secretary-General's message today is clear.  We cannot allow the tenth year to result in the same carnage, the same flouting of human rights and international humanitarian law, the same inhumanity.

That message is being emailed to you as we speak.


Turning to Iraq, the UN Mission in that country (UNAMI) condemned the latest rocket attack at Camp Taji, which resulted in the loss of life and injury among troops of the Global Coalition to fight Da'esh.

The UN Mission says that these ongoing attacks are a clear and substantial threat to the country, and the risk of rogue action by armed groups remains a constant concern.  The last thing Iraq needs is to serve as an arena for vendettas and external battles.

The Mission says that maximum restraint on all sides is the only way forward.  The Government of Iraq must exercise its full powers to hold perpetrators accountable and prevent future attacks.

The UN expresses its condolences to the families of the victims and their countries, and wishes a speedy recovery to those injured.


Let me just mention Yemen. Martin Griffiths, the Special Envoy for Yemen, briefed the Security Council by VTC [video teleconference] on the situation in that area.  He warned that the parties to the conflict will either move Yemen towards de-escalation and the resumption of the political process, or, he fears, towards greater violence and suffering that will make the path to the negotiating table even more arduous.

He added that the most alarming military escalation has taken place in the Al Jawf governorate.  The Special Envoy is deeply concerned about the rationale driving these escalations and the impact of the violence on the Al Jawf people.  Thousands of families have been displaced by the recent fighting and are in critical need of shelter and assistance.

Also briefing was Ramesh Rajasingham, the acting Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, and he said that the renewed fighting there underlines the urgency of five priority issues:  protection of civilians and respect for international humanitarian law; humanitarian access and delivery; funding for UN aid operations; the Yemeni economy; and progress towards peace.

**Central African Republic

The UN Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) tells us that gunshots were reported today in Ndele, near the UN compound. Our colleagues said the security situation there continues to be tense.

The Mission has deployed patrols to reinforce security in the UN compound, as well as the nearby temporary camp for displaced people.

Additional peacekeepers have also arrived from Kaga-Bandoro to provide support to their colleagues there.


Our humanitarian colleagues tell us that the desert locust situation remains extremely alarming in the Horn of Africa.

Widespread breeding is in progress and new swarms are starting to form in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia.

The UN's humanitarian arm says this is an unprecedented threat to food security and added that an extended response will be necessary to safeguard people's livelihoods.

Aerial and ground locust control operations by the Governments are ongoing with support from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which says it has now increased its original appeal to $138 million, for which $107 million has already been pledged.


And our friends at the World Food Programme (WFP) say that one year after cyclone Idai, the strongest storm ever to hit Mozambique, limited funding for essential reconstruction is preventing many of the hardest-hit people from getting back on their feet.

The agency says it needs $91 million to be able to fully implement rehabilitation [projects] for Idai victims this year.

**Senior Designation

You saw that yesterday afternoon we announced that the Secretary-General had designated Stephanie Turco Williams of the United States as his Acting Special Representative and Head of the UN Mission in Libya (UNSMIL).

She will act as Special Representative in Libya until the appointment of a successor to Mr. [Ghassan] Salamé of Lebanon.  The Secretary-General is of course very grateful to Mr. Salamé for his accomplishments as the Head of the UN Mission and his tireless efforts to bring peace and stability back to Libya.

Ms. Williams' bio is available.

**Guest Tomorrow

Tomorrow, my guest at noon will be the Special Victims' Advocate Jane Connors, who will talk to you about the Secretary-General's 2019 report on Sexual Exploitation and Abuse.


And we say shukran today to our friends in Egypt, who become the sixty-ninth Member State to pay their budget dues in full.

**Questions and Answers


Question:  I'll just dive right in on the COVID.  So, by "side events", what do you mean exactly?  because when you say "side events", I think of UNGA [United Nations General Assembly] and side events, but if it's every day…

Spokesman:  There are a lot of… if you go… if you walk through the basement and other conferences, there are… these are basic…

Question:  Meetings.  Is that in English, meetings?

Spokesman:  Let me try to use a bit of UN English.  What I mean, these are not legislatively mandated meetings.  Right?  So, a meeting of the General Assembly, a meeting of ECOSOC (Economic and Social Committee), a meeting of the Fifth Committee is a mandated meeting.

If the UN or UN agencies organizes a side meeting or a special meeting on a different issue, that is a side event.

So, there are really two types of gatherings here. There are mandated meetings of the Security Council, of any legislative body, and then there are side events, which are organized sometimes by UN entities, sometimes [by] Member States around thematic issues.

So, he has the authority to cancel those that we sponsor, and he's asking Member States to take into consideration the situation and do the same with those meetings.

Question:  Could you send out a copy of the letter to the reporters?

Spokesman:  Yes, as soon as it goes out.  This was a slight preview for you.

Question:  Okay.  And then on his travel, you know, we heard the President of the United States put special travel restrictions in place last night.  I realize those do not impact UN diplomats.  There's a clause in the proclamation.

Spokesman:  That's correct.

Question:  But out of an abundance of caution, will the Secretary-General continue to be travelling internationally?

Spokesman:  I think the Secretary-General will always balance the need for the UN to continue to deliver on its activities, for him to continue to do its work, and the need to protect public health.

Mr. Barada?

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  So, how many people and how… what is the percentage of people are going to be affected by this reduction of activities at the UN… I mean, how you're going to mitigate the spread of…

Spokesman:  Obviously, we're talking about… for the next two months, about a little less than 100 events.  Right?  Mix Member States and UN.  Obviously, people who are guests and who were going to attend the meetings will no longer be coming.  Right?  It's hard to give you a numbers impact.

What we will continue to try to do is shrink the footprint of humans in this building, right, through telecommuting, through, obviously, the cancellation of meetings, through the reduction of meetings.  So, we continue to do that.

I've asked for some just comparative data of the number of swipes from, you know, week by week.  I'm waiting… our UN Security colleagues will hopefully give me those to give us an example of really how much the presence of humans has shrunk in this building.

Question:  And just… can you confirm that you haven't had any infected personnel or staff…?

Spokesman:  What I can tell you is that we have not been advised of any positive… of any staff member at UN Headquarters in New York being tested positive for COVID-19 as of this very moment.

Question:  And in case, as we may say, God forbid, there is any case, what is the UN going to do with the infected person and the other…

Spokesman:  First thing is to make sure that the staff member or the diplomat gets… has the information they need to get the treatment and what they need.  Mitigation measures will be taken for those people's immediate office, but I don't want to speculate, because every case is, obviously, different.  But to say that we are in a state of heightened alertness for cases would be rather an understatement.

Question:  You mentioned earlier that the UN itself doesn't have the authority or the capacity to do the testing.

Spokesman:  Yeah, we do not have a lab here.  We don't have tests and we don't… you need two things.  You need tests and you need a lab.  Right?  And we don't a lab to process…

Question:  Right.  Is there any contingency plan for where people should go from the UN, just in case…?

Spokesman:  I mean, we are in… we are making sure that all our staff and all the delegates have the required information to know which public health authority they need to turn to, whether they live in New York, whether they live in Connecticut, whether they live in New Jersey.  But we are rely… like we do in every… just about in every country we operate, we rely on the public health authorities of the Host Country.

Yes, sir?

Question:  Thank you, dear.  On the Libya appointment…

Spokesman:  Designation.

Question:  Designation.  Williams being given the acting head role, is that an indication that the SG thinks it might be a bit longer than anticipated to…

Spokesman:  No.

Question:  …get a full-time… because we got your news on the same day that we heard that Ramtane Lamamra was being considered as the permanent… [Cross talk]

Spokesman:  I mean, as always, when there's a high-level appointment, there's a lot of speculation in the news about names that are floating around.  Right now, the critical part is to ensure that there's no leadership gap.

Mr. Salamé told the SG, for various reasons, that he wanted to step away.  We don't want to be in a situation where there's a leadership vacuum.  The parties need to know who is heading the Mission.  The staff, obviously, of the Mission need to know.  Ms. Williams is the acting head until a new SRSG [Special Representative of the Secretary-General] is appointed.


Question:  Is the NPT [Non-Proliferation Treaty] conference a side event?

Spokesman:  No, that is a… a meeting of signatories to a treaty is not a side event.  And I'm… we're waiting for some information, but, obviously… you know, the NPT is… it's a treaty in a treaty body.  The Bureau has to decide what they're going to do, but I don't have any specific information at this point.

Question:  About that conference in particular…?

Spokesman:  Correct.  But that is not a side event.

Question:  Right.  And so, as stands now, it's going ahead as planned.

Spokesman:  I have no update on that at this point.  Yes, sir?

Question:  [inaudible], Al Jazeera English.  Does the Secretary-General have a response to the letter sent to him by the Iranian Foreign Minister?  Does the Secretary-General agree with the Iranian Foreign Minister that it's unconscionable for the US to prevent medicine and humanitarian aid to Iran as the pandemic spreads?

Spokesman:  We have received a copy of the letter from Foreign Minister [Javad] Zarif.  I can tell you the Secretary-General is deeply concerned about the coronavirus outbreak in Iran, which, as you know, is one of the countries strongest hit by the virus.  He has and is expressing his solidarity with the Government and the people of Iran in their efforts to combat the outbreak and, I think, appreciates the efforts they have made in that direction.

Iran can count on the support of the United Nations system, including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN country team in Iran.  As you know, I think the World Health Organization has sent staff to Iran.

He's also very much aware of the existing shortage of medicine and medical equipment that makes it much more difficult to contain the outbreak in Iran, and he appeals to all Member States to facilitate and support Iran's efforts in this critical moment.

Question:  Is it a violation of the UN Charter and the World Health Organization Charter for the sanctions to be placed?

Spokesman:  I think I would refer you to the World Health Organization, and that's what I have to say on this at this point.

Question:  As for the UN Charter, though?

Spokesman:  This is what I have to say on this at this point.

Question:  There's one… oops.  There's a specific question…

Spokesman:  The flashlight on your phone is on and it's… on your phone.

Question:  Oh, sorry.  Ignore that.

Spokesman:  A slight torture device.

Question:  That's the interrogation…

Spokesman:  Exactly.

Question:  There's a specific question in the letter addressed to the Secretary-General:  "How does the world benefit from the Iranian people being deprived from medicine and access to information about treatment for COVID-19?"  Does the Secretary-General have an answer to that specific question?

Spokesman:  I mean, the answer is in what I've just told you, is that we're, obviously, concerned by the outbreak, concerned by the lack of medical equipment and medicine, and we're asking for the international community to do whatever it can to support Iran's effort in combating COVID-19.

Question:  But are you in touch with the US then to pre… to ensure…

Spokesman:  You know, the letter was just received, and this is our response at this point.

Margaret, and then we'll go to the back.

Question:  Speaking of Iran, I believe there were two UN staffers in the system who had tested positive.  One was in Iran.  Is he/she recovered?  And what about the other staffer?

Spokesman:  I don't have an update on that, but I will try to get you one.

Question:  And on missions, are you hearing from missions about whether they have had any problems?

Spokesman:  Permanent Missions?

Question:  Permanent Missions.

Spokesman:  No, we have not been… again, as of 12:42, we have not been advised by a Permanent Mission that there's been any case.

Question:  Do you expect that they would advise you?

Spokesman:  We would… I think we would all appreciate that information be given, but it is up to the Permanent Missions to make those decisions.

Question:  And can I ask one on Yemen?

Spokesman:  Yes.

Question:  During the Security Council meeting, Ambassador [Kelly] Craft of the United States repeated their plans to suspend aid to northern Yemen, should the Houthis still create obstacles. Do you know what programmes would be impacted, what UN programmes would be impacted?

Spokesman:  No.  It's a very good question.  I know there's a number of WFP [World Food Programme] programmes, but we can try to get you some granularity on that.

Yes, ma'am?

Question:  Hi. Sorry if I missed this, but was there any sort of response from the Secretary-General in regard to President [Donald] Trump's announcement yesterday to ban travel from Europe?

And, also, was there… were there any meetings with the Secretary-General that were cancelled as a result of this measure?

Spokesman:  No… not to my knowledge on the second part.  You know, on the first part, I would refer you to WHO guidelines in terms of the recommendations that they have to Member States.

Thank you, all.

Question:  Actually, can I ask… sorry.  Their guidelines are pretty thin, actually, if you look at them.  Some of them are just sort of vague.  And there is no guidelines specifically about travel.  So…

Spokesman:  My understanding is that there are.  We can help you find them.

Question:  Well, do you think that the US decision is an over-interpretation, an under-interp… you know, where do you think it falls on the spectrum?

Spokesman:  That's up to WHO to decide.

Correspondent:  Okay.

Spokesman:  Thank you.

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