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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

13 May 2020

The following is a near-verbatim transcript of today's noon briefing by Stéphane Dujarric, Spokesman for the Secretary-General.

All right, good afternoon and happy Wednesday, I think.  Please remember to mute your microphones.

**Virtual Press Encounters

And immediately following my briefing, Elliott Harris, Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development and Chief Economist of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, will brief you on the launch of the World Economic Situation and Prospects (WESP) report's midyear update.

So, please do stay connected after we are done.

**Mental Health Policy Brief

I wanted to give you a heads up that tonight we will be putting out a policy brief from the Secretary-General, in which he presents a series of recommendations to ensure that mental health services are fully included in COVID-19 response and recovery plans.

The policy brief will be released at 11 p.m. New York time, and we will also have a video message recorded by the Secretary-General released at that same time.

**Sustainable Development Group

This morning, the United Nations Sustainable Development Group met virtually to coordinate support so that countries can overcome and recover better from the pandemic.

The Deputy Secretary-General, Amina J.  Mohammed, and the Group chair underscored that the pandemic is a global health, humanitarian and socioeconomic emergency.

Behind the numbers are people and families.  COVID-19 placed many things on pause, and also exacerbated grave existing problems, including inequality and climate change.

"The way the UN system responds now will put our reforms in action to enable us to better address this development crisis in full emergency mode," said the Deputy Secretary-General.

The group members also reviewed progress in reinforcing humanitarian-development collaboration, as well as consolidating the reforms launched by the Secretary-General to strengthen the UN's support to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.


And this morning, the Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, Rosemary DiCarlo, briefed the Security Council in a closed consultation on Lebanon.  She presented the Secretary-General's latest report on the implementation of resolution 1559.

Also today, regarding Lebanon, the International Support Group for Lebanon, which brings together the United Nations, as well as a number of Member States, took due note of the unanimous adoption by the Government in Beirut of its Financial Recovery Plan as a constructive framework for future reforms.

The Group also noted the Government's decision to request an IMF (International Monetary Fund) programme as a first step in the right direction.


And in a statement issued yesterday, you will see that the Secretary-General strongly condemned the horrific attack on a hospital in Kabul.  The attack killed and wounded dozens of people, including women and children.

The Secretary-General said that he is also following with concern the escalation of violence in Afghanistan.  He expressed his deepest sympathies to the families of the victims and to the Government and people of Afghanistan.

The Secretary-General reiterated that attacks against civilians are unacceptable and that hospitals, medical facilities and their personnel have special protection under international humanitarian law.

The Secretary-General emphasized that those who carry out such crimes must be held accountable.

The Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, Virginia Gamba, also issued a statement stressing that as countries around the world are focusing on their response to COVID-19, it is fundamental that hospitals and health-care institutions, as well as the patients they host, are protected.

**South Sudan

Turning to South Sudan, our peacekeeping colleagues tell us that the Ministry of Health has confirmed two COVID-19 cases in Protection of Civilians sites in Juba.  Our colleagues say that this was not unexpected, given the rising number of cases confirmed within communities across the city.

The UN continues to urge displaced people in the sites to follow prevention measures such as social distancing, handwashing, and isolating themselves if they become sick.

As we told you yesterday, the UN has been broadcasting prevention messages through our Radio Miraya station, as well as from inside protection sites.

The UN has doubled the water supply and increased the number of handwashing facilities.  We have also distributed three months' worth of food in advance.

This means that people don't have to travel often between the camps and the town to purchase supplies.

The UN will continue providing this support and encouraging people living in the sites to follow prevention measures as much as possible.


And on Libya, the heads of the UN's principal humanitarian bodies have just issued a joint statement in which they say that conflict and the pandemic present a significant threat to life in Libya.  The health and safety of the country's entire population are at risk.

They say that close to 400,000 Libyans have been displaced since the start of the conflict nine years ago – around half of them within the past year, since the attack on the capital [Tripoli] started.

Despite repeated calls for a humanitarian ceasefire, including by the Secretary-General, hostilities continue unabated, hindering access and the delivery of critical humanitarian supplies.

The UN humanitarian leaders urge all parties to the conflict to protect vital water supply facilities and they express alarm that water facilities have been deliberately targeted or indiscriminately attacked.

This impacts thousands of women and children and impedes efforts to implement basic virus prevention measures, such as handwashing.

They reiterate their support for the Secretary-General's call for a global ceasefire and a humanitarian pause to save lives and enable the Libyan authorities and their partners to devote their energies to stopping the spread of COVID-19.

The international community must not turn a blind eye to the conflict in Libya and its catastrophic impact on civilians, including migrants and refugees, across the country.

That statement has been shared with you.

**COVID-19 – Prisons

And in another joint statement, the heads of the UN global health, human rights and development institutions today issued a joint call to political leaders to address the vulnerability of prisoners to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This statement was signed by Ghada Fathi Waly of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC); Dr. Tedros [Adhanom Ghebreyesus] of the World Health Organization (WHO); Winnie Byanyima of UNAIDS (Joint United Nations Programme against HIV/AIDS) and Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

They stressed the need to reduce overcrowding; respect human rights; ensure health, safety and human dignity; ensure access to continued health services; and to adhere to UN rules and guidance, especially that of the World Health Organization.  The full statement is also online.

**COVID-19 – Children

And UNICEF (United Nations Children's Fund) today warned that an additional 6,000 children could die every day from preventable causes over the next six months, with the pandemic weakening health systems and disrupting routine services.

This would mean that the number of children dying before their fifth birthday could increase worldwide for the first time in decades.  More on this on UNICEF's website.


And the UN Conference on Trade and Development, otherwise known as UNCTAD, today said that the pandemic has led to a 3 per cent drop in global trade in the first quarter of the year.

This downturn is expected to accelerate in the next quarter, with UNCTAD forecasting a 27 per cent decline.

This has been accompanied by marked decreases in commodity prices – particularly fuel, as well as minerals, food and other raw materials.

The UN agency said it would now update its trade forecasts on a monthly basis to provide policymakers with up-to-date data so they can make better decisions.

You will get more on the economic impact on the pandemic with Mr. Elliott Harris in just a short while.

**World Health Statistics

And the 2020 World Health Statistics published today by the World Health Organization show that all over the world, the COVID-19 pandemic is causing significant loss of life and disrupting livelihoods.  It is also threatening the recent advances in health and progress towards the global development goals.

According to the World Health Statistics report, life expectancy and healthy life expectancy have increased, but unequally.  The biggest gains were reported in low-income countries, which saw life expectancy rise 21 per cent or 11 years between 2000 and 2016.

Among the challenges are access to quality health services and the inability to pay for health care.  On current trends, WHO estimates that this year, 2020, approximately 1 billion people will be spending at least 10 per cent of their household budgets on health care.

Dr. Tedros said that the pandemic is highlighting the urgent need for all countries to invest in strong health systems.


And today, the head of the UN human rights office in Iraq, Danielle Bell, warned that women in the country are facing several additional challenges right now.  She said that restrictive measures adopted to fight the virus in Iraq heighten the risk of domestic violence.

At the same time, they substantially reduce the ability of victims to report abuses and seek effective shelter, support and access to justice.

**Democratic Republic of the Congo

And in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), our humanitarian colleagues tell us that, in the eastern province of Ituri, 200,000 people fled their homes in the last month, following large-scale military operations.

Clashes between the Congolese army and armed groups, intercommunal violence and land-related conflicts have all contributed to the deterioration of the humanitarian situation.

Since the beginning of the year, over 1,300 sexual and gender-based violence cases have been recorded in the DRC.  Forty health facilities were destroyed or looted, and 80,000 children are out of school due to displacement or school attacks.  Insecurity has severely hindered the humanitarian response.

Some humanitarian organizations have suspended operations in parts of the province, and in recent weeks about 66,000 people have been cut off from aid.

Despite these difficulties, the provision of medical support, food and non-food items continues in more accessible areas and our humanitarian partners are looking for windows of opportunity to resume their activities, despite chronic underfunding for the response.

As of today, only 11 per cent of the $2.1 billion requested in the DRC Humanitarian Response Plan has been funded.

**Virtual Press Briefing

And tomorrow, following my briefing, our friend Reem Abaza, Spokesperson for the President of the General Assembly, will brief you on the same virtual platform.

**Financial Contribution

And I want to end with a big thanks and some welcome news from [the Republic of] Moldova.  They have fully paid their budget dues for this year.  With their full payment to the regular budget, 90 Member States have now paid in full for 2020 and we thank all of them very much.

Okay.  Let's go to your questions.  Let's see what our trusted moderator tells me to do.  I see an empty chair in Zach's place.  I hope that's not a sign of protest.

All right.  Hold on a second.  I was going to complain somebody has their mics on, but that's me.

**Questions and Answers

All right, Toby.

Question:  Hi there.  Good afternoon, Steph.  Thanks very much.  I was hoping to return to the attack on Sunday in the Sahel, in Mali.  I was hoping to get some more colour from you on what this attack on peacekeepers means.  Do we see the security situation in the Sahel right now… do we see these armed groups taking advantage of vulnerabilities produced by the pandemic?  And just more generally, can you talk a little bit about what it means for peacekeepers to die in the line of duty and then, specifically, what it means for the security situation in the Sahel?  Thank you very much.

Spokesman:  Well, first and foremost, I'll start by saying that our peacekeepers in Mali are in the… have been suffering the most attacks of any peacekeeping mission.  They have the highest casualty rates, though because of a number of mitigating measures that have been put in place over the last two years.  I think those rates have been falling in terms of better pro… better force protection, better equipment.

That… the fact remains that Mali remains a very dangerous place for peacekeepers to operate.  Why and… a number of underlying factors.  One is a lack of progress on the political track but… and, of course, we've seen continued activities of various armed groups, of various terrorist groups, in the region.

It's… the situation in the Sahel overall remains one of great concern to the Secretary-General.  I think I would refer you to the report he just issued not long ago on the situation there.

The lack of consistent and predictable funding to the G5 Sahel force has also been of concern and the lack of funding, in a sense, to address a lot of the underlying causes in the region that have been leading to the violence.

Whether or not we have seen a spike in attacks because of the pandemic, I'm not sure that's an analysis I'm willing to accept at this time.

All right.  Who else do we have?  Let's go back to our list here.  Mario?

Correspondent:  Hi, Steph.  Can you hear me?

Spokesman:  Mario.  Great beard.

Question:  Thank you.  [laughter]

I know you've been asked about this a few times before, but do you have any update on planning for the high-level week in September?  Is the SG making any recommendation to the Member States on how the Organization's going to proceed, or is he preparing any recommendations?

Spokesman:  Yeah, we're… you know, a lot of factors will be at play, notably, we don't know what the state of the city of New York will be at that time.  That will be, obviously, a driving factor, the state of the pandemic worldwide.

The Secretary-General is engaged in discussions with the President of the General Assembly.  I'm sure Reem will have more for you tomorrow.  Ultimately, how the General Assembly will be organized will be a Member State decision.  The Secretary-General, as representative of the Secretariat, will be there to support the Member States in whichever way they want and, obviously, to offer advice, notably, medical advice from Medical Services.  But I think the short answer is that no decision has been taken, as far as I'm aware.

Richard Roth.  I think, Richard, I may… I think I answered your question, which was, in fact, Mario's question.


Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  Yesterday, the Palestinian Prime Minister, Mohammad Shtayyeh, said that the Palestinian leadership is meeting this Saturday – that will include Hamas and Jihad.  They will take hard decisions regarding the Israeli plan to annex almost 40 per cent of the Palestinian land.

Is the SG doing anything?  Did he call anyone?  Did he speak to the Palestinians?  Did he speak to the Israelis?  Is he doing anything regarding this grave situation that will start on 1 July?

Spokesman:  Look, I think Mr. [Nickolay] Mladenov has been in touch with all the parties.  Our position on any annexation is very clear.  We have said clearly it would derail a two-State solution, to say the least.  So, it is something we are, obviously, fully aware of and that Mr. Mladenov is engaged with the parties.

Okay.  Maria?

Question:  Hi, Steph.  I have a question about statistics again, this time about Russian statistics.  New York Times published an article two days ago, claiming that the real number of deaths in Russia caused by COVID-19 is much higher than official numbers, and they are not only accusing the Government of Russia but also the doctors of putting the wrong cause of death, which is quite serious, like, personally for me.  I'm sorry to get emotional here, but I ask you not only as journalist but also as a daughter of a doctor.  And do you have, like, the official statistics from Russian Government?  And do you have your own United Nations estimations of what is the real situation there?

Spokesman:  No.  We do not have… I mean, let me put it this way.  We, as the Secretariat, do not have statistics that are independent from Governments.  Right?  Whether it's… the UN system relies on Government statistics.

There are some exceptions in terms of what the UN presence is in different countries, if it's a peacekeeping mission and so forth, if it's a large UN presence in which we are working closely within the health department and other things.  That's not the case in Europe or not the case in Russia.  So, the only statistics that we have, as far as I'm aware of, are those of the Government.

Question:  Okay.  But Secretary-General declared the strategy of fighting this misinformation and analysing and using source of correct information or incorrect information.  Can you at least estimate this article in particular?  Do you have the reason to believe that the real number of deaths caused by COVID-19 can be higher and that the Government is hiding something?

Spokesman:  No.  I… listen, I have no… we have no investigative mandate or… I have no ability to judge the validity or veracity of that reporting.  What is critical – and this applies to every country, right, all Member States – is that the most up-to-date and the most accurate statistics will, obviously… are, obviously, a critical tool in fighting the virus.

Okay.  Mario… hold on a second.  Let me look.  Mario… not Mario.  Oscar had a question on the Amazon:  President [Jair] Bolsonaro deployed a military force to protect the region from deforestation.  In this regard, do you have any information on what the efforts are to protect indigenous population in the region?

I will… we reported back a couple weeks… I mean not that… we reported back on what efforts WHO is – excuse me – on the UN system's efforts on protecting the indigenous population.  We will try to give you an update on that as soon as we can.

And… okay.  I think that's it.  Any other… Iftikhar.  Sorry.  Iftikhar typed in a question:  Following the two deadly attacks in Afghanistan, President [Ashraf] Ghani has placed the army… Afghan army on offensive mode, raising the possibility of resumption of full-fledged conflict.  What does the Secretary-General have to say at this time?

You know, we're obviously watching that situation very closely and with concern following the violence that we saw yesterday, the escalation of attacks, the hospital, the funeral.  For the Secretary-General, our hope is to see progress towards intra-Afghan negotiations, and we would encourage all parties to move in that direction.  Thank you.


Question:  Hi, Steph.  My question is on Libya.  Given the constant escalation in Libya, why is it taking so long to have a new envoy?  And could you also tell us more about who is in contact with the different parties, whether… I know the deputy probably but also whether the Secretary-General is in touch with Mr. [Khalifa] Haftar or others there.  Thank you.

Spokesman:  No, I'm not aware the Secretary-General has been in touch directly with General Haftar.  The Mission is being led by the acting Special Representative, Stephanie Williams.  She continues to be in touch with all the parties, delivering a message of… a call for a cessation of the attacks, for protection of civilians and resumption of political talks.

Appointing a special representative, to put it mildly, is a process that involves the Secretary-General, of course, but it involves a number of other… it involves Member States.  It involves the Security Council.  I think, at the end, what you want is a special representative that is supported by all the parties involved.  So, we are in the middle of that process.  We're continuing with that process.  I think it's no secret, because it was widely reported in the press, that we had been close, but the cigars were not had.  So, we are continuing to move in the right direction.  And as soon as we can confirm something, I would be the one who is most pleased to do so.

All right.  Anybody else?  Okay.  I would ask you to stay on the line.  We will hear from Elliott Harris, who will have an important update on the state of the world economy, which I have no doubt is rosy.

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