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.

**Syria

We want to flag a visit by the UN Humanitarian Coordinator:  Mark Lowcock will be going to Syria and he is scheduled to be there from 9 to 12 January to meet with representatives of the Government of Syria and to see for himself the impact of Syria’s conflict on civilians.  He will assess the humanitarian response and discuss how to improve access and delivery with key interlocutors.  This is Mr. Lowcock’s first mission to Syria as Emergency Relief Coordinator.  With the seventh winter of the conflict under way, more than 13 million people need basic aid and protection.  While some parts of Syria are witnessing a welcome reprieve from hostilities, many others face intensified military operations and conflict.

The UN is deeply concerned for the safety and protection of tens of thousands of people in southern Idleb and rural Hama in north-eastern Syria, where ongoing hostilities have reportedly caused hundreds of deaths and injuries of civilians.  Tens of thousands of civilians, already in dire circumstances, have been recorded as displaced since 1 December 2017 due to the fighting.  With the onset of winter, safe shelter is among the biggest concerns, as many families are fleeing into areas that are already at full capacity or into communities with depleted resources.  We are also alarmed by the increasing hostilities in East Ghouta that continue to put civilians in the line of fire, resulting in civilian deaths and injuries and damaging civilian infrastructure.  We received alarming reports that the only emergency medical centre in Modira in besieged area of East Ghouta was damaged by an airstrike, rendering it inoperable.

**Iraq

Our humanitarian colleagues tell us that, since 4 January, military operations in Iraq targeting suspected Da’esh militants in Kirkuk’s Hawija district have displaced some 700 people.  Those displaced by the fighting are being transported to nearby Daquq displacement camp, where humanitarians are providing assistance.  Humanitarian activities in the district have meanwhile been paused for security reasons, in communication with local authorities, and will resume once military operations in the area conclude in the coming days.

**Madagascar

Also from our humanitarian colleagues, from Madagascar this time:  They tell us that prior to cyclone Ava’s making landfall in Madagascar, they had deployed a team to the eastern city of Toamasina, together with a team from the National Office for Disaster Risk Management Agency, to support the initial assessment and the coordination of the response.  According to Malagasy authorities, the cyclone affected more than 63,000 people directly and six districts remain at high risk of flooding.  We hope to have more information later.

**Western Sahara

As you saw over the weekend, the Secretary-General issued a statement on Western Sahara, in which he said he was deeply concerned about recent increased tensions in the vicinity of Guerguerat, in the Buffer Strip between the Moroccan berm and the Mauritanian border.  He underlined that the withdrawal of Frente Polisario elements from Guerguerat in April 2017, together with the earlier withdrawal of Moroccan elements from the area, was critical to creating an environment conducive to the resumption of dialogue under the auspices of his Personal Envoy, Horst Kohler.  The Secretary-General called on the parties to exercise maximum restraint and to avoid escalating tensions.  Regular civilian and commercial traffic should not be obstructed and no action should be taken which may constitute a change to the status quo of the Buffer Strip.

**Peter Sutherland

Also, yesterday evening, we issued a statement from the Secretary-General on the passing of Peter Sutherland, who was the Special Representative for International Migration for more than a decade starting in 2006.  The Secretary-General praised Mr. Sutherland’s “fearless and forceful” advocacy for some of the world's most vulnerable people, and said that as we work towards the adoption of a new Global Compact on Migration, we will continue to draw on his legacy of solidarity.  We have, of course, sent our condolences to his family.

**Abyei

We were asked last week about the Foreign Minister of South Sudan being unable to travel to Abyei.  As the Abyei area remains contested between Sudan and South Sudan, the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA) requires consent from both parties in order to transport high-level government officials from Sudan or South Sudan.  As prior agreement was not received from both governments, the Mission was unable to transport the Minister for Foreign Affairs of South Sudan to the area.  And I will leave it at that and be available for your questions.  Sir.  Monsieur?

**Questions and Answers

QuestionMerci, Stéphane, bonne année.  A quand remonte la dernière visite d'un Secrétaire général [adjoint] chargé des affaires humanitaires en Syrie et est‑ce que dans sa visite, il est prévu qu'il aille à la Ghouta?

SpokesmanEn ce qui concerne son déploiement sur place, on aura des détails une fois que les visites seront faites et je vais me renseigner sur la dernière visite de Mr.  [Stephen] O'Brien.  I was asked about the last visit of a UN Humanitarian Coordinator to Syria, and I said I would check on when Mr. [Stephen] O'Brien last visited.  And we will give you updates as to where Mr. Lowcock actually goes on the ground.  [He later added that Stephen O’Brien’s last mission to Syria was in December 2015.  Mark Lowcock is expected to travel to Homs.  Most of the three-day mission will be in Damascus.]  Mr. Bays?

Question:  Follow‑up on Syria and on Mr. Lowcock's visit.  Which officials do you expect him to meet in Damascus? And whichever officials they are, what will be his message, considering they are representatives of a regime that is targeting with its bombardment and offensive, targeting civilians in eastern Ghouta and in Idleb right now?

Spokesman:  I think the message will be the one that he's been consistently delivering, which is one of the need for unimpeded humanitarian access, for greater protection of civilians, and to underscore the responsibility of the Government for the protection of civilians in Syria.  As to exactly whom he will meet, again, as the meetings are firmed up, we will be able to share those with you.  Yes, sir?

Question:  And a follow‑up on Syria and perhaps the wider political process in Syria.  Talks broke up in Geneva.  It was pretty grim.  The Special Envoy didn't give a particularly upbeat assessment.  What is the Secretary‑General's hopes this year?  How does he hope to reinvigorate this process?

Spokesman:  His hopes are that the people of Syria will finally see an end to the suffering and that the leaders that have met around the table will put the interests of their people first and do whatever it takes to stop the suffering.  And I think he will also expect all those Member States that have influence on the parties to bear that influence in a positive manner so that we can get a political agreement and so that we can see an end to this war and an end to the suffering of the Syrian people.  Mr. Lee, and then we'll go…

Spokesman:  Sure.  Thanks for the… I guess the answer on South Sudan.  I wanted to ask you something… actually a couple of things that I'd asked you in writing on Saturday.  One has to do with the… the detention or abduction of disappearance of nine southern Cameroon… or Ambazonia or Anglophone leaders in Abuja.  They seem to have been taken out of a hotel where they were meeting, either by Cameroon forces or by Nigeria.  And I know the Deputy Secretary‑General is in Abuja.  Maybe it's a coi… it's… I'm just wondering, given that the UN has called for dialogue and that these people have been locked up…?

Spokesman:  Her presence was scheduled in advance.  We're, obviously, aware of the reports.  We've not been able to get any official confirmation one way or another, and we're going to continue to monitor the situation.

Question:  I guess two que… one is, has Mr. [Francois Lounceny] Fall made any inquiries?  Number two, I understand that she'd obviously previously scheduled this week‑long trip to Abuja, but given that she's meeting with senior Nigerian officials and given that there are reports that the Nigerian Department of State Security is responsible for…?

Spokesman:  As I said, we're trying to get some sort of official confirmation one way or another, and we'll continue monitoring the situation.

Question:  And I wanted to ask you about the… the… the press release that was put out by MINUSCA [United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic] denying certain media reports that the peacekeeping Mission gave weapons to… to rebels.  That's not the part I wanted to ask you about.  The press release put out by MINUSCA says that… you know, is very critical of the two media reports and says that MINUSCA stands ready to engage the Government authorities to take appropriate action against the media.  And I wanted to know, what are those actions?  And is there any UN policy on essentially threatening media for its reporting?

Spokesman:  I haven't… maybe because I was away, I hadn't seen the press release.  We, obviously, support freedom of the press and freedom of expression.  But, I think, when there are errors in media reports, we will point them out and work with the media concerned to ensure that the reports are corrected.

Question:  And just one last thing.  I'd also asked you in writing about this… about a particular media law, that of Kazakhstan, which requires… as recently enacted and as criticized by the Reporters Without Borders, requires the permission of people that are being reported on and also requires the identification of all online commenters and the retention of that information for three months.  I'm wondering, you just said the UN is so much for… does it see such a law as… as… as problematic and… and…?

Spokesman:  I'm not familiar with details of the law, and I think that the… our oft-stated principle remains.  Sir?

Correspondent:  Thank you.  I have actually four questions if you take them all.

Spokesman:  Four?  No, let's do two.  I'll take a break, and then I'll come back to you.

Correspondent:  Okay, that's fine.  There is a child… a female child named Ahed Tamimi.  I'm not sure if you have received from my colleagues a question.  She's a Palestinian, was arrested by Israeli [inaudible], and then now she's… she's held in Israeli… actually in West Bank detention centre, pending trial for slapping a soldier.  She's 16 years old, and then many children… Palestinian children already in jail in Israel.  Does the UN call for the release of all children by Israeli Government as they are…?

Spokesman:  I think… what is clear is that people need to have their rights respected.  The detention of children is one that's of particular concern to us, and we've made those concerns known.  Second question?

Question:  Second question is… is UNRWA [United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East].  Does UNRWA leadership have, like, a Plan B in case of the US cut the aid of 300… some $300 million a year?  Where can you get the money to continue the operation of UNRWA?  It's very essential for… for…

Spokesman:  Well, as you know, UNRWA relies in most part on voluntary contributions.  Those contributions are critical to UNRWA being able to implement its mandate, which was given to it by the General Assembly.  UNRWA works with some very marginalized communities in the Middle East and is there to provide critical educational, humanitarian, medical support to those communities.  And obviously, it's… the mandate for UNRWA is to continue with those services until a just and lasting peace is found to this conflict.  And we will continue to call on the parties to work together to implement a two‑State solution, which the Secretary‑General has often talked about.  Yeah?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  Iran threatened to stop collaborating with the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency) if the US doesn't keep its commitments to the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action].  Does the Secretary‑General have any… has he approached the US on this?  Does he plan to approach them?

Spokesman:  I think the Secretary‑General has made his position on the JCPOA very clear both publicly and privately — that he thinks it is one of the more critical diplomatic achievements of the last years, and all the parties involved need to do whatever they can to help support and continue this agreement.

Correspondent:  And I have to ask if there's any update on the ground in Myanmar regarding the two Reuters journalists that were arrested there.

Spokesman:  Not that I'm aware of, but I have not checked with our office there.  I will check with them today.  Part two?

Question:  Okay.  UN… United Nation presence in Jerusalem… you call it UNTSO [United Nations Truce Supervision Organization], and there was just two weeks ago the GA cut almost $280 million from budget of 2018‑2019.  And I hear from your briefing or other that some of the money come from United Nation political offices, and then, as UNTSO is a political office, does that affect the financing of…?

Spokesman:  No, UNTSO is a… falls under the peacekeeping budget.  The… it's a peacekeeping… it falls under the peacekeeping budget.  Okay?

Question:  Okay.  I go for the last one.  Guatemala issued a statement similar to the one issued by the US Government, and then immediately when the US President issued a statement, the SG issued a statement to… to clarify that we are looking for two‑State solution and any move by any country, Member State could be trouble.  Why the UN did not issue a statement when the President of Guatemala said we are going to move our embassy to Jerusalem?

Spokesman:  I think the… I would refer you back to what the Secretary‑General said after the statement from the United States, and that applies to Guatemala and it applies… it's a statement of principle for the Secretary‑General that he thinks the status of Jerusalem is… needs to be dealt with the final status negotiations by the two parties, and that's his position.  Mr. Lee?

Question:  Sure.  Over the weekend, some 13 people were killed in the Cas… Casamance region in Senegal, which has been an ongoing issue between that country and the people in Casamance.  And I wanted to know if DPA [Department of Political Affairs] or the various envoys, maybe Mr. [Mohammed ibn] Chambas, have any comment or are going to do anything?

Spokesman:  Yes, we're obviously following the matter.  I don't have anything to say publicly at this point.

Question:  And I wanted to… you'd read out the Guerguerat comment.  There's also… there's a press report of a… of a letter from António Guterres to the Polisario, received by them on Saturday, that has quite a different… at least their description of it is quite different, saying that it involves… it's about natural resources, and it agrees that, you know, various steps are needed.  Did he write such a letter? And if so, do you have any…

Spokesman:  I don't have any confirmation that such a letter was sent.

Question:  Okay.  And… and there's a published report saying that António Guterres, despite his schedule today saying all appointments are internal, may meet with a… with a group of Syrian opposition.  Is this correct?

Spokesman:  I have nothing to say on that at this point.  Thank you.

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