|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
DAILY PRESS BRIEFING BY THE OFFICE OF THE SPOKESMAN FOR THE SECRETARY-GENERAL
The following is a near-verbatim transcript of today’s noon briefing by Marie Okabe, Deputy Spokesman for the Secretary-General, and Ahmad Fawzi, Director, News and Media Division, Department of Public Information (DPI), and United Nations Spokesman on the Middle East.
Good afternoon. Ahmad Fawzi will be joining us shortly so I will not start my briefing until he joins us -– and there he is. So, following the Middle East briefing we expect to have the Ghanaian Ambassador, who is President of the Security Council this month, to come and brief you on the month’s programme. So, we have three back-to-back briefings here.
** Security Council
This morning the Security Council held consultations on its programme of work for the month. And, as I just mentioned, the Council President will be here right after this briefing.
We are also expecting a statement from the Secretary-General on the violence in Sri Lanka. We should expect that shortly.
Meanwhile, on Somalia, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative, François Lonseny Fall, said today that the political process in Somalia had reached a critical stage and, that he was encouraged by the meeting and spirit of yesterday’s policy declaration by the Council of Ministers of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD).
The UN Political Office in Somalia said that the Council of Ministers has agreed to adhere strictly to the UN Security Council arms embargo on Somalia and to uphold other key UN policies.
Meanwhile, a UN humanitarian assessment team today undertook a one-day mission to Mogadishu to identify ways of scaling up aid activities in the Somali capital. They should be arriving back in Nairobi shortly and, hopefully, we’ll have some information about their findings later today.
And in Timor-Leste, the Independent Special Commission of Inquiry for Timor-Leste, which the Secretary-General appointed to examine the violence that took place in the country this past April and May, will make a working visit to the country next week.
The Commission’s Executive Director, Luc Côté, said that the Commission has begun its work through a Dili-based Secretariat, adding that the investigation is progressing well. The Commission’s three members, led by Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, will now arrive in Timor-Leste shortly.
We have further details in a press release from our office there.
**Briefing on Congolese Elections
And just a reminder, the Department of Peacekeeping Operations is inviting interested members of the press to a briefing on the recent elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It will be a videoconference with the Special Representative there, William Lacey Swing, at 2 p.m. today, in the Situation Centre of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations on the 32nd floor. And that’s for you, Matthew.
And, in response to some questions we’ve been getting on the Secretary-General’s trip to Haiti, the Secretary-General departure for Haiti has been delayed due to technical problems with the aircraft. He is still intending to travel to Haiti, were he is scheduled to meet that afternoon with President René Préval, and have a press encounter with him.
Tomorrow, the Secretary-General is scheduled to address a joint session of the Haitian Parliament, as well as to meet with the country’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister.
Question: I’m wondering if there’s any sense in the Secretary-General’s office that the move in May to withdraw a thousand troops from Ethiopia/Eritrea was premature?
Deputy Spokesman: Excuse me? What is the context of your question?
Question: In light of the present situation -- if the decision in May to withdraw a thousand troops is now considered less effective, or possibly been premature.
Deputy Spokesman: Well, I think what you’re talking about, your concern about the situation in Somalia. And, I think that you’re focusing on the conflict there, on Somalia. I think, as we’ve been answering these questions, we do have a representative on the ground that is trying to bring the parties together on that. And, we just reported to you on his latest remarks at the meeting.
Question: My question was actually in reference to UNMEE and the report hat they were having to consolidate and moving people around a little bit, and that they basically had fewer people on the ground that they might prefer. So, the question is, was the move of the thousand troops from UNMEE premature?
Deputy Spokesman: I don’t have an immediate answer to that specific question. Let me get back to you. I thought you were addressing it in the context of the escalation in the region.
[The Deputy Spokesman later added that it was not the Secretary-General who recommended a cut of 1,000 troops. Furthermore, the impact of the Security Council doing so would be analyzed in the upcoming report of the Secretary-General on Eritrea and Ethiopia, due out in September.]
Question: Could I ask a follow-up on that? What was the meeting on UNMEE? Because I think you’re referring to that –- there was a guy called Deputy SRSG Ennifar, who spoke with both parties about the difficulties. So, I actually want…did he use this…as a UN representative, did he speak with the two parties about troops being in Somalia or about weapons being provided to the Islamic Courts?
Deputy Spokesman: Again, you’re referring back to the meting that took place in Nairobi? Is that what you’re asking?
Question: There were two meetings. One was a meeting with Lonseny Fall. The other was an UNMEE meeting. But, it seems like -– you’d said in your presentation –- I’m sorry to say this, but you’d said that Lonseny Fall said the Ministers had committed to upholding the arms sanctions. Are you talking about the ministers of Ethiopia and Eritrea?
Deputy Spokesman: No, we’re talking about the IGAD meeting that was taking place yesterday.
Question: Right. I mean, is that what he’s saying, that there are no Ethiopian troops in Somalia.
Deputy Spokesman: No, I did not mention that.
Question: Here’s what I’m saying. We really need more of that. There’s kind of a war…
Deputy Spokesman: Particularly on your question, I’ll look into your question. Just before we turn the floor over to the President of the Security Council, who’s been patiently waiting, I just want to follow up on the Secretary-General’s delayed departure, which I mentioned to you earlier, on his trip to Haiti. I just want to announce that his trip has been now postponed by a day, and he will be in Headquarters this afternoon. And, he plans to still go to Haiti tomorrow.
Question: What’s he doing that he’s had to postpone the trip?
Deputy Spokesman: Oh you missed the original -– he was scheduled to leave for Haiti this morning, but his planed had some technical problems, so he was forced to…that’s correct. So, it was a delayed departure. Okay? Thank you very much.
And that’s what I have for you. I’d like to turn to Ahmad for the Middle East briefing.
Briefing by Middle East Spokesman
Thank you very much, Marie. Good afternoon everyone.
Let me start by repeating -– because it does bear repeating –- the Secretary-General’s view on all this. He expressed it very clearly in an interview he did with an Arab satellite news channel yesterday. He said again about his meeting with the “P-5” (five permanent) Security Council members yesterday that he had repeated his call for them to unite. He had called for a cessation of hostilities. He had called for a longer-term ceasefire that would follow that cessation of hostilities. And, he called for a political framework that would resolve the problem once and for all, and that would, of course, be tied to the deployment of an international force to the south to help the Lebanese Government extend its authority throughout the territory.
And, he said in this interview that Council members “sense the urgency”. The Secretary-General also warned –- and he’s said this before -- that if urgent measures are not taken, the fighting could escalate and possibly spread.
He predicted that the outlines of a political settlement could start to take shape in the coming days. “But,” he said, “the Council will need to firm it up and enshrine it in a resolution.”
For his part, he is pushing very hard for agreement among the members and, in the meantime, continues to press for a cessation of hostilities. As we have said time and time again, “In this conflict,” he pointed out, “it is the civilians who are paying the price: women, children and unarmed civilians.”
He was asked, of course, about the Security Council’s reaction to the Qana attack, and he said he felt the Council statement was weaker than he would have wanted. He felt the Council’s presidential statement was weaker than he would have wanted. He added that “the vast majority of the Council members would have preferred stronger language”. And, UN officials, including the High Commissioner for Human Rights, have done their duty in speaking out.
**European Union Council Statement on Lebanon
He also welcomed the European Union Council’s statement in Brussels yesterday, which essentially supports the same points that the Secretary-General is making in pursuing an end to the fighting in Lebanon. And that brings me to the Council statement, which I’m sure you’ve seen yesterday, but again, bears pointing out because the European Union is now speaking the same language here and calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities to be followed by a sustainable ceasefire.
The Council expressed its utmost concern at the Lebanese civilian casualties and human suffering. The Council deplored the loss of innocent civilian lives, and said that all parties must do everything possible to protect civilian populations, and to refrain from actions in violation of international humanitarian law. So, those of you that haven’t seen it, I would urge you to see it. And, I would like to stress that we are pleased that we now have a united European front.
** Lebanon Humanitarian Update
On the humanitarian side, if I may, I would just like to very quickly run through a summary and then, please, do get the press releases and situation reports from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and other agencies that go into greater detail.
On the convoys, because we mentioned them yesterday, UN humanitarian aid convoys left for Sidon and Tyre. To date, the UN has sent nine such convoys to south Lebanon from Beirut –- delivering 280 tons of food, enough for 80,000 people for one week -- as well as medical kits and shelter materials.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is playing its role and the World Health Organization (WHO) is looking into supplying antiretroviral drugs for some 200 HIV/AIDS patients in Beirut. For its part, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) will continue handing out relief supplies to 700,000 displaced Lebanese, most of whom are now living in the northern Lebanon. And the World Food Programme (WFP) reports that it has started distributing food to nearly 7,000 Lebanese civilians in the Syrian capital, Damascus, who fled Lebanon over the last two weeks.
While I’m talking about aid convoys, I would like to make an important clarification about the notification that we are giving the Israeli authorities regarding UN humanitarian convoys. Fist of all, I’d like to stress that we are receiving good cooperation from all sides, including the Israeli side. We seek practical advice from the Israeli side on a regular basis about the passage of convoys, because of the clearly ongoing military activities in southern Lebanon and the obvious need for us to protect our convoys.
We assess that advice and then we make our own decision about whether the convoy should proceed or not. So far, the UN has had to call off two convoys. This was based on our own assessment, which in turn was based on advice from all the relevant parties. So, I hope that’s clear.
I was also asked in this briefing the other day whether Hizbollah was posing any obstacles or had asked us not to send convoys down certain routes and the answer to that question is “no”. We have not had any notification from Hizbollah that one route or another was unsafe for our convoys, to date.
From the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), they continue to report heavy fighting in the southern area of Lebanon, including intensive shelling and exchanges of fire on the ground in the southern town of Ayta Ash Shab.
UNIFIL says that there were five incidents of firing from the Israeli side close to UN positions. It was also reported that Hizbollah fired rockets from the vicinity of three UNIFIL positions.
And we have details in a press release from UNIFIL, which is available, as usual, in the Spokesman’s Office.
The SG’s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy, has, meanwhile, expressed her profound shock and sadness at the recent events in Qana, and the brutal deaths of 37 children and their families. She strongly condemned the repeated attacks on civilians and especially on children of both sides, and joined the Secretary-General in calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities.
According to the Government of Israel, some 56 Israelis have died in the north of the country since 12 July -– the beginning of these events -– and another 1,733 have been wounded. So, on the Israeli side, 56 have died and 1,733 have been injured.
The situation in Gaza remains tense. There’ve been a significant number of artillery shells fired by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) into Gaza. In the last week, the number is at least 1,050. We’re very concerned, we remain concerned about the threat this poses to civilians and civilian infrastructure. The IDF shelling of the northern Gaza Strip continue to bring more fatalities and increased internal displacement. In the latest round of violence, a 24-year-old women and a 14-year old boy were killed east of an artillery shell.
**Troop Contributors Meeting
One last item of interest to you would be the fact that I’m sure that many of you have already heard that the troop-contributing countries meeting that was due to be held tomorrow has been again postponed. It is clear that it remains premature for such a meeting to be held because of the absence of an agreed political framework for ending the conflict. We had this discussion here yesterday, if you don’t have a mandate, how can you decide what kind of force you need. However, as I said, accordingly, it has been decided that there should be a further delay until there is more progress on these other issues that will allow for a more practical and a more constructive and well-informed technical discussion on these matters.
Questions? Masood. Benny.
**Questions and Answers
Question: On a multinational force for Lebanon. France has come out categorically against participating in such a force. This idea was first floated by the White House and you know that President Bush has been pushing for it. So, in your opinion, has the United States committed any troops at all to a multinational force?
Mr. Fawzi: No.
Question: In the absence of any so called political framework that will probably come out of the Security Council, why has there been so much talk about creating a multinational force, and who are these 40 countries who are supposedly willing to participate in it?
Mr. Fawzi: Well, there are several corrections here. I can tell you –- I think its public knowledge -- that there are several countries that have said they’re not prepared to contribute troops, because they’re spread very thinly around the world -- those include the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany. France has said that it is one of the Member States that has said that it would provide troops and would be prepared to lead such a mission.
Now, why is there so much talk in the absence of a political framework? Well, I think that’s the nature of these events. The Secretary-General, when he called for a stabilization force at the G-8 Summit, sparked a lot of conversation about this. And, it was not just the Secretary-General’s opinion, but, it was also the opinion of other world leaders attending the Summit that there should be such a force, but that it should come with a political framework and a clear mandate.
So, those discussions are going on, have been going on since then and will continue until we have a clear political framework with which the Member States can decide –- what kind of force they think is the most appropriate under these circumstances. Does that answer your question?
Question: Yes. But to follow-up, since Lebanon has come out and said that it only wants a UN force, how would a multinational force be placed there? The Foreign Minister did not mince words when he said that they wanted a UN force.
Mr. Fawzi: As I’ve said, I think that opinion has to be taken into consideration and it has to be taken very seriously. And Member States are doing so. As we sit here they are discussing this in their consultations on this issue. That’s exactly what they are discussing; should it be a force of “blue helmets” or a multinational force? And they will take into consideration what is acceptable to the parties. It has to be done with the agreement of the parties. It cannot be done without the agreement of the Lebanese Government and of the Israeli Government. Benny?
Question: I noticed that when you gave the number of casualties on the Israeli side you cited your source, which is the right thing to do. But, I have noticed that in several speeches to the Security Council, Kofi Annan has not cited sources to numbers that he gave. According to the Israeli Tourism Ministry, some 300 Hizbollah fighters had been killed. In his speech to the Council, Kofi Annan apparently based his assessment on Lebanese Government numbers, saying that the majority of the people who got killed –- he gave the precise number of Israeli soldiers who died, as opposed to Israeli civilians – “on the Lebanese side were civilians, a third of them children”. Now, could you explain the source of that assessment because it doesn’t jibe with the assessment the Israelis give?
Mr. Fawzi: Now I don’t want to play a guessing game here. But what I can tell you is that I can check the sources for you and let you know, and come back in this room and publicly tell you what the sources are or were for those figures.
Right after Qana, our UNIFIL people sent a team of engineers to help out and it’s very possible that they participate in counting the numbers. But I’m not attributing these numbers to any particular source at the moment. I’ll have to check it for you.
Correspondent: Well, when he gave the number of Lebanese he said that the majority…
Mr. Fawzi: But when you said “half of them children”, were you referring to Qana in particular or…
Question: No. He gave numbers during the whole war. But my other question is how you know on the Lebanese side whether a 16-year-old in a yellow bandana and jeans with an RPG on his shoulder is a civilian child or Hizbollah. Hizbollah, according to the UN, is an armed militia, defined as generally not wearing a strict uniform, so how to do you know which is civilian and which is militant?
Mr. Fawzi: Well, again, I’d be guessing Benny, so I’d rather talk to the military experts before I answer that question. I’ll do so this afternoon, and I’ll answer your question. James?
[The Deputy Spokesman later added that United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) gets information from the Lebanese authorities, which the United Nations tries to supplement with information obtained by United Nations agencies on the ground.]
Question: You acknowledged that by postponing the troop contributors meeting for the second time that there isn’t a political framework for international troops to go in, yet the Secretary-General is calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities. So the question is, once there is this immediate cessation of hostilities, what does the Secretary-General envisage happening? Is the UN force that’s currently there able to do more than its doing now, in that interim period between the cessation of hostilities and a negotiated ceasefire, and political framework for a multinational force to go in? How does he see that period? What does he see the role of UNIFIL being?
Mr. Fawzi: The Secretary-General has said a number of times – so, I will repeat and hope to answer your question in the process –- that he is calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities to allow the humanitarians to reach people in need, to allow politicians to work on the political framework that’s needed for a longer-term ceasefire, which will include a stabilization force.
Now, what happens in between is that we expect both sides who agree to a cessation of hostilities to respect the agreement and refrain from military activity while the humanitarians and the politicians do their work. That would be the whole purpose of this cessation of hostilities. In other words, the purpose is to stop the killing, especially of innocent civilians, and to give more time to diplomacy to do its work.
Now, will UNIFIL be able to, as you said, fill the gap until a stabilization force comes in? We all know that UNIFIL’s mandate is not a robust mandate of the kind that is envisaged in an eventual stabilization force. But, they will continue to do the very brave and important work that they are doing at the moment, according to their mandate. We really have to look at their mandate and see what they’re doing, and they’re doing what they’ve been told to do.
Question: Another question. Since the Secretary-General has called for a cessation of hostilities, the Israelis have taken an amount of Lebanese territory. Once there is an immediate cessation of hostilities is the Secretary-General expecting the Israelis to remain in control of that territory until there is a political framework, or does he also expect some kind of Israeli pullback?
Mr. Fawzi: No. A cessation of hostilities is exactly what it means: an immediate stop to military action and hostile action. And then there will be discussions in order to decide what’s going to happen next, and within which context it is going to happen. I would imagine that both sides would remain where they are until such an agreement comes into place. Of course we would encourage a withdrawal from occupied positions. However, I believe that will need a more detailed political framework for it to happen. Sir?
Question: The European Union Council called for the immediate cessation of hostilities followed by a sustainable ceasefire and the German Foreign Ministry’s interpretation of this is “a step by step expansion of the 48-hour hold of air raids announced by Israel on Monday in parallel with possible similar steps by Hizbollah”. On the other hand, Israel announced that its enhanced offensive is actually to clean out the area before international troops arrive. Taking those two parts together, can we see this –- Israel trying to clean out the area for an international force, blue helmets or not -- as a framework for going forward? Would that be acceptable to the UN?
Mr. Fawzi: I really appreciate your attempt at analyzing this. We’re all trying to analyze the situation to the best of our abilities. I’m not going to interpret what the European Union Council means by what it says. We’re taking this statement at its face value and it’s extremely clear what it saying. It’s deploring the loss of life and it’s condemning the rocket attacks by Hizbollah on Israel, and it’s also condemning the death of innocent civilians, as a result of Israeli air strikes. It’s calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities.
We can go round and round in circles trying to interpret what it means, but it’s extremely clear. Your interpretation is an interesting one. I think I would like to leave the interpretation of all these statements to the Member States for them to decide what’s going to happen on the ground –- especially the parties involved: Israel, the Lebanese Government and Hizbollah. So, I’ll just leave it at that. Thank you very much.
Question: Human Rights Watch, a prominent watchdog organization, in a recent report, called for an international commission of inquiry –- not a UN or an Israeli inquiry -- into the Israeli strike on Qana. It also called the Israeli strike a war crime. Does the Secretary-General agree with that? Will he form such a commission?
Mr. Fawzi: Yes, I heard about Human Rights Watch calling for an inquiry and frankly, I don’t know what the Secretary-General’s reaction is. I haven’t spoken to him about it, so let me do so and get back to you on that. And, on the other point as well. Look, the High Commissioner for Human Rights has said that both sides are responsible and must answer to international law, and that things that happen in war can constitute crimes against humanity. But, this is something that will be looked at later down the road in greater detail by the experts.
[The Deputy Spokesman later added that the reaction of the United Nations system had been voiced by High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour, who said the following in response to the Qana massacre:
The High Commissioner welcomed reports that Israel would conduct an inquiry into the civilian deaths at Qana. In order to establish facts and conduct an impartial legal analysis of the persistent allegations of violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law during this conflict, the High Commissioner reiterated the need for independent investigations. To this end, she advocated the active involvement of international expertise in any such investigations.]
Question: This is a follow-up on the discussion that you were having with James. You mentioned that the UN would welcome a withdrawal of Israeli forces from the buffer zone they are establishing in the south. Is that a UN position that the Secretary-General will be pushing very hard or does the UN see a function of the Israeli forces holding that zone -- as you’ve heard some of the arguments -- that that would allow a peacekeeping force to be integrated into the zone and allow UNIFIL to operate in the area?
And two other questions. There’s been talk about Annan playing a mediating role with Iran and Syria, where do we stand with that? And also, early on you mentioned that the United Nations is in conversation and dialogue with the relevant parties to this conflict -– the IDF, the Lebanese Government -– but how detailed is the dialogue with Hizbollah? Is the UN aware of where roadside bombs might be? What about booby traps or some of their movements?
Mr. Fawzi: I wish we knew where all the booby traps were. I don’t think we do. And on your first question in response to what I said to James about the UN welcoming a withdrawal of forces, that is not something that reflects –- Ah, the president of the Security Council is here, I see. So, we’ll have to cut this short. But no, I haven’t heard the Secretary-General answer this question yet because it simply hasn’t been posed. So, I would revert to him for an answer to that.
Iran/Syria mediating role. The Secretary-General has been in touch with the leaders and the representatives from all the parties. I don’t have the details right now of which phone call took place when, but, you were informed that he did have a phone conversation with the President [of Syria] early last week.
Our conversations with Hizbollah take place in the theatre of operations, whether it’s the personal representative of the Secretary-General or other UN authorities, such as our people in UNIFIL. However, as we, as I said earlier, we don’t have -– and here again I’m trying to provide an answer to your question -– I don’t think we have a map of where they have all their booby traps. I don’t think that’s something we would be in possession of.
Question: You’ve told us that the troop contributors meeting that was on for Thursday is now off again. Can you give us more on that? Can you put us inside the decision-making process at all? My second question is on Mark Malloch Brown’s comments to the FT (Financial Times), where he’s essentially expressing his own opinion that you can’t have a political framework without an immediate ceasefire.
Obviously the Secretary-General has his view on this, I have my view as do my colleagues in this room, but, not all of us feel that it is necessarily our role to talk about our views. Why does Mark Malloch Brown feel that it’s his role to be expressing his views about what Member States should be doing? Is he playing an increased role? Does he want to get involved? What led him to feel that he should speak out?
Mr. Fawzi: I knew I’d regret giving you the floor. No. I can’t put you in the mind of the decision-making process that led to the postponement of the troop-contributing countries meeting. What I can say to you is that there is no agreed political framework for ending the conflict. And so, as that is essential to determining the mandate of a force, it seemed wise to delay that meeting until there was an agreed political framework.
Correspondent: Well, there was no agreed political framework yesterday when it was announced that…
Mr. Fawzi: But, there were attempts to reach an agreement, and there was hope that agreement would be reached before Thursday. But they need – “they” the Member States who are making the decisions in this house -– a little more time to make up their minds about the political framework in order to ensure a constructive meeting.
You know, in all fairness to the President of the Security Council, I think that we should wrap this up in two minutes.
Question: And my question on Mark Malloch Brown.
Mr. Fawzi: Your question is: Why does he feel the need to express himself on these issues? Is he playing a role? I think that the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations does have a responsibility and a duty to speak out when he thinks it is important on issues that are of grave concern to Member States and affect matters of peace and security.
Question: If it’s of such grave concern, why should some Member States follow and others lead?
Mr. Fawzi: Thanks a lot Benny for your comment. I’ll take another question in the back, and then we’ll wrap it and then I’ll talk to you later. And you, Steve.
Question: I had a follow-up on Lebanon then a non-Lebanon question.
The WFP issued a press release saying that of its three convoys going only one was given clearance by the IDF. What you said a few moments ago seems to contradict that. I’m wondering if you can clarify.
Mr. Fawzi: No, I don’t think so. I think I said that of three convoys only one went through, based on an assessment from the Israeli side.
Question: But, “failed to give clearance” is different than “advised against”…
Mr. Fawzi: They advised against and, we make our own assessment of whether we should send that convoy down what we have been told could be a dangerous route.
* *** *For information media • not an official record