23 January 2008
Spokesperson's Noon Briefing

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

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 Marie Okabe, Deputy Spokesperson for the Secretary-General.


Good afternoon.


**Noon Guest


Our guest today is Ian Martin, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative and Head of the United Nations Political Mission in Nepal (UNMIN).  He should be here shortly.


**Secretary-General in Geneva


We’ll start with the Secretary-General.  In Geneva today, the Secretary-General led all staff in paying tribute to our colleagues who died in the 11 December attack in Algiers with a minute of silence, and he unveiled the tattered flag that had flown over the UN office in that city.


He said that, to honour the fallen UN staff, the United Nations must do even better in explaining, to the public and the media, “what we stand for and what we don’t, why we are there and who we are”.  He added that he is continuing consultations on the precise composition of the independent panel of experts to review the safety and security of UN personnel and premises around the world and its terms of reference, and that he hopes to finalize it very soon.


The Secretary-General, at a press conference that finished just recently, said that, after the panel reports back with its recommendations, “we will work with Member States to ensure better safety and security of UN staff and premises all around the world”.  He also told the press in Geneva that he will pay particular attention this year to marking the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and to pushing nations to implement the Millennium Development Goals, notably those on water.


Earlier in the day, the Secretary-General participated in the kick-off of the 2008 Consolidated Appeal, urging nations to provide equitable funding to deal with humanitarian crises, whether in Somalia, the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo or Nicaragua.


He also addressed the Conference on Disarmament, renewing his call on the Member States to adopt the balanced and carefully crafted presidential decision so that it can go back to its substantive work.  He warned that the Conference has not lost its relevance, but is in danger of losing its way.


We have all his remarks available upstairs.  And this evening, the Secretary-General is travelling to Davos, where he will address the World Economic Forum, to draw attention once more to the need for the world’s poorest to have access to clean water.


I just mentioned to you that we have all of his texts upstairs, but we are waiting for the transcript of his press conference, which just ended a short while ago.


**Security Council


Here at Headquarters, the Security Council this morning extended by six months the mandate of the UN Mission in Nepal.  As I mentioned, the head of the Mission, Ian Martin, will speak to you here shortly as the noon briefing guest.


And then at 3 this afternoon, the Security Council is scheduled to resume consultations on the Middle East, to continue discussions on a draft presidential statement concerning the situation in Gaza.


** Gaza Humanitarian Update


Turning to Gaza, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) today reports that the humanitarian situation in Gaza remains very difficult.  According to UNRWA, the Israeli authorities have introduced new security measures –- mainly for sugar and flour –- which are hampering the delivery of aid.


The Agency did manage to get three truckloads of powdered milk in today, but it had been hoping for nine.  In addition, an expected truckload of medicines never made it through.  But on a positive note, UNRWA did receive materials today that will allow it to continue its food distributions.


Meanwhile, in Jerusalem yesterday, the UN and its partners launched their largest-ever humanitarian appeal for the Palestinians, as the population of both the West Bank and Gaza is forced into greater dependency on humanitarian aid in 2008.  At $462 million, this is now the third biggest UN appeal in the world, after Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 


And we have more information from UNRWA available upstairs.


**Human Rights Council Special Session


And in related news, today the Human Rights Council is holding a special session on the Occupied Palestinian Territory.  A draft resolution is being considered, and we have copies of the text upstairs.  The session is expected to continue into tomorrow.


Addressing the special session today, High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour said that, unless broader steps were taken, both by the parties to the conflict and by the international community, the situation for Palestinians and Israelis could only continue to deteriorate.  All parties concerned should put an end to the vicious spiral of violence before it becomes unstoppable, she said.


Ms. Arbour stressed that the international community must intensify its efforts to ensure that the human rights dimension of the conflict is properly addressed, regardless of the development of a political settlement.  She said it is imperative that Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas respect the long-standing international legal obligations to which they are bound. 


We have her full remarks upstairs.


** Kenya Update


Turning to Kenya, the UN Country Team there says security conditions in the country are deteriorating rapidly, with 70 houses burned down and more than a dozen civilians reportedly killed in political violence in the past 24 hours.


Meanwhile, UN agencies have completed an assessment tour of internally displaced person camps in the town of Molo, where they found an urgent need for shelter, blankets, water and sanitation –- that is, emergency humanitarian aid.  UN-HABITAT, for its part, sent teams out to several towns, including Nairobi and Eldoret, to assess damaged homes and verify internally displaced persons’ (IDP) figures and conditions in IDP camps.


UNICEF has continued its immunization campaign against measles and polio in all of these camps.  And, working with Kenyan authorities, the World Food Programme (WFP) has completed distributions to some 67,000 IDPs in the Rift Valley.  And more than 70,000 schoolchildren and nearly 700 teachers are now confirmed to have been displaced by the crisis. 


There is more information on this upstairs.


** Sudan


And turning to Sudan, the World Food Programme says that a rash of banditry is threatening food supplies to more than two million people in Darfur, raising the possibility that rations will have to be cut.  WFP is urging Sudanese authorities to ensure the safety of main routes in Darfur.  So far this year, bandits have stolen 22 WFP-contracted trucks and abducted their drivers.  Eighteen drivers are still missing.


Meanwhile, the High-Level Committee of Government and UN officials established by the Joint Communiqué on the facilitation of humanitarian activities in Darfur extended the moratorium on restrictions on humanitarian operations until January of 2009. 


The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says that this is an important and welcome development, as it will enable humanitarian agencies, and particularly NGOs, to carry out vital humanitarian assistance without interruption in Darfur.  NGOs remain the main implementers of UN projects in Darfur. 


And the UN Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, Jean-Marie Guéhenno, continues his visit to Sudan.  He is in Nyala, the capital of South Darfur, where he met today with UNAMID staff and also conferred with representatives of South Darfur’s Civil Society, and with the Deputy Governor of South Darfur state.


He was in El Fasher yesterday and visited the Zam Zam camp housing internally displaced persons and paid a courtesy call on the Deputy Governor of North Darfur state, who pledged the support of his government to UNAMID [the UN-African Union Hybrid Mission in Darfur].


** Democratic Republic of the Congo


And turning to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the terms of a $390-million good governance project were approved by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, according to a press release issued by UNDP. 


The agreement will be formally signed next week.  It will allow for a UNDP-led effort to restore and improve Government competencies in political governance, State administration, economic, judicial and security sector reform. 


And there is a press release, as I mentioned, upstairs.


**Secretary-General’s Report on UN Mission in Timor-Leste


The Secretary-General, in his latest report to the Security Council on the work of the UN Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT), out today, says that, despite an improvement in the overall security situation throughout the country, Timor-Leste continues to face enormous challenges.


He says that intensified efforts to promote dialogue to defuse existing tensions and foster greater political consensus, as well as the strengthening of inclusive democratic processes, will be essential for achieving sustainable stability and prosperity in the country.


The Secretary-General says that the national police service is one of the most critical institutions warranting sustained assistance, adding that daily public disturbances highlight the need for a continued UN police presence.  He recommends a 12-month extension of the Mission, at its present composition and strength.


**International Labour Organization


And we have upstairs –- this is just to flag for you -- embargoed copies of a press release from the International Labour Organization on the release of its 2008 Global Employment Trends report.  The study looks at a broad range of statistics on the effect of turbulence in the credit market and rising oil prices on the global employment picture. 


That report is embargoed until 6 p.m., New York time.


**World Food Programme


Meanwhile, the World Food Programme says it purchased a record amount of food from developing countries last year.  WFP bought more than two million metric tons, valued at some $760 million from 69 such countries.  Uganda was the largest supplier. 


WFP’s Executive Director, Josette Sheeran, called local purchases a “win-win solution to hunger”.  With food prices soaring, buying food in developing countries results in lower costs.  Also, the food has a shorter distance to travel to reach the areas where it is being distributed.


In order to best support local markets, WFP’s policy is to buy locally when there is an abundance, but to avoid such markets at times of scarcity, so as not to drive up prices.  WFP is expanding its procurement activities to purchase directly from low-income farmers and groups. 


There is more information in a press release on this subject available upstairs.


**Food and Agriculture Organization


And there’s also a press release upstairs from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) on the launch of projects in five African countries aimed at reviving agricultural output and creating new marketing opportunities.  These initiatives are taking place in Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Senegal and Sierra Leone.


**Press Briefing Tomorrow


And one more announcement:  tomorrow, at 11 a.m., here in Room 226, a senior UN official will brief correspondents on preparations for the establishment of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.  11 a.m., tomorrow, here.  And that’s a background briefing.


And that’s what I have for you.


**Questions and Answers


Question:  Actually, two questions:  there’s a report out saying that the US and Israel will be boycotting the meeting in Geneva today.  The meeting of the Human Rights Council, is that true?


Deputy Spokesperson:  We’ll have to check with the Human Rights Council.


[The Deputy Spokesperson later confirmed that Israel had not participated in the Human Rights Council special session today.  The Deputy Spokesperson added that it was unclear whether the United States would participate tomorrow.]


Question:  Okay.  And my other question is that there’s a report out saying that Algerian officials are meeting with UN officials on the probe into the Algiers bombing and their hopes are that they will persuade the SG into giving up this idea of an investigation.  Do you know if the SG will agree to that?


Deputy Spokesperson:  Well, I’m familiar with the press reports you’re referring to.  I’d like to point out the two remarks that the Secretary-General has today on this subject.  The first is his remarks to the memorial.  He refers to the investigation and I’ll quote you the language from that.  In it he says that “after consulting with the countries concerned and receiving their understanding, I am setting up an independent panel of experts to review the safety and security of UN personnel and premises around the world”.  And those are the remarks I’d like to refer you to.


And, in the context of a meeting with Algerian officials, the Secretary-General has today in Geneva met with the Foreign Minister of Algeria.  At his press conference, he basically repeats what he says in these remarks. 


Question:  So he’s still pushing forward with this investigation?


Deputy Spokesperson:  Exactly.  He has said that we have had extensive consultations with the countries concerned, including Algeria, and I believe he said that he has received their understanding, so, yes.


Question:  Also on that, Marie.  Does this mean that he has now received Algerian approval that this panel will investigate what happened in Algiers?  Has this problem been solved?


Deputy Spokesperson:  “Received their understanding”, yes, that’s what he said.


Question:  Can we say that the letter that UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime) Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa wrote to the President of Nigeria regarding the removal of the head of the anti-graft agency represents the view of the UN Secretariat on the matter?


Deputy Spokesperson:  I’m sorry.  This letter is regarding what?


Question:  The removal of the Anti-Graft Commission Chairman in Nigeria.  He was removed and Mr. Costa wrote a letter to the President saying that the removal was likely to threaten the relationship between the UN system and Nigeria regarding anti-corruption programmes now.  Does that represent the view of the Secretariat or is it just Mr. Costa’s personal comment on the issue?


Deputy Spokesperson:  I’m personally not familiar with Mr. Costa’s remarks, so let me look into it for you and I’ll come back to you immediately after the briefing.


[The Deputy Spokesperson later added that the letter was a confidential one, and that Mr. Costa is still awaiting a response from the Nigerian Government.  Further, he plans to discuss this matter with Nigerian officials at next week's conference of the States-parties to the UN Convention Against Corruption in Bali, Indonesia.]


Question:  I hope I didn’t miss this, but is there any announcement by MONUC (United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo) about the negotiations in Goma between the Government and General Nkunda?


Deputy Spokesperson:  You’re talking about the Goma Conference.  We’ve seen very positive press reports coming out today, so we are hoping for a statement.  So we’ll let you know as soon as…


Correspondent:  Well, yes, because the reports say that MONUC is going to have this role of somehow policing buffer zones, so that’s why I’m…


Deputy Spokesperson:  We are waiting to get an official update and we’re waiting for, hopefully, a statement on it as well.  So we can update you on that this afternoon.


Question:  I also wanted to ask about this:  there seems to be a letter from the national staff of the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) that was directed to the Secretary-General.  It says that national staff there gets paid, like, $8 a day, contrary to what had been agreed to by DFS, and that, when they complained, the work was outsourced to a non-African country.  I want to know if the Secretariat…I’m assuming they have the letter and I wanted to know what their response is.


Deputy Spokesperson:  I’ll have to look into it for you.  I don’t have the answer to that question.


[She later added that UNMIL categorically rejects any suggestions that it is engaging in unfair employment practices.


The Mission's recruitment and employment practices have been guided by a strict adherence to the Secretary-General's policies and the General Assembly's directive requiring, among other things, that independent contractors should only be employed for a maximum of six months and in exceptional cases for a maximum of nine months.  All independent contractors have willingly signed contract documents that clearly state the specific job, the specific duration and the specific pay, with no expectation of continued employment. 


Currently, under directives from UN Headquarters, and in direct consultations with New York, UNMIL has embarked on a process of contracting many of the independent contractors tasks to local businesses, which must comply with local Liberian employment laws in their recruitment procedures.  Some independent contractors are also being converted into national staff members of UNMIL.]


Question:  Does this (ILO) employment report look at employment in particular countries?  Does it focus more on emerging countries or does it take into account the current economy -– with interest rates going up and down -- and the possible negative impact of the US economy on growing markets in the East, and so on?


Deputy Spokesperson:  It’s an embargoed report, so I’d prefer that I didn’t say anything further.  I wanted to flag for you that its there, so please take a look at the press release that’s upstairs and I’m sure there are people from ILO who would love to talk to you about it.


Question:  Marie, just one more question…I just want to put this in with you:  can you state whether the UN is creating a position called “Director of Accountability” –- I’ve heard it’s a D-2 post -– and if so, it’s in the budget?  How would it be created if it’s not in the budget?


Deputy Spokesperson:  I’ll see if there’s anything to say on that.  Yes, did you have a question?


Question:  Yes.  Is there anything from Mr. Ban Ki-moon, a statement or feedback, on the reports coming from Egypt?  Thousands of Palestinians are now crossing the borders into Egypt and acts of violence are erupting in that region at the moment, so…?


Deputy Spokesperson:  As I said, the Secretary-General just had a press conference in Geneva.  We don’t have his full transcript.  But, what I can tell you about the latest on the Gaza/Egypt border is that this incident underscores how serious and fragile the situation in Gaza remains at this moment.  Yesterday, you heard the many concerns expressed by the Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, B. Lynn Pascoe, including his call for regular and unimpeded delivery of fuel and other basic necessities.  The Secretary-General himself has, again, talked about the seriousness of the situation.  At his press conference in Geneva, he said that he is as deeply concerned about the situation as anybody else.


He said that he has taken his own efforts to address the issue –- to help ease the tension, as well as the humanitarian suffering of the people in Gaza.  And again, he said that he had spoken to Prime Minister [Ehud] Olmert just before departing New York, and had urged him strongly to ease the restrictions on the crossing and to provide the necessary fuel.  And he again called on the parties to resolve outstanding issues peacefully through dialogue, and he said he hoped that Israel did not pursue further collective punishment of the general public and also called for a halt to rocket fire against Israel. 


We’ll have the full transcript of that shortly.


Question:  A follow-up on that:  yesterday, Mr. Pascoe said that the UN agencies in Gaza would run out of benzene by Thursday, which is tomorrow, if the Israelis did not provide them with that.  Is there any reaction so far that the Israelis are going to provide the benzene?


Deputy Spokesperson:  Well, let’s check.  I don’t have the exact reaction to that right now. 


[The Deputy Spokesperson later added that United Nations agencies were still in urgent need of benzene, which they needed in order to continue their operations.]


[Just after Mr. Martin’s press briefing, the Deputy Spokesperson announced that she had just received a statement on the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which she read into the record:


The Secretary-General congratulates the Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo as well as the organizers and participants in the Conference for Peace, Security and Development in North and South Kivu on the successful conclusion of the Conference.  He is very encouraged by the commitment of the armed groups of North and South Kivu to end all hostilities, as outlined in the “Actes d'engagement”, signed by these groups and the Government of the DRC on 23 January, that’s today.


The Secretary-General considers the “Actes d'engagement” an important step towards restoring lasting peace and stability in the Great Lakes region, and a complement to the Joint Nairobi Communiqué of 9 November 2007.


He calls on all parties to act quickly and effectively to implement agreements reached within the framework of the “Actes d'engagement” and on the Government of the DRC to quickly act on the recommendations of the Conference.  He reaffirms the commitment of the United Nations to support the Congolese parties in ending the suffering of the population in the Kivus.  The Secretary-General also calls on the international community, and particularly on the DRC's neighbours in the Great Lakes region, to fully support the implementation of these commitments.


That’s what I have for you.


Question:  Marie, I just have some questions about that.  You may or may not be able to respond right away.  Is there a description of what MONUC’s role is going to be in the implementation of this, in terms of policing buffer zones?  Does the Secretariat or anyone in the UN system have any comment on the immunity provisions in this agreement?


Deputy Spokesperson:  Well, let’s take a look at the documents first, and then we’ll let you know


Thank you very much and have a good afternoon.


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For information media • not an official record