24 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.


**Secretary-General Addresses World Economic Forum


The Secretary-General this morning addressed the plenary session of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, telling them that the challenge of securing safe and plentiful water for all is one of the most daunting challenges faced by the world today.  He noted that the lack of water had contributed to poverty and tension around the world, from Darfur to the Occupied Palestinian Territory to Colombia.


“Water is running out,” the Secretary-General said.  “We need to adapt to this reality, just as we do to climate change.  There is still enough water for all of us -- but only so long as we keep it clean, use it more wisely, and share it fairly.”


Prior to addressing the Forum, the Secretary-General met with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, with whom he discussed the implications of the Annapolis process and the developments in Gaza and the West Bank.  The Secretary-General reiterated his call on Israel to refrain from actions that will harm the well-being of the general civilian population in Gaza.


Later he met with Quartet envoy Tony Blair and discussed Palestinian capacity-building, the Paris donors’ conference and the importance of accelerating projects that donors had promised at Paris, and the situation in Gaza.


This afternoon, the Secretary-General met with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, and talked with him about the democratic process in Pakistan and Pakistan’s relationship with Afghanistan.  After that he met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, with whom he discussed UN-Afghanistan cooperation.


**Security Council


And the Security Council, here, held consultations this morning on the Middle East, as you know, to continue the discussions from yesterday afternoon about the text of a draft presidential statement concerning the recent events in Gaza.


** Gaza Humanitarian Update


According to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the UN Special Coordinator’s Office in Jerusalem, 315,000 litres of industrial gas, 20,000 litres of benzene, 250,000 litres of diesel, and 200 tons of cooking gas went from Israel into Gaza today.


But there is still a shortage of benzene for hospital workers’ vehicles, so only three hospitals in Gaza are operating.  The World Food Programme (WFP) was able to get some benzene today on the local commercial market, but that might only be enough to last them until the middle of next week.


WFP calls the situation in Gaza a “serious food crisis” and says that the access restrictions are causing them to run out of food.  As a result, vulnerable people, such as the sick and elderly, received only partial rations yesterday.  Meanwhile, tensions rose at a distribution point yesterday after supplies of chickpeas, sugar and salt ran out.  In addition, new security checks are leading to a cost increase of nearly $50,000 extra per month for WFP operations in Gaza.


In terms of further updates, no UN trucks were permitted to cross into Gaza today.  And Gaza’s power plant has been rationing supplies to avoid a crisis this weekend.


**Human Rights Council


Earlier in Geneva today, the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution in which it called for urgent international action to put an immediate end to Israel’s grave violations in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.


The Human Rights Council also demanded that Israel immediately lift the siege it had imposed on Gaza, restore continued supply of fuel, food and medicine, and reopen the border crossings.


The result of the vote was 30 in favour and 1 against, with 15 abstentions.


The final text did not change from the draft version that we had in our office yesterday.


And there’s more information on this upstairs.


**Arab Charter on Human Rights


High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour, meanwhile, today welcomed the entry into force of the Arab Charter on Human Rights.  Regional systems of promotion and protection can further help strengthen the enjoyment of human rights.  And the Arab Charter is an important step forward in this direction, she added.


And there’s more on that upstairs in the Spokesperson’s Office.


** Kenya Humanitarian Update


Turning to Kenya, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) has begun relocating Kenyan refugees in south-eastern Uganda away from border areas.  More than 6,000 refugees are expected to arrive at a transit centre in Mulanda, some 35 kilometres inland, over a five-day period.


UNHCR has set up tents there, while UNICEF is installing water tanks.  UNHCR says the refugees are expected to remain there for several weeks.  If things do not improve, they will be offered the chance to move to long-established refugee settlements in western Uganda.


And there’s more information on the humanitarian situation in Kenya upstairs as well.


**Appeal to Help Afghans at Risk


The Government of Afghanistan and the United Nations today called for more than $81 million to help people hit by the rising price of wheat flour.  The appeal is intended to help more than 2.5 million Afghans who risk food shortages over the coming five months as the prices of staple foods have risen dramatically.


Bo Asplund, the acting Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan, urged all donors to respond generously to the appeal, noting that, otherwise, thousands of poor Afghan families will be unable to meet their basic need for food during the current, harsh winter months.


We have a press release upstairs on this and we also have a press release from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) on the handover today of a new female prison and detention centre from UNODC to the Afghan Ministry of Justice.


**United Nations Flood Relief Efforts


Turning to flood relief efforts in Southern Africa, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says that the number of people displaced in the region has nearly doubled to more than 120,000 in less than a week.  The World Food Programme is continuing to deliver food via helicopter to a resettlement centre in Mozambique that houses roughly 13,000 people.


Meanwhile, halfway around the world, WFP is also providing food assistance to 7,000 affected families in Bolivia, where heavy rains since November have caused severe flooding.


**Bird Flu Still a Threat - FAO


And on bird flu, recent bird flu outbreaks in 15 countries demonstrate that the bird flu virus remains a global threat and requires close monitoring and strong control efforts, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says.  Since December 2007, outbreaks in poultry stocks have been confirmed in Bangladesh, Benin, China, Egypt, Germany, India, Indonesia, Iran, Israel, Myanmar, Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Turkey and Viet Nam.


There’s more on that upstairs as well.


**Natural Disasters and Hospital Safety


And on natural disasters, hundreds of hospitals are destroyed or damaged every year by natural disasters, leaving millions of people without emergency care.  In response, the UN’s International Strategy for Disaster Reduction and the World Health Organization (WHO), with support from the World Bank, will launch a global campaign tomorrow in Davos.  Called “Hospitals Safe from Disasters”, the campaign will encourage all those responsible for hospital safety -- such as politicians, architects, engineers, public health professionals and donors -- to work on making hospitals safer.


And there’s more on that as well.


**International Labour Organization


And we mentioned this yesterday, and now that the embargo has been lifted on the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) 2008 Global Employment Trends report, we can flag some of its contents.


The ILO says turmoil in the credit markets and rising oil prices could increase the global number of unemployed by 5 million this year alone.  The agency also reports a massive deficit in decent jobs for the poor, with half of workers at risk of low earnings, dangerous conditions and no health insurance.  One worker in six makes less than a dollar a day, while more than 40 per cent earn less than $2 a day.


And there’s more information, as you know, on this ILO study.


Now just two more items.


**Accountability


In response to a question about accountability, the General Assembly has asked the Secretary-General to submit reports on:  (a) enterprise risk management and internal control framework; (b) results-based management; and (c) the Secretariat’s accountability framework.  Reviews are currently under way in response to this request.


The results of these reviews will be submitted to the General Assembly later this year and will contribute to the Secretary-General’s efforts to achieve significant improvements in accountability, transparency and making the Organization more results-oriented.  Better governance and improving performance, accountability and transparency have been a major focus of the Secretary-General in the past year, and will continue to be so.


There is need for a single focal point within the Secretariat to drive these specific and related management improvements, who would also liaise with counterparts working on similar issues in the funds and programmes.


**Secretary-General’s Statement on Voluntary Financial Disclosure


And my last statement, attributable to the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General, is on the voluntary public disclosure of financial disclosure and declaration of interest statements by senior UN officials.


As you will recall, both the Secretary-General and Deputy Secretary-General made public their financial disclosure statements in 2007 following the confidential review of each statement by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).


While public disclosure is not a requirement of the United Nations Financial Disclosure Programme, the Secretary-General had encouraged his senior officials -- at the grade of Under-Secretary-General [USG] and Assistant Secretary-General [ASG] -- to follow his lead and make public, on a voluntary basis, their confidential financial disclosure or declaration of interest statement.


Public disclosure is considered by the Secretary-General to be an important voluntary initiative, as it demonstrates that UN staff members understand the importance of both the general public and the Member States of the United Nations being assured that, in the discharge of their official duties and responsibilities, UN staff members will not be influenced by any consideration associated with his/her private interests.


The current list of those senior UN officials who have elected to provide a public summary of their disclosure, in accordance with the UN Policy on Voluntary Public Disclosure, is now available on the Secretary-General’s website within the section “Ethical Standards”, along with a link to each individual’s public disclosure statement.  The review of each statement by PricewaterhouseCoopers must take place before a public summary is made available -- the 2007 review cycle by PwC was officially closed on 31 December 2007.


In some cases, the link to the disclosure summary document itself is not yet available -- these remaining disclosure summaries will be posted as they become available.  On the same web page, you will also find more detailed information on the “Policy on Voluntary Public Disclosure by UN staff members” and the principles applied therein.  You can get a copy of this statement upstairs.


And I just received two copies of the same announcement so I’d better read them:  it’s an announcement by the President of the Security Council.  He is inviting members of the Council to consultations at the ambassadorial level, at 4 p.m. today, to discuss the draft presidential statement in connection with the situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question.  And those are the continuation of the discussion they had this morning on the draft presidential statement on Gaza.


**Press Conference Tomorrow


And tomorrow, here in this room at 11 a.m., the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, Ms. Yakin Erturk, will brief on her recent visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.


And that’s what I have for you.  Let’s start in the back today.


**Questions and Answers


Question:  I’m very keenly aware that I’m asking something you likely do not know, but I’d like you to look this up, if possible.  You mentioned there were three hospitals operating in Gaza.  I take it that means … does that mean Gaza Strip or Gaza City?


Deputy Spokesperson:  In Gaza.


Question:  In Gaza City.  How many hospitals are there total in Gaza?  What is their total bed count?  And, just for reference, what is the known population, as far as you know, of the City of Gaza?  Also, you mentioned that you had some material on the Arab Charter on Human Rights.  Do you in fact have the exact text of that Charter among that material?


Deputy Spokesperson:  The Arab Charter on Human Rights was adopted by the Council of the League of Arab States on 15 September 1994, so I’m sure that it is up on the Human Rights website (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights).


And the questions about the statistics about how many hospitals and beds in Gaza, I’m sure that my colleagues upstairs probably have that, so we’ll follow up on that.


[The Deputy Spokesperson later added that there are some half-dozen hospitals in Gaza.  All hospitals are functioning, though only three have received fuel today.]


Question:  I guess I just wanted to follow up on a question that I had asked yesterday:  if Algerian officials are meeting with UN officials this week on the investigation into the Algiers bombing?


Deputy Spokesperson:  I think I answered the question yesterday.  The Secretary-General…


Question:  Yes, but to follow up again, if there were any…?


Deputy Spokesperson:  Yes.  The Secretary-General had met with the Algerian Foreign Minister while he was in Geneva yesterday, and I provided you with a readout on that.  And there’s been nothing…


Question:  Yes, but aside from that, you’ve got nothing else on that?


Deputy Spokesperson:  No, I have nothing further on that.


Question:  On the meeting between Secretary-General Ban and the Afghan President, was the issue of the appointment of a new UN Envoy to Afghanistan discussed, or was anything resolved on that issue?


Deputy Spokesperson:  As far as the appointment of the Special Representative that has been widely reported in the press, I have to say that consultations are ongoing.  I have nothing further to say on that.


Question:  What was the issue when the President and the Secretary-General met?


Deputy Spokesperson:  They just met and the only readout I have is that they discussed cooperation between the United Nations and Afghanistan.


Question:  When he met the Pakistani President, General Musharraf, was the issue of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto covered?


Deputy Spokesperson:  I don’t have anything further than what I’ve given you on that readout.


Question:  What does the Secretariat have to say about a report released last night by the US Senate Permanent Sub-Committee on Investigations, saying that UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) allowed its communications to be monitored and its staff members’ houses to be searched?  It was also very critical of the Secretary-General … purportedly system-wide ethics … and the whistle-blower protection policy, saying that it does not go far enough.  Is there any response from the UN?


Deputy Spokesperson:  As far as…  I think you’re referring to the press reports that we’ve seen today…?


Correspondent:  There’s a report put out on the hearings today in the Senate on…


Deputy Spokesperson:  All I can say on UNDP…  As you know, there is a probe under way and I think, until we [hear from] Mr. [Miklos] Németh, that’s set to finish its work in March, I think we have nothing to say beyond that.  And in terms of…  I think you mentioned a hearing today?  UNDP officials and the Director of the UN Ethics Office are down there today briefing the US Senate.


Question:  So could we say that Mr. [Robert] Benson [Director of the UN Ethics Office] is there representing the Secretariat?


Deputy Spokesperson:  He is briefing the US Senate.  That’s all I have for now.


Question:  One quick … on the announcement that you made about accountability and the focal point:  so you’re confirming that there will be a position called “Director of Accountability”?


Deputy Spokesperson:  No.  What I told you is exactly what I read:  that there is a need for a single focal point.  So, yes, it’s in response to your question.


Question:  Right.  But in terms of following up on the question, the question was whether that position was in the current budget that was just passed?


Deputy Spokesperson:  It’s being considered, that’s correct.


Question:  And there was some concern that staff members had raised that the position had already been promised to a particular individual, Nancy…


Deputy Spokesperson:  Matthew, the reason why I read you this rather comprehensive statement was to put into context the reason why there is a need for this post…


Question:  Is there going to be a competitive process to fill the post?


Deputy Spokesperson:  Of course.  Of course.  Of course.  Yes.  I had a question in the back?


Question:  Regarding the resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council today on the situation in Gaza, which country voted against the resolution?  Do you know if the United States or Israel attended the meeting?


Deputy Spokesperson:  Canada was the one vote against, we’re told, and neither the US…  You asked if the US or Israel…?


Correspondent:  Yes.


Deputy Spokesperson:  Neither the US nor Israel participated.


Question:  Yes.  Which country voted against the resolution?


Deputy Spokesperson:  Canada.


Question:  Maybe I’m mistaken, but I believe that there is a law that if a [United Nations] body is handling a topic that it’s not duplicated elsewhere.  At least from the time … like maybe 10, 12 years ago I remember that events or topics that were discussed in one organ not being paralleled in another place.  So we have the Human Rights Council bringing up the situation with Israel and now the Security Council.  Has there been a reform of the Charter?


Deputy Spokesperson:  It’s up to the members of these bodies to decide what they want to discuss.


Question:  Is it possible to have a briefing on the Alliance of Civilizations Forum meeting in Madrid?  We had already requested it.


Deputy Spokesperson:  Oh, of course.  We’ll certainly put in that request.


Question:  I don’t know if this was raised, but there were several suggestions by Israeli officials in recent days since the breakdown of the barriers in Gaza, to re-route deliveries of humanitarian goods.  Rather than go through the borders that Israel controls, they would go through the border crossing that Egypt controls.  Is that a feasible solution, from UNRWA’s (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) and other UN agencies’ point of view?


Deputy Spokesperson:  I have not heard anything from UNRWA on this, but we can certainly check into it for you.


[The Deputy Spokesperson later added that, under the current agreement between Egypt, the Palestinian Authority and Israel, Rafah is not supposed to serve to import goods.  In addition, no adequate infrastructure exists in Rafah to do so.]


Question:  One, can you confirm and two, can you comment on, reports that the US has denied access to the trial at Guantanamo Bay of Omar Khadr?  Ms. [Radhika] Coomaraswamy, the Special Representative for Children in Armed Conflict, his representative, had sought to attend an upcoming hearing because he was arrested when he was 15.  It’s been reported in the Canadian press that her request to attend was denied.  Can that be confirmed?  Does the Secretariat have any comment on whether she should be able to attend and whether a Member State should try somebody arrested at 15?


Deputy Spokesperson:  I don’t have anything on that, but we can certainly look into it for you.


[The Deputy Spokesperson later added that Ms. Coomaraswamy’s office says it never requested authorization to interview Khadr; however, the defence lawyers in his trial had invited someone from her office to attend the hearings as an observer.  The Office is in a dialogue with the United States State Department on that issue.]


Okay.  If that’s all for me, have a good afternoon.  Thank you very much.


* *** *


For information media • not an official record