4 February 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 Michèle Montas, Spokesperson for the Secretary-General.


Good afternoon, all.


**Statement on Chad


We issued the following statement on Chad yesterday, which I will now read into the record.


The Secretary-General is profoundly alarmed by the dangerous situation in Chad, particularly in light of the heavy fighting in several parts of the capital city, N’Djamena.


He is particularly concerned at the deterioration of the serious humanitarian situation of some 285,000 refugees and 180,000 internally displaced persons, as well as host communities, in eastern Chad where the international community is actively engaged in providing life saving relief assistance.  He urges all parties to ensure the safety and security of all civilians, as well as international humanitarian workers and United Nations staff in Chad.


The Secretary-General further calls on all parties to immediately cease hostilities and engage in dialogue so as to prevent further bloodshed.


He appeals to all countries in the region to respect the inviolability of international borders and to prevent any incursions from being launched from within their territory.


** Chad


The Security Council this morning adopted a presidential statement that expressed its grave concern regarding the situation in Chad.


The Council supports the decision of the African Union, strongly condemning the attacks perpetrated by armed groups against the Chadian Government, demanding to put an end to the violence and calling on all the countries of the region to respect the unity and territorial integrity of all AU member States.  It calls upon Member States to provide support, in conformity with the UN Charter, as requested by the Government of Chad.


In emergency consultations, Council members were briefed on the latest developments in Chad on Sunday afternoon by Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Dmitry Titov.


UN humanitarian agencies remain gravely concerned about the situation in Chad, where escalating violence is creating new waves of displaced civilians and is restricting the ability of aid workers to operate. 


There are more than 500,000 people in Chad who are dependent on humanitarian aid, including 285,000 refugees and 180,000 internally displaced.  While security remains volatile in the capital, N’Djamena, and in the north-east, UN agencies are having a hard time assessing the impact of the violence on civilians.  As of now, they can only confirm that large crowds of refugees are moving into Cameroon at crossing points south of N’Djamena.  The agencies add that UN offices in N’Djamena have been looted or destroyed, with serious implications for their ability to resume effective assistance when the fighting subsides.


More than 60 UN agencies and independent aid agencies have been working in Chad, but with their staff being evacuated, the amount of readily available assistance to Chadian civilians has gone down.  UN agencies are appealing for an increase of food and non-food emergency items.  The UN core humanitarian staff has remained in N’Djamena and the north-east and continues to review access to civilians in discussion with the warring parties.


**Security Council


In its consultations today, the Security Council also approved its programme of work for this month.  The new Council President for February, Ambassador Ricardo Alberto Arias of Panama, will brief you in this room at 1 p.m. on the Council’s work over the coming month.


And the Security Council also began consultations this morning on Western Sahara, to hear from the Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy, Peter van Walsum.


Tomorrow morning, the Security Council will receive a briefing from the Secretary-General concerning his recent travels.  The Secretary-General intends to speak to you at the Council stakeout after that briefing.


** Western Sahara


On Western Sahara, we can now announce the travel dates of the Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy.  Peter van Walsum will be in the region, from tomorrow through the 14th of February.  His trip will take him to Rabat, Tindouf, Algiers and Nouakchott.  And, as you know, the parties will be meeting for a fourth round of talks in Manhasset, New York, from March 11th through the 13th.


** Kenya


The UN Country Team says that mediation between the Government and the Opposition resumed today after a weekend of renewed killings and unrest in various parts of the country.  The Country Team also confirmed Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, who had arrived in Nairobi on Friday to assist Kofi Annan's mediation efforts, left the country after the Government raised concerns over his impartiality.


A joint UN team visited the internally displaced people in Eldoret on Saturday and reported that sewage facilities and drainage systems must be improved at the local IDP [internally displaced persons] camp, where some 19,000 residents, are showing signs of overcrowding.


**Democratic Republic of Congo/Rwanda


The UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has confirmed that an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.0 of the Richter scale hit the north-eastern towns of Bukavu, Goma and Kabare.  The earthquake also hit parts of towns in Rwanda and Burundi.  According to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, at least 34 people have been killed in the region as a whole and some 300 were injured. 


The Mission in the DRC says that the Special Representative of the Secretary-General, Alan Doss, has instructed all UN agencies present in affected areas to extend all necessary assistance to the populations and to local authorities.  He also expressed the United Nations condolences to the families of the victims.  Meanwhile, in Bukavu, WHO and its local partners are providing emergency health and surgical kits and additional health personnel to two hospitals treating the wounded.  UNICEF, for its part, estimates that urgently needed items include some 500 tents and drinking water.  We have more on that from the agencies upstairs.


**Eritrea-Ethiopia


As you will recall, the Secretary-General in his last report to the Security Council on Ethiopia and Eritrea said he would be reviewing developments on the ground and the challenges facing the UN Mission (UNMEE) and prepare specific recommendations on the future direction of the Mission, including the possible withdrawal or relocation of peacekeepers.


In a letter that went to the Security Council late Friday, the Secretary-General outlined the continued difficulties the Mission is facing.  He said the Mission’s fuel stocks will run out in the coming few days, leaving only the strategic reserves, which are intended exclusively for emergency evacuation purposes.


Therefore, he says, he wishes to inform the Security Council that, if the Eritrean authorities do not reinstate the fuel supplies by 6 February 2008, he will be compelled to instruct UNMEE to begin relocating the Mission personnel and equipment from Eritrea, in order to avoid a total immobilization of the Mission and endangering the safety and security of UN personnel.


** Israel


The UN’s Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Robert Serry, spoke to the press about today’s suicide attack in the southern Israeli town of Dimona.


Expressing his sympathy to the victims, he said his thoughts were with the people of Dimona at this time.  Saying that two weeks ago he had been in the Israeli town of Sderot when it was hit by a rain of rockets coming from Gaza, Serry stressed that such actions did not serve any legitimate purpose.  Nothing can justify such terrorist attacks, he added.


** Gaza


Meanwhile, Robert Serry’s office in Jerusalem, known as UNSCO, reports that two crossings from Israel into Gaza –- Sufa and Karni -– were open today.


Nineteen truckloads of humanitarian goods -– including five trucks of paper for UNRWA schoolbooks -– made it into Gaza through the Sufa crossing.  Twelve truckloads of commercial goods also made it in.  Most of these goods were dairy and meat products, as well as fruit.


In addition, the Karni crossing has been opened for the passage of wheat flour, corn and animal feed.  The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that around 70 truckloads will be transported into Gaza by the end of the day.


According to UNSCO, this represents progress, but the movement of goods is “still a trickle”.


** Sudan


The Secretary-General, in his latest report to the Security Council on Sudan, says that the resolution of the stand-off between the two partners to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement is a positive and welcome development.  He commends President Omar al-Bashir and First Vice-President Salva Kiir for resolving their differences through dialogue.


At the same time, he stresses that the issue of Abyei remains one of the most crucial challenges facing the two parties, and he is extremely concerned about the recent clashes between SPLA and local tribes in that area.


** Iraq


In a letter to the Security Council that is out as a document today, the Secretary-General transmits the report of a working group set up between the Government of Iraq and the UN Secretariat to deal with issues involved in the termination of operations of the UN Iraq account.


The working group report details how Iraq and the UN Secretariat intend to minimize the number of unpaid letters of credit under that account.  The working group also agreed to meet in the middle of March to review the progress made.


**UNICEF


UNICEF has issued a statement on the case of Omar Khadr.  He was arrested in Afghanistan in 2002 for crimes allegedly committed when he was 15 years old.  A military commission at Guantanamo Bay is reviewing his case today to decide whether his prosecution for war crimes should go forward.


UNICEF is concerned that, if Khadr is prosecuted, particularly in front of a military commission not equipped to meet those standards, it would set a dangerous precedent for hundreds of thousands of children who find themselves caught up in conflicts.


** Nepal


Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Kang Kyung-wha, on completion of her five-day visit to Nepal, said major obstacles still remain to achieve the enjoyment of human rights in the country.  Kang also said the ongoing impunity, as well as a security vacuum in the country, has also led to an increase in explosions and violent activities in the country.


Adding that impunity still remains unchecked, the Deputy High Commissioner urged that a commission on disappearances and a truth and reconciliation commission must be set up in accordance with international standards, if they are to guarantee the rights of victims to truth, justice and reparations.  Kang’s visit comes one year after the High Commissioner’s last visit to Nepal and more than one year after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement.


**Timor-Leste


Over in Timor-Leste, the United Nations police today began the progressive transfer of authority to the local police, handing over the command of three police posts in capital Dili.


The Secretary-General’s Special Representative, Atul Khare, said the transfer marks an important milestone in the reconstitution of the police force, and stressed that Timorese assumption of responsibilities in all areas, assisted by the international community, is essential for long-term sustainability of peace and development.


**Cancer


Today the World Health Organization (WHO) is observing World Cancer Day.


According to WHO, 84 million people will die of cancer in the next 10 years -- more than 70 per cent of them in low-income countries -- unless action is taken now.


**Secretary-General -– Chicago Trip


We can now announce the Secretary-General’s upcoming trip to Chicago.  It’s part of his tour of major US cities.


While in Chicago on Thursday and Friday of this week, the Secretary-General will meet with Mayor Richard Daley to discuss the mayor’s efforts to turn Chicago into America’s greenest city.  He will visit a “green” building, stop by a local high school, and also attend events at the MacArthur Foundation, the Economic Club of Chicago, and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.


** Jackson Hole


The UN and the Jackson Hole Film Institute today announced that the first Global Insight Summit will take place at the fifth annual Jackson Hole Film Festival in early June.


The Global Insight Summit represents an unprecedented collaboration, bringing together entertainment leaders and UN officials to explore how film and television can be used to bring awareness to global issues.  The Secretary-General plans to attend the Summit.


**Press Conference


At 1 p.m. today, Ambassador Ricardo Alberto Arias, Permanent Representative of Panama, will brief you, in his capacity as the President of the Security Council for February, on the Council’s agenda and programme of work for the month.


This is all I have for you.  Yes, George?


**Questions and Answers


Question:  A couple of questions regarding your comments on Gaza.  First, you mentioned that Mr. Serry had been in Sderot at the time that there was a rocket attack.  Is there any UN document that constitutes a report about that?  Or is this something that –- I know I get reports at least once a week from Serry’s office.  Is it something that is likely to be on one of his OCHA-opt reports?


And secondly, you mentioned that there is paper being allowed in for textbooks.  Do I understand thereby that the textbooks used by the public school systems there in Gaza City and elsewhere in the Strip are locally published?  And has there been an effort on the part of the UN or anyone to see to it that those textbooks are not edited or written -– authored or edited in such a way as to incite some kind of hatred against Israel or against opponents of Hamas, which now controls the Government there?


Spokesperson:  The UN does not control the content of what is being published in the books.  The material is, as I said, being transported for printing in Gaza itself, for the printing of those books.  The UN has absolutely no control over the content of those textbooks.


Question:  Can the UN not in some fashion say, we will not provide -– nobody questions the right of their school system to publish or purchase whatever books they want.  But has any effort been made to say we’re not going to provide materials for you to incite hatred or particularly to incite or foster hatred among children of anyone?


Spokesperson:  I don’t think there are any such preconditions on the part of the people transporting actually transporting the goods to Gaza at this point.


[She later added that UNRWA’s textbooks, as used in the West Bank and Gaza, have been reviewed by an independent panel of experts chaired by Professor Nathan Brown of George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and have been found to be free of overt anti-Semitism and anti-Israel language.]


Question:  Michèle, you indicated that the Personal Envoy of the Secretary-General, Mr. Walsum, will be making a statement before the Council today.  Will he make that statement available?


Spokesperson:  I can ask for you.  As far as I know, no.  But we will try to find out, because there are consultations.  I don’t think it’s going to be a public statement; it’s not an open meeting.  And I don’t think Mr. van Walsum has the time to do a stakeout today.  Yes?


Question:  Michèle, you said that the movement of goods in Gaza was still at a trickle.  Is there any more information on that?  Is there a way to understand that?  Is there some reason that the backlog isn’t able to get in? 


Spokesperson:  Yes, and we have some documents upstairs on that and you can have additional information upstairs.


Question:  So, I should check, because I had taken that there was, but I didn’t see –- and how do you -– and the other question that I had is who has replaced Alvaro de Soto in the position that he had?


Spokesperson:  Alvaro de Soto was replaced, as you know, by Michael Williams first.  This was quite a long time ago.


Question:  Now who is there?  Mr. Serry?


Spokesperson:  Mr. Serry, yes.  Yes, Matthew?


Question:  There are two stories today about Darfur.  One is a story saying that the fund that was set up under the May 2006 agreement between some parties, Minni Minawi and others and the Government of Khartoum -– that no money has been paid.  I’m wondering if the UN system, since it was -– given the importance of this -- is in the position to either confirm or deny this, that no funds have actually been transferred.


Spokesperson:  I’ll try to find out for you.


Question:  And the other one, this is more directly connected.  Noureddine Mezni, the spokesperson for UNAMID, has been quoted there saying that the status of forces agreement has been agreed to or is acceptable to the UN.  Is that the case?


Spokesperson:  That is the case.  And it will probably be signed some time this week.  We will let you know when it is signed.


Question:  It’s in the final version?  It’s not going to be changed any more?


Spokesperson:  Yes.  As far as we know, yes.


Question:  Thank you, Michèle.  Welcome back.  Will the Secretary-General be issuing any -- issuing statements on the suicide bomb attacks in Sri Lanka, Israel and Pakistan over the weekend?


Spokesperson:  No, he won’t.  What you have now in terms of statements is all we’ll have today.  Except that he’s been following those situations -– ever since he came back he’s been following those different situations.


Question:  My other question is:  Kenyan opposition leader Odinga is asking the UN to send in UN peacekeepers.  What are the UN’s thoughts on that?


Spokesperson:  Well, it is not at this point something that is being examined.  At any rate, as you know, this is a decision to be submitted to the Security Council.  And one party cannot ask for peacekeepers without this going through, of course, the Security Council.


Question:  One other quick question.  There’s a report out saying UN peacekeepers have defaced 6,000-year-old art in Western Sahara.  Are there any comments by the UN on that?


Spokesperson:  Yes, we did issue some comments on this.  I don’t know if you got a chance to see that.  They said that the Mission in Western Sahara (MINURSO) takes this matter very seriously.  An investigation is ongoing.  Disciplinary measures will be taken against those who are proven responsible for the graffiti or any other damage to the cultural heritage or environment of Western Sahara.


And MINSURSO has initiated consultations with UNESCO to identify appropriate experts in order to employ the best techniques to restore the pre-historic cave paintings.  This is what I have and I can tell you also that preventive measures have been taken so this won’t occur again.


Question:  Can I ask one follow-up on that?  The representative of the Frente-POLISARIO said earlier this morning that the POLISARIO has evidence that or has seen on the caves that there were contingents from Croatia and Kenya that defaced the art.  Is MINURSO in the position to confirm what contingents or battalions actually did the vandalism?


Spokesperson:  I can only confirm what I’ve said.  An investigation is ongoing.  Yes, Mr. Abbadi?


Question:  Do I understand that Mr. van Walsum will also be visiting Algeria and Mauritania?


Spokesperson:  Yes, this is what I have in terms of his schedule.


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For information media • not an official record