29 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.


**Secretary-General


The Secretary-General is travelling today to Texas, where this afternoon he will address the William Waldo Cameron Forum on Public Affairs at the George Bush Presidential Library, named after the first President Bush.  He will speak about the strong US-UN relationship, saying that working together is in the best interest of the United States, of the United Nations and of the world.  He will highlight key concerns for the United Nations, including the situation in Darfur and climate change.  We have that speech available under embargo upstairs.


And just a reminder, the Secretary-General will visit Geneva early next week, where he will address the new session of the Human Rights Council on Monday.


**Ethiopia/Eritrea


On Eritrea, the regrouping of UN peacekeepers ahead of a temporary relocation out of Eritrea was again obstructed by Eritrean soldiers today in Senafe.  The latest obstruction has left 102 peacekeepers stranded inside the Temporary Security Zone and 21 vehicles sent to collect them unable to do so.  Another 13 peacekeepers and eight UN vehicles were earlier today also stopped by Eritrean soldiers at the same checkpoint in Senafe.


Lebohang Moleko, the Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Ethiopia and Eritrea, was assured in a telephone conversation with Eritrean officials today that there were no explicit instructions from the Eritrean Government to prevent UN peacekeepers from relocating.  Despite the obstructions, the UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea says that only two UN camps remain to be vacated, with UN military headquarters near the town of Barentu now expected to be vacated by this Sunday.  Meanwhile, all military observers have now been accounted for, with 104 relocated to Asmara and another 11 awaiting further instructions in the port town of Assab.


**Sudan/Chad


On Sudan/Chad, the Deputy Special Representative for Sudan, Ameerah Haq, travelled to West Darfur for the second time this week as part of an inter-agency mission to assess the humanitarian situation on the ground as the result of the recent hostilities, including bombings, attacks on civilians and ongoing displacement.  The mission visited Sileah yesterday and found the town empty, despite having a population of up to 20,000 people.  Only around 300 people remained, mostly elderly citizens who couldn’t flee.  The town was attacked on 8 February.  The scene at the local clinic was one of disarray where there had obviously been a thorough ransacking of the clinic and its equipment.


The UN refugee agency, meanwhile, says an additional 3,000 refugees from West Darfur have arrived in eastern Chad over the past week, bringing to more than 13,000 the number of Sudanese believed to have fled to the remote area since fighting erupted on 8 February.  A UNHCR [Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] team which reached the Birak area this week reported that the new arrivals fled the Jebel Moun region of West Darfur following repeated aerial and ground attacks by militia.


**Security Council


Today is the last day of the Panamanian presidency of the Security Council.  Starting tomorrow, Ambassador Vitaly Churkin of the Russian Federation will assume the Council’s rotating presidency for the month of March.  We expect him to brief you on the Council’s programme of work for March next Tuesday at approximately 11:30 a.m.


Council members yesterday afternoon held consultations on non-proliferation and discussed a draft resolution on Iran.


** Iraq


On Iraq, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Iraq, Staffan de Mistura, today strongly condemned attacks targeting media representatives in that country, which he said could hurt press freedom and freedom of expression.  He extended his condolences following the death of journalist Shihab al-Tamimi, who was the victim of an assassination attempt last Saturday.  Mr. de Mistura expressed his solidarity with all Iraqi journalists.  Given the courage consistently shown by so many of them, he is confident that this tragic event will not intimidate them from carrying out their work that is essential for the future of their country.


**Timor-Leste


Over in Timor-Leste, five individuals wanted in connection with the activities of the late rebel commander Alfredo Reinado were handed over yesterday by the National Police of Timor-Leste to United Nations police officers.  The UN Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste welcomed the arrest and detention of the five, who stood trial before the Dili District Court.  The Court ordered that they be remanded in UN police custody overnight and reappear again before the Court this morning.


** Lebanon


On Lebanon, the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) marked a historic occasion today when Germany handed over the command of UNIFIL’s Maritime Task Force to the European Maritime Force, which is currently led by Italy.  Speaking at the handover ceremony, UNIFIL Force Commander Major-General Claudio Graziano said, “Thanks to the vigilant posture of the Maritime Task Force, the maritime front has been as calm as the sea today.”  He congratulated the Force’s personnel for their commendable work over the past 14 months.  And we have more in a press release upstairs.


** Gaza


On Gaza, the Office of the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process (UNSCO) reports that one crossing was opened for fuel today, allowing 400,000 litres to enter into Gaza from Israel.  With today’s opening, the electricity situation has returned to where it was last week, which still means power cuts of up to 12 hours a day in Gaza City and central Gaza.  The three crossings that allow humanitarian and commercial goods into Gaza all stayed closed today.


** Somalia


Turning to Somalia, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) warns that the drought in the central part of the country is worsening.  Severe water shortages and limited grazing for livestock are forcing many pastoralist families into destitution.  UNICEF [United Nations Children’s Fund] and partners are helping out in the Galgaduud region, by providing water, constructing shallow wells and installing water pipes.  They’re also supporting health centres serving more than 20,000 children under five in the area.


** Afghanistan


On Afghanistan, Afghanistan’s harshest winter in nearly 30 years has devastated the country’s livestock sector, killing over 300,000 animals since late December and seriously hurting many Afghans’ livelihoods, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).  For its part, FAO has distributed 20 tons of feed in Herat, one of the hardest-hit provinces, and is providing 60 tons of feed concentrate to the worst-hit farmers in Bamyan Province.  The UN agency is also seeking over $2 million to provide an additional 1,500 tons of feed, as well as vaccines, multivitamins and anti-parasitic treatment for the livestock of 50,000 vulnerable farming families.  We have more on that upstairs.


**Press Conference


And at 11 a.m. on Monday, Ambassador Melvyn Levitsky of the International Narcotics Control Board will present the main findings of a survey on the latest global drug control situation.  However, please note that the survey and the press conference are embargoed until 4 March at 8 p.m. New York time.


**Week Ahead


And the Week Ahead, as I said earlier, tomorrow, Saturday, is the first day of the Russian Federation Security Council presidency.  From Monday until Friday, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors meets in Vienna.  On Tuesday at 10:30 a.m. in Room 226, Joanne Sandler, Executive Director of UNIFEM [United Nations Development Fund for Women]; Reese Witherspoon, Actress and Avon Global Ambassador; and Andrea Jung, Chief Executive Officer of Avon Products Inc., announce a private-public partnership with Avon Inc. on ending violence against women and promoting women’s economic empowerment.


And at 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday in Room 226 here, Ambassador Vitaly Churkin of the Russian Federation briefs in his capacity as Security Council President for March on the Council’s programme of work for the month.


This is all I have for you.  Thank you.  Yes?


**Questions and Answers


Question:  Michèle, yesterday, the Iranian Ambassador said that he had written a letter to the Secretary-General, informing him about Iran’s objectives, basically saying that they have abided by all the IAEA protocols and everything and the Security Council is unfairly about to slap sanctions on Iran.  Did the Secretary-General, in view of that letter, talk to anybody in the Security Council?


Spokesperson:  Not that I know of.


Question:  And on this occupied Gaza, yesterday, I had asked you about the figure and I then got a message from Brenden that the figures are not –-


Spokesperson:  We don’t keep them, but we gave you what we had.


Question:  Because there is a figure which is being released by some other organization, which says that about 90 Palestinians to one Israeli. 


Spokesperson:  We cannot at this point verify it.


Question:  Michèle, the Serbs apparently placed a protest with the Secretary-General on the formation of this steering group about Kosovo.  Do you know anything about that?


Spokesperson:  Whether the letter, you mean, was received?


Question:  Yeah.  They just say they lodged a formal protest Friday with the Secretary-General about the formation of an international steering group for Kosovo.


Spokesperson:  Yes, I think we have just received that letter a few minutes ago and, as you know, this international steering group is not a UN body.


Question:  Has the Government of Burma invited the Secretary-General to visit the country?


Spokesperson:  I don’t know.  At this point, what I can tell you on Burma is simply that Mr. Gambari will be back here today and he’s expected to report to the Secretary-General tomorrow and to leave probably next week to Myanmar.


Question:  Before leaving for Burma, is he going to brief the Security Council?


Spokesperson:  No, not that I know of.


Question:  Michèle, how serious is the situation in Lebanon?  Do you have an assessment on that?  Because there’s this report that the United States has got two destroyers now standing at the port of Beirut, Lebanon, because they think the situation’s getting out of hand.  Is there any extraordinary activity in Lebanon which warranted United States deployment of two aircraft carriers, I mean fighters?


Spokesperson:  This is a matter for the United States and Lebanon.  UNIFIL has no specific information on the deployment of those boats.  We were not informed about this deployment.  It was not coordinated with UNIFIL in any way.  As you know, UNIFIL Maritime Task Force operations are continuing uninterrupted in close coordination with the Lebanese Navy.  This is all I can say.


Question:  To follow up on the first question, there’s another letter, I think by Iran’s Permanent Representative, protesting the host country, the U.S., not allowing a delegation of women to attend the conference that’s going on in the basement, on the status of women.  He wrote to Ban Ki-moon and said this is improper and to say something to the host country.  Are you aware of the letter and what does the Secretariat say about it?  


Spokesperson:  I’m not aware of the letter and, from what I gather, some of the people who had their accreditations suspended, their accreditations were returned to them.  So, I don’t know if the information you have is still accurate.


Question:  It seems there are two incidents.  One, they said there were some people coming from Iran that weren’t allowed in at all.  And, I think there’s a separate incident where people that began attending, not Iranians.  Does the one you’re referring to have to do with China and Taiwan?  The people attending and told not to attend?


Spokesperson:  Yes.


Question:  What was the Secretariat’s position on that one?


Spokesperson:  We don’t have any position on this.  This is a matter for the body meeting here at the UN to discuss.  Those NGOs coming here are accredited NGOs, or at least I assume they are, and their accreditation is either with ECOSOC or with other commissions or bodies or the General Assembly.


Question:  There’s a report of a letter to the Secretary-General by 46 opposition lawmakers in Burundi saying that they face death threats and asking for UN protection.  What’s the UN, either the Peacebuilding Commission or –- given the UN’s involvement in Burundi, what’s the response to that letter?


Spokesperson:  We haven’t received that letter.  As you know, I was told, from what I read in the media, that letter was given to the representative of the United Nations in Bujumbura.  We have not received that yet and I don’t have anything on that.


Question:  And one other thing.  This week there was a filing by a publicly traded U.S. company, GTREX, filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, and said that they’d named to their board of directors an Assistant Secretary-General of a specialized agency of the UN, the World Tourism Organization, named to the board of directors of a for-profit company.  Is it permissible for someone to be a UN system Assistant Secretary-General and also be serving on the board of a private corporation?


Spokesperson:  Let me get more information on this first.


Question:  Michèle, two days ago, Human Rights Watch issued a statement criticizing the Security Council for what it said was keeping silent about the attacks in West Darfur.  They said the silence of the Security Council was tantamount to a green light for the Sudanese Government.  I wonder if the Secretary-General feels that it might also be advisable for the Security Council to take further action on this issue and he would like to see them moving this higher up on the agenda.


Spokesperson:  The Secretary-General has spoken pretty extensively about the violence there.  We had statements last week about this.  As for what the Security Council will do, it is up to the Security Council, not us.


Question:  For the Security Council to get involved, I know the Secretary-General has been pretty outspoken about it and then the Security Council has been the opposite.


Spokesperson:  As I said, this is a matter for the Security Council to decide how much they would say about it.  Thank you very much.


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For information media • not an official record