3 March 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 a near-verbatim transcript of today’s noon briefing by Michèle Montas, Spokesperson for the Secretary-General.


Good afternoon, all.


[The following statements attributable to the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General were read out immediately after the conclusion of the noon briefing.


**Secretary-General Statement on Nepal


The Secretary-General has learned with great sorrow the news of a United Nations helicopter crash some 85 kilometres east of Kathmandu today.  According to latest information received, the helicopter was carrying seven UNMIN (United Nations Mission in Nepal) personnel and three crew.  The following statement was issued by UNMIN this evening Nepal time:


“At about 4 p.m. today, Nepal time, UNMIN lost contact with a Mission helicopter which was returning to Kathmandu from the Maoist cantonment site at Sindhuli in the east of the country.  UNMIN has had contact with local authorities at Ramechhap district, who advise that a helicopter has crashed in the vicinity of the Bethan village, that the helicopter has been located and that there are fatalities.  UNMIN has sent a party by road to the site of the reported crash to confirm information.  UNMIN is not in a position at this time to provide any further information, but will provide regular updates as confirmed information is available.”


United Nations Headquarters is in close communications with UNMIN.  More information will be provided as it becomes available.


**Secretary-General Statement on Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela


The Secretary-General is concerned about the increased tensions and heightened rhetoric emerging over the weekend involving Colombia and its neighbours, Ecuador and Venezuela.  He urges restraint and calls on all three countries to address their shared concerns in the spirit of dialogue and cooperation that has traditionally characterized their relations.


**Secretary-General Statement Armenia


The Secretary-General is deeply concerned about the violent clashes between police forces and demonstrators in Armenia over the weekend.  It is his hope that these events, during which eight people died, will be thoroughly investigated.


The Secretary-General calls on all parties to exercise full restraint and to find a way out of the current crisis.  He also urges the Armenian authorities to take all necessary steps to ensure a return to normalcy, including through a speedy lifting of the state of emergency.]


**Secretary-General at Human Rights Council


The Secretary-General addressed the new session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva today, telling its representatives that the question for the Council is whether it is fully meeting the high expectations which the international community has for it.  He said it is crucial for the Council to recognize and promote the universal application of human rights values, without favour, without selectivity, and without being affected by any political machinations around the world.  No country, however powerful, should escape scrutiny of its record, commitments and actions on human rights, the Secretary-General stressed.  The Secretary-General added that he has mobilized the entire UN family in its campaign for the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  With concrete initiatives and result-oriented advocacy, this effort will bring us closer to the goal of fully integrating human rights in all aspects of the work of the United Nations, he said.  We have his speech upstairs.


**Secretary-General in Geneva


In the afternoon in Geneva, the Secretary-General addressed the forty-third executive session of the Trade and Development Board of the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), which he noted was taking place in the crucial period leading up to this April’s UNCTAD-XII Conference in Accra.  The Secretary-General also conducted a number of bilateral meetings today, including with Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store.


** Gaza and Israel


On Gaza, the Office of the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process confirms that Israel has pulled back its ground forces from Gaza today.  Karen AbuZayd, Commissioner General of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, or UNRWA, said that the Agency is back to work resuming its delivery of assistance in Gaza and reopening the schools that were closed there.  She noted problems for Gaza hospitals, which continue to lack sufficient medicines and spare parts.  In the north of Gaza, attendance at UNRWA schools was reported to be zero.  Elsewhere in the Strip, school attendance was between 40 and 65 per cent.


In Geneva, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour, in a statement on Monday, recognized Israel’s right to defend itself, but condemned the Israel Defense Forces’ disproportionate use of force.  The High Commissioner called for an impartial investigation into the reported killing of dozens of civilians, including children, in the IDF operation in Gaza.  Arbour also strongly condemned the rocket attacks by Palestinian militants against Israeli civilian targets.  We have her statement upstairs.


**Security Council on Middle East


The Security Council held an emergency formal meeting, followed by consultations, on Saturday night, in response to the violence in the Middle East, and the Secretary-General spoke to the Council about the deeply alarming escalation of violence in Gaza and southern Israel, and what he called the terrible civilian death toll.  The Secretary-General condemned Palestinian rocket attacks and called for the immediate cessation of such acts of terrorism, which serve no purpose, endanger Israeli civilians and bring misery to the Palestinian people.  While recognizing Israel’s right to defend itself, he condemned the disproportionate and excessive use of force that has killed and injured so many civilians, including children, and called on Israel to cease such attacks.  Israel must fully comply with international humanitarian law and exercise the utmost restraint, he said.  He added that the acts that have taken place must not be allowed to deter the political process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority aimed at establishing two States, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security.


** Israel and Egypt


We had a number of questions and expressions of concern with regard to the reference in the Secretary-General’s statement to the Security Council on Saturday on allegations of arms smuggling during the period of the border breach at Rafah.  This was based on available information at the time of the briefing, including reports in the New York Times on 1 March and on briefings by the Government of Israel to the diplomatic community.  We would like to state for the record today that the Government of Egypt has denied these allegations.


**Security Council


The Security Council today has scheduled consultations on non-proliferation.  Council members have been considering a draft resolution on Iran, and they expect to hold a formal meeting on that following consultations.  The Security Council is expected to hold consultations on its programme of work tomorrow.  After that, the new Council President for the month of March, Ambassador Vitaly Churkin of Russia, will brief you in this room about the Council’s work over the coming month, at approximately 11:30 a.m.


** Lebanon


On Lebanon, Terje Roed-Larsen, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Implementation of Resolution 1559, met yesterday in Cairo with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, to whom he gave a letter from the Secretary-General about the situation in Lebanon.  Mr. Larsen also met with Arab League Secretary-General Amre Moussa in Cairo, and they discussed the current impasse in Lebanon related to the presidential election.  After his meeting with President Mubarak, Mr. Larsen told the press that Egypt and the United Nations share the same deep concern about the stalemate in Lebanon.


** Democratic Republic of the Congo


On the DR Congo, the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC) has condemned the latest outburst of deadly violence in the Bas-Congo province.  The Mission says it is dispatching additional peacekeepers to the region to prevent further violence and appeals to the parties for restraint.  And in its human rights report for January, which was released today, the Mission says that 31 children are among a group of detainees transferred from the north-east to Kinshasa for interrogation by the Congolese military on suspicions of spying and treason.  UN human rights officers are in discussion with Congolese authorities to find a solution to their situation.


**Ethiopia/Eritrea


On Eritrea, the UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea says that it has completed the regrouping of UN peacekeepers and their equipment in Asmara this past weekend.  The Mission says it closed its two last posts in the Barentu area.  All UN peacekeepers have now left the Temporary Security Zone and are in the Eritrean capital, with the exception of 112 military personnel who are awaiting further instructions in Assab.  UN military personnel in Ethiopia have not been affected by this relocation.


** Sudan


On Sudan, outlining the devastating impact of intensified violence on civilians in West Darfur, the UN team in Sudan is calling on all parties to the fighting to grant humanitarian workers unimpeded access to victims in the affected areas.  At a press briefing in Khartoum today, UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Sudan and Deputy Special Representative for the Secretary-General, Ameerah Haq, stressed the particular need for access to the Jebel Moun area, which Sudanese National Security had granted but the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) has denied.  Safe humanitarian access to affected communities was vital for the UN and its partners to continue to provide food, medical supplies, plastic sheeting and blankets, as well as to restore and treat water supplies, she said.


The UN team also expressed concern about the impact of fighting on women and children, especially those who had become separated from their families and remained unaccounted for.  Efforts were under way to trace them and reunify them with their families.  “Five years into this conflict, civilians are losing all hope in our ability to protect them and keep them safe,” Ms. Haq said.


** Myanmar


The Special Adviser of the Secretary-General, Ibrahim Gambari, has been invited to travel to Myanmar by its Government and will depart tomorrow.  Mr. Gambari will arrive in Myanmar on 6 March and hopes to stay as long as necessary and to consult with a broad range of representatives of Myanmar society, including all the groups which he was not able to see during his last visit.  The details of the programme are being discussed with the authorities.  Mr. Gambari looks forward to the continued cooperation of the Myanmar Government.


**Deputy Secretary-General Travels


The Deputy Secretary-General is in Vienna, where, tomorrow, she will attend a meeting on UN system-wide coherence, convened by the UN Industrial Development Organization.  While in Vienna, she will also meet with Austria’s Foreign Minister.  On Wednesday, the Deputy Secretary-General travels to Brussels, where she will attend an extraordinary joint meeting of the European Parliament’s External Relations and Development Committees, and hold a private meeting with the Crown Prince and Princess of Belgium.  On Thursday, she will attend a high-level conference on “Women: Stabilizing an Insecure World”.  The Deputy Secretary-General will be back in New York on Thursday.


** Armenia Human Rights


On Armenia, High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour issued a statement yesterday in which she said she was deeply troubled by reports of eight deaths and numerous injuries during post-election protests in Yerevan on Saturday.


Arbour expressed particular concern about reports of the use of force against peaceful demonstrators and the detention of opposition protestors.  She called upon the authorities to exercise the utmost restraint and ensure that due process is followed.


We have copies of her statement upstairs and we expect the Secretary-General’s statement later today.


** Afghanistan


On Afghanistan, I would like to draw your attention to the transcript of a press conference held in Kabul today in advance of International Women’s Day this coming Saturday.  The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) says that the biggest challenge that Afghan women face is maternal health and high maternal mortality.  A staggering 24,000 women die in childbirth, about 25 times the number of people dying in security-related violent incidents, it says.  Why is this happening?  It is because girls are married very young.  More than half the girls are married before they are 18, some as young as 8 years old.  You can read more about this, and other challenges ahead in achieving gender equality in Afghanistan, upstairs.


**Greece/The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia


The Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy for Greece and The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Matthew Nimetz, met with representatives of the two sides separately on Friday here in New York.  He received their detailed feedback on his latest proposal concerning the “name issue”.  Then, on Saturday, Nimetz met together with the two sides.  He later said that both parties want to continue the process and make progress and will consult with their respective Governments on next steps.  However, a substantial gap remains between the two sides’ positions, and no new proposals were made, Nimetz reported.


**World Food Programme


And this is just in from the World Food Programme (WFP).  Drew Barrymore announced this morning on the Oprah Winfrey show a donation of $1 million to WFP to feed school children in Kenya.  Together with WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran, Barrymore is visiting the Chicago Board of Trade agricultural trading floor today.  This is part of WFP’s efforts to raise awareness about hunger and the crisis of rising prices for humanitarian operations.


**Press Conferences Tomorrow


At 10.30 a.m. tomorrow, Joanne Sandler, Executive Director of UNIFEM; Reese Witherspoon, Actress and Avon Global Ambassador; and Andrea Jung, Chief Executive Officer of Avon Products Inc., will hold a press conference to announce UNIFEM’s partnership with Avon Inc. to promote women’s economic empowerment and end violence against women.  We have more information upstairs.  Following that, at 11.30 a.m., as I announced earlier, Ambassador Vitaly Churkin of the Russian Federation will brief, in his capacity as Security Council President for the month of March, on the Council’s programme of work for the month.


**Security Council Update


I would like to announce that the Security Council has just adjourned its consultations.  There will be a formal meeting to vote.  That formal meeting will take place shortly.  We’ll let you know whenever we have anyone at the stakeout.


This is all I have for you, thank you.


**Questions and Answers


Question:  Michèle, does the Secretary-General have any response to the Israeli Deputy Defence Minister’s statement on Friday in which he said it will create another holocaust in Gaza if they don’t stop the attacks?  Does he have any response to that?


Spokesperson:  No.  He doesn’t have any response to that.  The situation itself was addressed by him in the Security Council meeting on Saturday.


Question:  Whatever else might be, Israel assailed that statement in particular.  And also, this report about Ms. Louise Arbour stepping down and the Secretary-General not asking her to stay on.  Is that right?


Spokesperson:  We don’t have any confirmation that she’s stepping down.  She has not announced it officially.


Question:  (Unofficial translation) Can you tell us when this new representative, Said Djinnit of Algeria, will be nominated to head the UN Office for West Africa?


Spokesperson:  He’s already been named.


Question:  When?


Spokesperson:  Last week.


Question:  Michèle, thanks for the clarification about the issue with regard to the Egyptian Ambassador and I wonder, does the Secretary-General often put into his presentations to the Security Council something that he’s read in the New York Times and he’s only heard from one Government source?  Is that something he does?


Spokesperson:  It is not usually the case.  What happened in this specific case was that there was an emergency session announced, so we didn’t have the opportunity to get additional information, so the Secretary-General went with what he had.  It is not customary, no.  


Question:  Has the Secretary-General been informed of the tense situation between Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador?


Spokesperson:  Yes, and we are expecting a statement on that today.


Question:  Has he been asked by any Government to intervene or mediate, or anything like that?


Spokesperson:  Not directly, but we’ll have the statement by the Secretary-General on the issue probably a little later today.


Question:  Just to follow up on a question, so it’s not enough for the Secretary-General to make a statement based on just one source of information, in this case, regarding the smuggling of arms through Egyptian borders, along with the Israeli Government.  So it’s not enough for him to make such a statement, right?  This is not a news quote from here.


Spokesperson:  No, I mean, I said it was an emergency session, he had to go on the information he had.  And he did put a caution in saying what the sources were.


Question:  I have another question.  What is his position on the US air strikes on a Somali village, killing like four women and three children just this morning?  Is there any response from him to that?


Spokesperson:  Not at this point, no.


Question:  Is he expected to say anything?


Spokesperson:  I will ask for you.


Question:  On Western Sahara, there are some quotes indicating that the Polisario will begin construction in Tifariti and the neutral zone.  And Morocco has officially said that, if such action takes place, it would take the necessary measures to forestall it.  What is the Secretary-General’s personal envoy or the DPA prepared to do in the framework of preventive diplomacy, to forestall violence in the zone? 


Spokesperson:  When we have preventive diplomacy we don’t talk publicly about it, for one thing.  And the second thing is that, at this point, it is a hypothetical question.


Question:  Michèle, on Colombia and Ecuador, it’s reported that Colombia has filed a complaint, a Bloomberg headline saying, “Colombia files UN complaint”, alleging that the Ecuadorian Government is somehow involved with the FARC.  Are you aware of such a complaint?


Spokesperson:  No, but it would be addressed to the Security Council.


Question:  They said it was in Geneva so I wondered which body it would be with.


Spokesperson:  I don’t have that information for you.  Anyway, if it were to be done it would be through the Security Council.


Question:  There also a report that Serbia has reclaimed control over rail lines in northern Kosovo.  Can UNMIK confirm that?  What’s the status?


Spokesperson:  We can ask for you.  I don’t have that information at this point.


[The correspondent was later informed that any movement of trains south of Leshak by Serbian Railways is a clear breach of the 2003 Memorandum of Understanding between UNMIK Railways and Serbian Railways.  This violation will not be tolerated. Border police, with the support of KFOR, will act to prevent these trains travelling south of Leshak.]


Question:  Also, bullets being fired at the UNMIK office in Mitrovica.


Spokesperson:  I don’t have that information at this point.


[The Spokesperson later informed the correspondent that the Kosovo Police Service is investigating the incident.]


Question:  And also, about this helicopter crash.  One of the stories says that the South Korean military says there was a South Korean officer on board the helicopter. 


Spokesperson:  What was reported in the press we cannot confirm yet.  We cannot confirm the nationality and the exact list.


Question:  I wasn’t asking for the name.  I just thought it was a Department of Political Affairs mission.  Is it a mission with military officials?


Spokesperson:  No, they’re arms monitors.  So they’re not a military group but the arms monitors, some of them are military people.


Thank you very much.


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For information media • not an official record