|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.
**Secretary-General in Bucharest
The Secretary-General arrived in Bucharest, Romania, earlier today, where he met with the Secretary-General of NATO, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. They discussed Afghanistan, Kosovo, and cooperation between the United Nations and NATO. On Afghanistan, they discussed whether additional troops would be offered at tomorrow’s high-level meeting. After that, the Secretary-General met with the Romanian Prime Minister, and they discussed, among other things, tomorrow’s meeting on Afghanistan, recent developments in Kosovo, an expanded UN role in Iraq and the UN Millennium Development Goals. The Secretary-General told reporters afterwards that he appreciated Romania’s contributions to UN peacekeeping operations, from Kosovo to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as well as its voluntary funding to 15 UN agencies, funds and programmes.
And here at UN Headquarters this morning, the Security Council, as you know, held consultations on its monthly programme of work. It also heard a briefing by Italian Ambassador Spatafora, who chairs the sanctions committee dealing with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. And as you know, you were, just briefed by South African Ambassador Dumisani Kumalo this morning on the Council’s programme for the month of April.
Out on the racks today is the Secretary-General’s latest report on Haiti. In it, he says that Haiti has made significant strides in key areas. He notes that collaboration among the political leadership has led to the progress in judicial reform and an agreement on the establishment of the Provisional Electoral Council. The security situation, meanwhile, has improved considerably, thanks in part to the support provided by the UN to the Haitian law-enforcement authorities, and the economy is at its best in decades. And yet the potential for regression remains, as tensions between political actors and among branches of the Government have distracted from the reform agenda, the report says. With an increase in reported kidnappings and the rumoured re-emergence of gangs, the Secretary-General calls on the authorities to persevere in their recovery efforts. He also calls for a strong international involvement. In conclusion, the Secretary-General says that he will soon introduce a consolidation plan with measurable benchmarks to help avert a premature disengagement and avoid a reversal of recent gains. And as I mentioned, that report is on the racks today.
And the UN Mission in Liberia has released its latest report on the human rights situation in that country. Covering the period from May to October of last year, the report notes several violations, including cases where national police officers, as well as court and prison officials, were found to have been involved in corrupt practices. There have been also been reports of Government officers abusing their authority, and Justices of the Peace continuing to perform their duties despite the expiration of their mandates or appointments. Other issues of concern include poor detention conditions; sexual and gender-based violence, including rape and forced marriages; and inadequate resources for schools. The report also cites three cases where parents allegedly attempted to sell their children in order to buy food.
The report recommends that the Government allocate more resources to education, especially in rural areas; legally prohibit violence against children, including corporal punishment and female genital mutilation; and collaborate with UNMIL’s Human Rights and Protection Section to train national police on rights issues. And there’s more information on this subject upstairs.
Turning to Cyprus, the Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, B. Lynn Pascoe spoke to reporters today in Nicosia. He said that a “very positive tone” and a “palpable sense of momentum” exist in Cyprus at the moment, and that Cypriots are right to have high expectations. He said it is the UN’s expectation and sincere hope that efforts over the next three months will lead towards full–fledged negotiations on a settlement. He added that he is confident that, in the end, the two sides, with the UN’s help, can succeed. Pascoe noted that, when he returns to New York, he will report to the Secretary-General and the Security Council. He also said that he expects to go to Athens and Ankara next week. And we have his full remarks upstairs.
Meanwhile, Nicosia’s Ledra Street crossing is slated to open tomorrow morning. The interim head of the UN Peacekeeping in Cyprus, Elizabeth Spehar, will be among the speakers at the opening ceremony. You’ll recall that last week, the Secretary-General said the leaders’ agreement on the opening of the Ledra Street crossing is a positive step forward.
And in a press conference today in Nepal, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for that country, Ian Martin, reiterated that the United Nations Mission in Nepal and its regional offices will exert their utmost efforts to make the current electoral process successful. Stressing that violence should have no place in next week’s Constituent Assembly election, Martin pointed out that all political parties must respect the Code of Conduct and the rights of other parties to campaign freely without obstruction in any district or village that they choose. In this regard, Ian Martin welcomed the agreement signed yesterday by the leaders of the three major parties of the governing Seven-Party Alliance. The agreement commits to hold the historic Constituent Assembly election in “a free, impartial and fearless manner”.
And turning to southern Sudan, under the UNICEF-supported “Go to School” initiative in that part of the country, 1.3 million children are expected to enter classes this year, compared to just 340,000 in 2005. UNICEF says that millions of school bags, books, pencils and other essential learning materials, including those for teachers, have been distributed by truck, boat and even on foot to communities often in remote areas with limited infrastructure. Of the 1.3 million children now in school, 34 per cent are girls, a significant milestone in overturning taboos that had restricted girls from attending classes.
Yesterday, Jordan became the eighteenth country to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The treaty, which opened for signature one year ago, only needs two more ratifications to enter into force and become an internationally legally binding document.
The Food and Agriculture Organization predicts that world rice production will rise by nearly 2 per cent this year, which may eventually ease the recent surge in prices. But international trade in rice is expected to decline, a result of export restrictions in the main producing countries. International rice prices have increased about 20 per cent since January. The arrival of new harvests in South America and East Asia in the coming months may diminish the upward trend, FAO says, but short-term volatility will likely continue. The agency says sizeable production increases are expected this year in Asia’s major rice-producing countries; the outlook for Africa, Europe and Latin America is also positive. But the production forecast for Australia is bleak, due to continuing drought there. And there’s more information on that upstairs.
**Millennium Development Goals
And as you know, the General Assembly today is continuing with its thematic debate on “Recognizing the achievements, addressing the challenges and getting back on track to achieve the Millennium Development Goals by the year 2015”. Summing up yesterday’s panel discussions, the Deputy Secretary-General said several key messages had emerged. Among them, that major progress has been made on achieving the MDGs, but the pace is too slow due to an internationally fragmented and inefficient response. Scaled-up and more predictable aid, as well as improved aid effectiveness, is crucial, she said, calling on Member States to develop stronger partnerships with the private sector and civil society.
And today is the first official World Autism Awareness Day, which seeks to highlight the need to help improve the lives of children and adults who suffer from this disorder. And in a message to mark the occasion, the Secretary-General said that it is especially fitting that this inaugural Day falls in 2008 when the world will be celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and when we expect to see the entry into force of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. He called on the world community to empower children suffering from autism and allow them to prosper as future members of their communities, citizens of their countries and full-fledged members of the global community. And we have copies of his message upstairs.
And in related news, a panel discussion sponsored by Qatar along with the World Health Organization and the NGO Autism Speaks is due to take place in Conference Room 1 at 3 p.m. today. The General Assembly President and the Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs will address that panel. And on Thursday, the Department of Public Information will hold a briefing for NGOs from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. in Conference Room 1 with representatives from major autism organizations, the Centres for Disease Control and the press. And there’s more information on all of this upstairs.
And tomorrow at 1 p.m. in the Dag Hammarskjöld Auditorium, there will be a screening of Ondes de Choc (Shockwaves), a documentary about the challenges of running radio in a post-conflict society. That will be followed by a panel discussion with Radio Okapi’s editor-in-chief; Fondation Hirondelle’s President; and representatives from several UN departments. And for those who might not be aware, Radio Okapi is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
**Press Conferences Tomorrow
And 11:15 a.m. tomorrow morning, there’ll be a press conference here by Catherine Bragg, Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, who will announce plans for the global commemoration of the International Day for Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action, to be observed on 4 April.
And following the noon briefing tomorrow, there’ll be a press conference on the outcome of the General Assembly’s ongoing thematic debate on the Millennium Development Goals, which we’ve just mentioned to you, and we’ll have more information on that later today.
That’s all I have for you.
**Questions and Answers
Question: It was reported that a Somali consul has called on UNHCR to find a way to end migrant deaths near Aden. Do you have any information on that?
Deputy Spokesperson: This is an issue that we have been repeatedly reporting to you through UNHCR and it is an issue that they have been seized on for quite a while, so I think you should get in touch with the UNHCR office directly.
Question: And my other question is, in the Secretary-General’s meeting with the Romanian Prime Minister, did they discuss their decision to send more troops to Afghanistan? And is that something that the Secretary-General supports?
Deputy Spokesperson: I gave you the readout of their meeting. I was just on the phone with the travelling party, which is why I was a little late, but as far as the discussion between the Secretary-General and the Romanian Prime Minister, they discussed tomorrow’s meeting on Afghanistan. In terms of their contributions, they discussed Romania’s contribution to UN peacekeeping operations, and to the UN funds, agencies and programmes. And that’s what I have for you now.
Question: Anything on the troops?
Deputy Spokesperson: I don’t have anything on that.
[The Deputy Spokesperson later added that the Secretary-General and the Romanian Prime Minister did discuss the need for greater international contributions to Afghanistan.]
Question: Two questions. There’s a call by the Sudanese Minister of Social Affairs for UN assistance in getting six of the Zoe’s Ark children returned from Chad. He’s also said his country’s going to try to indict the workers that have just been pardoned. In terms of returning, is the UN aware of that call because it’s been said from here that they were all returned. Were all of the children actually returned to their families or not?
Deputy Spokesperson: I’ll have to check on details of that.
[The Deputy Spokesperson later told the reporter that, while most of the children have been reunited with their families, the United Nations has never said that all of them had returned home. According to the last update from UNICEF, efforts to trace the families of some of the children were still ongoing.]
Question: Okay. And then there’s a story today about Venezuela and the UN’s Development Programme doing no-bid procurement for the agency in a way that, at least as it’s reported, maybe nothing was ever bought. As the Secretariat defending the good name of the UN, are you aware of this story and what does the UN think about it?
Deputy Spokesperson: I’m not aware of the story and we’ll have to check on it with UNDP.
[The Deputy Spokesperson later noted UNDP’s clarification of the story, which could be found at: www.undp.org/for-the-record/index.shtml.]
Question: Does the Secretary-General have anything to say about adding two former Soviet republics to NATO?
Deputy Spokesperson: No, he does not.
Question: Marie, has it been confirmed that the Secretary-General is going to Moscow this fall?
Deputy Spokesperson: We don’t have anything on the Secretary-General’s travels today, but we hope to have something very soon.
Question: On Somalia, what is being done? Is Mr. Pascoe expected to go to Somalia? Because at this point some of the reports are that some of the villages are getting totally wiped out and things are getting bad to worse. Of course, we know about that, but is there any intention of Mr. Pascoe or anyone in political affairs doing anything about it?
Deputy Spokesperson: The Secretary-General does have a Special Representative, who is very focused on Somalia, and we also have a wide range of UN agencies on the ground trying to work on the humanitarian side of the issue. And, as I believe the Security Council President just mentioned, the matter is also being taken up by the Security Council following the Secretary-General’s report outlining various options for the future.
Question: I wanted to find out about the Israeli settlement activities. There’s a group called “Peace Now in Israel”, which is a civil society movement, saying that the settlement activities had increased. Condoleezza Rice has said it again and again. Is the Secretary-General, as the interlocutor and part of the Quartet, going to ask them to halt this activity at all?
Deputy Spokesperson: We have raised with the Israeli Government through the Office of the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process (UNSCO), our serious concern at recent reports of further settlement activity and we are awaiting clarifications. We reiterate that any settlement in occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem, is illegal and contrary to the Road Map. We believe credible and visible action must be taken to implement Israel’s obligations to freeze settlement activity, including actual growth, and to dismantle outposts. We strongly support the ongoing efforts within the context of the Annapolis process and to bring about concrete action on this and all Phase I “Road Map” obligations.
Question: Marie, in case I missed it, what are the Secretary-General’s travel plans these days?
Deputy Spokesperson: The Secretary-General is in Romania today. We have an update for you upstairs. He just met with the head of NATO and tomorrow he will be attending a meeting on Afghanistan, which we have flagged to you, and what I mentioned in response to a question I just got is that we hope to have an announcement soon on his further travel plans and we’ll let you know. So the only announcement today was that he’s in Romania, and you know that we give you, in advance, notices for planning purposes for future travel.
Question: Are there any thoughts on the NATO extension at all from the Secretary-General?
Deputy Spokesperson: I think I just answered that question. I gave you a readout on the meetings today, which I can give you upstairs. Last question.
Question: Ambassador Kumalo just said he favours the Security Council Members going to Somalia in June, but that Security is advising them that maybe they shouldn’t go. Do you know if that’s the UN Department of Safety and Security? And if so, you just said you have a wide range of people on the ground there, how can you reconcile that the UN send people and has people working there, but would advise the Council not to go?
Deputy Spokesperson: This is the first I’ve heard of it.
Question: There was a sentence yesterday, Sanjaya Bahel, the former Procurement official at the UN, was sentenced yesterday to eight years for procurement irregularities. Does the UN have any response or comment to that?
Deputy Spokesperson: I will refer you to the statement the Secretary-General issued at the time, when the guilty verdict was first announced, that the Secretary-General was satisfied that justice had been done and that the evidence supporting that verdict was based in large part on the extensive work done by the UN’s own Office of Internal Oversight Services Procurement Task Force, and the rest of the statement you can pick up from upstairs, which also says the Secretary-General remains committed to actively pursuing any fraud and wrongdoing at the United Nations, because such acts tarnish the reputation of the Organization and the tens of thousands of United Nations employees who work honourably and honestly.
Question: A last question. The General Assembly asked the OIOS to conduct an inquiry into the special measures and the no-bid contracts for the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI). What’s the status on that? It’s now been about three months.
Deputy Spokesperson: We’d have to ask OIOS.
Question: One last question as follow-up on what was asked before. Is there anything that bars any UN agencies from supporting the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia)?
Deputy Spokesperson: I don’t have anything on that.
Question: Marie, today there’s a statement by the elders calling on the United Nations to take into account the situation in Tibet. What does the Secretary-General say about it?
Deputy Spokesperson: I’ve not seen that statement. The Secretary-General, as you know, was flying most of the evening and he’s currently engaged on the ground, so I have nothing to say on that. If there’s nothing else for me, good afternoon.
* *** *For information media • not an official record