11 April 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.  Immediately after this briefing we will turn off the cameras for a technical briefing on the Pope’s visit.


**Secretary-General’s Statement on Zimbabwe


I’ll start with a statement attributable to the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General on Zimbabwe:


The Secretary-General congratulates the leaders of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) for their timely initiative to convene a summit of Heads of State in Lusaka, Zambia, on 13 April to discuss the situation in Zimbabwe.  He is pleased that regional leaders are mobilizing and coordinating to help Zimbabwe overcome its post-electoral crisis through peaceful means.  The Secretary-General is concerned that the situation in Zimbabwe could deteriorate if there is no prompt action to resolve this impasse.


**Secretary-General in Russian Federation


The Secretary-General meanwhile has wrapped up his three-day visit to Russia and is on his way back to New York.  Earlier today, he visited UN staff working in Moscow, as well as a museum in the capital.


On Thursday evening, the Secretary-General had a tête-à-tête meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in which they discussed Kosovo.  They followed that with a larger meeting, in which their delegations discussed:  Kosovo; the Middle East, including the meeting to be held in Moscow this summer on that subject; Darfur and the need for helicopters for the AU-UN hybrid operation there; Afghanistan; and Cyprus.  On Cyprus, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Lynn Pascoe briefed the meeting’s participants on his recent visit to Cyprus and the region.


The Secretary-General and Foreign Minister spoke to the press after their meeting.  The Secretary-General said he was strongly encouraged in his meetings in Russia, including with the President and the President-elect, by Russia’s commitment to the central role of the United Nations and to multilateralism.  The transcript of that press encounter is available upstairs and on the website. 


**Security Council


The Security Council is holding consultations beginning at noon to discuss arrangements for the high-level Council meeting that will take place next Wednesday, which is to be chaired by South African President Thabo Mbeki.  That meeting will be an open debate with regional and subregional organizations, concerning conflict prevention.


**Secretary-General’s Special Report on Ethiopia- Eritrea


Out on the racks today is the Secretary-General’s latest special report on Ethiopia-Eritrea.  In it, he says that, after hearing from Security Council members, there are four options left to be considered as regards a UN peacekeeping presence in the region.


First, there remains a chance to resume the Mission (UNMEE) unchanged if Eritrea resumes fuel supplies and lifts all restrictions on the Mission.  Another option would be to terminate the Mission, while a third option could leave a small observer presence in the border area to defuse tensions and report to the Security Council on the situation.  A final option would include creating liaison offices in Asmara and Addis Ababa to maintain UN readiness to help the parties implement the ruling of the Boundary Commission, among other tasks.


These options are not ideal, the report says, as they bear serious risks and would not resolve the dilemma created by Eritrean restrictions on the Mission.  Terminating the Mission, for example, could result in a resumption of open hostilities.  As things stand today, the Secretary-General says that the only option likely to allow the UN to monitor the situation evenly seems to be the deployment of a small observer mission on either side of the disputed border.  


** Nepal


On Nepal, following the historic Constituent Assembly election in Nepal yesterday, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative there, Ian Martin, congratulated the Nepalese people for having demonstrated their commitment to democracy by casting their ballots in large numbers.


Following the 60 per cent voter turnout, Nepal’s independent Election Commission began transporting ballots from polling stations to the 75 district centres, where counting is currently taking place.  The UN Mission’s (UNMIN) electoral staff will remain in the regions and districts until the count is complete, and the monitoring of arms and armies will continue.


Meanwhile, High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, said today she was deeply saddened by a number of deaths that occurred during the run up to the election and on Election Day itself.  She extended her condolences to the families concerned, and encouraged the Government to act quickly to set up an independent inquiry to investigate the circumstances surrounding the deaths.


** Gaza Humanitarian Update


According to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the situation in Gaza continues to be very difficult.  Last month, 2,400 trucks entered the Gaza Strip.  That’s down from the more than 10,000 trucks that entered in March 2007.  In addition, a scarcity of animal feed is causing meat prices to skyrocket.


In related news, UNRWA has been providing more than 110,000 litres of diesel to municipalities each month for solid waste management.  But the lack of electricity often forces coastal municipalities to dump their sewage into the sea.  UNRWA also reports that it has had to expand its school feeding programme.  It is now feeding some 110,000 Gazan children in around 110 schools every day.


** Lebanon


UNRWA just inaugurated 150 new units of concrete housing in Lebanon.  The houses will provide shelter for more than 100 families near the Nahr El Bared Camp, which was destroyed by fighting last year.  The new housing lowers the pressure on the nearby Beddawi Camp, where refugees from Nahr El Bared had previously fled.


Rebuilding Nahr El Bared, which is home to some 30,000 refugees, will cost more than $200 million and is the biggest single project that UNRWA has even undertaken.


**UN Emergency Relief Coordinator in Gulf Region


Meanwhile, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes has wrapped up his visit to the Gulf region with a stop in Doha, where he met yesterday with Qatari leaders.


The six-day trip was intended to strengthen partnerships between the UN and the Gulf States in addressing humanitarian crises worldwide.  Mr. Holmes urged Gulf States to work with the UN and other international actors to address both individual humanitarian crises and the complex global challenges of rising food prices and the effects of climate change.  We have more information upstairs.


** Iraq


And on Iraq, Staffan de Mistura, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for that country, concluded today a two-day visit to Brussels where he met with officials of the European Union, NATO officials and Belgian diplomats. 


Mr. de Mistura emphasized in interviews with several leading European media that 2008 was a crucial year for Iraq, not least because of important provincial elections in October.  No activities would be possible without the EU’s financial backing.  The EU and UN shared the same objective, bringing stability and peace, and were working on the same wave length.


** Senegal


High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, has warmly welcomed the latest change to Senegal’s Constitution, which now makes it possible for the country’s courts to try former Chadian President Hissene Habre.  Habre -– who has been living in Senegal since he was deposed in 1990 -– has been accused of gross human rights violations during his time in power.  There’s more information on this upstairs.


**Humanitarian Updates:  Somali and Kenya


We also have information from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) on the humanitarian situation in Somalia, and also on an appeal for Kenya, in light of the need to respond to recent droughts to cover humanitarian needs.  The Emergency Humanitarian Response Plan for now asks for $189 million covering assistance for internally displaced persons, early recovery and the current drought.


** Mali


The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that a week-long campaign will begin tomorrow to vaccinate nearly six million people across southern Mali against yellow fever.  With a Brazilian company supplying half the necessary vaccine, this is the first time ever that a mass vaccination campaign will be undertaken thanks to “south-south supply”, according to WHO.  There’s more on that upstairs.


**Week Ahead


And we have The Week Ahead for you.  For your planning purposes, we have three things to flag for you:


The Secretary-General, accompanied by his wife, will be travelling to West Africa later this month.  He plans to make official visits to Ghana, Liberia, Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire.


His first stop will be Accra, Ghana, where he is scheduled to address the opening of the twelfth United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).  He also plans to meet with Ghanaian President John Kufuor and the Foreign Minister during his official visit to that country.


From Accra, he will travel to the Liberian capital, Monrovia, where he will meet with the country’s leadership, the leadership of the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) and the UN country team.


From Monrovia, the Secretary-General plans to travel to Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso where a bilateral meeting is planned with President Blaise Compaore, the Facilitator of the Inter-Ivorian Dialogue and current Chairman of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).


His final stop is Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, where meetings are planned with President Laurent Gbagbo, the Prime Minister, and with opposition leaders and civil society.  He will also meet with the leadership of the UN Operation in Côte d'Ivoire (ONUCI).


And the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs in Vienna informs us that, next Thursday, it will hold an event with the Republic of Korea concerning the space journey being undertaken by Korea’s first astronaut on board the International Space Station.  The astronaut is carrying the UN flag with her.


And finally, as you know, Pope Benedict’s visit to the United Nations and address to the General Assembly will be the fourth made by the head of the Roman Catholic Church.  His visit falls on the anniversary of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s visit to the Vatican on 18 April 2007, when he invited the Pope to the United Nations.


During his three-hour visit to UN Headquarters, the Pope will address the General Assembly and UN staff in two separate events, meet with the Secretary-General and the Presidents of the General Assembly and Security Council.


The Secretary-General looks forward to meeting with the Pope again and continuing their discussions on issues of common concern, such as poverty reduction, climate change, disarmament and dialogue among civilizations.


Following this briefing, we will have the technical briefing now with Gary Fowlie, Chief of the Media Accreditation and Liaison Unit.  This will be off the record.


**Press Conferences Monday


And just to flag one more thing.  On Monday at 11 a.m., Agnes Asekenye-Oonyu, Chief of the Asia Pacific Section ofthe Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), will be joined by other human rights experts to discuss the impact of armed conflict on children in Sri Lanka.  And our guest at the noon briefing will be Ellen Margrethe Løj, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Liberia.


And that’s what I have for you.


**Questions and Answers


Question:  Concerning the elections in Nepal, when is the Secretary-General planning to go there?


Deputy Spokesperson:  We have no dates for that to announce.


Question:  Unlike his predecessor, Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General has not weighed in on the issue of Security Council reform.  Is this an issue for the current Secretary-General?  He has not spoken to the press.  Has he talked to the Member States?  Yesterday, there was a meeting held that ended in stalemate and it seems that the reforms are going nowhere.  Will he, at this point in time, intervene and use his offices to bring about some sort of agreement? 


Deputy Spokesperson:  We’ll ask him.


[The Deputy Spokesperson later drew the reporter’s attention to remarks made by the Secretary-General in September, in which he said that Security Council reform is the most important part of the institutional reform of the United Nations and that he hoped Member States would dwell on this issue more in depth.  He added that, as Secretary-General, he would spare no effort to facilitate such consultations among Member States.  Considering the tremendous, dramatic changes in the international political scene during the last 60 years, it is necessary that the Security Council should be reformed and expanded in a manner which will be acceptable to the Member States, he added.]


Question:  Marie, yesterday when you made a statement about the Secretary-General and the Olympics you said that basically he may not be able to come, so that left open the possibility.  Then later, you were asked whether he was going to go, and you said ‘no’.  So I just wanted to make sure that it was a ‘no’ and not a ‘maybe’. 


Deputy Spokesperson:  The only thing I have to refer to is the transcript of the briefing yesterday.  I think that makes it clear.  I was asked a follow-up and I answered it.


Question:  Two questions.  One is that, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, some humanitarian groups, including Doctors without Borders, said that they have suspended their operations due to attacks, and OCHA has called for the authorities -- presumably meaning the Government –- to protect humanitarian workers.  What’s the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC) doing to ensure that humanitarian aid remains in place in the Democratic Republic of the Congo?


Deputy Spokesperson:  What I have on what you’ve asked is that the humanitarian action plan for the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the second largest in the world after Sudan, reflecting the continuing need for humanitarian assistance in the vast country.  It is unacceptable that non-governmental organizations and UN agencies providing essential humanitarian goods and services are being brutally attacked and robbed of both money and equipment in the course of doing their duty.  We call upon the authorities in South Kivu to do their part to ensure a better security environment so the humanitarian needs of the population can be met.


Question:  I also wanted to ask about the UN’s computer system.  I learned that, among the people that work here who use the computer system, there are a variety of sites that are blocked and that they can’t visit -- a message comes up saying ‘this site has been blocked because’ of…some policy.  Some of these sights are not pornography, not gambling, but are political sites, for example Anti-CNN, the Chinese site that criticizes CNN, and Daily Motion, another site that has…  What’s the policy of the UN for censoring the Internet for its own employees?  Who makes the decision about which sites are blocked?


Deputy Spokesperson:  I think we have an answer for you on that, or an answer is in the works for you.  The UN is no different than any other organization in that it does have a management policy for its website. 


Question:  Well, I’ve read the policy, and it talks about pornography and gambling, so I just…


Deputy Spokesperson:  I think we have more details for you upstairs.  We’ll get those to you.


Question:  You called Pope Benedict the ‘Head of the Roman Catholic Church’.  Is it the policy of the UN to refer to the Permanent Observer as the ‘Roman Catholic Church’ since they call themselves the ‘Catholic Church’?


Deputy Spokesperson:  I stand to be corrected, if need be.


Question:  Is the Secretary-General going to attend the closing ceremony of the Beijing Olympics?


Deputy Spokesperson:  I have nothing to say on this matter beyond what I said yesterday.


Question:  On Iraq, you talked earlier about the Special Representative of the Secretary-General’s meetings in Belgium.  Has he visited the affected areas in Basra, and so forth, since over the past two weeks so many Iraqis…?


Deputy Spokesperson:  We’ll get a run-down for you about the places he has visited.  We can get more information on his current trip, but he obviously needs to go not just to the country that he operates in, but to the partners the UN is working with.


Okay.  With that, let’s get Gary Fowlie up here and we’ll talk about the Pope’s visit.


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For information media • not an official record