30 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.


**Noon Guest


Good afternoon.  Our guest today will be Radhika Coomaraswamy, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, who will brief you on her recent visit to Iraq.


**Security Council


The Security Council here at UN Headquarters began its work this morning with an open debate on small arms, which started with a briefing by the Deputy to the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, Hannelore Hoppe.  She told the Council that the threat to international peace and security posed by the uncontrolled trade in small arms cannot be overemphasized.  She noted the recommendations made by the Secretary-General in his recent small arms report, as well as his proposal to revive the UN Coordination Action on Small Arms mechanism as a priority for this year.  We have her statement upstairs, and there is a list of 48 speakers inscribed to date.


Once its open debate is finished this afternoon, the Security Council expects to vote on resolutions extending the mandates of the UN peacekeeping missions in Sudan and in Western Sahara.  This is the last day of South Africa’s Security Council presidency.  The United Kingdom will assume the rotating Presidency of the Security Council tomorrow.  And at 3 p.m., Ambassador Kumalo of South Africa will provide, in his capacity as the President of the Security Council for this month, a wrap-up of the Council’s work for this month.


**Security Council on Côte d’Ivoire


Yesterday afternoon, the Security Council adopted a presidential statement warmly welcoming the approval by the authorities in Côte d’Ivoire of the proposal to organize presidential elections on 30 November.  The Security Council encouraged the Ivorian parties to redouble their efforts to meet this commitment.  The Security Council welcomed the Secretary-General’s visit to Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso last week and said it was encouraged by the signing, under the Secretary-General’s auspices, of a Code of Good Conduct for elections by all political parties.


**Secretary-General’s Travels


And yesterday afternoon in Geneva, the Secretary-General launched the “ Geneva lecture series” with a conference on “opportunity in crisis”, and then he fielded questions on a number of issues.  The full text of his lecture is available on the Web.


The Secretary-General will travel tomorrow to London to chair a meeting of the principals of the Middle East Quartet on Friday.  He is also participating there in an expanded meeting of the Quartet with Arab Foreign Ministers, and later in a meeting of the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee for the Palestinian Authority.  The Foreign Ministers of Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Norway, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates are expected to participate.  The Ad Hoc Liaison Committee, a Norwegian initiative, was established in 1992 to ensure the efficient use of development assistance in support of the peace process and to contribute to the development of Palestinian society.


** Gaza


And on Gaza, the Office of the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process (UNSCO) reports that, because of disruptions at the Nahal Oz fuel crossing, existing industrial fuel supplies for Gaza’s power plant are critically low.  Without additional fuel deliveries before Friday, the power plant could be forced to shut down this weekend.


Meanwhile, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has no benzene and is critically short of diesel fuel as a result of distribution issues.  Passenger vehicles are effectively grounded and vehicles that run on diesel and are used for food distributions will be grounded again next week if supplies are not forthcoming.  UNSCO stresses that the parties need to ensure that UNRWA has regular supplies of diesel and benzene.


** Afghanistan


Kai Eide, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative to Afghanistan, yesterday wrapped up a two-day visit to Washington, D.C., during which he met with US President George W. Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.  In those meetings, US officials expressed their full support for the UN's work in Afghanistan and the role that Mr. Eide has to play.  In the meeting between the Special Representative and the President, they discussed the upcoming Paris conference in support of the Afghan Government, the importance of the upcoming elections and Mr. Eide's key coordination role.  They agreed that this is a crucial moment for Afghanistan.  Kai Eide is now travelling to Ottawa, where he will meet with senior Canadian officials to discuss support for the UN activities in Afghanistan ahead of the Paris conference.


** Timor Leste


And in Timor Leste, a camp for internally displaced persons in the capital closed today after 173 families returned to their homes.  The head of the UN humanitarian office in the country described the closure of the camp as a significant breakthrough in efforts to solve the long-standing issue of internally displaced persons in the country.   He added that it is a strong sign of how the country is recovering from the violence that tore the capital apart in 2006 and led to the displacement of about 100,000 people.  The United Nations is appealing to the international community to continue assistance by contributing to the humanitarian appeal launched last month.


**Press Freedom Day


And tomorrow, the Department of Public Information and UNESCO are organizing an event to mark World Press Freedom Day, which is Saturday.  The programme runs from 10 a.m. to 12:45 in Conference Room 1 and will include a panel discussion on “Access to Information and the Empowerment of People”, with a focus on Brazil.  The event will also include messages from top UN officials.  In his message, the Secretary-General stresses that a free, secure and independent media is one of the foundations of peace and democracy.  Attacks on the freedom of the press are attacks against international law, humanity, and freedom itself -- everything the United Nations stands for, he says.


The Secretary-General says he is alarmed at the increasing targeting of journalists around the world, and the failure to thoroughly investigate and prosecute such crimes.  He calls on all societies to spare no effort in bringing to justice the perpetrators of such attacks.  He also pays tribute to all who work in difficult and dangerous conditions to provide the world with free, unbiased information.  We have more information upstairs and we have the Secretary-General’s message available as well in English.


**Global Compact


The Global Compact Board will convene at UN Headquarters tomorrow for its first meeting of the year.   You’ll recall that the Board, which is appointed by the Secretary-General, provides ongoing strategic and policy advice regarding the Global Compact.  It includes representatives from the business and labour sectors, civil society, and the United Nations.  While the meeting itself is closed, individual Board members will be available to speak to the press at a stakeout outside Conference Room 8 between 11:15 and 11:30am.  More information is available from the Global Compact Office.  And there’s a list of who’s on the Board available upstairs for you.


**Statement on Security Council Seats


And I was asked yesterday about comments attributed to the Secretary-General and I have the statement attributable to the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General on Security Council seats to clarify those comments.


With reference to the Western European candidatures for the two non-permanent seats in the UN Security Council for the period 2009 and 2010, the Secretary-General wishes to clear any misunderstanding that may have arisen during the past few days.  The Secretary-General is aware that Austria, Iceland and Turkey are contesting for these two seats.  He recognizes that they are all eminently qualified for the seats and he wishes each of them success in their effort to secure the support of Member States.  As Secretary-General, he does not wish to signify any preference for one over another.


**Food Crisis


I have one more note to read to you.  In Geneva earlier today, Under-Secretary-General and Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes held his first press conference since being named Coordinator of the UN Task Force on the Global Food Crisis.  In his remarks, Holmes said that the recent Chief Executives Board meeting, with its focus on rising food prices, powerfully symbolized the determination of the entire UN system to work together to tackle this major challenge.  He stressed that the situation is not solely a humanitarian or a development one.   All of these concerns need to be addressed in a comprehensive way, in the short-, medium- and long-term.  The world can fix these problems; the solutions may be difficult, but they are there, he says.  Another look also needs to be taken at the question of biofuels, without falling into any knee-jerk reactions of saying all biofuels are bad or good, he added.


Holmes said he will use his experience as a humanitarian coordinator and work with Deputy Coordinator, Dr. David Nabarro of the World Health Organization, to bring the different UN bodies together, and also bring in civil society expertise.  The first order of business is putting together a plan of action ahead of a high-level meeting organized by the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Food Programme, and the International Fund for Agricultural Development from 3 to 5 June.  And we have, I believe, the transcript of John Holmes’ press conference available upstairs for you.


**Press Conferences Tomorrow


And just to recap, some press conferences tomorrow.  At 11 a.m., we have Chuck Strahl, Canada’s Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, who will hold a press conference prior to addressing the international delegates attending the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.  And at 1:15 p.m., we have the chairperson of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, and other indigenous representatives, to hold a press conference on the outcomes of the Forum's seventh session.  That’s at 1:15.  And at 3 p.m., Mr. Kumalo will provide, in his capacity as President of the Security Council for April, a wrap-up of the Council’s work for the month.


And that’s what I have for you before Ms. Coomaraswamy joins us.  I’ll take some questions.


**Questions and Answers


Question:  What is your reaction to reports that Peter van Walsum (Personal Envoy of the Secretary-General for Western Sahara) might resign from his position and that the Secretary-General may appoint someone else?


Deputy Spokesperson:  This is the first time I hear of it.  I have nothing on that.


Question:  Marie, following up on yesterday’s Security Council meeting and where the MDC [Movement for Democratic Change] were, and following Mr. Ban Ki-moon’s visit with Morgan Tsvangiri in Africa, there’s been allegations coming out of the continent that somehow the Secretary-General’s biased when it comes to the situation in Zimbabwe, that he’s met the senior leadership of the MDC but hasn’t really engaged with the Government of Zimbabwe.  Can I have your reaction?  And is there any progress on appointing an envoy on Zimbabwe?


Deputy Spokesperson:  Nathan, I’d like to refer you to the remarks made at the stake-out by his top political official yesterday, Mr. Lynn Pascoe, who addressed these questions at the stake-out.  And he outlined for you his briefing to the Security Council, the Secretary-General’s position on the issues that you just named and in addition, the Secretary-General also addressed his concerns about the situation in Zimbabwe, both politically and in terms of the humanitarian situation when he took some questions yesterday following the Geneva lecture and I’d like to refer you to that as well.


Question:  But following the Security Council meeting with the senior official, Mr. Pascoe, I’m asking you to respond to allegations from the continent that the Secretary-General’s office is biased towards the MDC.


Deputy Spokesperson:  I think if you read his remarks as I am pointing out, to the remarks of Mr. Pascoe as well as the Secretary-General, it’ll be clear that that is not the case.  And as you know, Mr. Pascoe yesterday morning, prior to briefing the Council, met with both the [Zimbabwean] Ambassador as well as with the MDC representative.


Question:  A quick follow up on the envoy.  Lots of discussion up on the sidelines of yesterday’s meeting about a possible UN envoy.  Have you got a name in mind?  How far along are we on this process?


Deputy Spokesperson:  Again, I refer you to what Mr. Pascoe said at the stakeout.  He was clear about the Secretary-General’s position and even, I think, read a line to you from his briefing, when he said that the Secretary-General strongly supports the efforts of SADC and the African Union to help resolve the crisis in Zimbabwe.  [and that the Secretary-General was ready to use good offices in conjunction with those two organizations.]


Question:  Anna Tibaijuka (Executive Director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme) of UN Habitat has some experience with Zimbabwe.  Do you think she’s the kind of person, if an envoy were appointed, who’d be good?


Deputy Spokesperson:  There was only a recommendation made in the Security Council, as you know.  There was no outcome on that recommendation in the Council.  Mr. Pascoe addressed that issue.  He also said he’d have to have further discussions on the subject, that he had nothing on the subject for the time being, and the Secretary-General’s message has been very clear about the need for the early release of the presidential election results.  Nothing further than that.


Question:  On the food crisis, do you have any idea when the task force will be established and also, what procedure will be followed in the establishment of the task force?


Deputy Spokesperson:  Are you talking about the task force on the global food crisis?  Again, this is something that it has been announced, that the task force will be established with the Secretary-General leading it, with John Holmes as the Coordinator, with David Navarro as the Deputy Coordinator, and that it will be represented by the major representatives of the UN system.  The exact line up, I’m sure will come out shortly because we announced to you yesterday that they will be meeting the first week of May.


Question:  UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, the Special Adviser, briefed the European Union yesterday on the work of the task force to the Algiers bombing.  Can we get a readout of what he said?  And when will we get a briefing from him no the work of the task force?


Deputy Spokesperson:  We’ll ask Manoel de Almeida e Silva, who is the Spokesperson travelling with Mr. Brahimi.


Question:  Also, has the UN relocated its personnel in Afghanistan following the bombing of the military parade?


Deputy Spokesperson:  I have nothing on the security measures to report to you publicly.


Question:  I want to know how long the Nigerian Government will have to wait for the Secretary-General to respond to the request on the [Ibrahim] Gambari-led Niger Delta Committee. 


Deputy Spokesperson:  I have nothing further on that.  Let me get back to you if I have something further.


Question:  There are claims from the Nigerian Government that it has been more than two weeks after the letter was faxed to the Secretary-General.


Deputy Spokesperson:  Let me follow up for you.


Question:  There are some reports from Myanmar that in some advance voting on this constitutional referendum, that people are being forced to vote “yes”.  These are media reports.  I’m wondering if the UN is aware of it and what Mr. Gambari or anyone else in the UN system has to say about this?


Deputy Spokesperson:  No, I don’t have anything.  We don’t have any first hand information on these reports.  And again, our position is that, what is important for the United Nations is that the Government honour its stated commitment to a free and fair process.


Question:  Now that you’ve confirmed the nomination of Miroslav Jenca to head the Central Asian Regional Diplomacy Centre, he’s quoted on Uzbekistan’s governmental website as having said that criminal elements participated in Andijou and there were no demonstrations and he hoped that investigations would reveal organizers and felons who’d be punished.  I’m not sure he actually said that but that is on the governmental website.  Is there some way to get, now that he’s been given his post, his view of this important issue in Central Asia, did he say that or not?


Deputy Spokesperson:  I don’t know if he said that after his appointment or before his appointment but we can certainly look into that for you.


Question:  Another thing.  You mentioned the Global Compact and this Board meeting tomorrow.  It turns out when you use the computers here at the UN, there’s a site called Global Compact Critics.net, which criticizes the Global Compact and sort of gets blocked, it can’t actually be viewed inside the UN system.  So I wonder.  I know previously you’d said that the blocking of websites is something the UN out-sources to some company, which I don’t have the name of the company, but can you comment on the appropriateness of the UN blocking access to a website that I guess is critical of its work but doesn’t contain pornography, gambling or any of your other (no-no’s)?


Deputy Spokesperson:  I’m not aware of this issue so we’d have to look into it for you. 


[The Deputy Spokesperson later said that the website had not been blocked.]


Question:  I’d like to know the background for what happened.  Did the Secretary-General misspeak when he gave the statement where it was construed that he was supporting Austria against Iceland?


Deputy Spokesperson:  I think that statement speaks for itself and in conjunction with the question that was asked yesterday at the briefing.  I have nothing beyond that.


Question:  Yesterday at the press conference, President Bush said that tremendous progress was being made in Afghanistan.  Does the United Nations agree with this assessment of this update on the situation in Afghanistan?


Deputy Spokesperson:  You saw the Secretary-General’s latest statement that he had over the weekend after the assassination attempt and his assessment of the situation in Afghanistan was clearly articulated in his latest report and by the briefing to the Security Council.


Question:  Is it possible to know what the background was to the Secretary-General’s meeting with Morgan Tsvangirai in Ghana?  When was the invitation made?  Was it a chance encounter?  Was it something Mr. Tsvangirai asked and was told, “Yes you can meet with Mr. Ban, fly to Ghana.”  How did it come about?


Deputy Spokesperson:  I don’t have the background on that for you now but he was at a meeting where there were representatives from throughout Africa attending a very important UN conference, and frequently the Secretary-General meets on the sidelines of conferences with various actors attending or observing these kinds of meetings.  


Question:  I don’t know if there is, but if there’s some way to know, how much in advance of their meeting was the indication given that Mr. Ban would meet with Mr. Tsvangirai?  Not that he should have or shouldn’t have, but how long in advance?


Deputy Spokesperson:  If that kind of information is available to you, we’ll certainly get it to you, but the fact that the Secretary-General, wherever he visits or whether he’s here or when he’s on mission, he meets with Governments, he meets with the opposition.  That’s part of his job.


Question:  Is the Secretary-General satisfied with the attitude of African leaders regarding the Zimbabwe issue or is he of the same mind of the United Kingdom and the United States, that African leaders, like [South African President Thabo] Mbeki and Nigeria, are too silent on this issue?


Deputy Spokesperson:  I think the Secretary-General, again, I will repeat what he said, that he strongly supports the efforts of SADC and the African Union to help resolve the crisis in Zimbabwe.  


Question:  A follow up question on Afghanistan, was the United Nations taken into confidence about this big offensive by the United States-led coalition forces, especially the Marines, in southern Afghanistan?


Deputy Spokesperson:  I don’t know specifically the answer to that question but there is a great deal of coordination, as you know, that is going on between the UN mission and the security forces in Afghanistan, and that is precisely why the new Special Representative has been emphasizing the need for coordination in that country.


Question:  This is the first time the Marines have been sent in with heavy equipment, tanks and helicopters.


Deputy Spokesperson:  As I said, coordination between the various arms working in Afghanistan is definitely in the purview of the Special Representative.


Question:  Marie, regarding the health plan of the UN staff, there are indications that we might see an increase in co-payments.  What is the position of the Staff Union at this stage?


Deputy Spokesperson:  You’d have to ask the Staff Union what their position is.  I don’t have the position of the Staff Union.


Question:  Would you have the Secretariat’s position?  Is it true that in a meeting today, the Secretariat is proposing to raise co-payments and minimums for the staff health insurance?


Deputy Spokesperson:  I don’t know.  I’ll look into it for you.  If there are no more questions for me, those of you who are interested in speaking with Ms. Coomaraswamy, please stick around.  Otherwise, have a good afternoon.


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For information media • not an official record