16 May 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 Briefing to General Assembly


The Secretary-General right now is providing an informal briefing to the General Assembly on a range of topics, notably the critical situation in Myanmar and the challenges posed by rising food prices and climate change, as well as China’s earthquake and his recent travels in Africa and Europe.


On Myanmar, the Secretary-General said he has asked Special Coordinator John Holmes to visit Myanmar this weekend.  Holmes, he said, will deliver a third letter from the Secretary-General and attempt to establish contact with the Myanmar leadership, with a view towards discussing how the UN can assist the Government’s immediate and longer-term relief effort.


He added that he hopes that the meeting of ASEAN [Association of South-East Asian Nations] Foreign Ministers on 19 May and a further high-level pledging conference that he has suggested for 24-25 May will help to mobilize resources in response to this unprecedented crisis for Myanmar, as was the case in response to the tsunami in 2004.


On the China earthquake, the Secretary-General commended Beijing authorities for their fast and effective action and expressed his sincere condolences to the victims and their families.


While fully confident in the Chinese Government’s capacity to manage the crisis, the UN has offered resources from the Central Emergency Response Fund and is dispatching experts from rescue and relief operations.


The Secretary-General also noted the work done earlier this week by the Task Force dealing with the food crisis, which he said is working hard to ensure that key elements of a comprehensive framework on food issues will be available by the time of the High-Level Conference on World Food Security in Rome, from the 3rd to the 5th of June.  He called that conference one of the most important events planned for 2008.


** Myanmar


On Myanmar, two weeks since Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar, active humanitarian assistance continues by the United Nations, but the current estimate is that somewhere between 1.6 and 2.5 million people have been affected.


The International Telecommunication Union has deployed 100 satellite terminals to help restore vital communication links.  With the restoration of communication links, designated Government officials and other humanitarian agencies are able to more efficiently coordinate relief operations and the mobile terminals are easily transported by road and air to be used both by humanitarian workers and the disaster victims.


A UNICEF [United Nations Children’s Fund] team, meanwhile, has reached the remote areas of Myanmar, where the situation is dire for children.  More than 70 UNICEF assessment and relief missions are in the region, distributing essential survival kits, including plastic sheeting for shelter, water purification materials, medicines and mosquito nets, as well as cooking materials.  The agency warns that children who survived the cyclone are now at increasing risk of disease and of consequences of not receiving timely assistance.


A third plane of the UN refugee agency reached Yangon yesterday, carrying 40 tons of assistance supplies from its stock in Dubai.  The goods were distributed late Thursday evening and continued Friday to partners, NGOs and community-based organizations.  Those groups are now continuing the distribution of the supplies to help as many as 5,000 families in the Irrawaddy Delta.


Medical care is now being focused on the survivors staying in the relief shelters.  Local NGOs told us their volunteers are now accessing remote parts of the affected areas as well.  The hospital in Maubin has become the referral hospital for townships in the Irrawaddy area.


** China


On the China quake, on UN relief efforts in China, following Monday’s earthquake, UN agencies are responding to the Chinese Government’s request for life-saving supplies.


UNICEF is sending tents, blankets and school kits.  It is also procuring health, water and sanitation materials, which will be dispatched as soon as possible.  The World Food Programme [WFP], for its part, is purchasing enough ready-to-eat noodles to feed nearly 120,000 people for a week.


There is more information upstairs, as well as a press release from the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction on the need to upgrade and retrofit schools, hospitals and other critical infrastructure in the world’s earthquake-prone areas, since collapsed buildings are the main killers when earthquakes strike.


And we have a statement on the China quake attributable to the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General:


The Secretary-General is pleased to announce a grant of up to $7 million from the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) following the earthquake that struck Sichuan, China, on 12 May 2008.  The grant will be used by United Nations agencies, funds and programmes to help meet the most urgent humanitarian requirements.


The United Nations stands ready to provide further support, as required, to the Government of China in its efforts to respond to the humanitarian needs caused by the disaster.

** Sudan


On Sudan, Ashraf Qazi, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Sudan, says he is very concerned about the security situation in Abyei, following recent clashes between members of the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army.  As a result of the fighting, thousands of civilians have fled the area.


He welcomes the agreement to end the fighting which was reached between the two parties yesterday at a meeting of the Area Joint Military Committee under the chairmanship of the UN Mission in Sudan.  He hopes that the agreement will bring to an end the violence in this volatile area, and calls on both sides to respect all its provisions, including an immediate ceasefire and the removal of other armed groups from Abyei town.  He further urges the parties to ensure that civilians and civilian installations are fully protected.


This latest development in Abyei, whose complex problems represent one of the most difficult challenges facing the successful implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Sudan, underscores the importance of fully implementing the Abyei Protocol.


As a first step, the parties need to establish an interim administration to ensure the delivery of much-needed basic services to the community and to act as an effective mechanism for resolving differences and preventing potential conflicts.


** Chad


The UN refugee agency says it is very concerned by escalating violence in eastern Chad, including a fatal attack on gendarmes near a refugee camp and increased levels of vehicle hijacking.  UNHCR says it fears that the attack on the Sudanese capital Khartoum by rebels last weekend could further destabilize the security situation in the east and it has reduced its activities and staff movements as a precautionary measure.


You can read more about this in the UNHCR briefing notes.


**Security Council


The Security Council yesterday afternoon unanimously approved a resolution strongly supporting the approach proposed by the Secretary-General to promote an ongoing and inclusive political process in Somalia.


Among other things, the Council welcomed the Secretary-General’s recommendation, set out in a recent report, to relocate the UN Political Office for Somalia and the country team headquarters from Nairobi to Mogadishu, or an interim location in Somalia.


It also decided that the UN office shall enhance its support to the Transitional Federal Institutions, with the aim of developing a constitution and holding a constitutional referendum and free and democratic elections in 2009.


And we have no meetings, by the way, or consultations of the Council scheduled for today.


** Somalia


Still on Somalia, after week-long consultations in Djibouti, the Somali Transitional Federal Government and the opposition Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia are calling on Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and on the Security Council to help them restore normalcy to their war-plagued country.  The parties made the appeal in a communiqué issued by Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Somalia, who convened and presided over the meeting in Djibouti.  The parties also agreed to meet again in Djibouti on 31 May for further discussions.


And the UN refugee agency says it has completed the distribution of aid to more than 40,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in over 50 settlements west of Mogadishu.  The aid was delivered to IDPs living along a 30-kilometre stretch of road linking Mogadishu to the town of Afgooye, west of the Somali capital.


According to UNHCR, more than 40,000 civilians have fled the Somali capital since March this year following an increase in violence between the Transitional Federal Government troops and the insurgents.  Overall, an estimated 800,000 people have fled Mogadishu since violence engulfed the city in February 2007.


** Nepal


In his report to the Security Council on United Nations assistance in Nepal, the Secretary-General said that, although a further extension of the mandate of the UN Mission in Nepal is not anticipated, the United Nations stands ready to provide continuing support for the completion and consolidation of the peace process and for the long-term development of Nepal.


The Secretary-General also highlighted that his Special Representative and the Resident Coordinator will be in discussion with the new Government once it is formed regarding whatever assistance it may request.


Adding that the country’s recent Constituent Assembly election is only a milestone in the peace process, he stressed that the immediate tasks of government formation and preparatory work for drafting the constitution are now of the utmost importance.  And, of course, the report is available.


** Sierra Leone


On Monday, the Peacebuilding Commission is holding a high-level stakeholders consultation on Sierra Leone.  The meeting’s purpose is to increase international engagement with Sierra Leone’s peacebuilding process, including by identifying new initiatives and partnerships.  It’s taking place all day in the ECOSOC Chamber.


We have a media advisory and provisional programme upstairs.  And you have the Week Ahead a little later today, in a few minutes.


**Secretary-General’s Travels


The Secretary-General’s visit to the Kennedy School Forum at Harvard University next Friday has been postponed.  We had announced it earlier, and it has been postponed.


That’s all I have for you.  Thank you.

**Questions and Answers


Question:  Does John Holmes plan to visit the Irrawaddy Delta when he is in Burma at the weekend?


Spokesperson:  We don’t know at this point.  We don’t know exactly what he will be doing.  We know he’s flying to be in Myanmar on Sunday, so he’s flying out of here probably Saturday.  And we should know more about what he’s going to do once he gets there.  Yes?


Question:  Two things, one on China and one on Myanmar.  Does the UN action relating to China, UNICEF and WFP and so forth signal that China has communicated to the UN that they are now asking for things, they’ve been open, that they’ve formally requested aid -- has anything sort of changed there to set that in motion?


Spokesperson:  No, well, actually they had said before that they would welcome international aid.  Of course, the specifics of it were to be discussed.  We have people on the ground in China, the way we do in Myanmar, and whatever help comes in is distributed by the international and national staff inside.


Question:  So, it was a question of eventually determining that this specific aid is what was called for and what would be applicable right now?


Spokesperson:  Yes.


Question:  Okay.  The second thing -- on Myanmar, does the Secretary-General have a position on whether the responsibility to protect applies in the case of the Myanmar crisis?


Spokesperson:  This is a matter for the Security Council to decide.  As you know, that specific issue was raised in the Security Council, and I assume if it needs to be raised again, it will be raised within the Security Council.  Right now, the urgent thing is getting help to the people who need it most.  Yes?


Question:  Thank you, Michèle.  A couple of questions.  Following on what you said earlier, Holmes will be visiting Myanmar this weekend, his visa was approved and the Government was consulted?


Spokesperson:  Yes, yes.


Question:  Okay.  And staying on the same subject as Myanmar, it was reported that several volunteers on the ground were being harassed by those who support the regime and that several volunteers who had digital cameras, soldiers had confiscated them.  I was wondering if you heard about these cases or whether or not UN agencies were targeted in these cases?


Spokesperson:  No, as far as I know, UN agencies were not targeted.


Question:  Alright, and my other question is:  there was a report that the UN human rights investigator will be visiting the US at the end of this month…


Spokesperson:  The Special Rapporteur on Racial Discrimination.


Question:  And what specific issues will be addressed?

Spokesperson:  You know his mandate.  He was invited by the United States, and he’s coming in the framework of his mandate.


Question:  Any particular issues that will be examined?


Spokesperson:  Well, you’ll get a chance to talk to him when he comes here.


Question:  All right, and my last question is, I know the Secretary-General had met with the expert for the UN panel on the arms trade treaty this morning, and I was wondering what was specifically discussed in that meeting?


Spokesperson:  You have the issue in the title.


Question:  That’s true, but [talkover]… discussed Pakistan… [talkover]…


Spokesperson:  We can try to get more in a readout for you a little later.  Yes?


Question:  I was wondering if the Secretary-General had a response to, in Iran, the arrest of six leaders of the Baha’i faith and their confinement in Evin prison?  I understand the Secretary-General’s ambassador has already been informed of this as of yesterday, and besides, it’s on the news anyway.


Spokesperson:  [inaudible] I don’t know whether he has received the letter, and I don’t have a reaction at this point.


Question:  Can we get a reaction then on the [inaudible] leaders of the Baha’i faith?


Spokesperson:  Well, I don’t have the information, we don’t have independent confirmation of the information and we have not received the letter.  As soon as we receive the letter, of course it will be seen by the Secretary-General.  Yes?


Question:  Following up Bill’s question on China, has the Chinese Government been in touch with the United Nations [inaudible] Secretary-General’s office seeking any particular … because it’s getting bilateral help from Japan and from Taiwan, and…?


Spokesperson:  As I said earlier, they had said they would welcome international assistance, and I think it’s being discussed on a case-by-case basis, on what they need most.  You know, the United Nations can also use other bilateral channels, can use NGOs to get the aid through.  So, here, I don’t think there is a problem.  Yes?


Question:  I was wondering if there is a readout of the meeting yesterday with the Secretary-General and Cardinal Sfeir?


Spokesperson:  Yes, I do have a readout for you.  He met with the Cardinal yesterday.  Let me see for you what was said.  They discussed the overall situation in Lebanon, including issues pertaining to the implementation of resolution 1701.  And they also discussed the phone call that the Secretary-General had along with the Friends of Lebanon.  The Secretary-General, as you know, participated in that call.  And you have the result of that call because we issued a statement afterwards.


Question:  I just have a question -- the Secretary-General meets so many figures from the Lebanese Government.  Isn’t he willing to talk, to meet some from the opposition ‑- these all represent one side of the Lebanese story?


Spokesperson:  He has met quite a few people from the opposition.


Question:  Not here?


Spokesperson:  No, not here.  When he went there.  He has had no requests also coming from that side… [talkover]


Question:  So, the opposition -- all the other names we hear from the opposition did not request to meet with the Secretary-General, but he would meet them if…


Spokesperson:  Of course, like the way he did when he was in Lebanon.  Yes?


Question:  The Government of Myanmar has announced that the draft constitution has been approved by 92.4 per cent of the votes.  Is the Secretary-General aware of that?  What’s his opinion, and does he approve the draft constitution?


Spokesperson:  As you know, we don’t have any independent observers, we don’t have anybody who was observing the vote.  We have said that the vote is to be as clear and transparent as possible, and we have said -- the Secretary-General had expressed the view that the priority right now was not probably voting on the constitution, but coming to assist the people in need in Myanmar in this crisis, so that is…


Question:  … had been declared by the Government, what the Secretary-General thinks of that.


Spokesperson:  Well, we’ll see.


Question:  Michèle, there have been calls, especially by some Western nations, that the responsibility to protect means that the Security Council should somehow invade Myanmar to help with its citizens.  The Secretary-General has not weighed in on this particular, specific…


Spokesperson:  As I said earlier Masood, I just answered that question.  I said earlier, yes…


Question:  … does this responsibility to protect does in fact mean that invading a country like Myanmar [talkover]… or any other country which needs help when the Government is unresponsive…?


Spokesperson:  As you know, the Secretary-General gives a lot of importance to that.  He named an adviser on the responsibility to protect because he feels it is a very important concept and that should be explored further, and we should move ahead on what was a concept.  And, the situation right now in terms of the responsibility to protect and the limits of the concept, itself, rests on the Security Council.  The Security Council, as you know, did not include things like natural catastrophes in its overview of the responsibility to protect, which was used mainly for cases of genocide.  Yes?


Question:  Okay, there are reports of mass arrests and also violence against immigrants in Italy, and in Naples, there was mob violence, and the Government has started deporting people very quickly.  Has anyone in the UN system had anything to say about this?


Spokesperson:  No, not yet.


Question:  And also, there are reports from Zimbabwe that the Resident Representative and head of the country team, Zacarias, is quoted, I guess, in State media there as welcoming the Mugabe Government’s efforts to quote Anti-Violence Campaign, and saying that much of the violence is caused by the MDC opposition.  I don’t know if it’s an accurate quote…


Spokesperson:  We had a full statement from him, which was distributed to you upstairs two days ago.  It is that same statement that is being quoted in different areas.  I suggest you read the whole thing, and you will see how balanced it is.


Question:  Absolutely.  But does the UN then, this statement [inaudible] on Zimbabwe, is it asking for some kind of a change or retraction, because it very much says the UN is praising Mugabe for cracking down on violence?


Spokesperson:  Well, I suggest that you go read the report.  And I think the statement was clear.


Question:  Okay, so I guess that we can just say that this is not an accurate presentation from the State media?


Spokesperson:  You can just read it and you can see for yourself.


Question:  All right.  One last thing.  Today, there’s a -- a former UN translator, Mr. Manokhin, was sentenced to a year for using UN facilities and documents for visa fraud.  Does the UN have any comment and what safeguards have been put in place so this won’t happen again?


Spokesperson:  Yes.  It was yesterday that the decision was taken, and we note that Mr. Manokhin was a former UN staff member.  He was, as you know, summarily dismissed from service and was sentenced to serve one year in prison, by the Manhattan Federal Court.  It was yesterday, 15 May.  And we fully cooperated, as you know, with the United States law enforcement authorities in their investigation of the allegations against Mr. Manokhin.  And on 27 July 2007, at the request of the US law enforcement authorities, in accordance with his responsibilities under the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the UN, the Secretary-General waived Mr. Manokhin’s functional immunity from legal process.  So, you have your answer there.


Question:  Was there any change in access -- it seems, apparently he was on the twelfth floor, one of the floors of this building just using UN stationery to seek visas for people [inaudible].  Were any changes made after his arrest, was any kind of either review conducted of how…


Spokesperson:  Certainly, certainly.  There was of course an internal investigation done, and I did say that he was dismissed.  It’s because the conclusion [inaudible].


Question:  Thank you, Michèle.  I have two questions.  You know, the African Union has already started some mediation efforts over the conflict or dispute between Sudan and Chad.  I was wondering if Mr. Ban Ki-moon was going to take any steps in any direction.  The other question, I was asking yesterday about the Iranian letter received yesterday.  I was wondering, when is Mr. Ban Ki-moon going to respond, or when is he going to finish analysing the letter, as you mentioned yesterday?


Spokesperson:  He has received the letter, as I said yesterday.  The letter, itself, we cannot of course make that letter public.  It’s for the Iranian authorities to make that public; it’s from them.  The Secretary-General is studying the package that was sent.


Question:  Any initial reaction though?


Spokesperson:  No.  Not yet.  On Sudan and Chad, the Secretary-General has been trying all day today and the last two days to get in touch with the African Union on this subject and he is talking also to other Heads of State in the region on the issue.


Question:  Also, a couple of days ago there are some reports talking of a US missile strike on a small village in Pakistan.  Is there any reaction here?


Spokesperson:  No, I don’t have anything on that.  To just come back to your earlier question about, as you know, the Secretary-General has a special interest in the Chad-Sudan agreement because, as you know, he was in Dakar for the signature of the last agreement between Chad and Sudan.  So, it is of particular interest to him.


Question:  Is the agreement still on between them after cutting the diplomatic relations?


Spokesperson:  Are there diplomatic relations between the two?


Question:  Yes, between Sudan and Chad.


Spokesperson:  I cannot answer that question.  I do know, as you do, that diplomatic relations were cut off.  We don’t have anything on our side to say about this.  It’s a bilateral matter.  Yes?


Question:  Do you have a readout of the meeting yesterday between the Secretary-General and the Foreign Minister of Afghanistan?


Spokesperson:  Let me see if I do.  I don’t think so.  We’ll try to get it for you a little later, but I’m sure we can find some information later.


Question:  Michèle, there’s a letter that’s been distributed by an organization called the Bar Association for International Governmental Organizations to all the members of the Fifth and Sixth Committees of the General Assembly pretty critical of the Secretary-General’s report on internal justice and his reform of the internal justice system -- saying it doesn’t comply with due process, that it didn’t follow what Member States had asked for, in terms of ending -- and this is from them -- ending impunity, as specified in the Volcker report.  So, is the Secretariat aware of this critique by people that actually represent staff members, and what’s their response to it?


Spokesperson:  He has no response at this point.  This is, as you know, being discussed within the Committee.  The Committee members have received the letter.  I don’t think the Secretary-General has received a copy of that letter.  I can check, but I don’t think he has.  So, it is something being debated and being discussed.


Question:  So, he feels that his proposals comply with what the Member States had asked for in terms of…


Spokesperson:  Well, he made a proposal, so I’m sure he’s open to any comments from members of the Committee.  Okay, thank you very much.


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