3 February 2009
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.


**Security Council


The Security Council held its first consultations under Japan’s Security Council presidency and approved its programme of work for the month of February.  Ambassador Yukio Takasu of Japan, the Council President for this month, will brief you on its programme of work in this Room at 12:30, right after this briefing.  Also, under other matters, the Security Council heard a briefing from Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Edmond Mulet about recent developments in Darfur, which I’ll mention shortly.


Ambassador Takasu just read out two press statements by the Council.  In one, Council members welcomed the election of Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed as President of Somalia and expressed their strong support for the peace process there.  And on Iraq, Council members welcomed the holding of provincial elections on 31 January and congratulated the Iraqi people for demonstrating their commitment to a peaceful and democratic political process.


** Darfur


The African Union-United Nations mission (UNAMID) in Darfur reports this morning that aerial bombings were conducted around Muhajeria town in South Darfur, and civilians are still gathered outside the UNAMID camp seeking refuge.  UNAMID officials were prevented by Sudanese National Security from undertaking an assessment visit to Muhajeria, due to the current security situation in the area, according to our mission.  The Joint Special Representative, Rodolphe Adada, is engaged in diplomatic and political consultations with the Government of the Sudan with the aim of ensuring the protection of civilians in Muhajeria.  He is also scheduled to travel to Chad tomorrow.


Meanwhile, leaders from Labado, about 60 to 80 kilometres from Nyala, met with UNAMID officials to discuss the prevailing security situation in that town.  They indicated that people from surrounding villages have started moving towards Nyala.


The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, meanwhile, has expressed her alarm about rapidly deteriorating conditions reportedly facing civilians in the Muhajeria area of South Darfur.  Fighting between Government forces and the Sudanese Liberation Army/Mini Minawi faction (SLA/MM) against the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) has resulted in civilian casualties and displaced some 30,000 people.  Some 5,000 have sought refuge in the vicinity of the UNAMID military camp in Muhajeria.


Edmond Mulet, Assistant Secretary-General of Peacekeeping Operations, this morning briefed the Security Council on the grave developments over the last 96 hours in that area.  Regarding the development today in which UNAMID was prevented from travelling to Muhajeriya, Mr. Mulet said it is critical that the Government ensures access for UNAMID personnel.


As you’ll recall, the Secretary-General, in his statements over the last several days, has urged both parties to immediately cease all hostilities and exercise restraint, called on the rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) to withdraw from Muhajeriya and recommitted UNAMID to protecting civilians in the area.


** Myanmar


The Secretary-General’s Special Adviser, Ibrahim Gambari, concluded a four-day working visit to Myanmar.  Mr. Gambari was received today for about an hour by Prime Minister Thein Sein in Yangon.  The meeting was attended by the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, National Planning, Information, Culture and Health.  Earlier in the day, Mr. Gambari also met for the second time with the Government Spokesperson Authoritative Team composed of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Information and Culture.  Mr. Gambari is expected to meet with the Secretary-General in India to report on the overall outcome of his visit. 


** Afghanistan


John Holmes, Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, today launched a Humanitarian Action Plan for Afghanistan for 2009, for a total of slightly more than $600 million.  Speaking to the press in Geneva, Holmes said that the situation in Afghanistan is serious and is getting worse, in particular due to the escalating armed conflict and the severe drought which had been present for two years in some parts of the country.  He warned, “The lack of security in some areas also prevents humanitarian aid workers from carrying out their life-saving work.”


The biggest single need, he said, is to increase food assistance, in particular because of the effects of rising food prices.  Also, as a consequence of drought, an estimated 1.2 million children under five years of age and some 550,000 pregnant and lactating women are at high risk of malnutrition.  Some $354 million of today’s appeal are set aside for food aid, with another $100 million to be for mine action.  There is a press release with more details upstairs in the Spokesperson’s Office.


**Secretary-General in Abu Dhabi


The Secretary-General left Addis Ababa today for the United Arab Emirates, arriving this afternoon in Abu Dhabi.  In the evening, he met with the United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister.  That meeting is being followed by a working dinner.  Speaking to reporters upon arrival in Abu Dhabi, the Secretary-General reiterated his call for a durable and sustainable ceasefire in Gaza and for the opening of all the crossing points into Gaza.


** Gaza


Still on Gaza, the Office of the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process (UNSCO) and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) report that the number of truckloads of aid permitted to enter Gaza daily by the Israeli authorities remains insufficient.


In addition, only a very restricted list of items is being allowed in through the crossings.  For example, last Friday, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) was not allowed to bring into Gaza the plastic bags that it uses to distribute supplies.  With some 20,000 food parcels distributed daily, such bags are a vital component of UNRWA’s assistance.  Meanwhile, as of yesterday, only three non-school UNRWA shelters remain open, hosting nearly 400 displaced people.  But although most people have left the shelters since the ceasefire, thousands of Gazans still remain homeless, according to UNSCO.


The World Health Organization reports that most health facilities have resumed normal operation and that large volumes of medical supplies have been donated, but drugs used to treat mental health problems are still lacking and urgently needed.  Also needed are items such as syringe pumps, ventilators and anaesthesia monitors.  In terms of additional priority requirements, UNRWA says it needs blankets, mattresses, plastic sheeting, kitchen kits, hygiene kits, water tanks, clothing and tents.


UNSCO also reports that rolling blackouts are still continuing in most of the Gaza Strip, with some areas experiencing power cuts of 12 hours a day.


** Sierra Leone


Out as a document today is the Secretary-General’s first report on the UN Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Sierra Leone.  The office is a follow-on mission whose mandate took effect on the first of October of last year.  In the report, the Secretary-General says Sierra Leone has continued to make progress in consolidating peace, but much remains to be done, particularly in the areas of youth unemployment, poor infrastructure and an extremely low revenue base.


A new phenomenon of particular concern is illicit drug trafficking, with Sierra Leone being used as a trans-shipment point, he says.  It is critical that the country’s capacity to address this issue be enhanced, including through assistance in combating piracy in coastal waters, before the problem takes root and poses even greater challenges.


** Democratic Republic of the Congo


In a letter to the Security Council President, the Secretary-General regrets that Member States have not come forward as hoped with additional troops for the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC).  Forty-nine contributing countries and 12 potential troop contributors have been asked for resources.  So far, the Organization has accepted an offer from Bangladesh for one infantry battalion, one engineer company and one formed police unit.  It has also accepted a Belgian offer of a C-130 aircraft, while five other Member States will send the Mission the required intelligence experts.  There are also several indications of offers by other Member States.  In conclusion, the Secretary-General renews his appeal to troop- and police-contributing countries to come forward with essential offers.


Meanwhile, in the field, UNICEF says that it has helped secure the release of 85 children recruited by the Mayi Mayi ethnic militias in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  The children, aged between 7 and 17, include five girls.  The agency is now attempting to find their families.


**Romania-Ukraine


Both Romania and Ukraine appear to have agreed to a unanimous verdict delimiting their maritime border in the Black Sea after a decades-old dispute.  The ruling by the International Court of Justice marked the sea border halfway between the territorial waters of the two countries, but handed Romania some 80 per cent of the disputed area.  The continental shelf of that area is believed to contain considerable hydrocarbon deposits.


Romania filed a complaint against Ukraine in 2004 after half a dozen rounds of bilateral efforts failed to settle the matter.  The case initially focused on a disagreement on the jurisdiction over an islet between the two countries known as Serpents’ Island.  The 30-page ruling is available on the ICJ’s [International Court of Justice] website.


**Press Conferences


As I mentioned earlier, following this briefing, in his capacity as President of the Security Council for February, Ambassador Yukio Takasu, Permanent Representative of Japan, will be coming to brief you on the Council’s programme for the month.


Tomorrow at 2 p.m. here in 226, Wim Kok, Former Prime Minister of the Netherlands; Ambassador Kirsti Lintonen, Permanent Representative of Finland; Elsa Stamatopoulou from DESA’s [Department of Economic and Social Affairs] Division for Social Policy and Development; and Bience Gawanas, Commissioner for Social Affairs at the African Union, will discuss social integration -- the theme of the Commission on Social Development session that opens tomorrow.


That’s what I have for you.  Before we have the Security Council President… yes?


**Questions and Answers


Question:   You mentioned that he met with the Prime Minister -– was that the highest level meeting that Mr. Gambari had in Myanmar?


Deputy Spokesperson:    On this current trip, yes, it was.


Question:   When is this meeting between Mr. Gambari and Ban Ki-moon?  Do you have any idea when that will be?


Deputy Spokesperson:    On Thursday.


Question:   Did Mr. Gambari ask to actually go to the capital of Myanmar and to meet with Than Shwe?


Deputy Spokesperson:    This is really all I have for you from the field today.  I have nothing further on his agenda than what I have read to you.


Question:   Any answer on criticism from the spokespeople for Aung San Suu Kyi about the lack of any progress in all the meetings up to now?


Deputy Spokesperson:    I read out yesterday a response to a question that Matthew asked on the same subject yesterday, which is that it was the first time yesterday Mr. Gambari had met with Aung San Suu Kyi and members of the Central Executive Committee of her NLD party, and it was the first time that Mr. Gambari was able to meet with them together.  They had open, detailed and cordial discussions on the agenda developed with all interlocutors in the course of his visit so far, including the release of political prisoners, the dialogue between the Government and Aung San Suu Kyi, the need for a credible and inclusive political process and ways to address socio-economic issues.


Question:   But any progress that we can point to after today’s meeting -- as an answer to that?


Deputy Spokesperson:    As I mentioned to you, what we are waiting for next is for Mr. Gambari to brief the Secretary-General on the outcome of his total visit on Thursday.


Question:   Following up on that, Marie, in the normal course of events, would we expect Mr. Gambari to come back and brief the Security Council and then brief us, at least at the stakeout, as well, upon his return to New York?


Deputy Spokesperson:    As usual, Mr. Gambari will first brief the Secretary-General and, as you know, it is up to the Security Council to schedule… request a briefing, or it is up to the Security Council to decide whether to invite Mr. Gambari and, if he does, of course, we can ask him to speak to you.


Question:   Are there any details on the Secretary-General’s meeting in the United Arab Emirates with the Foreign Minister?


Deputy Spokesperson:    No, it’s just taking place now, so I can get you a readout afterwards.


[The Deputy Spokesperson later added that the Secretary-General and the United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister mainly discussed Gaza and the Middle East.]


Question:   On Somalia, there are reports from Somalia that African Union peacekeepers there firing into a crowd and killing some say 25 –- some say 39 –- is the United Nations aware of that, does it have any comment on that?


Deputy Spokesperson:    I don’t have any comment on that today, but we can certainly ask them for you.


Question:   And also on Ivory Coast, there are also now reports of new fighting between the Forces Nouvelles and also at the same time France is withdrawing forces [inaudible] Does Mr. Le Roy or any United Nations personality have any response or comment to that?


Deputy Spokesperson:    If I have something, I will let you know.  I don’t have anything for the briefing.


Question:   Marie, it’s for the first time that… not quite for the first time, but I think very rare that…  Aung San Suu Kyi has been so critical of the United Nations that it has not been forceful enough.  What more can the Secretary-General do or how can he put pressure on the Burmese Government to loosen up restrictions on her or to release her?


Deputy Spokesperson:    Well, the Secretary-General, as you know, dispatched Mr. Gambari on his mission, so we really do need to wait until he hears from Mr. Gambari before, I think, we can comment further on the totality of his visit.  I mean, all that I have heard and all you’ve heard were the brief updates that we received from Yangon.  What I can say is the Secretary-General, as you know, has expressed his frustration at the lack of progress on the issues, including the need for the dialogue between the Government and Aung San Suu Kyi, but he is nevertheless determined to persist in his efforts, and that’s why he asked Mr. Gambari to return to continue his discussions and engagement with the Myanmar Government, the opposition and other stakeholders as an integral part of this progress in implementation of his mandate.


Question:   Any plans for a visit?


Deputy Spokesperson:    Let’s first wait for the briefing.  Actually, I have nothing further on this, so if we can move on to another subject.


Question:   Since the Secretary-General has expressed frustration at the lack of contributions coming to United Nations peacekeeping troops, have they analysed this, what is the reason why so many contributing countries have stopped wanting to send troops?  Is there any particular reason, like in Congo?  Or is it that overall, they are frustrated…?


Deputy Spokesperson:    I think I would like to draw your attention to the briefing [on 23 January] that Mr. Le Roy just recently gave to the Security Council on challenges and demands that is facing… the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations in their force generation efforts.  It paints a pretty clear picture of what is going on there.  And, as you know, we are still trying to arrange a beginning-of-the-year press conference with Mr. Le Roy, so he can personally report to you on the state of peacekeeping today.


Question:   You said that the Secretary-General reiterated his… about the opening of the crossings for Gaza.  Does he have any plan to do something, perhaps go to the Security Council about the fact that he has been reiterating this for quite a while and the crossings remain closed.  Is there some other process that he is trying to undertake, so that there can be some action on this?


Deputy Spokesperson:    The Secretary-General has gone to the Council, and he is exploring, as you know, every possible venue to try to help the people in Gaza.


Question:   But can you report more on other venues that he is exploring?  Because it just seems this has been going on for a long time, and there have been a lot of deaths now, and there is a pretty devastating situation, and it is a real challenge for the United Nations to be dealing with this in some way.


Deputy Spokesperson:    Well, why don’t we set you up something after this meeting, because in two minutes, the Security Council President will come, and we will brief you on all his efforts.


Question:   On this… MONUC peacekeepers –- did the Secretariat ask India to contribute?  Given that the Democratic Republic of the Congo said it would not accept Indian peacekeepers -– is that still the case, and does the United Nations accept this type of restrictions by the host country?


Deputy Spokesperson:    Let’s present that question to DPKO [Department of Peacekeeping Operations] and, hopefully, they are listening, and they will get back to you.


Question:   And there is also… there is also a report that Indonesia has found these Burmese refugees out at sea, who testified that Thailand took them out to sea and left them.  Where do things stand between the United Nations system and Thailand in this…?


Deputy Spokesperson:    Well, as you know, UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, is in the lead on this issue, and they are engaged with the countries on the ground, as their mandate is the protection and assistance and seeking solutions to the plight of refugees.


Question:   This reported to be at sea –- not on the ground.


Deputy Spokesperson:    But UNHCR’s mandate is in the protection of refugees, so you would have to pursue that with them, where that’s going for now.


I am going to leave you now, and we’ll have the Security Council President here, and we’ll have copies of the monthly schedule there.


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