17 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 Michèle Montas, Spokesperson for the Secretary-General.


Good afternoon, all.


**Statement on Sudan


We first have a statement attributable to the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General on the agreement reached today between the Government of Sudan and JEM ‑- Justice and Equality Movement ‑- in Doha, Qatar.


The Secretary-General welcomes the “Agreement of goodwill and confidence-building for the settlement of the problem in Darfur” signed in Doha, Qatar, today by the Government of Sudan and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) under the auspices of the Government of Qatar and the African Union-United Nations Joint Chief Mediator Djibrill Bassolé.


The Agreement represents a constructive step in the ongoing efforts to negotiate a peaceful conclusion to this long-running conflict.  The Secretary-General calls on the Government of Sudan and JEM to move expeditiously to a cessation of hostilities and to a detailed and explicit agreement on the scope of comprehensive and inclusive talks.


The Secretary-General underscores that, until the parties renounce hostilities, the situation in Darfur cannot improve.  The Secretary-General further reiterates the determination of the United Nations to continue its mediation, peacekeeping and humanitarian work impartially, and to support the efforts of the parties to reach a political solution to the conflict in Darfur.


** Darfur


Following reports of several days of clashes involving forces of the Government of Sudan and armed groups, the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) dispatched a fact-finding and assessment team to the locality of Wada’ah in North Darfur.  The team was led by Force Commander General Martin Luther Agwai.


The UNAMID team witnessed the extent of the damage suffered by the town.  Numerous buildings and equipment, houses, shops, huts, and generators were burnt to the ground, and the marketplace was allegedly looted.  Granaries set on fire were still smouldering.  The team was taken to a site on the outskirts of Wada’ah.


In two different locations nearby, the UNAMID team was shown fresh mounds of earth which, according to the local residents, were the recently-dug mass graves where they buried 45 of their own people.  The same sources indicated that a large number of people, many reported as having fled the fighting, were still unaccounted for.


Neither a precise casualty toll nor the number of possible wounded could be obtained and verified.


The UNAMID Force Commander expressed the grave concerns of the Mission for the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Wada’ah and for the lives and welfare of its civilian population.  He also strongly condemned the fighting and called on all parties to refrain from further violence and destruction, urging all involved to commit themselves to a peaceful resolution.  There is a press release with more details from UNAMID.


** Sudan


Also on Sudan today, the report of the Secretary-General to the Security Council on children and armed conflict in the Sudan is out as a document.


The report highlights that children continued to be recruited and used by all parties to the conflict, that rape and sexual violence continue to be systematic and widespread, and that children and women in and around refugee camps and internally displaced persons’ settlements are especially vulnerable.


It also shows alarming levels of attacks against humanitarian personnel and assets.  Particularly in Darfur, the denial of humanitarian access to affected populations, mainly due to acute insecurity, is also alarming.


**Security Council


As you know, the Security Council this morning held consultations on Darfur.


They received a briefing on recent developments, including the talks in Doha that I just mentioned, by Under-Secretaries-General for Peacekeeping Operations Alain Le Roy and for Field Support Susana Malcorra.


At 3 this afternoon, the Council has scheduled an open briefing on the Democratic Republic of the Congo, by Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes, who recently visited that country.  That meeting will be followed by consultations, also on the DRC.


** Cambodia


Over in Phnom Penh, efforts at bringing justice and accountability for crimes committed during the Khmer Rouge regime of 1975-1979 took a major step forward today, with the start of the initial hearing in the first case of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.


The ECCC ‑- a United Nations-backed, independent hybrid tribunal ‑- today began proceedings in the trial of Kaing Guek Eav, also known by the alias “Duch.”  He faces charges of crimes against humanity and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, in addition to the offences of homicide and torture under Cambodian criminal law.


Tony Kranh, the ECCC’s acting Director of Administration, said the Cambodian people have waited 30 years for this day, to find justice for the suffering in which over a third of the population perished.  We have a press release with more on that upstairs.


** Pakistan


In a statement issued earlier today in Pakistan, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reiterated its appeal to those holding John Solecki for his immediate and safe release.  UNHCR encouraged the Balochistan community leaders’ continued engagement, and once more asked those keeping John Solecki to initiate direct contact so that dialogue can be started for his immediate safe recovery.


The Secretary-General spoke over the weekend with President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan, and they agreed on the need to secure the safe and immediate release of Mr. Solecki.


In a statement we issued on Saturday, the Secretary-General underscored the importance of the humanitarian work being undertaken by Mr. Solecki and stressed that no cause can be served by prolonging his abduction.  The full statement is available on the Web.


** Sri Lanka


The United Nations in Sri Lanka yesterday expressed heightened concern for the welfare of the civilian population caught up in the fighting, based on reports received in the last few days.


While the designation of the new safe zone has provided some respite for the tens of thousands of civilians trapped for weeks by heavy fighting, reports from the weekend indicate some fighting inside the zone, leading to deaths and injuries to yet more civilians.


The United Nations calls for the Sri Lankan forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to refrain from fighting in areas of civilian concentration.  The LTTE continues to actively prevent people leaving, and reports indicate that a growing number of people trying to leave have been shot and sometimes killed.


There are also indications that children as young as 14, are being recruited into the ranks of the LTTE.


Meanwhile, 15 United Nations staff and 75 of their dependents remain in the same area, having also been prevented from leaving by the LTTE.  Fifteen of the dependent children have contracted respiratory diseases, and are now in dire need of humanitarian assistance.


The UN is especially concerned that one staff member was reported forcibly recruited into the LTTE yesterday.


The UN calls on the LTTE to immediately release him, to desist from further recruitment of civilians, and to permit passage for people who wish to leave, especially the women and children.


** Afghanistan


The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), in a report it published today, said that more than 2,100 civilians had been killed in fighting in Afghanistan last year.  That represents an increase of almost 40 per cent since 2007, UNAMA says.  Of that amount, 55 per cent of the death toll was attributed to anti-Government elements, and 39 per cent to Afghan security and international military forces.


The armed opposition was responsible for 1,160 civilian deaths, an increase of 65 per cent from 2007, with most of those killings coming from suicide attacks and improvised explosive devices.  Meanwhile, air strikes were responsible for 64 per cent of the killings that were attributed to the pro-Government forces.  We have press releases upstairs with more information and a full report is available online.


** Nepal


Marking 5 years since the torture and killing of 15-year-old Maina Sunuwar by members of the former Royal Nepal Army, the United Nations Human Rights Office in Nepal encourages the Government, once again, to ensure that the Nepal Army cooperates fully with the Nepal Police and the District Court in Kavre so that those responsible for the killing of Maina Sunuwar can be brought to justice.


This includes turning over court-martial documents and making two of the alleged perpetrators, who continue to serve with the Army, available for investigation and arrest by the relevant authorities.


**Democratic Republic of Congo


Back to the African continent, the UN Refugee Agency said today that repeated attacks by the Lord’s Resistance Army have forced more than 15,000 Congolese across the border into south Sudan.  UNHCR says that a military operation by the Congolese and Rwandan armies against the FDLR, a DRC-based Rwandan rebel group, was also adding to the number of Congolese civilians fleeing the country.


It says that most of these refugees came from the Congolese town of Aba, just across the border, which was attacked several times since January, and at least once just this past week.


Congolese civilians reaching the southern Sudanese town of Lasu told UNHCR that Aba, once the home of some 100,000 people, had been deserted.  The refugees in Lasu, while generally in good health, remain in need of aid.


Meanwhile, Congolese civilians who fled LRA attacks in the north-western Dungu area passed the 9,000 mark in January.


And further south, as a joint operation by the Congolese and Rwandan armies against DRC-based Rwandan rebels continues, UNHCR says it has helped some 3,000 Rwandan refugees return to their country in recent weeks.


** Côte d’Ivoire


The Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Côte d’Ivoire, Yunjin Choi, has called for the publication of a viable electoral timetable with precise stages and targets.  Choi was speaking earlier today in Ouagadougou at a meeting of the Monitoring and Evaluation Committee of the Ivorian peace agreement.


He briefed the gathering on the UN-assisted process, especially as it relates to preparations for a presidential election expected to take place this year.  He said that some 4,600,000 people have received identification papers and that this development was a strong signal of Côte d’Ivoire’s desire to end the political and security crisis.


Choi congratulated the Ivorian people and their leaders for the progress and urged them to press ahead in this effort. He pledged continued UN support for the redeployment of State administration and the disarmament of rebels and militias.  So far, he said, the UN Mission was able to reinsert some 1,200 former fighters into civilian life through its “Operation 1,000 microprojets”.


** Western Sahara


Following meetings in New York last week, including with the Secretary-General, Security Council members and the parties, Morocco and the Frente Polisario, the Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy for Western Sahara, Christopher Ross, is on his way to the region for consultations, beginning tomorrow in Rabat.  This will be his first visit to the area in his capacity as the Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy.


Mr. Ross will be in the region from tomorrow through 25 February, visiting Rabat, followed by Tindouf and Algiers, and will then travel to Madrid and Paris (capitals of two of the members of the Group of Friends) from 25 to 27 February.  He is expected to return to New York following this trip for further consultations at Headquarters.


** Georgia


The latest round of the international discussions on Georgia opened today at the UN’s Palais des Nations in Geneva.


We’ll have more information on the talks tomorrow, after the co-Presidents brief the Geneva press.


As you’ll recall, the co-Presidents include Johan Verbeke, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative and Head of the UN Observer Mission in Georgia, as well as representatives of the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).


** Gaza


The office of the UN’s Humanitarian Coordinator for the Occupied Palestinian Territory reports that three non-school emergency shelters, run by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), remain open in Gaza.  They host around 360 people, but the total number of displaced persons remains unknown.


Meanwhile, UNRWA is helping to run a vaccination campaign against measles, mumps and rubella, which is targeting 120,000 students in Gaza.  The campaign includes awareness sessions about infectious diseases, and each student is to receive a dose of Vitamin A.


For its part, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) has expressed concern that miscarriages and neonatal deaths increased in Gaza during the recent conflict.


Regarding food security, the World Food Programme (WFP) notes that, while vegetables are available, access to red meat, poultry meat and eggs is being affected by high prices resulting from shortages of animal feed.


The Humanitarian Coordinator’s office also reports that 50,000 Gazans still do not have access to running water.  And an additional 100,000 receive water every 7 to 10 days.  There is also a continued shortage of drinking water in schools.


**Environment


In an op-ed in today’s Financial Times, the Secretary-General and former United States Vice-President Al Gore call on Governments to make sure that planned stimulus packages not only address immediate economic and social needs but also launch a new green global economy.


They urge Governments to expand investments in energy efficiency, renewables, mass transit, reforestation and other projects, rather than pouring trillions of dollars into carbon-based infrastructure and fossil-fuel subsidies.  They also call for “pro-poor” policies, including increased development assistance and investments in agriculture in developing countries.


Lastly, they call for a robust climate deal in Copenhagen in December.  Starting today, climate negotiations need to be dramatically accelerated and given attention at the highest levels, they say.


**UNEP


The twenty-fifth session of the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Governing Council is taking place all this week in Nairobi.  In a message to those gathered, the Secretary-General notes that an environmental thread runs through the world’s recent crises, from the recent surge in food and fuel prices to the current financial turmoil.  This creates a tremendous opportunity to increase the momentum for sustainable development.  We have the text of his remarks upstairs, as well as several press releases from UNEP, on the following topics:  the launch of the UNEP Yearbook 2009, which focuses on the importance of realizing a Global Green New Deal and the urgent need for a transition to a low-carbon and resource efficient Green Economy; a call for one third of the roughly $2.5 trillion in planned stimulus packages to be invested in “greening” the world economy; a new report outlining a plan to reduce the risk of hunger and rising food insecurity in the twenty-first century by changing the ways in which food is produced, handled and disposed of; and the announcement of a partnership between UNEP and Microsoft to address environmental issues through technology.  Of course, you have all of these upstairs available to you.


**Statement on Durban Review Conference


We have a statement attributable to the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General.


The Secretary-General welcomes the United States’ decision to send a delegation to engage in the preliminary negotiations to finalize the draft outcome document of the Durban Review Conference, scheduled for 20-24 April 2009 in Geneva, Switzerland.


The Secretary-General urges all Member States to engage constructively on all the outstanding issues of the outcome document to ensure a successful outcome of the Conference.


The Secretary-General condemns racism in all its forms and manifestations.  Combating and eliminating discrimination and inequality require active engagement by all.


**International Telecommunication Union


Finally, a new report by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has offered several suggestions to help telecommunication companies survive the current economic crisis.


For example, it says that now is a good time to focus on low‑cost products.  At the same time, the report notes that demand for cell phones is still strong in developing countries, with record new subscribers in emerging markets like Brazil, India and Nigeria at the end of 2008.


And this is all I have for you.  Yes?


**Questions and Answers


Question:  Michèle, thank you.  My question is about the Congo.  We understand that the Rwandese forces are in Congo with the consent of the Congolese authorities.  What is the position of the Secretary-General of this heightened damage on civilian lives due to this joint operation?


Spokesperson:  We have been talking about this for weeks now; for several days.  The joint operation is not supported by the UN in any way.  We don’t give active support to either one of the armies involved.  It’s a bilateral agreement between them and we have already expressed very strongly our concern about civilian lives.  Yes, Erol?


Question:  Thank you, Michèle.  Michèle, today the Foreign Minister of Serbia is meeting at 3 the Secretary-General.  How long is the meeting predicted to go on and what topics are expected to be covered?


Spokesperson:  I cannot tell you at this point.  The time is already on the Secretary-General’s schedule.  You have it upstairs.  And what we’ll try to do is to get you a readout after that; as soon as it is over.


Question:  Okay.  Was the Secretary-General expecting this meeting?  Is this an extraordinary or a regular meeting?  Was it announced a long time before, because somehow it is coming at the same day of the Kosovo independence anniversary, so it could be of some political significance in that…


Spokesperson:  No, it was something that was planned before.  It was scheduled before.  Yes, Tarek?


Question:  Just a follow-up to this question regarding the first anniversary of the independence of Kosovo.  Is there anything the Secretary-General wants to say about this occasion, and is this topic one of the issues to be discussed with the Serbian party’s meeting today?


Spokesperson:  No, we have no specific comments at this point.  In terms of the meeting today, you’re talking about the same meeting as Erol?


Question:  Right.


Spokesperson:  Yes, well, I’ll let you know what happens during that meeting.


Question:  Okay.  I have a question about this UN report on Afghanistan and this high number of… [inaudible] last year by US and NATO air strikes.  Is there anything Mr. Ban Ki-moon is going to do in order to minimize the number of civilians killed?  Does he intend to launch, like, an investigation committee there?  Does he talk to the Americans about this high number of civilians killed?


Spokesperson:  I’d like to say that I have myself read at least 10 statements asking for the protection of civilians and saying that the number of civilian casualties was too high.  I think that consistently the Secretary-General has been addressing that issue.  So it’s not a new issue for us.  It’s something we have been saying over and over again, that the number of casualties is way too high.  Yes, Masood?


Question:  Maybe the Secretary-General has issued the statement already on this issue of annexation of some land by the Israeli authorities in the West Bank which was protested by President Abbas yesterday.  Do you have any statement from the Secretary-General on that?


Spokesperson:  No, I don’t.  Not at this point.  We are closely following that situation and we have people on the ground following that situation.


Question:  I also wanted to find out; is there any progress on the appointment of this fact-finding commission on Benazir Bhutto’s murder?


Spokesperson:  I don’t have anything new to report on that.  Yes, Dennis?


Question:  Thank you Michèle.  Does the Secretary-General have any comments on Saudi Arabia’s decision to appoint its first ever female minister?


Spokesperson:  The Secretary-General always welcomes situations in which women are given their proper place.


Question:  Two questions:  Myanmar and Sri Lanka.  Myanmar, the human rights envoy, Quintana, is there and some have raised criticism that he flew in a military helicopter to meet with one of the rebel groups that signed with the Government.  Is that appropriate and, two, does either Mr. Gambari or the Secretary-General have any comment on […] since Gambari was there the continued house arrest of [inaudible] and two parliamentarians being sentenced to 15-year terms.  Is this consistent with this call to release political prisoners?


Spokesperson:  Not it’s not consistent.  It’s definitely not consistent.


Question:  And how about this flying in a military…  I don’t know, they are calling it kind of a show trip, showboating trip on the side of the Government.  What is the way in which the UN should, I guess, make these visits to Myanmar?


Spokesperson:  It’s difficult to answer at this point.  We have to adapt ourselves to circumstances on the ground and, of course, you know what the objective of Mr. Gambari was in going there and what the objectives of the Secretary-General are.


Question:  There are reports from Sri Lanka today that the President has said that he has invited Ban Ki-moon to visit the country.  I wanted to know if you are aware of that invitation and if it includes the whole country or only parts of the country.  And then also, does the UN system have any estimate of the number of civilian casualties caused by either side since this most recent upsurge in conflict has begun in Sri Lanka?  Some say it’s well over a thousand or larger than it was in Gaza.  What is the number…?


Spokesperson:  We don’t have an exact count.  As you know, we have some people from the UN ‑- I just read a note on this ‑- who are themselves trapped in that area where the civilians are trapped.  We don’t have an overall evaluation; we have no way of knowing what the exact count is.


Question:  Is that something that the UN is trying to do?  I mean, at what point, I guess what level of casualties would…?


Spokesperson:  We’re trying to save people.


Question:  Exactly.


Spokesperson:  Right now, what we’re trying to do most is not counting bodies; it’s trying to save the living.  Right now, we have been calling for civilians to be allowed to leave the area of fighting.  We have been asking that they be able to do so without being harmed in any war and we have denounced the fact that some of them were shot at and killed.


Question:  I heard the statement that you said; and you said that the Secretary-General or the UN calls for them to refrain from fighting in areas of civilian concentration.  Is that a call for a ceasefire and if not, why not, given the level of civilian casualties in this area?


Spokesperson:  We have been asking for the hostilities to stop…


Question:  In all areas?  Not just in the areas that those people come out of…I’m sorry to belabour the point…


Spokesperson:  Our concern is about the civilian areas.  Our concern is that these people be allowed to leave the area; including our own people who are also trapped with the civilian population in there.  And you know they went in there to help.  They were carrying food and all the essentials to the Vanni area where civilians are.  So, to us what is foremost is civilian lives.  Whether you want to call it a ceasefire or not, it seems to me it’s a theoretical question.


Question:  There has been a lot coverage saying that actually over the weekend the UN statement became decidedly…obviously the LTTE has done a lot of bad things, but all the statements have been about … UNICEF said that they were recruiting child soldiers, the UN said that they’re firing; there didn’t seem to be any commentary on the Government’s actions.  So, I guess I just want to say that the tenor, some are saying…


Spokesperson:  Well, this is what we get from ground, from people on the ground in the UN agencies who are witnessing these different situations.


Question:  But not the number of casualties?  Can you identify…


Spokesperson: No, that we have no way to evaluate, really.  I mean, we don’t have observers there counting bodies; no, we don’t.


Question:  No, not counting bodies.  But would it be helpful to have observers?


Spokesperson:  It could be definitely helpful [to have access to the people in need].  And in terms of the invitation, yes, the Secretary-General received an invitation to go to Sri Lanka.  He has not made any decision on when and whether he will go.  Yes, Edie.


Question:  Just a follow-up to Matthew’s question.  In the region, it’s well known among journalists that UN experts have done a calculation on the bare minimum of civilian casualties but that they are not releasing these figures, apparently for political reasons.  And I wondered why those figures aren’t being released when in Gaza, there were figures released regularly.


Spokesperson:  The difference is that, in Gaza, we have 9,000 people who are, working there.  There is a whole UNRWA contingent, as you know, in Gaza.  Now, whether it is for political reasons, I would say I deny what you said.  It is not for political reasons.  It is simply because we cannot confirm those numbers.  Those are estimates and we cannot actually broadcast estimates if we are not sure of what they are.  These evaluations were made for the simple purpose of knowing how many people we were assisting, but they were not reliable in any way.  They were just estimates.  That’s what they are.  We cannot be issuing numbers that we’re not sure of.


Question:  I’m sorry to ask this; is the estimate higher or lower than the number the UN came out with for Gaza?


Spokesperson:  That I cannot tell.  I have to go back and see.  I cannot tell you at this point.


[The Spokesperson later clarified that the United Nations does not generally issue casualty figures.  When the recent United Nations flash appeal for Gaza was launched, for example, it attributed its casualty figures to the Palestinian Ministry of Health.]


Question:  Two questions, both of them relate directly or indirectly to Gaza.  You said the whole UNRWA contingent is in Gaza.  Do I interpret that correctly?  There are no UNRWA operations at the moment in the West Bank?


Spokesperson:  No, no, no.  I am not saying that.  I said we have [inaudible] people there on a daily basis.  We have 9,000 people in Gaza.  We have people in the West Bank also.


Question:  So, there must be 12… 15,000 UNRWA employees altogether, something like that?


Spokesperson:  You can check the number very easily by getting in touch with UNRWA.


Question:  Okay.  What is the status, Michèle, of the commission being set up to investigate the attacks on or abuse of civilians during the recent three-week Gaza conflict and do they understand that they have to investigate, you know, treatment to civilians by both sides in that conflict?


Spokesperson:  As you know, you have different investigations going on.  There is a Board or Inquiry on the UN side dealing with civilian casualties and damages done to UN buildings and UN property.  That’s one commission that is going to go in the next few days.  Then you have the commission that was set up by the Human Rights Council and there was a resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council.  Now, they have not yet found someone who would take charge of that, an eminent personality who would actually deal with that investigation.  So right now, they are still looking for people and I understand that the terms of reference could go beyond what the resolution said.


Question: That’s the HRC resolution from Geneva?


Spokesperson:  Yes.


Question:  And, of course, they are being kept abreast of and being kept apprised of any investigations on the part of the Israelis as well, are they not?


Spokesperson:  Yes, exactly.


Question:  Michèle, has the office of the Secretary-General any clue through its independent sources about the reports of the enforced disappearances of Baloch men and women in Balochistan of Pakistan and were you aware of the reports in January from Reporters Sans Frontiers of information sent by the Red Cross Committee and the Hong Kong-based human rights organization Asian Human Rights that there were reported rapes of Baloch women by Pakistan military and its intelligence agencies during their custody?


Spokesperson:  I am sure the Secretary-General is aware of these reports.  We don’t have, as you know, any way to verify them.  But we have heard of those reports, definitely.  Yes, Masood.


Question:  Michèle, I just want to find out and really want to get a handle on it.  The Secretary-General announced on 4 February a formation of an inquiry commission to look into Benazir Bhutto.  But since then nothing has moved.  What has happened?  Why isn’t the commission moving forward?  I just don’t seem to understand that.


Spokesperson:  As you know, they were discussing the terms of reference; they were discussing a number of issues, but I will try to get more for you on that and find out whether there was anything new.  If something comes out very soon, I’ll let you know, of course.


Question:  There are reports of either an attempted coup or an assault on the presidential palace in Equatorial Guinea.  I am wondering if anyone in the UN system has heard that, has any knowledge or comment on these reports?


Spokesperson:  I am not aware of them and if we have something this afternoon, of course, I will let you know.


Thank you very much.


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