1 May 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.


**Press Conference Today


Following the briefing here at 12:30, Michael Clark, senior adviser to the President of the General Assembly, will be here to brief you on the General Assembly’s upcoming Economic Crisis Summit.  That’s in 20 minutes.


I see that we have some guests here.  Welcome to the UN.


**H1N1 Flu


Here at UN Headquarters this morning, the Deputy Secretary-General held a town hall meeting to update UN staff on the outbreak caused by the influenza A (H1N1) virus, as it is called now.  Joining the Deputy Secretary-General via videoconference, Assistant Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Keiji Fukuda gave an overview of the epidemic.  He said that, as of this morning, the number of lab-confirmed cases of H1N1 had risen to 331 ‑‑ up from 236 yesterday.  Eleven countries are reporting cases ‑‑ with 156 cases reported in Mexico, 109 in the US and 34 in Canada, among other countries.


Fukuda said that the virus was capable of creating a pandemic but that we were not at that point yet.  Noting that outside Mexico infections have been mostly mild, he said that the question now was to see how this was going to evolve.  He also said that the concern was whether the virus would spread in the southern hemisphere, adding that the impact could be different there.


For her part, the Deputy Secretary-General said that the primary focus was on the safety and security of staff and assets but that there was also plans for continuing to provide critical functions wherever the UN is working.  Headquarters offices have developed preparedness and continuity plans, and have tested them, she added.


She encouraged staff to keep themselves informed through meetings, websites and the intranet ‑‑ noting the launch on Monday of a “UN Staff Pandemic Information Portal” that enables staff to received updated information if working away from the office.


And just a few minutes ago, the World Health Organization wrapped up a press conference, focusing mostly on the development of a vaccine against the H1N1 virus.  WHO said that there was little chance that the current vaccine used against seasonal influenza would be effective against this particular virus.  It added that it was in discussion with manufacturers to start producing a vaccine as soon as possible.  However, having the first dosage available for immunization will take four to six months, according to WHO.  WHO also said that it was in discussions to make sure the vaccine was available to the poorest people in developing countries.


**Briefing on Outbreak of Influenza A (H1N1)


An informal meeting of the General Assembly will be held on Monday, 4 May, at 9 a.m. in Conference Room 3, to hear a briefing by the Secretary-General on the outbreak of influenza A (H1N1) and the state of preparedness of the Organization.  Member States are obviously invited to attend.


He will be joined by Margaret Chan, Director-General of WHO by videoconference, the Deputy Secretary-General and David Nabarro, the Senior UN System Coordinator for Influenza.  That’s Monday morning at 9 a.m.


** Sri Lanka – Update


Security forces continue their operations in the northern conflict zone.  Heavy fighting is reported.  This is from the latest update from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) that says, as of today, more than 172,000 people have crossed out of the conflict zone, mostly in the last 10 days.  One hundred seventy thousand people are accommodated at temporary camps in 38 sites in four districts of the north and east of the country, while around 2,000 wounded persons and their caregivers are in hospitals.


There have been no new arrivals at the Omanthai screening point in the last 48 hours, and the Government of Sri Lanka informs us that none are in transit.  We believe that 50,000 people remain in the conflict zone.


Congestion in the camps remains one of the most serious concerns, as shelter in the camps remains inadequate.  In Trincomalee, the UN Refugee Agency has started to set up tents, while UNICEF has been working on the provision of sanitation while also starting to build wells.


Despite repeated calls by the United Nations and the International Red Cross, they still have no access to the screening point at Kilinochchi.


The UN Refugee Agency also says a second team of UNHCR emergency experts is scheduled to arrive today in Sri Lanka.  The team of four includes specialists on community services, protection and other essential field functions.  This follows the earlier deployment of five UNHCR experts to Sri Lanka’s north in February and March.


While thousands of displaced people continue to arrive, others are returning to their homes in the first Government-organized return operation in northern Sri Lanka in years.  The area to which they are returning was for a long time the frontline in the fighting between Government forces and LTTE rebels.


UNHCR says it welcomes these returns as a positive development.  While the number of those returning to their homes is still small, it is an important starting point, it says.  The United Nations hopes that returns to other areas in northern Sri Lanka will also be possible soon.


**East Jerusalem


In its latest report regarding the humanitarian situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) underlines the humanitarian impact of current building policies and house demolitions in East Jerusalem.


OCHA says that the failure of the Israeli occupying authorities to provide Palestinian residents with adequate planning, together with the expropriation of about one third of annexed East Jerusalem lands for the construction of settlements, have resulted in a housing crisis for the Palestinian population in East Jerusalem.


While about 190,000 Israeli settlers currently live in East Jerusalem, Palestinians face significant obstacles to building and are confronted with a serious housing shortage.  Excessive delays, high fees and the uncertainty associated with the application process push many Palestinians to build without permits.  According to OCHA’s conservative estimate, as many as 60,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem are now exposed to the risk of house demolition.


In its report, OCHA underlines that, as the occupying Power, Israel must ensure that the basic needs of the Palestinian population of the Occupied Territory are met.  The report recommends that, as a positive first step, the Israeli authorities freeze pending demolition orders.  It also calls upon the Israeli authorities to undertake planning that will address the Palestinian housing crisis in East Jerusalem.


Copies of this report are available upstairs and online.


** Gaza


The UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Robert Serry, visited Gaza yesterday to assess the situation there, more than 100 days after the end of the recent conflict.  He was informed of the ongoing and deepening difficulties facing businesses, families and civic groups in Gaza as they attempt to recover, rebuild and restore normal life.


Serry said, “The situation is really alarming.”  He warned that it is impossible to fulfil humanitarian needs and begin early recovery without the adequate entry of fuel, cash and materials needed for repairs.


“Time is passing and there is no real progress,” he said.  “Tens of thousands of Gazans whose homes were hit in the conflict now face a sweltering summer in unacceptable circumstances without proper shelter. It’s simply urgent to begin rebuilding and repairing homes.”


There’s a press release on this upstairs as well.


** Lebanon


On the racks is the latest report on the implementation of Security Council resolution 1559 (2004), concerning Lebanon. In it, the Secretary-General writes that the domestic political and security situation in the country have continued to improve markedly over the past six months.


He remains concerned, however, at occasional security incidents, which highlight the proliferation of weapons and armed groups that continue to operate in Lebanon.  The Secretary-General writes that he is concerned by security incidents in and around Palestinian camps.  He calls on Hizbullah to cease any militant activities outside Lebanon and to complete its transformation into a solely Lebanese political party, consistent with the requirements of the Taif Agreement.


Regarding the parliamentary elections scheduled for next month, the Secretary-General says that he is glad that the Lebanese leaders have committed themselves to free and fair elections devoid of violence and inflammatory rhetoric.  The report, as I mentioned, is out on the racks today.


**Security Council


With the start of a new month, Russia has assumed the rotating Presidency of the Security Council.  The new Council President, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, intends to brief you in this room on Monday following Council consultations on the programme of work.  We expect that briefing to take place at 11:30 a.m. before the noon briefing.


The Security Council wrapped up its work for April yesterday afternoon by adopting a presidential statement, in which it commended the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders for the political leadership they have shown and warmly welcomed the progress made so far in the fully fledged negotiations and their leaders’ joint statements.  The Council strongly urges the leaders to increase the momentum in negotiations, and it expressed its full support for the Secretary-General’s good offices mission.


The Council also extended the mandates of the UN peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara, known as MINURSO, and of the UN Mission in Sudan, or UNMIS, both by one year, until the end of April 2010.


** Central African Republic


I was asked yesterday about reported attacks by Government troops on civilians in the Central African Republic.  In a response, I can say the following:


“The Secretary-General is concerned about any developments that could undermine the ongoing peace consolidation process in the Central African Republic. He views respect for human rights as a critical element for sustainable peace in that country.  He, therefore, remains concerned about reports of alleged human rights violations in the country.  And as he has consistently done on several occasions in his reports and meetings with the authorities of the CAR, he once again calls for the respect of human rights and the rule of law.”


** South Africa


Just turning to a couple of other items, the UN Refugee Agency says it has been invited by the Nelson Mandela Foundation to help steer a two-year strategy to combat xenophobia in South Africa.  You can read more about this on UNHCR’s website.


**Press Freedom


Sunday will be World Press Freedom Day.  In a message to mark this day, the Secretary-General says that attacks on journalists remain shockingly high in number and that murder and detention are only the most blatant ways that journalists are silenced. Often, he adds, fear leads journalists to censor themselves.  He also voices concern that some Governments are suppressing Internet access and the work of Internet-based journalists and others using the “new media”.


On World Press Freedom Day, the Secretary-General pays tribute to all those who work in difficult conditions to ensure that the rest of the world can have access to free and unbiased information.  Let us renew our resolve to protect their freedom and safety, he says, and let us proclaim again our commitment to free and independent media as an essential agent of human rights, development and peace.  We have that message available upstairs.


**SG Appointment


The Secretary-General has appointed Ms. Marta Santos Pais of Portugal as his Special Representative on Violence against Children at the Assistant Secretary-General level.


This appointment was made following the recommendation included in the UN Secretary-General’s Study on Violence against Children.  The General Assembly, at its sixty-second session, adopted resolution 62/141 requesting the Secretary-General to appoint for a period of three years a Special Representative on Violence against Children.


Ms. Pais is currently the Director of the UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, a post she has held since 2001.  She joined UNICEF in 1997 as Director of Evaluation, Policy and Planning and served as Co-Chair of the UN Development Group’s Working Group on Human Rights.  You can read more about this appointment upstairs in the Secretary-General’s announcement.


**The Week Ahead


The Week Ahead is available to you for your planning purposes.  Next Monday, I mentioned earlier, bright and early at 9 a.m., the Secretary-General will be addressing the General Assembly on the H1N1 influenza.


On Tuesday at 11 a.m. here in Room 226, the Secretary-General is planning to hold his monthly press conference.


The guest at the noon briefing on Wednesday will be Karin Landgren, the Secretary-General’s Representative in Nepal and the Head of the UN Mission (UNMIN) there and she will brief on the situation in that country.


In a few minutes, we will have our guest today, the senior adviser for the President of the General Assembly, who actually has just arrived.  So if there are some quick questions for me, I will take them.  Masood?


Questions and Answers


Question: In view of this report on demolitions in the occupied territories, has the Secretary-General spoken with anybody since this report to date ‑‑ at all ‑‑ in order to underscore with the Israelis to stop these demolitions?  And at least correct this situation?  This is a catch-22.  They can’t get the permit, but if they don’t have the permit, they cannot rebuild.  Has he spoken to anybody?


Deputy Spokesperson:  As you know, we just got this report today.  And I have nothing beyond that for the briefing today.


Matthew.  And then Tarek.  And then Fox News in the back.  Oh, sorry‑‑


Question:  One more.  This question I have not asked in a long time:  Since the Secretary-General’s ‑‑ what do you call it, an “inquiry commission”? ‑‑ inquiry commission on Benazir Bhutto went to Pakistan and came back in the middle of last month and presented its report to the Secretary-General, is there anything that you can tell us about what it said?  What was its report that it gave to the Secretary-General?  And when will the commission, in fact, begin its work?


Deputy Spokesperson:  Unfortunately, Masood, I don’t have any further developments on that.  If I did, you know you’d be the first one to know.


Question:  Can you find out what they said to the Secretary-General?


Deputy Spokesperson:  As you know, we are constantly seeking updates on the issues that you and others are interested in and as soon as we have them, we try to get them to you.


Matthew, and then Tarek.


Question:  Sri Lanka and then Myanmar.  Yesterday, Mr. Holmes in his briefing of the Council mentioned his concerns and, I guess, the UN’s concerns about a memorandum of understanding that the Sri Lankan Government is trying to impose on non-governmental organizations that will require them to report information on everyone ‑‑ on people that they serve.  Can the UN either provide a copy of the document or say more ‑‑ whether it has accepted conditions like this in any country in which OCHA does the mediating between NGOs and groups?


And, also, there was a lack of a UNTV camera yesterday.  There was an informal interactive dialogue at the end of which the President of the Council came out to make a speech, which he thought was to the world, but somehow the decision was made not to have a camera.  Who made that decision?


Deputy Spokesperson:  As you mentioned yourself, Matthew, it was not a consultation or a meeting of the Security Council, so you’ll have to address that question to the Security Council President. I can’t comment on John Holmes’ comments during that session as it was not an official meeting.  It was a closed interactive session, as you mentioned.  And OCHA has provided the update today about the very dire situation in Sri Lanka.  The Secretary-General’s concerns remain the same on this.  So any further conversations about OCHA’s relations with NGOs, you should probably take up with OCHA directly.


Question:  But the previous informal ‑‑ with the same exact format ‑‑ there was a camera and they started at exactly the same time.  So I guess my question is, are you saying that it’s entirely up to the presidency?


Deputy Spokesperson:  Please, address the Security Council on this issue.


Yes?


Question:  Mr. [Claudio] Graziano [United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) commander] has said today that the elections in June, which are happening in Lebanon, could impact on the work of UNIFIL in south Lebanon.  Which way does he mean that?  Is there an explanation?  And does such a statement not affect or influence the people or the voters in this way or another way?


Deputy Spokesperson:  I have nothing beyond what the Secretary-General’s report says.  But we did have one Week Ahead announcement that‑‑


Question:  Mr. Graziano today made a statement to a newspaper in Beirut saying the elections could impact on the work of UNIFIL in south Lebanon.


Deputy Spokesperson:  I don’t have anything further than what you’ve‑‑ if you’ve seen an interview in the press, I have nothing beyond that.


But I do have one thing that I did forget to mention, which is that the Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, Alain Le Roy, will begin a visit to Lebanon to the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) and the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) starting tomorrow.  And that we’ve asked him to brief you upon his return.


Tarek?


Question:  Just a follow-up to Masood’s first question.  You know today, Israel made what may be the first time in the last few weeks an air-strike destroying tunnels between Gaza and Egypt.  So I was wondering if you have any comments to that?  And does Mr. Ban Ki-moon consider such action as a legitimate action to be taken by the Israelis or not?


Deputy Spokesperson:  This is the first I’ve heard of this report, so I would have to look into that.


Yes, Fox News?


Question:  Just given that it’s World [Press] Freedom Day and we’ve just heard the statement from Secretary-General regarding that, has he been doing anything ‑‑ will he be doing anything to try and secure the release of Roxanna Saberi, who’s being held in Iran?  And also the two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who are also being held in North Korea?


Deputy Spokesperson:  I don’t have specific comments on the situations, but his comments, which I just referred to you on Press Freedom Day, apply to all journalists working around the world.


Question:  Has there been ‑‑ is the office, is his office doing anything to try and get some sort of action done to resolve this ‑‑?


Deputy Spokesperson:  On the matter with the journalist held in Iran, I can tell you that that subject did come up when the Secretary-General met with the Iranian leader in Geneva recently.


Question:  And on North Korea?


Deputy Spokesperson:  I don’t have anything on that.


Question:  Can I ask you one more question?  There’s a ‑‑ Human Rights Watch and other groups have said there are 20 aid workers that were arrested in the wake of Cyclone Nargis for things such as “public mischief” and sentenced for up to 35 years in jail.  They’re calling on the UN to use what leverage it has to try to get these aid workers released.  Has the UN been doing anything?


Deputy Spokesperson:  Let me check with OCHA on that for you.  Okay?


Question:  And one last thing.  I’ve heard that the National Competitive Exam through which people work for the UN on a competitive basis from underrepresented countries is slated to be eliminated in 2010 according to OHRM [Office of Human Resources Management].  Are you aware of that?  And, if so, what would replace it in terms of an open and non-transparent way‑‑


Deputy Spokesperson: I don’t know anything about that subject.


[The Deputy Spokesperson later told the reporter that the United Nations is not scrapping the National Competitive Examinations.  They have been temporarily suspended for revamping to make them more efficient.]


So with that, thank you.  And we have our guest, Michael Clark, the senior adviser to the President of the General Assembly.  And he’s here to brief you on the General Assembly’s upcoming Economic Crisis Summit.  And I think [General Assembly President Spokesperson] Enrique Yeves will moderate this.  Thank you.


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