9 February 2011
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 Martin Nesirky, Spokesperson for the Secretary-General.


Good afternoon, everybody.


**Security Council


Haile Menkerios, the head of the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), briefed the Security Council this morning on the self-determination referendum in the country.  Mr. Menkerios emphasized the historical significance of the referendum, saying that, by recognizing the validity and the legitimacy of the outcome, the Government of Sudan has most likely ended one of Africa’s most protracted and deadliest conflicts.  Sudan, he said, has given us an example of how the spirit of peace can overcome decades of war.


He also commended the parties for their efforts to prevent and contain the violence in Abyei.  He urged the parties to redouble their efforts to keep the peace on the ground, while taking advantage of the political momentum they have built in other areas to conclusively address the deeper issues driving the Abyei conflict.


**Disaster Risk Reduction


You’ve just seen the press conference concerning today’s informal thematic debate in the General Assembly on disaster risk reduction.  The Secretary-General addressed that debate, saying that last year, more than a quarter of a million people were killed by disasters.  It was one of the deadliest years in more than a generation.


He warned that this year may prove to be just as costly.  We have already seen grievous disasters in Australia and Brazil.  Lives can be saved by advance planning, the Secretary-General said, and by building schools, homes, hospitals, communities and cities to withstand hazards.  Such measures to reduce risk will grow ever more important as our climate changes and extreme events become more frequent and intense.  We have his remarks in my office.


**Secretary-General’s Travels


The Secretary-General will travel on Sunday to Ecuador, to pay an official visit to the country.  He will meet with President Rafael Correa and other senior Government officials while in Quito.  From Ecuador, the Secretary-General will travel to Peru, where he will meet with President Alan García and other Government officials.  He also expects to meet former Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar.  The Secretary-General will be back at UN Headquarters on Wednesday.


** Sri Lanka


As we mentioned yesterday, for the second time in less than a month, monsoon rains have forced tens of thousands of Sri Lankans from their homes in many parts of the country.  Josette Sheeran, the Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP), said today that the Programme is now delivering life-saving food supplies to half a million people.  The floods last month already damaged the rice harvest — and, as you know, rice is the staple food in Sri Lanka.  Given the volatility of food prices around the world, Ms. Sheeran said that such disruption in the production of staple commodities in developing countries is worrying.


** Democratic Republic of the Congo


The UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) says that its human rights investigators have gathered information on eight new cases of rape committed by Congolese Government troops on 31 December-1 January in the North Kivu villages of Bushan and Kalambahiro.  This brings to 40 the number of documented rapes in the two villages.  Seven other women have suffered other types of sexual violence during the attack, the Mission said.  During last week’s trip to the region, the Mission’s human rights officers also provided assistance to the local military prosecutor and to aid groups working with victims of sexual violence.


** Cyprus


The Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders had a “good discussion” today about the way forward, the Secretary-General’s Special Adviser, Alexander Downer, told reporters in Nicosia.  As you’ll recall, the leaders met with the Secretary-General last month in Geneva.  Consistent with those talks in Geneva, the leaders today decided to intensify the process over the coming weeks, and agreed to meet every Wednesday.


** Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia


Matthew Nimetz, the Personal Envoy of the Secretary-General, met separately with the representatives of Greece and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia yesterday and today.  He will hold an informal meeting with both representatives shortly.  The purpose of the meeting is to give the parties an opportunity to present — to Mr. Nimetz and to each other — the respective positions of their Governments with respect to the differences between them.  The meeting also seeks to ascertain whether there are areas that should be explored further and to determine the next steps in the process with the overall goal of reaching a speedy resolution to the “name” issue.


**Holocaust Memorial


Tomorrow, the United Nations will mark the International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust.  The ceremony will be held in the General Assembly Hall from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. and is open to journalists with their UN grounds passes.  The ceremony was originally scheduled to have taken place on 27 January, but had to be cancelled because the UN Headquarters was closed that day because of heavy snow.


The theme of this year's memorial ceremony is “Women and the Holocaust:  Courage and Compassion”.  The Secretary-General will deliver remarks in the ceremony, which is being hosted by Kiyo Akasaka, the Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information.  There will also be statements made by Joseph Deiss, the President of the General Assembly; Ehud Barak, the Deputy Prime Minister of the State of Israel; and Ambassador Rosemary DiCarlo, the United States Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations.


That’s what I have.  Questions, please?  Yes, Mr. Abbadi?


**Questions and Answers


Question:  Thank you, Martin.  The Secretary-General said, regarding the Middle East negotiations, that Egypt played a key role and that this role must be preserved.  And he went on to say that the President himself, [Hosni] Mubarak himself, has been playing a key role in this process.  Does that imply that he would like Mubarak to continue to play the role, no matter what happened to him?


Spokesperson:  I think the Secretary-General is simply saying that Egypt has a strategic role in the Middle East peace process, and has played an important part in the peace process over many years, and that that’s why, when the Quartet met against the backdrop of the events unfolding in Egypt, they were very mindful of that point.  I don’t think that thee is anything further to be read into that.  Yes, Masood?


Question:  On this proposed Security Council trip to the Middle East that was proposed yesterday by the Russian Ambassador, what is the Secretary-General’s point of view on this; that such a trip should be undertaken, do you know?


Spokesperson:  This is really a matter for the Council.  The Secretary-General is clearly aware of the proposal by the Russian Permanent Representative and I know that my colleagues within the Department of Political Affairs are also very aware of the proposal.  Let us see what happens next.  It is really a matter for the Council members to decide whether that takes place or not.


Question:  Given the fact that yesterday he expressed alarm and concern about what is happening in the Middle East, and with the Middle East peace process, does he… would he… All I am saying, I am asking, is will he support such a trip?


Spokesperson:  I don’t think, with respect, it is for the Secretary-General to support or not to support something that is being proposed by the Council.  It’s for the Council members to decide themselves.  In general, of course, the Secretary-General is both concerned about the pace of the negotiations and the peace process, and that is why the Quartet was keen to try to provide some extra impetus to that.  But also, he is aware that there are many different ways that can be used to help to encourage parties in the peace process.  Yes, Jonathan?


Question:  No, I wasn’t raising a hand yet, but I will, I guess I will ask the question.  The House of Representatives today is going to be debating and then ultimately probably voting on a measure calling on the United Nations to return some $179 million that is owed to the United States.  And I am trying to find out what the UN’s position is on this money; what the UN would like to see happen to the money?  And there is an internal House debate as to how that money would be spent.  One of the proposals under debate is to spend the money on shoring up UN security; spending some $100 million of US taxpayers’ money towards that goal.  What is the UN’s position on that, as well, and is that an equitable way to handle those funds, seeing that UN matters are usually covered by all the Member States, as opposed to leaving it up to solely the United States to pay for such…?


Spokesperson:  Well, there are a number of points here, Jonathan.  First of all, let us be clear that this money belongs to the United States, and it is for the United States authorities to determine where it goes.  And they do that in consultation with the United Nations, of course; $179 million in the tax equalization fund — that is money that has accumulated over a number of years, in fact, since January of 1996.  The security of UN Headquarters is one of the obligations of the host country — the United States.  Already, through the renovations that are being undertaken in this building as we all know, there is an element covering security.


The funding for that renovation, the so-called Capital Master Plan, was approved in 2006 by the General Assembly.  Since then, the United States and the United Nations security authorities, the United States being the host authority, have looked at security and believe that there are heightened security concerns that mean that there needs to be security upgrade.  The cost of that security upgrade is $100 million.  The United States, under its host country obligations, is funding that security upgrade.  And that’s what I can tell you.  It leaves $79 million in the tax equalization fund that I mentioned.


Question:  A follow-up question?  Has the United Nations received $179 million as yet, or it’s just being appropriated and they are just saying that it is not even given to you right now?


Spokesperson:  No, this is money — to explain what it is — the United States levies taxes on its nationals, if they are working for the United Nations, on their UN earnings.  And it reimburses the United Nations for that.  And the balance in the tax equalization fund represents the net amount due to the United States after these reimbursements have been taken into account.  And in fact, in some financial periods, there is a surplus; and in some financial periods there might be a deficit.  And the net balance at the moment, which has accumulated, as I mentioned, since 1996, is $179 million.  $100 million has been, it has been decided, the United States has decided that $100 million will be used to fund the security upgrade, which both the host country — the United States — and UN security authorities believe is essential because of heightened security concerns.


Question:  Basically, it is United Nations money; that’s what it is?


Spokesperson:  No, it is United States money.  It is United States money. And you know, to be very clear again, the money belongs to the United States, and it is for the United States authorities to determine where it goes.  And of course they do that in consultation with us, with the United Nations.  Matthew?


Question:  Yeah, what you said that it was taxing its citizens and that it is returning that to the United Nations…


Spokesperson:  As you know, United States citizens are taxed and other citizens, other nationals who work for the United Nations, have an equivalent amount, the staff assessment deducted from their salaries.  That’s how it works.  Yes?


Question:  Yeah, I just wanted to — because, in a response that your office sent me, it said the present discussion is about security.  So, I wanted to know, when was this $100 million that it could be, instead of being put towards the United States dues and used for security, when was that decided?  Who in… who made that communication?  And the secondary thing is, if the [General Assembly] had to approve the overall Capital Master Plan, has this additional $100 million, I am told it had to do with the conference rooms, did this go back to the [General Assembly]?  Is this considered an overrun?  And why didn’t the UN — they put on iSeek things like a million dollars from Norway, $2 million dollars from China for various parts of the Capital Master Plan.  Why… Was this ever going to be announced or was this sort of done…?


Spokesperson:  Well, let us try to explain this.  I think this comes back to what I was saying yesterday, and as I said just at the beginning here, this is United States money.  It is for the United States authorities to determine what happens to that money.  I think if you contact the State Department as others have done, Ms. [Esther] Brimmer has, I believe, explained the rationale behind the United States State Department’s decision to use the $100 million from the tax equalization fund and that’s the address for that question. 


Question:  Because there is now a dispute in the Congress about whether this was appropriately approved, whether anyone knew of this use of funds.  So, I am wondering, on what did the UN rely, would talk to the…?


Spokesperson:  That’s obviously not a question for the UN.


Question:  Would you talk to a Permanent Representative of a country and say, “I have the approval of the country”?  That’s why I think it is very specific to ask:  who did the UN speak with before saying we have $100 million from the United States?


Spokesperson:  I think it is not for the UN to comment on the decision-making process of any national Government.  You can easily ask the United States State Department for what they would like to say on that matter.


Question:  How about the General Assembly here?  How, isn’t the Capital Master Plan subject to General Assembly approval?  Isn’t the budget of it…?


Spokesperson:  This is a separate additional security upgrade that was the result of heightened security concerns.  As I mentioned to you, there already is in the Capital Master Plan — the renovation of the UN Headquarters — a component for security improvements for delegates, for staff and for visitors, of course, anybody who is coming to this building — many thousands of people.  And those security improvements, within the Capital Master Plan, were designed, of course, in consultation with host country security authorities; in other words, with the United States authorities.  And that the budget for the Capital Master Plan was indeed approved by the General Assembly in 2006.  This is a separate matter.


Question:  This was the Capital Master Plan.  Is that the full budget of the Capital Master Plan, or there are additional, are there any additional add-ons that are not being presented to the General Assembly that are just a matter between the UN and Member States and not disclosed to the General Assembly?


Spokesperson:  Well, that is obviously a very broad and sweeping question, and I am not going to give you a broad and sweeping answer.  I will ask our colleagues in the Capital Master Plan.  Other questions?  Yes, Jonathan?


Question:  Just a little more on this.  It’s not, honestly, it is not a fait accompli that the $100 million is going to go to what you are talking about, the security.  If the measure passes, the money will actually go to the coffers of the United States; it is not going to be immediately allocated to that cause, to the security issue.  What are the overriding concerns that the United Nations has if that is the outcome of today’s vote?


Spokesperson:  Well, it is not for me to comment on the legislative process of any country.  I would simply note that there are host country obligations, and security for the Headquarters of the United Nations is one of those obligations.  Yes?


Question:  A follow-up on Jonathan’s question.  The United States Mission is making it sound as if this is very urgent, that the money, we can’t go through the normal appropriation system because the money is needed right away.  From the UN side, why is there this sense of urgency for the security, all of a sudden?


Spokesperson:  That’s not a question for me; that is a question for the United States authorities.  Yes, Masood, did you have another question on this?  Okay.  Yes, Mr. Abbadi?


Question:  Thank you.  The Secretary-General is meeting with former Secretary-General Perez de Cuellar.  Is this a courtesy call or is it about substance?


Spokesperson:  I would think that if the Secretary-General meets a former Secretary-General, it is an element of both.  Of course, if he is in the country and the former Secretary-General is available to meet, it is both a courtesy and a very useful possibility for them to exchange views on what is happening in the world, and I think that is it.  It is a mix of the two.  Okay?  Yes, Matthew?


Question:  Yeah, I want to ask about Gabon and OIOS [Office of Internal Oversight Services].  In Gabon, there is this opposition leader, [Andre] Mba Obame, who is apparently, I wonder if you can confirm that, still under UN or UNDP [United Nations Development Programme] protection, but there are reports now of the Government blocking demonstrations.  There was one scheduled for 5 February, which the Government outlawed.  They have disbanded the party, the opposition party.  I just wondered, what’s the UN’s response?  I know the Secretary-General met with President [Ali] Bongo.  What do they feel — they have commented on other situations in the world where demonstrations are cracked down and parties are dissolved.  What is their thinking, I guess, on Gabon?  How do they distinguish from Côte d'Ivoire?


Spokesperson:  I think at the moment the key emphasis is on the delicate position of having the opposition leader and a number of his colleagues in the UNDP compound.  And as I have mentioned to you before, you are correct, there is no change — they are still there.  And as I have mentioned to you before, the Resident Coordinator is liaising with the authorities in Libreville to find a way to resolve this as soon as possible and in an equitable fashion.


Question:  Does that have to… I guess what I wondered is if the UN system’s engagement has anything to do with allowing freedom of association, protests, political parties, because there seems to be, by accounts there, kind of the type of crackdowns we’re seeing elsewhere, but without the UN saying anything about that.  Is the communication only about letting Mr. Obame leave in physical security, or is it about the tensions that came, brought the situation about?


Spokesperson:  I think let us distinguish between the two.  There is an obvious delicate diplomatic situation, which the UN Resident Coordinator and colleagues in Headquarters are seeking to resolve.  That is entirely separate from the way that we need to approach it from the more general principle of freedom of association and freedom of speech, both of which we obviously would support.  But, we need to be very clear that the Resident Coordinator is liaising with the authorities on this particular matter, and that is quite enough to be getting on with, I can assure you.  Yes?


Question:  Martin, last year, the UN’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Margot Wallström, named Congo as the rapecapital of the world.  What measures is the UN taking now in light of the increasing cases of rape in the Congo?  You had 40 new ones, that’s just since 2011 began.  What’s the time frame for that and is there anything else that is being done to try and curb these occurrences?


Spokesperson:  There is a lot being done, but there is a lot more that still needs to be done.  Ms. Wallström and the Secretary-General were both at the African Union Summit, and they both were able to spell out and to set out some of the measures that are being taken and also to really be very clear that what has been happening, particularly in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but in other countries too, is wholly unacceptable, and there needs to be an end to this climate of impunity.  What you have seen — you are quite right, there have been cases even since the beginning of the year — what you have seen is a faster response by the peacekeeping forces we have in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  In technical terms, we have sought to supply communications — mobile phones where they work, satellite telephones where they don’t — to villages so that they are able to raise the alarm.  There are enhanced patrols, and as you will also have seen from, and as I mentioned just now, human rights teams with the support of the Mission are visiting to be able to collect evidence, and also to provide a higher profile, more visibility, as a deterrent. 


But this is of course not an easy area to operate in; the limited number of troops in a huge geographic area with very difficult transport and communications.  So, no one is suggesting that this is perfect; no one is suggesting that we are where we want to be.  We would be where we wanted to be if there was an end; if there was a stop to rape being used as a weapon of war.  What you will also have seen is that there has been a really concerted effort to ensure that those who are responsible are brought to book.  And that includes from within the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  And I think you have seen examples of that, including at least one commander already in the first few weeks of this year.  Yes, Masood?


Question:  I wanted to find out, at least I was not been able to ask the Secretary-General yesterday, has the Secretary-General had any talks or any conversations with the United Nations officials on the ground in Egypt?  And as far as that is concerned, has he had any talks or conversations or held any sort of exchange of view with the Egyptian officials on what is happening now and how to go forward with it?


Spokesperson:  Well, this is the third day that you are asking me the same question, Masood, and…


Correspondent:  Yesterday you suggested that I ask the Secretary-General.  Unfortunately I was not asked; I was unable to ask the Secretary-General.


Spokesperson:  Well, I seem to remember you had a question for the Secretary-General.


Correspondent:  I did, but that was on the Middle East.


Spokesperson:  Well, that is for you to decide what question you ask, Masood.  But I can tell you that he remains very well briefed.  And as you know, he also met the Egyptian Permanent Representative here in New York.  That was another opportunity to be briefed by the Egyptian authorities.  He is very well briefed by his advisers on what is happening on the ground in Egypt.


Question:  Can we please get some instances of what UN officials are saying about what is happening over there on the ground?  Is the situation as untenable as everybody is saying?  Or is the situation different?


Spokesperson:  He receives regular updates that reflect what is happening on the ground and, as you well know, a lot of this is playing out on the television screens of people around the world.  Yes, Matthew?


Question:  Sure.  I wanted to ask, I am sure you have seen the story by our colleague Joe Lauria about the OIOS audit of the Umoja project, saying that PricewaterhouseCoopers was selected with a bid more than twice as large as other bidders, and saying Mr. Paul van Essche refused to comment and is seemingly involved in the procurement.  I guess, although you know, his story says that the Procurement Division had no response, what is the UN’s response to the…


Spokesperson:  It doesn’t say that, Matthew.  It says that we “declined to comment” and that is not actually true.  What we told Joe was that we would need time to provide the answers — that the Procurement Department and the Department of Management are working on answers to the questions that Joe set.  But those answers will be coming today, and the story is out today.


Question:  What happens when an OIOS audit finds this type of problem?  Does… Has the money already been paid to PricewaterhouseCoopers?  Does it continue in the other jobs that it does for the UN?  I understand that they have a response to their own UN audit, but what is the mechanism for action, I guess, pending their response?  Has this money already gone out the door and is there any reconsideration of other contracts with [PricewaterhouseCoopers], given the findings of OIOS?


Spokesperson:  Well, I would rather wait from my colleagues in the Department of Management.


Question:  When you get an answer, would you put it out in the Spokesman’s office or…?


Spokesperson:  I would think so, yeah.


Question:  Okay, great.  And can I ask one other; this issue arose at the stakeout this morning about the helicopters that were voted on by the Council about three weeks ago to go to Côte d'Ivoire.  That they haven’t yet arrived and apparently the Ukraine is saying that it is only three helicopters, but they will only agree to send them from Liberia if they can fly in pairs and a variety of other kind of restrictions.  And I just wonder, what’s the… does the UN conventionally get into that type of limitation on the use of assets that the Council sends to peacekeeping missions and what… was this in place in Liberia?  Could they fly solo, or do they have to go in pairs, and what is the UN going to do about this urgent need for these assets to be in Côte d'Ivoire?


Spokesperson:  You are right that there is an urgent need for these helicopters.  And we have made that very clear from the outset.  I know that it is a question for our colleagues in the Department for Field Support to liaise with the Ukrainian authorities on the precise logistics involved.  And if they have any details on those logistics, then I will let you know.


Question:  It also seems like the troops haven’t gotten there yet either.  I guess I just wonder, maybe I misunderstood, but on the urgency of the presentation to the Council, I think many people assumed that they’d already be there.  Is it, maybe you can confirm that no one has yet gone, and what the time frame for that would be.


Spokesperson:  Well, I will ask my colleagues in DPKO, Peacekeeping Operations, to provide me with a little bit more detail on that.  But what I can tell you is — you are absolutely right, yes, there is an urgent need and that is why the Secretary-General appealed to the [Security] Council and the Council responded very rapidly.  There is always going to be a time lag, because moving 2,000 troops takes time.  It cannot happen overnight.  It is done as swiftly as possible.  But as for the precise timeline, I would need to come back to you.


Question:  Just one more thing on this, because I thought people thought that these troops that were already in service in UNMIL [United Nations Mission in Liberia] and they were just going to get on a plane and fly to Abidjan.  Now there is some discussion of going to Togo and Niger for predeployment training.  Are they troops that were already in Liberia or were they not there?


Spokesperson:  I don’t think it is ever as simple as just getting on a plane, Matthew.


Question:  Yes, I have two short questions.  Regarding the letter that was sent to the Secretary-General on Lithuania referring to this Algirdas Paleckis who is described as the leader of the radical Socialist People’s Front in the 19 January issue of the Baltic Times, if this is so, is that the correct name?  Because I notice that in the daily news briefings, they keep repeating over and over again another name, and they refer to Algirdas Paulauskas.  Could you check that, to see if it’s the exact name?  And then this one…


Spokesperson:  Sure.  And you might need to drop by my office, so we can compare the names, all right?  [The person being referred to, the Spokesperson later added, is Algirdas Paleckis.]


Question:  Very good. On the same issue, it was reported in that issue of the Baltic Times, 19 January 2011, on this article entitled “Denial of 13 January Soviet massacre brings criminal charges,” stated that last year Lithuania adopted legislation that prescribes punishment for denying or grossly underestimating the scope of aggression by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany and the law also allows criminal punishment.  Since it is common to many European countries to have legislation like this, do you think it is customary for remarks to be made against a Member State such as Lithuania, which of course a member of the European Union, [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] and chair of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)?  Are the cases still pending or doesn’t it matter?


Spokesperson:  I am not exactly sure what you are driving at, but any legislation that is pending, as I mentioned earlier on with regard to an entirely different question, is not for us to comment on a legislative process.


Correspondent:  That’s what I was looking for.  You got it.


Spokesperson:  All right.  Thank you very much.  Good afternoon.


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