25 March 2013
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.  Welcome to the briefing.


**Syria


Yesterday and today, a number of mortar shells fell in close proximity to, and on the grounds of, the hotel in Damascus housing UN staff.  The mortar fire caused some damage to the building and some cars, including one UN vehicle.  The United Nations Security Management Team has assessed the situation and decided to temporarily reduce the presence of international staff in Damascus due to security conditions.


The United Nations attaches great importance to the safety of all its staff — national and international.  With this in mind, we are temporarily relocating some of the UN international staff in Syria out of the country.  As part of that effort, most of the Damascus-based staff of the Office of the Joint Special Representative for Syria are being temporarily relocated to Beirut and the Joint Special Representative’s main office in Cairo.  All of the national staff of that Office have been asked to work from home, until further notice.  These measures are being undertaken solely for security reasons. T he United Nations remains active and committed to helping the Syrian sides in their search for a political solution.


And just to underscore that UN agencies and their partners also remain committed to providing assistance to millions of people in need across Syria.  The United Nations will maintain inside Syria the number of staff and capacity required to continue running its critical humanitarian programs and deliver assistance to civilians in need.  This is a priority for the United Nations.


Over the weekend, we put out a note concerning the letter the Secretary-General sent to the President of the Security Council on Friday evening informing him of his decision to conduct an investigation into the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria.


**Central African Republic


As you may have seen, we issued a statement last night, in which the Secretary-General condemned the unconstitutional seizure of power that took place in the Central African Republic on Sunday and called for the swift restoration of constitutional order.


In the statement, the Secretary-General reiterates that the Libreville Agreements, negotiated by the Heads of States and Government of the Economic Community of Central African States, remain the most viable framework to ensure durable peace and stability in the country.


The Secretary-General is deeply concerned about reports of serious violations of human rights.  He underscores that those who are responsible for committing such violations will be held accountable.  The Secretary-General appeals for calm and for the respect of the rule of law in the Central African Republic.  He is concerned about the dire humanitarian situation in the country and the reports of looting in the capital, Bangui, including of United Nations property.


The statement says that the United Nations is taking all precautions to protect its staff and reminds the authorities of their obligations to ensure the safety of all United Nations personnel and premises.  Through the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for the Central African Republic, the United Nations will continue to work closely with its partners, including the Economic Community of Central African States and the African Union, in joint efforts to help resolve the crisis in the Central African Republic.


Over the weekend, the Secretary-General had telephone conversations with several leaders on the latest developments in the Central African Republic, including François Hollande, the President of France, Jacob Zuma, the President of South Africa, and Idriss Déby, the President of Chad.


**Security Council


Robert Serry, the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, briefed the Security Council this morning on the situation in the region.  He noted the visit last week by United States President Barack Obama and the restoration of normal relations between Israel and Turkey, a development which the Secretary-General has welcomed.


Mr. Serry said that recent weeks have seen a setback in Gaza, from where rockets were fired into Israel.  He said that rocket fire was completely unacceptable and he also called on Israel to show restraint. 


He also discussed recent developments in Syria and once more asked for the Security Council’s united support for the efforts of the Joint Special Representative for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi.  He noted that the fighting in Syria has also affected the area of operations of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), where there was a worrying firing incident yesterday.


**Côte d’Ivoire


The United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (ONUCI) has condemned an attack by unidentified armed elements in Petit Guiglo, in the country's western region, on Saturday, 23 March.


At least two civilians and three assailants were killed during the attack.  Three people were injured, including two soldiers of Côte d'Ivoire’s national army and one traditional hunter.  Numerous houses were also burned down by the assailants.


Peacekeepers from the UN mission have been deployed in Petit Guiglo.  Peacekeepers’ ground and air patrols have been reinforced in the area, in support of Ivorian forces and to protect civilians.  The mission is liaising with the UN Mission in neighbouring Liberia (UNMIL).  And that Mission has also reinforced its patrols of the border.


**Darfur


The African Union-United Nations Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) has condemned the arrest of 31 internally displaced persons by an unidentified armed group in the border area between Central Darfur State and South Darfur State.  The incident took place yesterday evening, when the armed group, wearing military uniforms, stopped a convoy of three buses escorted by the Mission’s peacekeepers and forced the internally displaced persons to an unknown location.  Those arrested were being escorted by the Mission to attend a conference of internally displaced persons and refugees in the city of Nyala.


**Myanmar


The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says that the Government of Myanmar estimates that more than 12,000 people have been displaced after violence erupted last week in Meiktila in Mandalay.  Authorities are distributing food and water to the uprooted.  A team, including the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Food Programme (WFP), is assessing immediate needs in the area.


**Thailand


The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said over the weekend that it was deeply saddened by a fire in a camp in north-western Thailand that claimed the lives of more than 30 refugees from Myanmar.  The fire destroyed hundreds of thatched huts in two sectors of the camp, resulting in some 2,300 refugees having lost their homes and possessions.  Teams from the refugee agency have provided plastic sheets, blankets, bed mats and other items to provide temporary emergency shelter before the homes can be rebuilt.  And there is more information on the agency’s website.


**Somalia


The Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Somalia said he was shocked and saddened by yesterday’s killing of Rahma Abdulkadir, a radio journalist, in the capital, Mogadishu.  Eighteen journalists were killed in direct or indirect attacks in 2012, while Ms. Abdulkadir is the first woman and third media professional to be killed this year.


**Slavery


Today, the UN marks the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.  In his message for the Day, the Secretary-General says that we must never forget the torture, rape and killing of innocent men, women and children.  He adds that these degradations cannot be buried by time; they must be examined, understood and addressed.


The General Assembly will hold a special commemorative meeting this afternoon, starting at 3 p.m.


**Secretary-General’s Appointment


The Secretary-General has appointed Tegegnework Gettu of Ethiopia as Under-Secretary-General for General Assembly and Conference Management.  Mr. Gettu will replace Jean-Jacques Graisse of Belgium.  Since 2009, Mr. Gettu has been serving as Assistant Secretary-General and Regional Bureau Director for Africa in the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).  We have more on this appointment in my office.


**Press Conferences


Tomorrow at 11 a.m., here in this room, there will be a press conference sponsored by the Permanent Mission of Finland to the United Nations, entitled “Parliamentarians Demand a Strong Arms Trade Treaty”.


And then at 5 p.m., tomorrow afternoon, there will be a press conference here by the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Argentina; along with the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Cuba, on behalf of Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC); the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Uruguay, on behalf of Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR); and finally, the Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs of Peru, on behalf of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR).


And then following that press conference, at 5:45 p.m., there will be a briefing by the Permanent Representative of the United Kingdom to the United Nations.


Questions, please?  Yes, Ali?


**Questions and Answers


Question:  Thank you, Martin.  First of all, there is a statement from Moscow today that the inquiry team regarding the use of chemical weapons in Syria should include experts from China and Russia, and generally speaking from the P-5.  Is that the thinking of the Secretary-General?  This is one; second, since the UN personnel are leaving Syria, is that going to affect the timing, when the Secretary-General is going to send the inquiry team to Syria, in fact, to investigate the alleged use of chemical weapons?  And by what means the UN personnel left Damascus to Beirut?  Thank you.


Spokesperson:  Well, on the last one, I am not going to discuss the movements of staff.   On the first point, I would just simply remind everyone that this is the Secretary-General’s mechanism, and that this is a technical mission and the composition of that mission is based on advice from experts at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the World Health Organization (WHO).  And the Secretary-General will be working to put together that team based on that experts’ advice and it is, to repeat, it is a technical mission.  And the final point, the second point that you raised about the staff in Syria, let’s just be clear that not everybody is leaving Syria, absolutely not.  Approximately half of the staff, international staff, will be leaving temporarily, with the aim, of course, of returning as soon as it is feasible.  There will be still in country enough people to be able to continue and indeed to increase the range of work, particularly to reach people with food aid.  The security assessment is something that is being looked at closely the whole time, and of course, when announcing that this investigation mission would be set up, it was made clear, and it continues to be the case, that security is of course a major consideration.  And that is obviously being kept in mind as this is being put together. 


Question:  Is Mr. [Mokhtar] Lamani still in Damascus?


Spokesperson:  At this point that is not the case, no.


Question:  Thanks, Martin.  Just again on the number of staff that are leaving Syria, could you give us any exact numbers and what agencies they are from?  Is it mostly from the Joint Special Representative’s Office that they are leaving?


Spokesperson:  Well, we have approximately 100 international and 800 national staff in Damascus working with the offices of the Joint Special Representative, the Resident Coordinator, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, World Food Programme, UNRWA [United Nations Relief and Works Agency] — the Palestine refugee agency, UNICEF — Children’s Fund, and other UN agencies and programmes.  And so, while some would temporarily leave Syria, others are going to be relocated to other locations within the country, bearing in mind the critical lifesaving programmes that these colleagues deliver.  And they will endeavour to keep humanitarian programmes operational.  The presence of each staff member — national and international — is carefully assessed against what is expected of her or him, and the risk she or he would be exposed to.  All of the national staff have been asked to work from home until the situation improves.  And obviously, the priority is to ensure that we maintain enough staff and capacity to continue running critical humanitarian programmes and to deliver assistance to millions of Syrians across the country.  Yes?


Question:  And just… just as a follow-up on that, so was this a direct result of the mortar shells that hit the UN hotel, those are holding staff?


Spokesperson:  As I mentioned at the outset, that is something that took place over the weekend and indeed this morning.  And the security management team has assessed the situation and the decision to temporarily reduce the presence of international staff in Damascus was taken based on these security conditions.  Yes, Joseph?


Question:  Yes, Thank you.  I believe you had indicated that the Secretary-General welcomed the potential improvement of relations between Israel and Turkey and particularly the apology that Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu offered to Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan.  But in return for that apology, there was a promise by the Turkish Prime Minister to end the legal cases that have been brought against Israeli military personnel and also to restore full diplomatic relations.  The day after the apology, it was reported in the Turkish press that Prime Minister Erdogan has kind of backtracked from both of those promises, at least for the time being.  So I would wonder if the Secretary-General would have any comment in terms of helping to make more lasting the improvement of relations between Turkey and Israel… that the Turkish Prime Minister should follow through on his reciprocal promises.


Spokesperson:  I don’t have anything further, beyond what we said in the statement last week, Joe.  Primarily assisting Israel and Turkey in restoring their good relations was obviously a core objective of the Secretary-General’s own efforts in the aftermath of the flotilla incident in 2010.  And that announcement that was made after the visit of President [Barack] Obama to the region is obviously an important and hopeful sign.  And if I have anything further, then I will let you know.  Yes?


Question:  Yes, I just want you to confirm that in Damascus there is usually 100 international UN staff that you said are based there?  And that you are saying approximately half of them are being withdrawn?  And also, I just wanted to clarify, what are the functions of the international staff usually in Damascus?  Obviously, part of it is to work with the Joint Special Representative, you also mentioned about humanitarian assistance, and so I would… I want to confirm which… which aspects of that work will sort of… will remain.


Spokesperson:  Well, look, as I mentioned, we have approximately 100 international and 800 national staff working in a range of offices, including the Joint Special Representative’s Damascus Office, but also, and crucially, the various different agencies that I mentioned and offices that deal with humanitarian assistance.  And this is clearly an area where work needs to continue; it is critical.  And just to bear in mind that, as in many countries, the bulk of the UN staff are local staff; they are Syrian nationals.  And while the overall UN staffing has declined, a number of humanitarian UN agencies have actually increased their staff numbers.  The number of staff also takes into consideration the security conditions in the country.  So the point here is that there is obviously a careful balance to be struck between the really important need to ensure the safety and security of staff — national and international — and to be able to deliver humanitarian assistance, in particular to those who are obviously in desperate need of such aid.  So it’s a finely balanced thing.  The reduction in the number of international staff is based on our assessment of risk, and of course, this is continually being evaluated.  Yes?


Question:  Is the Damascus office considered the… is that the only UN office in Syria?  Of course, there may be UNHCR, but some of the humanitarian agencies, maybe they have offices throughout the country, but is that the only UN Secretariat office in Syria in Damascus?  And then I was wondering… You mentioned the humanitarian workers that the agencies have scaled up their… their people… the personnel in the country.


Spokesperson:  In some cases.


Question:  In some cases.  So, does that 100 include just UN Secretariat personnel or does that include the agencies, too?


Spokesperson:  No, no, no.  One-hundred international staff covers the whole range, and the 800 national staff.  These are approximate numbers, of course.


Correspondent:  Okay.


Spokesperson:  They cover the whole range.  The Office of the Joint Special Representative in Damascus is, of course, the Damascus office of the Joint Special Representative’s overall function, which is run out of Cairo; that’s based in Cairo.  Yes?


Question:  About the Central African Republic, do you know who is controlling the airport at this stage?


Spokesperson:  The short answer is that that is not absolutely clear to me at this point.  I know that my colleagues on the ground are working very closely on this, for very obvious reasons, not least because of the need to ensure that the safety and security of United Nations staff who are working there and also international non-governmental organizations who may have people in the country.


Question:  So it is not clear whether the French are controlling the airport at all?


Spokesperson:  Well, I think you’d have to ask the French that.  All I would simply say is that the situation obviously remains volatile.  And it seems from our assessment so far that there is still some gunfire and that there is still some looting in Bangui.  I can tell you that several United Nations offices and residences of staff members, both national and international, have been looted.  Yes, Matthew?


Question:  Sure, Martin, I… I… I have some questions on the UN in Africa and one in-house question, but I wanted to ask first one on Syria.  This… Ambassador [Bashar] Ja’afari this morning said that his… his Government has responded to the letter of Friday, or that… he said there were 20 technical questions, they have answered it.  The next step is an MOU [memorandum of understanding] and he said, this is the part I want to ask you about, one is, from the perspective of his Government, the UK and the… and the French request are, quote, “irrelevant” and only intended to… to… to either… either undermine the probe of the incident that they have raised or to widen it in… in… analogize it to Iraq.  And I am wondering, first, is it accurate that they did respond?  Is the next an MOU and what is the role of… of Angela Kane?  He mentioned specifically that she and the Secretary-General were the… the… the… I guess, the interlocutors at this point.  Is that accurate?


Spokesperson:  Well, the last time I checked, Matthew, Ms. Kane is in charge of the Office for Disarmament Affairs; she is the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs.  It seems self-evident that Ms. Kane would be in the lead on that.  On the other points that you raised, I will need to check whether the letter has been received; I mean, officially.  This is certainly something that we do need to receive and… and therefore, if it has been sent and has been received, then that is good, because part of the process is to be able to follow up and answer some of the technical questions.  This helps to frame the terms of reference for the mission, which is a technical mission.  And that is a key point to remember.  The other is that this is the Secretary-General’s mechanism.  And if you look at it very carefully, it says that any Member State can request an investigation to be carried out if there are allegations about the possible use of chemical or indeed other weapons of that nature — biological and toxin-based weapons, for example.  So it is for any Member State to be able to do that.  I would draw your attention to the note that we issued on Saturday, which mentions that the initial focus of the investigation will be an incident involving the alleged use of chemical weapons in Kfar Dael region in Khan al-Asal area in Aleppo governorate.  I think that that is actually quite important.  If you look at that closely, it is technical in nature, and it is a mechanism under which the Secretary-General clearly operates based on a General Assembly resolution.  And that resolution was reaffirmed by a Security Council resolution.


Question:  Can I ask you about Darfur?  Is it possible?


Spokesperson:  Yes.


Question:  Okay, I wanted to… there is this incident where IDPs were taken hostage by… or kidnapped by people that were in Government army uniforms, and somehow UNAMID is saying that they… they opposed it and they… you know, they denounced the kidnapping, but some people are wondering how armed UN peacekeepers could have IDPs under their care and they could all be kidnapped.  Can you clarify how it… how it took place and what… how it is consistent with protection of civilians?


Spokesperson:  Well, I have asked the Mission for more details on that, and I think if you were listening carefully you will have heard me read out precisely what you just said to me.


Question:  No, no, but it’s… exactly; but what I am asking about specifically about how it could take place?


Spokesperson:  I heard what you said, and I’ve said that I’ll see if I can find out more, which is what I have already asked the Mission and Peacekeeping Operations.


Correspondent:  Okay.


Spokesperson:  Did you have another question related to this?  No.  In which case, yes, Ali?


Question:  Thank you.  Is there any comment from the Secretary-General on the closing of the border between Syria and Jordan?  Jordan decided to close the border today.


Spokesperson:  I’ll have to check on that, Ali.  Okay.  Any other questions?  Yes?


Question:  Thanks, I am going to ask two questions about Africa and one in-house; do you have time for that?  All right, I’ll just… I’ll just launch in.  One is, it has to do with Central African Republic and… and… and… and the Bozi… Mr… President… ex-President [François] Bozizé and his… his family’s flight from the country.  One, it is said that his entourage of 25 people described as his family members were… that… that… that they were asked to be transported by… by UNHCR in the… in… in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  I wanted to know, did it take place and two, is it… is there sort of different levels of service that UNHCR offers or is this a kind of service that they would offer to any person fleeing from CAR [Central African Republic]?  And I also wanted to know if the UN knows whether Mr. Bozizé is in Cameroon, as… as some have said, but hasn’t really been confirmed.


Spokesperson:  On the second question, that’s not really something that is for us to comment on his whereabouts.  On the second, let me check with the refugee agency.


Question:  And… and… I mean… and I am sorry if I was… if I missed this readout on this fighting in Katanga, but it was reported that… first it was reported that the Mayi Mayi had taken over a UN base in Lubumbashi.  Now it is reported that they have been flown to… to… to Kinshasa.  What… what is the status of that fighting?  What… what… what happened with UN staff that were inside the base and what… just, I guess, what can you say about it?  It seemed like a kind of a mysterious incident.


Spokesperson:  It was quite a serious incident, and I think that we will have some more on that. 


[The Spokesperson later added that the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO) reports that on Saturday, 23 March, following a clash between Mayi Mayi elements and Congolese Armed Forces (FARDC) troops in Lubumbashi, Katanga province, 245 Mayi-Mayi combatants entered the Mission compound, where they sought refuge and handed over their arms to peacekeepers.  The Mayi-Mayi combatants arrived at the MONUSCO compound at around 13:30 hours, local time, on Saturday, after being repelled by Government troops, following a surprise attack against Government institutions in Lubumbashi.  Following negotiations mediated by MONUSCO between the provincial authorities and the Mayi Mayi, on 25 March, the Mayi Mayi combatants were transported by the Congolese authorities to Kinshasa on two flights.  MONUSCO welcomes the peaceful surrender of the Mayi-Mayi combatants.  Out of the combatants, UNICEF had identified and separated 40 children to be demobilized and sent back to their families.  Local NGOs estimated that at least 35 people, including civilians, Mayi-Mayi and FARDC soldiers, lost their lives in the fighting in the city.  All the 16 injured combatants have been transferred to local hospitals for medical treatment.  There were no casualties among UN staff.  MONUSCO is closely monitoring the situation in Lubumbashi.]


Question:  And then an in-house question, I will do it really fast.  This is… it’s as follows:  I wanted to know by sort of… by what right… I don’t want to go through a whole long thing, but I… on… on… on… last Monday, 18 March, the UN entered my office, they said it was full of trash, they didn’t call me — fine.  They took photographs, and it is my understanding that they gave the photographs to other journalists here who they know have sought my… my… my exclusion and expulsion from the UN, and that these photographs then in turn appeared on the BuzzFeed website on Friday.  So I wanted to know very clearly, what is… putting aside for a moment whether, when they enter a journalist’s office, they should provide at least notice to the journalist, by what possible right will the UN distribute photographs to non-UN persons?


Spokesperson:  I think you have had an answer from Stéphane Dujarric on this.


Question:  He said only that the UN did not provide them to BuzzFeed and Pam Falk of UNCA [United Nations Correspondents Association] has denied that she provided them, although she was allowed to take photographs.  So it is clear they are UN photographs.  And I know for a fact that DPI [Department of Public Information] showed the photographs to other journalists here.  So I really… I’m… I’m… the… the… the Stéphane answer doesn’t… doesn’t cut it.  All it says is that they didn’t give it.  So there is a middle ma… but the question is, what is the right of UN journalists not to have their own office entered without their consent, photographed and… and by what reason and for what purpose will the UN give photographs to another person?


Spokesperson:  Well, as I say, I think — evidently not to your satisfaction — but Stéphane Dujarric has replied, and I don’t have anything further to say on the matter.


Thanks very much.  Have a good afternoon.  Thank you.


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