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.


**Security Council


The Security Council met this morning to discuss the joint African Union-United Nations mission in Darfur (UNAMID).  And briefing the Council in an open meeting, the Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, Hervé Ladsous, said that while there have been mildly encouraging developments regarding the peace process, a fully inclusive political settlement has yet to be reached.


He said that resolving the conflict continues to require a combined effort by the Security Council, the African Union and the wider international community to persuade the parties that there is no military solution to the crisis.  Mr. Ladsous added that maintaining attention on the situation in Darfur amidst a series of newer crises remains as important as ever.


This afternoon, the Council is scheduled to hold consultations on Sudan and South Sudan, as well as on the Central African Republic.


** Sudan


Also on Sudan, the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for the country said today that he was shocked by the recent attack on Um Rawabah and other areas in North Kordofan, as well as the renewed shelling of Kadugli by anti-Government forces.


Ali al-Za’tari said he is concerned that the cycle of violence between Government forces and rebel groups is exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in Blue Nile and South Kordofan and hindering development assistance efforts.  He said that the clashes are particularly disappointing given the direct talks between the Government and the Sudan’s People’s Liberation Movement-North which began in Addis Ababa last week.


The Coordinator noted that after nearly two years of fighting, all parties need to give these talks a chance to succeed.  He added that the United Nations is ready to deliver humanitarian aid, but it has to do so under a situation where the fighting will not endanger humanitarian workers and partners.


** Syria


As you’re aware, the Secretary-General met this morning with Dr. Åke Sellström, the leader of the UN fact-finding mission looking into allegations of the use of chemical weapons in Syria.  The Secretary-General spoke to reporters before the meeting, and he said that a credible and comprehensive inquiry requires full access to the sites where chemical weapons are alleged to have been used.  He once again urged the Syrian authorities to allow the investigation to proceed without delay and without any conditions.


** Lebanon


Robert Watkins, the Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Lebanon, visited Shebaa, in southern Lebanon, today and saw firsthand the conditions of the Syrian refugees there and of the Lebanese communities hosting them.  He said afterwards that the situation is clearly very difficult and the humanitarian needs are growing for both the refugees and the communities hosting them, particularly as the number of refugees continues to rise.  Mr. Watkins said that the United Nations has appealed to the international community to come forward with more badly needed assistance.


**Deputy Secretary-General in Bangkok


The Deputy Secretary-General, Jan Eliasson, is in Bangkok today, where he attended the launch of the Zero Hunger Challenge in Asia and the Pacific, in which the United Nations system calls on Governments and people to join hands to end hunger in the region where the majority of the world’s undernourished people live.  The Deputy Secretary-General told the launch ceremony that we cannot rest while so many people go hungry in a world where there is enough food for all.


He also addressed the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), saying that the Millennium Development Goals have been the most successful global anti-poverty drive in history.  But, there are still many gaps. Two-and-a-half billion people, mostly in rural areas but also increasingly in urban areas, do not have sanitation, a threat to health and an affront to human dignity. And far too many women and children still lack access to the health services they need.  We have his remarks in my office.


**Democratic People’s Republic of Korea


UN agencies in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea urgently require nearly $30 million to respond to critical and life-saving needs.  Despite a slight improvement of the overall humanitarian situation over the last 12 months, urgent funding is still needed in the areas of health and nutrition up to the end of the year.


The five UN agencies in the [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] said that, overall, a total of $147 million is needed this year to respond to key humanitarian priorities, of which just over a quarter has been received so far.  The UN agencies said that external assistance continues to play a vital role in safeguarding and promoting the well-being of millions.  And there is more information available online and in my office.


** Great Lakes Region


I have something now on the Special Envoy for the Great Lakes:  Mary Robinson, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region of Africa, is in Kinshasa today at the start of a week-long regional tour, her first in this capacity.  She has met with President [Joseph] Kabila and other senior officials, as well as with the leadership of the UN Mission there, MONUSCO.  Her programme also includes meetings with civil society groups, including women's organizations and religious groups.  We expect to have more information on this visit later.


Tomorrow, Mrs. Robinson visits the eastern city of Goma, her last stop in the Democratic Republic of the Congo before continuing on her regional tour to Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, South Africa and to the African Union in Addis Ababa.


**Secretary-General’s Appointments


I have two senior appointments to announce today.  The Secretary-General has appointed Nicholas Kay of the United Kingdom as his Special Representative for Somalia.  Mr. Kay succeeds Augustine Mahiga, who will complete his assignment on 3 June this year.  Mr. Kay is currently the Africa Director at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the United Kingdom, a position he has held since 2012.


The Secretary-General has also appointed Modibo Touré of Mali as Special Adviser to Mary Robinson, who is, as I just mentioned, his Special Envoy to the Great Lakes Region of Africa.  The appointment is at the level of Assistant Secretary-General.  And since January of this year, Mr. Touré has been serving as the United Nations Resident Coordinator, Humanitarian Coordinator and Resident Representative ad interim of the United Nations Development Programme in Nairobi.  And we have more information on both of those appointments in my office.


Questions, please?  Yes, Miki?


**Questions and Answers


Question:  Can you tell us a bit more about what was talked in the meeting with Dr. Sellström?


Spokesperson:  Well, Dr. Sellström updated the Secretary-General on the steps taken so far to investigate the allegations, and the Secretary-General thanked Dr. Sellström and his team for working hard on information available outside Syria.  And they both agreed that there is no substitute for on-site activities to determine whether chemical weapons have been used.  Other questions?


Question:  Just to follow-up; is he going to be a part of the advance team that will go inside once Syrian authorities give approval?


Spokesperson:  Well, just to be quite clear on this advance team.  The overall team is about 15 people, headed by Dr. Sellström.  Two of those people have been located in Cyprus as an advance team.  They have been rotated, so it hasn’t always been the same two people, but there is an advance team, and there is an advance team there today.  The whole team is ready to deploy, subject to the logistical arrangements that Dr. Sellström and his team believe would be necessary at that point.  So, the exact details of who would go and how they would go, obviously, we don’t want to get into that just yet.  But, they have done a huge amount of work to prepare for the eventuality that they can go into Syria.  And, obviously, they want to be able to do that sooner rather than later, and that’s what the Secretary-General again repeated today; that he would like to see that approval from the Syrian authorities come through, so that the team can get under way.  Yes, Talal?


Question:  Thank you.  Has it always been the case that only two inspectors were in Cyprus or were there more and then they decided to… some of them to return back to The Hague, back to their work with OPCW [Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons]?  Or was it always the case, only two?


Spokesperson:  I think at one point there might have been one or two more people, but never more than two or three people total, simply because, as the terminology suggests, it is an advance team.  You don’t need everybody there at that point.  It’s so that you have, if you like, a bridgehead ready to be able to go into Syria the moment that that is possible.


Question:  So, who is working on the evidence available now?  Are they these two or everybody in the team, including the ones in The Hague?


Spokesperson:  Well, just to be clear also, that there are members of the team who are based in The Hague, and there are members of the team who are based in Geneva — from the World Health Organization (WHO).  They are working on the information that they have at hand for now.  And as you well know, in this modern world, you don’t all have to be in the same place at the same time to be able to look at material, particularly if it is not samples, for example, from the scene.  And that’s obviously something that is needed, sooner rather than later.  Yes?


Question:  How long can these two stay in Cyprus [inaudible]?  How long can these two stay, if there will not be any approval for them?


Spokesperson:  Well, just to be clear, and to reiterate what I have just said, there is an advance group in Cyprus, and the others are not there.  But, they are working as a team virtually, as it is possible to do.  And they clearly want to be able to carry out their work.  We need to see some action on that.  The Secretary-General has said that we need that approval from the Syrian authorities:  no delays, no conditions, no exceptions.  The team, as the Secretary-General himself said this morning, really does need to be able to carry out on-site activities.  And that’s going to be crucial.  Yes?  And then I’ll come to Nizar.


Question:  Hi, Martin.  Thank you very much.  The available information being investigated on now; what are they?  Have you provided… is it information, because I remember he asked for further information from the Syrians and also further information from the British and French request for an investigation.  Is any of the information being analysed right now from that further information provided, one?  And two, does your office have any comments on the attempted assassination of the Syrian Prime Minister this morning?


Spokesperson:  On the latter, we are obviously aware of the reports.  I am hoping to have something a bit more to say a little bit later in the day on that.  And with regard to the first, the Office for Disarmament Affairs has been in touch with a number of different countries to solicit information so that the work can be carried out even if it is at a distance.  So, I am not go into the details here, but it is obvious that if a request has been made for information, you would hope to receive it and then to be able to work on that information.  Yes, Nizar?


[He later issued the following statement:


The Secretary-General condemns the terrorist attack on the convoy of Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi in Damascus earlier today, which resulted in deaths and injuries.  He expresses his deepest condolences to the families of the victims and wishes those injured a speedy recovery.


The Secretary-General has consistently condemned all acts of terrorism.  The targeting of civilians and civilian objects by anyone is unacceptable.  The Secretary-General remains extremely worried at the continued escalation of violence in Syria, where civilians continue to be killed, injured, detained and abducted every day, including most recently the kidnapping of two prominent clerics in northern Syria.


The Secretary-General has repeatedly stressed that all violence must end immediately, all sides in the Syrian conflict should move towards a political solution, and all should stop supplying weapons to any side in Syria.  Syria does not need a further militarization and radicalization of the conflict.  What Syria urgently needs instead isdialogue and reconciliation.]


Question:  When they are working outside and they are investigating, as we heard today from Secretary-General, they are doing some homework or preparatory work by interview, how can they tell that those who are providing information are… don’t have an interest in biasing the investigation and providing, for example, a soil which is contaminated elsewhere?


Spokesperson:  Well, the first thing is that, as the Secretary-General said this morning, he has complete confidence in the integrity, independence and professionalism of Dr. Sellström and his team of experts.  And they are experts in the work that they do.  As we have also said, there is no substitute for on-site activities to determine whether chemical weapons have been used.  The Secretary-General takes seriously all allegations about the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria.  But, you need to be able to go, as he said, it is a crucial moment in our efforts to get the team on the ground.  On-site activities are essential if the United Nations is to be able to establish the facts and clear up all the doubts surrounding this issue.


Question:  Okay, now, the Syrians have invited the United Nations to investigate what happened in Khan al-Assal, which nobody disputes — both opposition and the Government — that there was a chemical attack there.  And everybody now realizes that this is the only case which has been confirmed by both sides.  Why don’t they start with that and when you come to the bridge, you cross it, and after this you move to the other investigations?


Spokesperson:  Well, in fact, the Secretary-General has made clear that that particular allegation is common not just to the Syrian request, but also to the request from the British and French authorities.  And so, that is obviously a focus of attention.  But, as I just said, the Secretary-General takes seriously all allegations about the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria.  And he said that there should be no delays, no conditions, no exceptions in investigating.  Tim, I think you had a question?


Question:  The Secretary-General wrote to the Government last Thursday, I think you said, about getting the investigation team.  Have they replied or have they even acknowledged the letter?


Spokesperson:  The letter, I think was from Ms. [Angela] Kane, to the Syrian authorities.  I am not aware of a reply to that, the most recent communication.  The previous communications, so far, have not been positive from our perspective.  [He later added that the last letter from the Syrian Government to the Secretary-General was on 11 April.]  I am coming over this way.  Yes?


Question:  Yeah, just two things.  First, what’s the Secretary-General’s understanding of any reasons for delay by the Syrian Government for the investigation to begin?  And the second is whether the investigation has an interest in identifying a chain of custody of the chemicals.


Spokesperson:  On the first, there are clearly still differences in the understanding of what is required to carry out the investigation.  And so, that’s why the communication continues with the Syrian authorities.  With regard to chain of custody, this is a very technical kind of an investigation, and if you are looking at samples, it is obviously crucial to ensure that you do have custody of the samples from the site and are able to guarantee the integrity of those samples right the way through to a certified laboratory where they would be tested.  So, that is a standard procedure for a technical investigation of that kind.  Yes?  And then I’ll come to you, Talal.  Yes?


Question:  Just to follow-up; how can the UN establish chain of custody if you don’t know if the area around Aleppo was under friendly fire or if chemical substances were used by opposition or Al-Qaida or what?  How can you possibly find out the chain of custody?  You seem to be…


Spokesperson:  Well, no, I think that’s a misunderstanding, it’s a misunderstanding.  What that means is from the moment you take the sample through to a determination of what that sample is.  The mission itself does not have the mandate to establish who used chemical weapons.  The mission’s aim is to establish whether chemical weapons were used.  Any other questions?  Yes, Talal?


Question:  On the same subject, my understanding on the first exchange of letters, and now there are about 10 letters exchanged in total, correct me if I am wrong, the UN has asked to investigate three incidents:  Aleppo, Khan al-Assal, Homs, 23 December, and Ataybah, near Damascus?  I understand now, and correct me, please, that’s my question, did they drop Ataybah and they are insisting only on Homs and Aleppo, or there is still with Ataybah a demand by the UN to investigate?


Spokesperson:  I am not going to get into the full details of each letter.  There certainly has been an exchange of letters now back and forth, and we would hope that we can end that exchange of letters by agreeing on access for the team.


Question:  No, I don’t want to know what is in the letters.  What is the UN position in general now to investigate, because it was announced in three places; because the French and the British asked for two more places?  Is it still the same?  Is it still three positions: Aleppo, Homs and Damascus? Or is it only Homs and Aleppo?


Spokesperson:  Well, the point that we have said is that the Secretary-General takes seriously all allegations of the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria.  And he has also said that access is needed without delay, without conditions, and without exceptions.  Yes?


Question:  Sure, Martin.  I want to ask you about Afghanistan, Burundi and Sudan.  In Afghanistan, there… it’s reported over the weekend and now President [Hâmid] Karzai has confirmed that the US, for some time, was turning over bags of cash in… in backpacks and plastic bags to the… to the Government of Afghanistan.  So, since you have a mission there, and since it speaks about anti-corruption, were they aware of it, and what’s they comment now on these… these bags of cash?


Spokesperson:  Seen the media report on that, Matthew.  I don’t have anything for you at the moment.  If that changes, I will let you know.  What’s the one on Burundi?


Question:  Sure, on Buru… in Burundi, there… first, the last week, the… the Parliament there passed a law that… that limits what the media can cover and the protection of sources, and now a journalist there was shot over the weekend as he covered police corru… he… what he called police corruption.  So, I am wondering, since there is a UN mission there, did they have any comment on the law and do they have any comment on this?  There has been another attack that I won’t run through, but was… somebody’s house was invaded, video tapes taken; what’s the UN’s mission in Burundi’s view of freedom of the press in the country?


Spokesperson:  Well, we’ll check.  I am sure that their view is that freedom of the press is essential in the country.  So, let me see what the mission has to say.


Question:  But, I’m… in some places they… they… the… a mission will respond sort of in real time to threats to the press, is that… did not take place in Burundi?


Spokesperson:  Well, I will need to check, Matthew.  [He later showed the correspondent a press release dated 25 April, in which the UN Peacebuilding Mission in Burundi’s human rights office expressed its concerns about the modification to Burundi’s press laws which was adopted by the Senate on 19 April.]


Question:  Okay, fine.  And then the other one, I am sure you… I… I… I don’t know if Mr. Ladsous is going to speak at the stakeout, and I am not sure if he did, if he would answer this question, so I am going to ask you.  The… the Sudanese Ambassador was pretty critical on his comments in the Security Council saying that the… the mission there has… referring to the incident of the IDPs [internally displaced persons]… turning over of the IDPs, saying that also in that incident, a vehicle was turned over that weapons are tur… weapons are left… each time they are attacked, they basically give all of their materiel up to the rebels, and so, is that not the case?  What’s the… what’s the UN’s sort of response to that critique by, in that case, the host Government?


Spokesperson:  Well, again, I am sure that my colleagues in Peacekeeping Operations will have more details on this.  But, as a general proposition, the mission in… the Joint African Union-UN mission in Darfur, UNAMID, they often have difficulties in access and movement themselves.  And that is something that is often discussed with the Sudanese authorities.  But, if we have anything specifically on the point that you have raised, then I will let you know.


Question:  And he also said visas… he also… he claimed, and I… I… I… and I… my understanding is that it is different, but maybe the UN can say that… that there is a process for visas… visas are given out routinely by Sudan.  I mean, I think there is a high profile… there is… he, meaning the Sudanese Ambassador, there is a… there is a… the former Director of Communications to the Secretary-General, my understanding is his visa hasn’t been approved.  Can the UN say whether visas are given out to Sudan, by Sudan?


Spokesperson:  Well, surely it’s for the Sudanese to say whether they hand out visas or not, don’t you think?


Correspondent:  Sure.


Spokesperson:  Right.


Question:  No, I mean, doesn’t the UN have a right… don’t UN officials have the right to enter?  Mr. [Michael] Meyer, I understand, has not been allowed in.  Is that the truth or not?


Spokesperson:  Well, he is waiting for a visa, but it is for the Sudanese authorities to provide the visa, not for us.  Okay, thanks, have a good afternoon.  Thank you.


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