27 August 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 Farhan Haq, Associate Spokesperson for the Secretary-General.


Good afternoon.


**Secretary-General’s Travel


The Secretary-General has just arrived in the Netherlands.  In a couple of hours, he will be meeting King Willem Alexander and Queen Maxima in The Hague.  Tomorrow, the Secretary-General will meet the Dutch Prime Minister and Foreign Minister and take part in the official commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Peace Palace.  He is also scheduled to give a major speech at Leiden University.  He plans to speak to reporters in The Hague on Wednesday, and we'll bring you details of his comments.


From the Netherlands, the Secretary-General will fly to Austria.  He is due back in New York this weekend.  Before leaving Seoul for the Netherlands earlier today, the Secretary-General met with a range of South Korean officials and dignitaries.  He also continued to monitor developments in Syria extremely closely.


** Syria


The chemical weapons team led by Professor Åke Sellström had intended to continue their investigation of alleged chemical weapons use in a different site today.  Following yesterday's attack on the UN convoy, a comprehensive assessment determined that the visit should be postponed by one day in order to improve preparedness and safety for the team.  Considering the complexities of the site, confirmation of access has not been obtained, but is expected later today.


The Secretary-General again urges all sides in the conflict to give safe passage and access to the team.  It is in the interest of all sides to bring factual evidence and clarity to a situation which has brought great suffering to the people of Syria.  The United Nations is there to assist, but it needs the cooperation of all in order to fulfil the mandate given by the Member States.


Meanwhile, a chartered flight has arrived in Erbil carrying urgent relief items for the World Food Programme (WFP) and the UN refugee agency to meet the immediate humanitarian needs of Syrian refugees fleeing the violence in Syria and crossing into northern Iraq.  More than 44,000 Syrian refugees have crossed into the Kurdish region of northern Iraq since 15 August; most of them are women and children sheltered in camps or collective facilities.


** Iran


The Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, has completed a visit to Iran today.  During his visit, Mr. Feltman had consultations with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Deputy Foreign Ministers Mohammad Mehdi Akhundzadeh and Hossein Amir Abdollahian, and other Iranian and diplomatic officials.


In emphasizing the UN's rejection of a military approach to the Syria crisis, Mr. Feltman briefed the Iranian officials on the United Nations' preparation for a conference on Syria to be held in Geneva and to focus on the implementation of the 30 June 2012 Geneva communiqué.  Mr. Feltman shared the United Nations' position that Iran, given its influence and leadership in the region, has an important role to play and a responsibility in helping to bring the Syrian parties to the negotiating table on the basis of the Geneva communiqué.  He expressed appreciation for the statements from Iranian officials that Iran is committed to facilitate a political solution to end the Syrian tragedy.  He also discussed with Iranian officials the worsening situation on the ground in Syria, including the UN's grave concerns about the potential use of chemical weapons, and how the UN can work together with Iran and other States to end the bloodshed and suffering of the Syrian people as soon as possible.


While the primary purpose of his visit was to discuss a political solution for Syria, Mr. Feltman, at the request of his hosts, also shared UN perspectives on several additional regional and international issues.  In concluding his visit, Mr. Feltman expressed hope for continued constructive engagement with Iran on a number of issues of concern to the United Nations.


** Palestine


The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) expressed concern today about the forced eviction and forcible transfer of Palestinians in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, as a result of a series of demolitions carried out by Israeli authorities in at least six different locations since 19 August.


The High Commissioner’s Office also expressed concern about the possible excessive use of force by Israeli security forces against Palestinian civilians during recent search and arrest operations in refugee camps in the West Bank.  Since 18 August, at least four Palestinian civilians have been killed in such operations and at least 19 have also been injured.


The Government of Israel has the obligation to investigate, in a timely, independent, impartial and thorough manner, all cases of use of force by its security forces resulting in death or injury and to hold accountable any persons responsible of violations.  The High Commissioner’s Office urged the Israeli authorities to make public any findings.


** Darfur


On 25 August, six peacekeepers with the joint African Union-United Nations peacekeeping mission in Darfur (UNAMID) were swept away by powerful currents while escorting World Food Programme trucks to Masteri, West Darfur.


The incident occurred when the peacekeepers attempted to pull out their truck, which was stuck in the mud of a river valley near Nioro village, approximately 30 kilometres south-west of El Geneina.  A rescue team from El Geneina, West Darfur, found two peacekeepers alive while the search is ongoing to locate the other four.  World Food Programme staff members are safe.


The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says that, according to the Sudanese Government, some half-a-million people have been affected by floods in 16 states.  The World Health Organization (WHO) is working with the Ministry of Health to monitor and report on communicable diseases.


** Afghanistan


The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) strongly condemns the recent abduction and killing of six civilians in Herat Province, including employees of the International Rescue Committee.  The Taliban has claimed responsibility for the killings.  The UN Mission says that attacks against civilians are prohibited at all times and may amount to war crimes.


**Secretary-General’s Appointment


The Secretary-General has appointed Major General Imam Edy Mulyono of Indonesia as Force Commander of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO).  Major General Mulyono will succeed Major General Abdul Hafiz of Bangladesh, whose tour of duty ended on 23 July.  Major General Mulyono is currently Special Assistant to the Indonesian Army Chief of Staff in charge of Peacekeeping Operations.  We have more information on this appointment in our office.


Any questions, please?  Yes, Erol?  Microphone, please?


**Questions and Answers


Question:  I have the most perfect colleague to my left as one can seek.  Farhan, beside all… thank you.  Beside all the rhetoric that was said regarding the Syria developments, how can you characterize or describe, does the Secretary-General… how much the Secretary-General, indeed, seek to know who is behind these chemical attacks?  And also, what can you tell us, also beside the report that we can read at the news and media, who is really preventing the fact-finding commission to go, UN team to go there and to continue their work?


Associate Spokesperson:  Well, first of all, we have tried to get an agreement from all the various parties on the ground for the team to go about its work.  The team was able to work successfully on the ground yesterday.  This one-day postponement that they are doing today is to allow them to have the necessary arrangements, whether logistical, security or otherwise, and be prepared to have access to another site for tomorrow, and we still expect that they will get access and go to that site.  Regarding the chemical inspection team’s work…


Question:  Who is preventing them to go there?


Associate Spokesperson:  At this stage, we believe we have the sufficient assurances from the various parties that they can go and that they will go tomorrow.  And as for your initial question, the mandate of the team, as you know, is to determine whether chemical weapons have been used and the objective of the mission is to collect as many facts as possible and to assess the nature and extent of any attack using chemical weapons and its consequences.  Yes, please?


Question:  Thank you.  The United States seems to know already that chemical weapons were used and who used them.  So, what is the relevance of the inspectors to continue sending them there?


Associate Spokesperson:  You’re all aware of what the relevance of the mission is.  These are astonishing and outrageous attacks that have been perpetrated.  The Secretary-General made it very clear that we need to get to the bottom of this.  The team is a very professional and dedicated team who are determined to get to the bottom of what happened on 21 August at Ghouta, as well as in previous attacks.  And so, the relevance of the team is to establish what the facts are.


Question:  The United States seems to know the facts already and they are going to proceed from there.  We might have attacks by the end of this week, military strikes.


Associate Spokesperson:  If any State has relevant information, then they ought to share it with the team, and the team will evaluate it fairly in accordance with its own guidelines.  Yes?


Question:  Sorry, thank you.  The team is trying to find whether the chemical weapons were used or not.  It is not trying to find out who used them.  Does this mean that the UN sees the regime or the Government of Syria responsible for chemical weapons, whether they are used or not by any party?


Associate Spokesperson:  No, that’s not the case.  Of course, it matters who uses it, and the Secretary-General has made it clear that the use of chemical weapons by any party would be an outrageous crime.  At the same time, as you know, the primary objective of the mission is to collect as many facts as possible and assess the nature of the extent of any attack using chemical weapons and its consequences.  If it has relevant information that could be part of its evidence-based narrative, then it could be included in whatever narrative the team compiles at the end of its work.


Question:  Who is responsible for the stockpile in Syria?  Who is responsible for the chemical weapons in Syria?


Associate Spokesperson:  If there are chemical weapons held by the Government, then the Government is responsible for that stockpile.  If there are chemical weapons held by a different faction, then that faction is responsible.  We believe that any use of chemical weapons is unforgivable and whoever is responsible for their own weapons under their command would need to face the consequences.  Yes?


Question:  If military strikes start in Syria, what will the mission do? Will they cancel the job and go back?


Associate Spokesperson:  I don’t think we’re going to make any conjectures about what the future may hold.  Our focus remains on the work of the chemical weapons team, as well as on the work of the diplomatic process.  We, of course, continue to try to get the parties to come to a peaceful solution based on the Geneva 2012 communiqué and to prepare for talks, potentially the Geneva II talks, as soon as we could get that arranged.  Lakhdar Brahimi, our Special Envoy, continues his work in that regard, and I believe he intends to speak to the press in Geneva tomorrow.


Question:  I have two questions on Syria and then about this UN intruder that I e-mailed you about.  On Syria, I wanted to ask you, the Syrian Foreign Minister held a press conference and he said that the UN only asked for access to Ghouta on Saturday.  That’s what he said.  And I wanted to know when the UN team actually asked for access.  And also, there’s a YouTube video, you may have seen it, in which two of the members of the team are seen in a kind of a courtyard and they say they are taking samples, but they are uninterested in taking actually parts of the rocket.  They say that’s not part of their thing.  Somebody says:  is that because you don’t want to carry it in your vehicle?  But, I’ve heard you say a couple of times here that they want as many facts as possible.  So, I wanted to know how is that… is that the case?  Were they, in fact, collecting only small samples and not pieces of metal that they found, and where, also where are these samples being held, at the Four Seasons or elsewhere?  Thank you.


Associate Spokesperson:  I wouldn’t have any comment about any YouTube video.  The basic point is that the team is working hard to have evidence that it can keep and have under secure chain of custody, in accordance with its operational guidelines.  Regarding your initial question, I just want to read to you a paragraph from a statement that we put out and gave to all of you on the 22 August, which is to say the day after the attack, which says the following:


The Secretary-General now calls for the mission, presently in Damascus, to be granted permission and access to swiftly investigate the incident which occurred on the morning of 21 August.  A formal request is being sent by the United Nations to the Government of Syria in this regard.  He expects to receive a positive response without delay.”


So that was issued on 22 August, which is last Thursday.


Question:  Sure, but as the Secretary-General himself sometimes says, there’s public statements and then there’s actually receiving it.  So, I wonder, can you say when, formally, legally, the request to go to Ghouta was made?


Associate Spokesperson:  Well, I just read you that request, which was a clear request that was issued on Thursday.  Angela Kane was immediately dispatched and then she arrived in Damascus on Saturday, so she was also stepping forward with that request; but, as you see, we made that request on the 22 August.


Question:  The press statement is the request?


Associate Spokesperson:  It’s not just a press statement.  When we make these things, as the statement makes very clear, “a formal request is being sent by the United Nations to the Government of Syria in this regard”.


Question:  And it arrived on Saturday in the form of Angela Kane?  I just wanted you to respond to that.


Associate Spokesperson:  That’s basically a question of semantics.  You’ve heard exactly what the formal request is.  It went out far and wide on Thursday.  Angela Kane was conveying this and she did arrive on Saturday.  Yes?


QuestionFarhan, is Ms. Kane still there?  And also, what have you heard from Mr. Sellström about the sites?  You know, there’s been all this bombing on the sites to destroy evidence.  Is the UN… is the team concerned that there will be anything to collect when they finally get there?


Associate Spokesperson:  Yes, well, on the second question, it is rare that an internal investigation would be able to commence within such a short time as investigation into the 21 August incident has.  With hundreds of human fatalities, the passage of such a few days does not affect the opportunities to collect valuable samples and to perform witness interviews.  For example, sarin can be detected in biomedical samples up to months following its use.  Additionally, in such a short time after the incident, reliable witness statements can be gathered as supportive evidence.  Regarding your first question about Angela Kane, Ms. Kane continues to engage, as necessary, with the Government of Syria on behalf of the Secretary-General, and I wouldn’t have any further comments on her itinerary.  Yes, Jonathan?


QuestionFarhan, to date, there is no Security Council resolution on Syria; there is not even a text that would say there would be serious consequences if the Syrian Government, for instance, pulled off some sort of attack, like if they are, in fact, responsible for the latest attack.  If there is some sort of international intervention in the form of military action in Syria, how would the UN deem that?


Associate Spokesperson:  Again, I really don’t want to speculate on this.  Our focus is away from any military solution and towards a diplomatic solution.  And we continue to work at all avenues to try to get a diplomatic solution going.  We are… we remain convinced that there has already been far too much bloodshed in Syria, and we continue to work with parties inside and outside the region to try to secure a negotiated solution.  Yeah?


Question:  Just a quick follow-up on this?  Would the Secretary-General prefer to have some sort of resolution or some other authorization worked through here?  I mean, what is his position on this lack of substantive documentation within the Security Council related to Syria?


Associate Spokesperson:  The Secretary-General has made it very clear that he would like the Security Council to come together on the issue of Syria, and he has tried as much as he could to bring the members of the Security Council together on this issue.  Yes?


Question:  Have you established who was trying yesterday to obstruct the access of the inspectors into the region, whether the vehicles were hit from the front or the back, from the right or the left, and were there any reporters escorting them?


Associate Spokesperson:  We have not yet identified the assailants.  Yes?


QuestionFarhan, a follow-up to Jonathan’s question.  I just wanted to know, will it be a violation of United Nations Charter if any Member State launches an attack inside Syria, as we know is going to happen any time soon?  Does that… will that be deemed a violation of the United Nations Charter without authorization of Security Council?


Associate Spokesperson: I wouldn’t speculate on what hypothetical future military action would look like.  We have no way of knowing.  Yes?


Question:  What can you say about the allegations made by the Prime Minister… the Foreign Minister of Syria, who says that the delay of the UN going to the site today is because of rebels and the rebels fighting each other, and that’s the reason why the UN investigators cannot get there?  Do we have any confirmation on that, or is just an allegation from the Government of Syria?  And what can you say that it could happen in the next few days if the rebels, if that’s the case, don’t allow the UN to get there or even the Government?


Associate Spokesperson:  What I can say is that there are a number of complexities involved in getting into that site.  And so Dr. Sellström took the decision that, in order to have all the right preparations in place, a one-day postponement made sense while you lock in the necessary agreements.  And our expectation is that he will now be able to make that trip there tomorrow.  Erol?


Question:  I have a slightly different question.  There was a story at the IPS [Inter Press Service] on the UN spying, actually UN involved in spying somehow for the… within the new system that was put in the telephone.  Did you see that story?  How can you comment on that?  And can I reaffirm Jonathan’s and Masood’s question, as well, also, what is the position on Secretary… of General… Secretary-General whether the Security Council should act on this or should go out on that?


Associate Spokesperson:  Again, the Secretary-General’s position has been that there has been a need all along for the Security Council to come to a unified position.  Many of the crises of the world are easier to handle when the Security Council can deal with it in a unified manner, and this is no different.  As for your other question, I believe that my colleague, Martin Nesirky, has answered those questions by referring back to a bulletin issued by the previous Secretary-General and I would give you the reference to that later.  Yes?


Question:  Thanks.  I know you are not going to speculate about what the team in Damascus would do if there was military intervention in Syria, but more fundamentally, are there elements of the agreement which [was] reached between the UN and the Assad Government that Dr. Sellström’s team would be able… would be guaranteed safe travel to the airport if and when that ever became necessary?  Are we… there are obviously day-to-day changes as to access the different parts of the city, but is safe travel out of the country fundamentally guaranteed by the Government at all times?


Associate Spokesperson:  I wouldn’t have any specific comment, but certainly they have had agreement to move about safely thus far.  Yes?


Question:  Great, thanks a lot.  Now… now that we’ve gone at least once beyond Syria, I wanted to ask you about something I sent you an e-mail about and wrote a story on, which is the… a supposed intruder entering the UN yesterday by… by this guard post by the satellite dish and how far… I wanted to know how… it’s been confirmed to me by Security that such a thing did happen.  I wanted to know how far up did the person get, what changes are being made, and what do you make of the criticism that… that… that the reason that this took place and also that the fire in the basement wasn’t sensed earlier is the budget cuts and the removal of security posts within the building.


Associate Spokesperson:  Yes, a young individual scaled the fence outside the United Nations Headquarters yesterday and was able to get into the building.  He gained access to the UN tower before Security apprehended him and then handed him over to the New York Police Department.  His parents were present during that transfer.


Question:  But, how far up in the tower did he get?  And also, do you dispute that the guard post by the satellite dish was un… has been unmanned for at least weeks that I can think of and is now manned again?  Is this a kind of a recognition that there should have been a guard there at the time?


Associate Spokesperson:  Well, what I was told by Security was that they handled this very swiftly and they handled it very capably.  Yes?


Question:  I had a question regarding Mr. Feltman in Iran.  You said he talked about Syria and also about other topics at the request of Iranian officials; could you elaborate on that?


Associate Spokesperson:  No, beyond that, I don’t have any further details to share.  Yes?


QuestionFarhan, this incursion by the Israelis in Al-Labouneh area near the UNIFIL position, what has happened to that investigation?  I mean, those when… when four Israelis were injured.  This has been weeks ago.


Associate Spokesperson:  Yes, and as you know, the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) has been in touch with the Israeli and Lebanese sides, and has been conducting its own investigation.  We have provided a few updates in the past weeks.  Whenever we have any further information to share about it, we will.  Yes?


Question:  Yes, Farhan, a question about this attack of Israelis inside or the West Bank yesterday, you said you would have a statement later on.  Was there anything done about it?  Was anybody…?


Associate Spokesperson:  Yeah, I don’t know whether you missed the start of this briefing, but there was a statement from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.  We can share that with you later.  I read that out at the start.  Yes?


Question:  Yes.  There is any special status of alert of some people UNIFIL in Lebanon, in case there is an attack in Syria, or the fact that the Hizbullah has been said… has been allies of the [Bashar al-]Assad regime?  So, is there any… anything at the moment going on, on alerting the… the UN forces there?


Associate Spokesperson:  We wouldn’t comment on security arrangements.  Wherever the UN works, we take into account factors on the ground and how they might affect security.  Yes?


Question:  Sure, I wanted to ask, I guess, for… for something of an update of the fighting in… in… in and around Goma.  There are some reports of… of injuries or… or worse among the intervention brigade.  So, I wanted to know, what’s… what’s the UN’s understanding of… of the impact of the fighting, and what… what does Mr. [Martin] Kobler have to say?  Some have said that he has been saying that they should go back to… to Kampala and renew talks, where do things stand there?


Associate Spokesperson:  Yes, the update is that the situation in Kibati, north of Goma, remains tense.  Sporadic exchanges of small arms fire continued today between the M23 [23 March Movement] and the Congolese Armed Forces (FARDC) in Kibati.  The UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) is closely monitoring the situation and stands ready to use all necessary means to defend civilians.


Question:  Any injuries among the intervention battalion?


Associate Spokesperson:  Nothing reported, no.


Question:  Could I…?


Associate Spokesperson:  Okay, last one.


Question:  Okay, I… there are… it’s on the Central African Republic, same… same question, what… what is Mr. [Babacar] Gaye and the mission say about the… the reports of fighting in… in… in… in Bangui and also the… the Sudanese General who is indicted by the International Criminal Court is said to be going to the [Central African Republic].  Many people are speaking about it and I am wondering, since there is an actual UN mission in [the Central African Republic], is there any comment on the propriety of… of… of him being hosted in… in Central African Republic?


Associate Spokesperson:  No, we haven’t received any recent communications from the BICUNA [United Nations Integrated Peacebuilding Office in the Central African Republic] mission.  If that changes, we will share that.  Thanks, have a good afternoon.


* *** *


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