19 December 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, Acting Deputy Spokesperson for the Secretary-General.


Good afternoon, everybody.


**Guest at Noon


As you can see, today my guest is Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson.  And he is here to brief on the “Rights up front” action plan.  However, first, before we begin, there has been a situation developing in the Republic of South Sudan and we wanted to share some details and can also talk about that later, as well as after Mr. Eliasson’s presentation.


First of all, I wanted to say that while the situation in central Juba appears to have calmed down to some extent, which has allowed limited movements of UN personnel, reports of civilians seeking protection continue.  Following unconfirmed reports of several students killed by security personnel in Juba University yesterday, several hundred students reportedly remaining on campus have requested assistance from the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).  A patrol is scheduled for the area this afternoon.  In another location in Juba, called the Kator complex, approximately 2,000 to 5,000 civilians have sought refuge and have called for force protection from the UN Mission.  A patrol is en route.


The situation in Jonglei has deteriorated.  In Akobo, earlier today, where civilians have gathered, including 32 as of last night, Lou Nuer youth have reportedly forced an entry into the UNMISS Temporary Operating Base to reach those civilians.   Fighting took place and we have yet to ascertain the situation.  We fear there may have been some fatalities, but can't confirm who and how many at this stage.  The UN Mission in South Sudan will try to extract unarmed UN personnel from Akobo, while reinforcing the base in Akobo with an additional 60 troops from Malakal tomorrow.


So, that is the factual update we have for now and we can talk further about this down the line.  But, first, I want to turn the floor over to the Deputy Secretary-General, on the “Rights up front” action plan, and also to let you know that at the back of the room there are documents, factual documents, about the “Rights up front” action plan.


[Press conference by Mr. Eliasson issued separately.]


Good afternoon.  To continue with the second part of our briefing, we can take some more questions, but first I will read a few more quick notes.


**South Sudan


As you know, we have just been talking with the Deputy Secretary-General about the situation in South Sudan.  In addition on that, what I have to say is that the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has warned against the rapidly deteriorating security situation in South Sudan and the consequences for the civilian population.


She said that she is deeply worried about the safety and security of civilians caught in the crossfire.  The risk of seeing the fighting taking on an ethnic dimension is extremely high and could result in a dangerous situation.


She called on the Government to send a clear message on command responsibility within the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) to prevent retaliatory attacks based on ethnicity and tribal affiliation and to hold the alleged perpetrators accountable.


The High Commissioner also urged the Government of South Sudan to ensure that all those detained are accorded due process and that they are promptly either charged or released.  She urged all parties, including members of the security forces, to exercise utmost restraint and comply with international human rights and humanitarian law.


**Nelson Mandela


The Secretary-General spoke at the General Assembly’s memorial service for Nelson Mandela, and said that Nelson Mandela was a human being with flaws and frailties like any of us.  And yet, from his humanity came humility; from humility came strength; from strength came transformation; from utter goodness came epic greatness.


The Secretary-General said that when he visited South Africa to see his funeral service last week, he saw once again how much Nelson Mandela meant to the people of South Africa — and the people of South Africa said how much the United Nations meant to them.  Their struggle, the Secretary-General said, was our struggle.


He said that now it is our duty to build the better world that Nelson Mandela showed is within our grasp.


**Secretary-General’s Travels


As the Secretary-General announced on Monday, he is departing this afternoon for the Philippines.  Over the weekend, he will visit Manila and Tacloban, where he will assess the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan first hand.  We will provide you with the transcripts of his various press encounters, including in Tacloban.


** Central African Republic


The Special Representative of the Secretary-General in the Central African Republic, Babacar Gaye, said today that the situation is improving in the country, but remains fragile and unpredictable.


In an interview with UN Radio, Mr. Gaye also said that there is no longer fighting in the capital, Bangui, and the disarmament of armed groups is ongoing.  He said that this improvement has to be consolidated.


** Syria


The Joint Special Representative for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, and Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman will meet at the Palais des Nations in Geneva tomorrow with Russian Deputy Foreign Ministers Mikhail Bogdanov and Gennady Gatilov, and United States Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman to further preparations for the International Conference on Syria.


That meeting will be followed by one with representatives of the five permanent members of the Security Council and neighbours of Syria (namely, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey), as well as of the European Union and the League of Arab States.


It is expected that the Joint Special Representative will address the press following the meetings.


** Syria — Human Rights


The independent international Commission of Inquiry, in a report today, said that enforced disappearances are being committed on a wide scale throughout Syria as part of a campaign of intimidation and as a tactic of war.  The report concludes that there are reasonable grounds to believe that acts of enforced disappearances were committed by Government forces as part of wide-spread and systematic attacks against the civilian population, amounting to a crime against humanity.


In all the cases documented by the Commission, survivors of enforced disappearances described being subjected to torture during their detention.  The commissioners say that this underscores a deeply disturbing trend which sheds more light on the systematic use of torture.  Victims were consistently denied their fundamental right to due process and placed outside the protection of the law, at the mercy of their captors.  The full report is online.


** Syria — Humanitarian


The World Food Programme (WFP), UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund)and the UN refugee agency have begun airlifting humanitarian aid from Erbil, Iraq, to Qamishli, in Syria.  The first humanitarian airlift, which started on 15 December, carried almost 40 metric tons of food supplies, including flour, pasta, oil, sugar and rice.  The refugee agency has also airlifted vaccines and winter aid, including thermal blankets and plastic sheets for shelter.  Over the next 10 days, two planes have been contracted to deliver some 285 metric tons of goods to assist 30,000 people.


**Secretary-General’s Appointments


And last, we have two appointments by the Secretary-General today.


The Secretary-General has appointed Lenín Voltaire Moreno Garces of Ecuador as his Special Envoy on Disability and Accessibility.  Mr. Moreno currently serves as Chairperson of the Committee for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Persons with Disabilities of the Organization of American States.  As Special Envoy, Mr. Moreno will help promote the rights of persons with disabilities, with a particular emphasis on accessibility for all.


The Secretary-General has also appointed Han Seung-soo of the Republic of Korea as his Special Envoy for Disaster Risk Reduction and Water.  Mr. Han has previously served as Special Envoy of the Secretary-General on Climate Change.  In his new function, Mr. Han will rally commitments from Member States, the private sector and civil society to support the United Nations’ work on water-related disaster risk reduction.


We have more on both appointments in our office.  That’s it from me.  Any questions?  Yes, please.


**Questions and Answers


Question:  Yes, on that issue of South Sudan, is there any information that the United Nations has about outside influence — I’m talking about Khartoum or the North or something like that — in some of this violence?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  Regarding that, we don’t have complete information.  As you know, the situation on the ground is very fluid and very confused.  It remains to be determined what are the factors at play.  However, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General in South Sudan, Hilde Johnson, had remained in constant contact both with the Government and others with influence on these issues, and she has conveyed messages across the board about the need for the situation to be dealt with through political dialogue.  Yes, Lou?


Question:  Were there civilians sheltering in Akobo and if so, roughly how many?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  Yes, at the time that the base in Akobo was attacked, the information we had was that some civilians, about 32 as of last night, had gathered there.  And that was before youth from the Lou Nuer ethnicity reportedly forced their entry and attacked the base.  We don’t know what the condition is of the civilians who were sheltering in the base.


Question:  Was the fact that civilians were there, was that the reason why it was attacked?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  It is possible.  I do believe the civilians were of the Dinka ethnicity and there have been signs of different attacks by one of the groups against the other.  We, of course, have urged the Government and indeed all sides to protect all civilians, regardless of ethnicity, and we continue to relay that message.  There have been other situations, by the way, where different civilians are sheltering.  For example, at present, the UN Mission in South Sudan is providing security to more than 14,000 civilians gathered around its base in Bor, while providing protection at the Bor airstrip.  Yes, Edie?


Question:  Farhan, has all of this violence and escalation of apparent ethnic conflict led the UN to rethink the mandate or the posture of the peacekeeping mission in South Sudan, and the possibility, for example, of closing some of the remote locations?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  At this stage, what I have to say on that is that the Secretary-General had been discussing this matter with the Deputy Secretary-General, and others prior to his current travel, and made very clear the need for us to consistently enforce our protection-of-civilians mandate.  And so, we continue to call on the Government to comply fully with the Mission in South Sudan as it fulfils its protection mandate, including the provision of basic relief to civilians in need and in conducting human rights investigations into allegations of human rights abuses in recent days.  We are going to keep with that, and we expect the Mission to continue with its protection-of-civilians mandate.


Question:  And as a follow-up, what kind of response has the UN gotten from the Government of South Sudan and what actually is the situation in terms of — that’s an awful lot of people in Juba and in Bor — and obviously, in other places in the provision of basic needs, humanitarian and health needs?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  You’re absolutely right.  The basic needs for food, for water, for sanitation are all being strained to the maximum and indeed overstrained in many areas.  So, what we’re trying to do is have an assessment of what the precise needs on the ground are, and see what we can do to fulfil them.  If we get some more details on that later in the day, I’ll try to share them with you.  But yes, Hilde Johnson has been in touch with the Government of South Sudan and others.  What we’re trying to do is also see whether possibly she can provide some briefing by video conference, possibly tomorrow or in the coming days, and we’ll try to have some sort of arrangement, so that she can get you the most accurate information from the ground, because, as we’ve been saying, the situation is very fluid and is changing basically by the hour.


Question:  As a quick follow-up, does that mean that the UN doesn’t really have any response from the Government on whether it can or is willing to actually help any of these people?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  I’m sure that since Ms. Johnson is in constant contact with the Government, that she’s getting some responses.  I don’t know what they are.  We’ve been trying to get as much information from them and we’ve gotten a wealth of factual information about the situation on the ground in terms of what UNMISS is facing, but we certainly need to get further updates, including on the Government’s response.  We’ll try to get them.


Question:  The Deputy was asked about communication with leaders with Uganda, but as we look at Akobo, this is less than five miles from the Ethiopian border.  Is there any confirmation of communication between the [Secretary-General] and leaders in Ethiopia, and can you speak any further about whatever efforts to extract UN personnel are ongoing at the base in Akobo?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  We’re certainly trying to get some details about the situation at the base.  What we can say is that the UN Mission in South Sudan will try to extract unarmed UN personnel from Akobo and reinforce the base in Akobo with an additional 60 troops from Malakal, but that’s expected to happen tomorrow.  It’s night in Akobo right now and it’s extremely difficult to have access to that base.  But, the reinforcement efforts are under way.  Matthew?


Question:  Two questions on South Sudan, and I want to ask about Syria, maybe after this round of South Sudan.  You mentioned Bor and you said that the city, or town, has fallen to the defectors.  Is that something that the UN, if it has an airstrip or whatever it has there, is that the case?  And also, there are reports of at least 16 oil workers being killed in Unity State — beaten to death — and I’m wondering is that… you’re saying that Hilde Johnson is in touch with the Government… is that something that you can confirm?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  In terms of Unity State, no, we don’t have confirmation of those reports.  We’re looking into all the various reports that we’ve been receiving, and I mentioned at the start different patrols that we were doing, also following the reported violence in Juba University.  Regarding the situation in Bor that you asked about, the Government of South Sudan has reported to the UN Mission that there’s been youth mobilization and movement towards Bor.  However, the UN Mission has not been able to verify that claim.  Yes, Pam, you had a question?


Question:  As a follow-up, is there any aerial surveillance at all in this area that you would, that the UN would be able to find out from?  There’s no drones or any other surveillance?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  We don’t have drones in South Sudan.  We do have helicopters, but at this time of night they’re not able to get reliable information on places like Akobo, so that’s a hindrance.


Question:  There’s nothing coming in?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  Of course, we’d appreciate any further supplies that we can get from Member States in this regard, but we don’t have those facilities right now.


Question:  And has there been movement of any kind of supplies or people or military forces towards them by the UN?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  Well, with the forces that the UN has on the ground, we’re trying, basically, to spread them out to reinforce all of the areas that are in need.  But, as the situation worsens, that grows.  It’s a difficult task, but, the Mission is doing its best to redeploy to where the troops are most needed.  Yes, Matthew?


Question:  This is on Syria and is something I tried to ask you by e-mail before.  On Monday, at the stakeout, Ambassador [Bashar al-]Ja’afari of Syria said that he took issue with the Spokesman’s Office , actually it was something that you had said on 7 November, about the Irish peacekeepers being shelled.  I’ve now seen there’s a note verbale that went in and I just wanted to get your side of it.  They claim that [the Department of Peacekeeping Operations] has told them that, in fact, the Irish say that they were shelled by the armed opposition and not by the Government, so they’ve written this note verbale that also talks about the way the kidnapping of the nuns was described, the way in which aid may be delivered by Israel through UNDOF (United Nations Disengagement Observer Force) or through mediation of UNDOF or through the Golan.  And I wanted to know, what’s your Office’s response to the 16 December note verbale by Syria?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  The response is that we’ve received that note verbale.  We’re studying it.  And we’ll be in touch with all the various departments because, as you know, the information we get is information we get from respective departments in terms of the basic facts and lines.  And so, if there are any adjustments or corrections we need to make, we’ll make them in due course once we’ve gotten the further information.


Question:  And is there any precedent, that’s something that came up, of actually changing a transcript or finding some way to enter… I went to the transcript today and you say clearly, you say it definitely was the Government.  So, it sort of seems like it’s a factual dispute.  If it’s resolved, how will we know?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  If, like I said, if there’s any need for us to correct the record, we would make a correction of the record.  But first we have to study the letter, be in touch with the various departments about the facts in question and then see what adjustments need to be made.  The information we gave is based on what the information is we had at the time.  And any particular adjustment that’s needed, as further information is acquired in the weeks and months following, we’ll make them to you.


Question:  Farhan, is there any news in South Sudan of whether the oil will stop again, since the unrest is in that area and you have Malaysian, Chinese and Indian companies have been named?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  There’s nothing really to report about the oil complexes.  At this point our focus ultimately is, as it has to be, on the civilians, of whom there are thousands in need in various different locations.  So, that is what the troops will be focusing on, but we can evaluate those once we have more of an ability to focus on that.  Okay, last question


Question:  I know that the Deputy was asked informally, I wanted to ask you more formally.  There’s a lot of news about the Indian consular person who was arrested and strip-searched, possibly cavity-searched, and the Indian Government has said that they are transferring them to the Mission, and the State Department says that would require the approval of both the State Department and of the UN.  So I’m wondering, has the UN received any request by India to accredit this individual to the Mission, and what’s the process, what would the process be like here?  Is it an approval or is it automatic?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  We did check whether we had received such a request, and to date we have not.


Question:  Is the UN responsible for consular services?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  That’s not a matter within our purview.


Okay, have a good afternoon, everyone.


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For information media • not an official record