9 January 2014
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.


Hello, good afternoon.


**Secretary-General Travel


I have a trip to announce for you.  Next week, the Secretary-General will travel to Kuwait to chair the second Pledging Conference for Syria, on 15 January.


The conference is hosted, again this year, by the Amir of Kuwait, His Highness Sheikh Sabah al Ahmed al Jaber al Sabah.  It aims to mobilize the required financial resources to enable the United Nations and its partners to meet urgent humanitarian needs, and to harness solidarity for the plight of the Syrian people.


As the humanitarian situation in Syria continues to deteriorate, the Secretary-General calls once more on Member States to participate in the conference and to remain generous.


While he is in Kuwait City, the Secretary-General will meet with senior Kuwaiti officials, as well as with other officials from Member States participating in the Pledging Conference.


** Syria


Also on Syria, Ertharin Cousin, Executive Director of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) ended a visit to Syria today after high-level talks with Government officials.  She also met displaced families at a food distribution centre in Damascus.


Ms. Cousin said that the humanitarian situation in Syria is getting more difficult every day, as almost half the Syrian people are now food insecure.


This month, the World Food Programme has increased its food assistance to reach 4.25 million people inside Syria.  The challenge is gaining access to the besieged areas.  There are more details on the World Food Programme’s website.


** Central African Republic


The Secretary-General had a message to the extraordinary summit of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) taking place today in N’Djamena, Chad.


The message was delivered by Babacar Gaye, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative and Head of the United Nations Integrated Peacebuilding Office for the Central African Republic, know as BINUCA.


The Secretary-General said that he remains extremely concerned about the situation in the Central African Republic.  He noted that the danger of further upheaval along religious lines is real and poses a long-term danger to the country.


The Secretary-General added that it is essential to rapidly address this challenge and prioritize reconciliation efforts.  He commends the Economic Community of Central African States Heads of State for proposing an inclusive national conference.


He also stressed the importance of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of armed groups and said the presence of conditions conducive to such an exercise must be ensured.


The Secretary-General also said he was troubled by the humanitarian and human rights situation in the Central African Republic.  He said the United Nations has stepped up its humanitarian response and is also working to establish an International Commission of Inquiry to document abuses and human rights violations, in accordance with Security Council resolution 2127 (2013).  We must send a strong message that those committing atrocities will be held accountable, he said.


**Security Council


The Security Council is holding consultations this morning on South Sudan.  Council members received briefings from Hervé Ladsous, the Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations; Hilde Johnson, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for South Sudan; and Haile Menkerios, the head of the UN Office to the African Union.


**South Sudan


Meanwhile, the situation at the UN Mission [in South Sudan] base in Bor, in Jonglei State, where over 9,000 civilians are being protected, remains strained.


Yesterday, the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) was finally able to undertake three flights to the city, where it delivered food supplies and medically evacuated 54 civilians back to Juba.  UN flights had so far been unable to reach Bor for the past few days.  An additional five UNMISS flights from Juba, carrying food, also arrived in the city today.


Meanwhile, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Valerie Amos, has announced the allocation of $15 million for critical relief efforts in South Sudan.


She said that with this funding, UN humanitarian agencies will be better able to meet the needs of people desperately seeking shelter and safety.


UN agencies will use the funds to improve the living conditions of tens of thousands of people in overcrowded camps.  The allocation will also go to air support for medical evacuations and to enable relief workers to reach people in need in places that are inaccessible or too insecure to get to by road.


It is now estimated that more than 231,000 people have been displaced since 15 December.  A further 42,800 South Sudanese have fled to neighbouring countries including Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda — 32,000 of them in Uganda alone.


**Food


The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says that 2013 marked the third highest year on record for its Food Price Index.


The FAO Food Price Index averaged 206.7 points in December, nearly unchanged from the previous month, with a sharp increase in dairy prices and high meat values balancing out a steep decline in sugar quotations and lower cereal and oil prices.


For 2013 as a whole, the Index went down 1.6 per cent from 2012, and was well below 2011’s peak.  The details of the Food Price Index are available on the agency’s website.


**Secretary-General Press Conference


And last, I have a press conference to announce for you.  The Secretary-General will have his first press conference of the year tomorrow, Friday, in this room at 11 a.m.  He will discuss the challenges facing us over the coming year and take your questions.


Accordingly, there will be no noon briefing tomorrow.  But, there is one today.  Do I have any questions?  Yes?


**Questions and Answers


Question:  Thank you, Farhan.  Just a quick update, what’s the latest with regard to the additional peacekeeping forces that the Secretary-General has requested from the Security Council in his consultations with the Heads of State for the neighbouring in South Sudan?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  In South Sudan?  There is a peacekeeping force in South Sudan.


Correspondent:  There was… the Secretary-General requested an additional 5,500 peacekeepers.


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  Yes, yes.  And we’re still in the process of trying to get those additional troops to come in.  We don’t have any particular new update to give you.  As you know, in recent days, we’d mentioned the supply, the arrival of some police units from Bangladesh, as well as some additional helicopters, also from Bangladesh.  And we’ll report on other assets as they come in to the operations.  But there’s nothing fresh to report today.  Yes?


Question:  Sorry, I wanted to ask a follow-up on that, and I mean…  Nepal has said that they had earlier decided to transfer 350 Nepalese army personnel to South Sudan who are currently serving in Haiti as peacekeepers.  So, they’re now saying that there’s an additional 500 on top of that, that they’ve received a call from the Secretary-General and committed to it.  So… countries are saying these things.  Can you… the fact of Nepalese peacekeepers from Haiti — is that possible to be confirmed if they’re publically saying it was earlier decided on?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  Yes, I can confirm that Nepal will make up one of the battalions to reinforce the UN Mission in South Sudan, which will include 350 troops redeploying from the UN [Stabilization] Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), with an approximately further 500 troops deploying from Nepal.


Question:  How about Ghana?  They’ve also said that they’re contributing.


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  I don’t have a confirmation on that one so far.  But again, as more of these contributions become concrete, we’ll be able to announce them.  Yes?


Question:  Thanks.  We’ve heard a lot about the UNMISS bases in Juba sheltering tens of thousands over the past few weeks.  But the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) also has a number of compounds in the capital; I think an office complex and two residential facilities.  What is their policy, as far as you know, about accepting anyone who needs shelter?  Do you have any information on that?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  You can ask UNDP itself.  As it is, what’s happening is that in different places, in Bor, in Bentiu, in Juba, we have been providing shelter for, as you know, now tens of thousands of civilians at the various UNMISS bases.  And that’s what we have been focusing on.  It’s not that we’re doing that at the smaller UN offices, but at the compounds where we can protect them.


Question:  So, to your knowledge, there’s no need to go to other facilities because the UNMISS bases are not at capacity in the capital?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  Well, they’re extremely full.  But, the point is that we’ve been trying to provide for as many people as have been coming in.  Yes?


Question:  Thank you.  There are reports about involvement by Uganda in the fight in South Sudan on the side of the Government.  Do you have any information about that?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  I do not.  That’s really a question for the Government of Uganda.  At this stage, we have been encouraging all parties to be helpful towards obtaining a cessation of hostilities and that is where we’re focusing.  But at this stage, of course, one of the focuses also, therefore, is the mediation process that’s under way under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and we’re hoping those talks make progress.  The Secretary-General, as you know, has been supportive of the mediation process led by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development and he’ll continue to do so.


Question:  Does that include Uganda?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  I believe it’s one of the countries involved in the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, which, as you know, is a regional body.  But, they have been participating in a mediation process and what we’re trying to do is encourage a mediation process that will keep both sides on the table and encourage, ultimately, a political solution to this crisis, which is what we’ve been seeking all along.


Question:  But can you confirm or deny that one country, which is Uganda, has been involved in air raids inside South Sudan?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  I don’t have a confirmation on that.  Yes, Oleg?


Question:  Thank you, Farhan.  On Syria, there have been reports that rebels apparently attacked two sites where chemical weapons were stored.  Do you have any update on that?  Have you been contacted by anybody?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  I am aware of this report, which… but I believe this was part of the closed-door discussions at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).  I would simply have to refer you to our colleagues at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to see whether they would have anything to say on that.  I don’t have a confirmation to provide from here.  Yes?


Question:  Yes, but since UN is part of the Joint Mission, did the Joint Mission have any communication from Syria?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  Well, the Joint Mission… as you know, Sigrid Kaag, the Special Coordination for the Joint Mission, briefed the Security Council yesterday and she spoke to the press.  And in response to your questions, she did confirm that there have been problems with security, that there’s a clear need to make sure that the delivery of chemical weapons is a secure one.  And of course, once more she underscored the role of the Syrian authorities to ensure security as they go through with that process.  So, that’s happening.  But, she also made it clear that, from our side, the United Nations and the Joint Mission and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is working to make sure that our facilities will all be secure as they continue with the process of transporting and then eventually destroying Syria’s chemical weapons.  Yes?  In the back?  No?  Okay, then you.


Question:   On South Sudan, there are all these reports from Bentiu about people gathering in the UN base from a WFP base and that, basically, a big expectation of the Government retaking the town from rebels.  And I wanted to know, obviously, things are fluid, but is the UN… does the UN… what’s its position on the retaking of the town by the SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army)?  Does it call for them not to move in militarily?  Does it… I saw that Toby Lanzer said that the markets had been looted, would they view Government retaking as a positive step?  What’s their position on the impending retaking?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  Well, the UN Mission in South Sudan, UNMISS, reports that the outcome of the fighting in Bentiu in Upper Nile State is unclear and fluid.  The Humanitarian Coordinator for South Sudan and the Deputy Special Representative for the Mission, Toby Lanzer, is currently assessing the humanitarian situation in the city.


Explosions and fighting have been reportedly heard in the town this morning.  Currently, more than 8,000 internally displaced people are being protected by 550 troops at the UN base in Bentiu.  In order to cope with increasing numbers of civilians seeking shelter with the UN, the Mission informs us that it is expanding its protection site.  And that is the latest update we have on that.


Question:  But just, on the question of what’s its position, it seems… there may be explosions, but what seems clear is that the rebels pulled back and that the army is moving in.  Would they say to the army, don’t come in?  Or not?  Do they say the Government should take it or not?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  I don’t think any of us here in New York can say what’s actually clear about what is happening there.  What we are trying to get is clarity from the Mission itself.  So, we’ll await what they have to say as the situation becomes more clear to them.  So, until then, I’ll await further updates from the Mission.  We’re not going to respond to the latest reports, necessarily.  Yes?


Question:  Another question on South Sudan.  The day before Christmas, the UN said it had some reports of mass graves found in the country.  And just now, down in the [ United States] Senate in [ Washington], DC, the Assistance Secretary of State for African Affairs said the [ United States] had contacted the UN for more information about those mass graves, but that they were “unable to confirm those reports”.  What is the latest status on what the UN knows about suspected mass graves?  And why were they unable to provide more information to the [ United States]?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  We’re continuing to analyse the situation.  The UN Mission in South Sudan has been working on it.  And as you know, our colleagues in the Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) have also been trying to accumulate data.  So, they’re studying the issue; but they would need to know for sure whether these constitute mass graves or not.  We’ll await their further study before pronouncing ourselves on that.  Yes, Nizar?


Question:  With regard to the visit of the Secretary-General to Kuwait, of course he would be calling for generous donations to the Syrian civilians.  How about, I mean, the lavish contribution, financing of terrorist organizations in both Syria and Iraq at the moment?  Will he be impressing on these States to refrain from pursuing such paths?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  As you know, the Secretary-General has always been opposed to the further militarization of the conflict inside Syria and he continued to adhere to that point and he continues to press that point with all of his interlocutors.


Question:  How satisfied is he with the performance of the counter-terrorism office here in New York?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  He’s certainly happy that we have a counter-terrorism office that’s up and running.  As you know, the Executive Directorate of the Counter-Terrorism Office briefs the Security Council on its work, and briefed you; I believe Mr. [Jean-Paul] Laborde briefed you just about a month or so ago.  So, you’ve seen the work that they’re doing and we’ll continue [to] provide further details on their work as it proceeds.


Question:  How will they be dealing with the list of more than 70 clerics in Saudi Arabia who have been inciting violence and calling for… to kill other Muslims, for example, from other sects?  Seventy or more — this is a list that has been provided by the Syrian Mission in an official letter, which was circulated today.


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  Certainly, we stand against all incitement to violence, as well as the further militarization of the conflict, as I just mentioned.  Yes?


Question:  Thank you, Farhan.  It’s obvious conflicts, tension and strife are raging in half a dozen African states — in the [Central African Republic], [Democratic Republic of the Congo], Mali, Somalia, Sudan and Nigeria, despite the intervention of some States like France and of international and regional organizations, as well as humanitarian agencies.  Does the Secretary-General endorse the view of those who say that conflicts in Africa should be left to Africans to resolve?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  We believe it is the responsibility of all of us, that is to say, the international community as a whole, to make sure that the protection of civilians anywhere in the world is responded to and ensured by the United Nations and all the members of the international community.  Consequently, it’s all of our role in Africa, as well as everywhere else, to make sure that we have sufficient involvement so that civilians can be protected.  Otherwise, we risk a return to the era when mass slaughter was not responded to adequately by the outside world.


Question:  I wanted to ask you, I know that two… in South Sudan, the two first formed police units came from Bangladesh based on a call from the Secretary-General to Sheikh Hasina and I wanted to ask you, now that today, or I guess it could have been yesterday, three more opposition officials were arrested by the Government.  And some countries have said that the election is illegitimate and should be redone.  And, today, this is what I wanted to get your response to:  somebody said to me that the United Nations was putting some pressure, some outside scrutiny on Sheikh Hasina, or on both parties, prior to the election, but that after the call and to her agreement to send troops to South Sudan there has been very little follow-up.  I’d like you to say… do you see any…what safeguards…


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  No, that’s false.  I’m sorry, that’s false.  And you can see simply what we’ve said even in the statement issued by the Secretary-General a few days ago on Bangladesh.  And I’d refer you to that, which is a very tough statement and I think it speaks for itself.


Question:  What about the arrest of these three opposition leaders in front of the National Press Club of Dhaka?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  Certainly, of course… first of all, we’re opposed to the mistreatment of all journalists, and we believe that journalists should be able to go about their work freely and without harassment.  But also, I would like to point that, in the statement that we issued, in terms of what you were just saying, the Secretary-General calls on the political parties to resume meaningful dialogue and to urgently address the expectations of the people of Bangladesh for an inclusive political process.  He made it clear the he calls on all sides to exercise restraint and ensure first and foremost a peaceful and conducive environment where people can maintain their right to assembly and expression.  Violence and attacks on people and property can never be acceptable.  Yes, Carla in the back?


Question:  The Syrian crisis seems to be out of control.  How much protection can the Syrian Government actually give to this transport of chemical weapons?  And again… well, the attack by the rebels in an attempt, I’m assuming to… take the chemical weapons, sort of leads into Seymour Hersh’s fear that, at the end of this, the Government may have no chemical weapons, but the opposition, the rebels will be armed with chemical weapons.


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  Right now, we’re receiving the cooperation that we need from the Syrian authorities in order to go about the task of destroying Syria’s chemical weapons and we hope and expect that that will continue.  Yes?


Question:  In regard to the invitations to Geneva II, have you received any responses?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  None to speak of so far.  I believe that the responses will be coming in.  But, certainly, we do expect that all the parties that we’ve invited will show up at the conference and we’ll have, of course, a list of participants once the conference is ready.  Have a good afternoon.  Oh, okay, one last one.


Question:  I have two questions.  One regarding, I asked a few days ago about the circumstances that led to the death of Majed al-Majed, one of the top terrorists belonging to Al-Qaida in Lebanon, recently.  Have you had the chance to see, or the United Nations have been involved in the investigation of trying to find out how this guy was killed or died?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  Like I believe I told you, that was really a question for the domestic authorities.  I’ve been checking with our Office of the Special Coordinator.  There’s no comment to share with you at present on that.  Thank you.


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