21 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.


Good afternoon, everyone.


**Secretary-General’s Travel


The Secretary-General has arrived in Montreux, Switzerland, ahead of tomorrow’s high-level segment of the Geneva Conference on Syria. He is meeting a number of leaders this evening, and we will try to provide readouts where possible.


The Secretary-General flew to Montreux by Swiss military helicopter from the UN headquarters in Geneva, where he addressed the opening of the 2014 session of the Conference on Disarmament.  He told the delegates that his message was clear:  do not wait for others to move.  Be the first mover.  He said that delegates should not hide behind utopian logic which says that, until we have the perfect security environment, nuclear disarmament cannot proceed.  He said we must face the realities of the twenty-first century.  The Conference on Disarmament can be a driving force for building a safer world and a better future.


While in Geneva, the Secretary-General also met Catherine Ashton, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. You’ll have seen we issued a readout on that.


Tomorrow, the Secretary-General will open the high-level part of the Geneva Conference in Montreux.  The two Syrian parties will start their negotiations on Friday in Geneva, with mediation by Joint Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi and his team.


**South Sudan


We have an update from the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).  The Mission reports that it has conducted 49 police and 112 military patrols in the past 24-hour period, including in the capital, Juba, Bentiu in Unity State and in Malakal in Upper Nile State.


In Malakal, the Mission has received reports that the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) appears to be in control of the town, after heavy fighting between the SPLA and anti-Government forces yesterday.  The Mission reports continued small scale fighting in the town today.  The Mission is also very concerned about the continued reports of extrajudicial killings that it is receiving. The Mission will seek to investigate these reports.


To the south, in Unity State, the Mission has received reports of rising tensions in the town of Leer, as the SPLA is reported to be advancing toward the town.  In Bor, in Jonglei State, the UN Mission in South Sudan reports the situation to be calm in the vicinity of its compound.  Approximately, 1,000 UN troops and police are currently protecting 10,000 civilians sheltering in the Mission’s protection site in Bor.


The Mission continues efforts to organize resupply flights from Juba to its bases in Jonglei, Upper Nile and Unity States.


** Yemen


Jamal Benomar, the Secretary-General’s Special Adviser for Yemen, congratulated the Yemeni people for concluding the National Dialogue Conference today, which he called a historic moment for Yemen.


Mr. Benomar commends the unprecedented Yemeni achievement.  After being on the brink of civil war, Yemenis negotiated an agreement for peaceful change.  He notes that Yemen serves as a model for comprehensive national dialogue, based on transparency, inclusivity and active and meaningful participation of all political and social constituencies.


Mr. Benomar also strongly condemned the assassination of Dr. Ahmed Sharafuddine, the Ansar Allah delegate to the National Dialogue Conference, today in Sana’a.  Mr. Benomar said that this crime targets Yemen and is a desperate attempt to jeopardize the political process and the National Dialogue.  He further calls upon the Yemeni authorities to bring those responsible to justice.


** Lebanon


Derek Plumbly, the UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon, condemned in the strongest possible terms the car bombing today in a residential and commercial street in the southern Beirut suburb of Haret Hreik, which killed and wounded a number of people.  He extends his condolences to the families of the victims of this bombing.  Today’s explosion, the third bombing in Lebanon in as many weeks, is another deeply disturbing act of indiscriminate terror.  Such acts cannot be justified, and are contrary to the interests of all Lebanese.


The Special Coordinator called on all Lebanese to come together, and encouraged all steps that help reinforce national unity at this difficult time, including the recent momentum to form a new Government.  He also encouraged support for Lebanon’s State institutions, including the army and the security forces, as the best way to safeguard the country’s security and stability.  He hoped those responsible for today’s bombing and all other acts of terrorism will be brought to justice as soon as possible.


** Ukraine


The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has appealed to all parties to engage in constructive dialogue in Ukraine to avoid further escalation of the unrest in the country.  She said that the violent clashes over the past few days in the centre of Kiev are very worrying.  She also recommended that the dialogue be inclusive and sustained over time.


Ms. Pillay expressed serious concern about the legislative package passed last Thursday, 16 January, which introduces strict conditions for the exercise of fundamental rights.  She has called on the authorities to suspend application of the laws to allow time for a thorough review of their content, which must be in full compliance with international human rights standards.  Further information about this is available online.


We also issued a statement attributable to the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General on Ukraine last night.  The Secretary-General continues to follow developments in Ukraine closely and with concern.  He reiterates his appeal to all concerned to act with restraint, avoid any further escalation and violence and to uphold the democratic principles of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.  The full statement is available on our website.


**Democratic Republic of Congo


And last, the Force Commander of the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, MONUSCO, visited Beni in North Kivu today.  General Carlos dos Santos Cruz said that it was clear that the population had been suffering for a long time, and called on armed groups to stop fighting.  He said the UN Mission was there to provide logistical and tactical support to the Congolese army to stop these armed groups.


That’s it from me.  Any questions?  Yes, Tim?


**Questions and Answers


Question:  Thank you, Farhan.  Yesterday President [Salva] Kiir of South Sudan made some comments about UN, accusing them of seeking to set up a parallel Government.  I wonder if you have any detail on that?  I know an incident happened in Bor on Sunday as well, which you released a statement about.


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  Yes, well, on the situation in Bor, you’ve seen the statement we had to release on that.  We stand by that statement.  Regarding…


Question:  Do you have any detail on it at all?  What actually happened to provoke…  Why did the statement come up?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  Well, I believe, as we made clear in the statement, some elements of the army were trying to force entry into Bor.  And we responded, as you saw in the statement.  Beyond that, what I do have to say about President Kiir’s comment is the following:


The United Nations Mission in South Sudan, UNMISS, is implementing its Security Council mandate in an impartial manner.  The Mission continues to protect over 70,000 civilians inside its bases in eight locations across the country.  And the Mission continues to keep it gates open to civilians from all communities and backgrounds who are fleeing the violence.


It is critical that South Sudanese Government leaders and all public figures take care in public statements and comments to ease tensions and to lessen the possibility of further violence.  As Assistant Secretary-General Ivan Simonovic stated at the briefing yesterday, following his visit to South Sudan, it is clear that all sides have committed serious human rights violations against civilians.  Comments by senior public figures, from both the Government and the anti-Government side, against the Mission risk inflaming the situation and being taken by others as incitement to violence against civilians sheltering inside UNMISS bases and against UN personnel.  In such a volatile situation, it is a time for careful, measured public statements aimed at calming, not inflaming, the situation.  That’s what I have to say on that.


Question: A follow-up on that?  I just wanted to…  It seems like that one of the complaints by South Sudan is that the Information Minister wanted to visit one of the bases… he has armed security.  He was told they couldn’t enter.  I just wanted to confirm, is that the position at this point of UNMISS that even Government officials should leave their security outside, or leave their arms at the door?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  Well, hold on; let me just get a little bit more detail on that.  Just a second.  So regarding this detail and, of course, regarding Tim’s question about further details, yes, I can say that a senior Government minister along with SPLA soldiers attempted to enter the UNMISS protection site in Bor, which protects nearly 10,000 civilians.  In order to maintain the civilian character of the protection area within the UNMISS camp, the Mission informed the Minister that only unarmed civilians would be allowed in, without weapons or cameras.  The Secretary-General is particularly disturbed that United Nations staff were threatened by South Sudan military when they refused to allow armed soldiers to accompany civilians to visit the UNMISS protection site.  In the past, UNMISS has facilitated meetings with community leaders during visits of Government officials to its protection sites.  We condemn the threats made against UN personnel and demand that all parties to the conflict respect the sanctity of UNMISS protection sites.


Question:  What’s the rationale of no cameras? Weapons are one thing, but it seems like… what’s the thought on cameras?  I’ve seen some UNMISS pictures of themselves, of people in the camp, so what’s the problem with cameras being brought in?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  Well, in any case, the part of the point is that they did not… they wanted the soldiers to be unarmed.  That was the bone of contention about the cameras.  But that was the policy stated to them.  Yes?


Question:  Today, actually, the Foreign Minister of Russia, Mr. [Sergey] Lavrov, mentioned that they are a little bit disappointed with the fact that the Secretary-General took the invitation and disinvited Iran from the conversations about Syria in Geneva.  Also, the Iranian spokesperson for the Foreign Minister said they want the Secretary-General to actually give them a real reason of what was actually done.  Is there anything you say on that?  And then the second question:  does the Secretary-General of the UN have any response, or any position, after the report that was broadcast by CNN and the Guardian about the possibility of torture being used in Syria for over years?  Is there anything you can say about any of those?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  Well, your second question first.  We are studying the information this contained. We are aware of the media reports.  And you’ve seen our position against the reports of torture and ill treatment in Syria.  We’ve been concerned about this for a number of years.  The Secretary-General has spoken against it.  Navi Pillay, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, has spoken against it. We continue to be concerned.  Regarding specific things, of course, we have to examine what the reports contain.  As for your first question, I think we have made clear in the statement that was issued yesterday afternoon, which Martin Nesirky read out in this room later in the day, what the reasoning was.  But just to take you through a little bit of that, one of the paragraphs of that statement is the following:


In a series of meetings and telephone conversations, senior Iranian officials assured the Secretary-General that Iran understood and supported the basis and goal of the Conference, including the Geneva Communiqué.  The Secretary-General is deeply disappointed by Iranian public statements today that are not at all consistent with that stated commitment.  He continues to urge Iran to join the global consensus behind the Geneva Communiqué.  Given that it has chosen to remain outside that basic understanding, he has decided that the one-day Montreux gathering will proceed without Iran’s participation.


Yes, Nizar?


Question:  I have a couple of questions here.  First of all, does that mean that if we should interpret Geneva I communiqué that President [Bashar al] Assad should step down or he should be replaced?  This is the first thing. Another thing:  how representative the coalition is now, after 50 per cent or more of the members pulled out from the Syrian coalition?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  Well, we wanted a broadly representative delegation.  We will see tomorrow who is there to speak and participate.  But we continue to be hopeful that the delegation that is present in Montreux and, of course, in the following days in Geneva will be broadly representative of the Syrian opposition.  Regarding your first question, one thing we made clear about the implementation of the Geneva Communiqué is that it includes the establishment of a transitional governing body with full executive powers.  Yes, Matthew?


Question:  Thanks a lot.  On the same topic, on Syria, two quick questions:  one… I just… I heard the statement yesterday, but the Foreign Minister of Iran, Mr. [Javad] Zarif, said that he spoke to the Secretary-General several times last week and stated to him explicitly, we don’t accept any preconditions.  So he is saying that they were clear and ended up saying that the disinvitation is not appropriate for the status and dignity of the Secretary-General.  So… I’m sure you don’t like it but you maintained that… Did the Foreign Minister of Iran say that they agreed to Geneva I?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  The Secretary-General made very clear on Sunday at this very podium the oral understanding that he believed he reached with Mr. Zarif.  And I refer you to what he said on that.  Yes?


Question:  Did the Secretary-General receive any kind of pressure from the US to withdraw this invitation?  And also, is he concerned that disagreement is diverting attention from the real issue here?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  Well, yes, there is probably a small diversion from the issue at hand, but we believed that once these talks start, people will concentrate on what is needed.  What’s needed is to put an end to the fighting that has plagued the people of Syria for the past more than three years.  This is a fight that killed well over 100,000 people; that has displaced millions of people from their homes and destroyed millions of lives.  This is the first real diplomatic opportunity to get the parties to the table, and we need to make the most of it.  All of the countries in the region, all the countries with influence, now need to exert their influence to make sure that we can have a peace process that can really take hold and can stop the fighting.  I don’t think that once we are focused on that, we will be distracted from the other topics at hand.  Yes?


Question:  Just a follow-up.  Was there US pressure? Thanks, Farhan.


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  Of course, the Secretary-General has been in touch with the US and other parties, but he was in touch with them consistently throughout recent days, including prior to the Sunday announcement.  And he continues to be in touch, and he continues to do as much as he can to make sure that as many parties as possible will be on board and will be supportive of this process.  That’s the central thing: being sure that we can get everyone ultimately to support the ultimate goal of a peaceful solution to the Syrian conflict. It’s been far too long.


Question:  So to continue the discussion, I wanted to interrogate this notion of a basic understanding which you used to exclude Iran from the meeting.  What is this basic understanding?  Can you… Is your educated opinion that everyone else, every other delegation that has been invited to Montreux, is within those parameters that you have excluded Iran on?  For example, the Syrian Government delegation; are they of the view that Geneva I applies here, given that Iran is a big supporter of them?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  That’s an excellent question, but the reasoning for Iran specifically was what we stated there, which is to say that during the course of discussions in recent days, while the Secretary-General was deciding whether or not to invite Iran, he had been given to understand that there was an oral understanding in place with Iranians that would be more concrete.  That did not happen.  In fact, the opposite is what happened:  that Iran stated the same position that it had held previously.  That is why he expressed his disappointment at Iran’s decision and took the decision to disinvite them.  We are not going to go through all of the different countries.  Of course, different countries have different views.  Of course, they have been at loggerheads with each other.  This is one of the main reasons why we have a situation that has been a situation of war for the last three years.


Question:  So Geneva I is not cast in stone; is that what you are saying?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  Geneva I is… the communiqué that resulted from Geneva I is the basis for these discussions.  It doesn’t really make sense to have someone participating in discussions if they are doing it without understanding what the basis of the discussions [is].  The point of this process of Geneva II, and the reason why in fact it’s called Geneva II, is that it’s meant to implement, to make operational, the communiqué that resulted from Geneva I.  That is what we are trying to do.  And although various parties do come in with different understandings of the situation, different understandings of whom to support and why, what we are doing is relying on them to act and negotiate in good faith that what they will do is to try make operational the points that came out in the Geneva communiqué.  Yes?


Question: Thank you, Farhan.  I asked the question about horrific images from Syria published yesterday.  Is this images enough to pose…  Is that enough for the Security Council to refer the Syrian Government to ICC [International Criminal Court]?  Whether the Secretary-General demands from the Security Council on the subject?  Thank you.


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  Well, as one of your colleagues asked the question earlier, I said that we need to study and evaluate the photos.  We are aware of them.  If true, these images are indeed horrific.  But we have been speaking out against torture, killings and ill treatment in Syria throughout the course of this war.  We continue to do so.  Regarding the question on Security Council action, that’s a decision for the members of the Security Council to take.  They also need to evaluate it.


Question:  The whole idea of convening this Geneva conference is for parties to sit down and negotiate.  So by putting conditions in the beginning, you should agree on this or that, before going to negotiations.  For example, the Syrian delegation understands that the conference should address the issue of terrorism and sponsorship of terrorism or incitement in Syria and sending others…  This is the understanding of the Syrian delegation, and this has been voiced clearly by President Assad himself.  Whereas yesterday, the Saudis said, “You are going to Geneva II in order to change the whole regime.”  He went even down to changing the intelligence units and others.  Everything should be changed.  This is what everybody understands.  Now why Iran, of all the parties, was excluded here?  I know you have answered some of the questions, but this answer does not really match what others have been saying.  Everybody seems that they are going unconditionally there.  Why should Iran go there with conditions?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson: Well, I’ve stated the reason.  Again, this was a question of…  There was an oral understanding that the Secretary-General has been led to believe would be followed by an actual written understanding.  That was the reasoning, as he described it himself just two days ago, for why Iran was to be invited.  That didn’t happen.  And in fact, he was disappointed at what the follow-up was.  And so, in the statement we issued yesterday, we explained why the invitation would be rescinded.  Regarding other countries and their positions, yes, I made it clear that different countries have completely different positions on the Syrian conflict.  But what we are trying to do, though, is to make sure that they will at least be able to negotiate in good faith so that we can operationalize the communiqué that was issued after the Geneva Conference of 2012.  Let’s vary it up.  I’ll come back to you.


Question:  I’ll stay on the same topic for that.  I just, thanks for taking these questions.  But I wanted to…  I’m looking at Geneva I, and it said that… it talks about sustained cessation of armed violence in all its forms.  I wanted to know, if there are countries among the invitees that actually have openly provided arms and support to armed groups in Syria, isn’t that…?  What would you say to the people who would say that’s inconsistent with Geneva I?  And the Secretary-General should be equally dismayed, but they are invited and they will show up, so why does it seem like a different standard is being applied?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  The Secretary-General is dismayed at the militarization of the conflict in Syria.  He is dismayed at anyone who has provided arms and military support to any of the parties that have kept this war going for far too long.  The objective of this meeting, though, is to bring people, including people who may have been unhelpful in their actions, to see whether they can actually get to cease their support, cease hostilities and, like I said, make operational the points arrived at the Geneva I meeting.  Cara first, and then you.


Question:  Why didn’t the Secretary-General wait for a written understanding with Iran before announcing his invitation?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  I think the Secretary-General has said as much as he intended to say about this process on Sunday when he spoke to the press.  He had a series of good discussions.  He was convinced that Iran would play a positive and constructive role, and the sort of oral assurances he had been given would be matched.  They were not.


Question:  In his meeting with the Prime Minister of Iraq, Mr. [Nouri al-] Maliki, the Secretary-General has been shown some evidence of involvement of regional countries, specifically Saudi Arabia, in helping terrorists active in Iraq itself.  And of course, these same terrorists are active in Syria.  One of the things that the Secretary-General said he would share that with the Security Council members and he will discuss it with them.  Has this happened so far?  And if so, how come a country that sponsored terrorism is taking part in a peace conference, like Geneva II?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  Well, I don’t know whether this has made it into the Security Council.  It’s up to the Council members to determine whether that discussion would take place there, but…


Question:  Did he share it with the Security Council so far?  Because we were told last week that he is going to discuss it, probably during lunch or with the Security Council on other occasions.


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  We tend not to have readouts of the Security Council lunches, so it’s nothing I can share with you on that.  Yes?


Question:  To continue the discussion, and not really wanting to quote Hillary Rodham Clinton, but what difference does it make if Iran changes its position and has preconditions, given that so many of the other countries attending have their own positions on these peace talks?  What difference does it make?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  Well, again, the point is that there was a series of understanding that the Secretary-General believed would be made concrete.  They were not.  Yes?


Question:  To change the topic, I wanted to ask you, one is, in Guinea, [President] Alpha Condé announced a new Government that, at least as reported, does not include any opposition figures at all.  I wanted to know, given the UN involvement through Said Djinnit and…  Is there any response to that?  And also, is the UN or Mr. Djinnit and his office have any comment on the protest in Burkina Faso against the President trying to change the constitution and pursue more than the current 26 years in office?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  I don’t believe we have a reaction to Burkina Faso.  There is nothing he said on that.  Regarding whether there will be a reaction to the Government of Guinea, we will check with our colleagues in the Department of Political Affairs.  Yes?


Question:  On Libya this time, what’s your evaluation of the situation in Libya, especially after the skirmish, or fighting, that took place in Sabha and the curfew imposed on certain areas?


Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  Well, the UN Mission continues to be concerned about the violence in Libya, and as you know it’s been given periodic updates.  They have been trying to work with the authorities to make sure that there is an improved situation for security throughout the country, but there have been periodic flare-ups and we’ve reported them.  The UN Support Mission for Libya has reported them to the Security Council, and we will do so with these.


Have a good day, everyone.


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