DAILY PRESS BRIEFING BY THE OFFICE OF THE SPOKESMAN FOR THE SECRETARY-GENERAL
Following is a near-verbatim transcript of today’s noon briefing by Marie Okabe, Associate Spokesperson for the Secretary-General.
**Guest at Noon
Feride Acar, the chairperson of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women is here with us already, and she will join us in a few minutes to brief you on the work of Committee’s thirtieth session which began on the 12th and runs until the 30th of January.
**Statement Attributable to the Secretary-General on Middle East
Earlier today, the Secretary-General, who as you know is in Brussels, issued a statement there. In it, he says the following:
“Once again violence and terror have claimed innocent lives in the Middle East. Once again I condemn those who resort to such methods. Once again I appeal, to Israelis and Palestinians alike, to rise above feelings of anger and vengeance, however natural, and to devote all their energies to negotiating a true and lasting peace in which two peoples will live side by side, each in their own State.”
Also on this issue, the Acting UN Human Rights Commissioner Bertrand Ramcharan condemned in the strongest possible terms the terrorist bombing today of a bus in Jerusalem.
In a statement released by his office, he extends his heartfelt condolences to the families of the victims of this despicable criminal act.
That full text is available upstairs as well.
The Secretary-General today received the Andrei Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought from the European Parliament in Brussels, and said he was proud to accept the award in memory of Sergio Vieira de Mello and the many other UN staff who have lost their lives working for peace in the world.
He told the Parliament that the international community needs to manage the movement of people across borders far better than we do, and encouraged European States to open greater avenues for legal migration.
“Migrants need Europe”, he said. “But Europe also needs migrants. A closed Europe would be a meaner, poorer, weaker, older Europe. An open Europe will be a fairer, richer, stronger, younger Europe –- provided you manage migration well.”
We have copies of the text as delivered upstairs.
And just before he received the Sakharov Prize, the Secretary-General met with relatives of UN staff members killed in Baghdad last August 19, as well as one person, Gilburt Loescher, who had been in Sergio Vieira de Mello’s office at the time of the blast.
Earlier, he had met with the President of the European Parliament, Pat Cox, with whom he had primarily discussed Iraq and Cyprus. He also held an exchange with members of the Parliament’s Committee for Foreign Affairs, taking questions from them on UN-EU relations, Iraq, Afghanistan, Cyprus, UN reform and the fight against AIDS.
At a press conference that followed the award ceremony, the Secretary-General mentioned the good discussions he had last week with the Turkish Prime Minister on Cyprus, saying that what is important is that Turkey has clearly indicated its willingness to see negotiations resume. He said that the effort will be sustained until we come to a conclusion, which must be done before May 1.
We will have the complete Secretary-General’s travel as a press release out, as you know.
The UN Mission in Afghanistan today reported an increase in activities across that country in support of women’s participation in the electoral process.
The Mission met this week with Afghan officials in Kunduz, where women comprise just 17 per cent of those who have registered to vote, and with local women’s leaders in Kandahar, where women currently make up just 18 per cent of registered voters. Also, a campaign was launched in Gardez to encourage women and men to register to vote, among other activities to boost participation by Afghan women.
As of today, more than 628,000 Afghans have registered to vote -– more than 488,000 men and 140,000 women.
We have more details in the briefing notes from Kabul on this subject.
The UN refugee agency says a series of explosions, apparently from aerial bombings, struck areas around a Chadian town on the border with Sudan, leaving at least two persons dead and 15 others wounded and prompting aid workers to relocate hundreds of Sudanese refugees in the area.
You can read more about this on the UNHCR Web site.
And regarding this matter, the acting High Commissioner for Human Rights, today expressed concern over the deteriorating human rights and humanitarian situation in Darfur, western Sudan from where these refugees in Chad are fleeing.
Systematic human rights abuses against unarmed civilians have been reported, as well as the burning and looting of villages, causing massive internal displacement and an outflow of refugees.
**Democratic Republic of Congo – Humanitarian Convoy
And then, according to the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a large humanitarian aid convoy left the eastern town of Bukavu yesterday to deliver supplies to remote villages along a 150-kilometre road.
The operation targets over 5,000 displaced families who fled their homes after attacks perpetrated by Interhamwe militia two months ago.
The convoy is being organized by the aid agency CARITAS. The UN Mission is providing military escort and repairing the road as the convoy advances.
Also on a humanitarian issue, the UN’s chief humanitarian official, Jan Egeland, finished today an official visit to the Russian Federation.
In discussions with Russian officials Egeland brought up a wide range of issues related to cooperation between the United Nations and the Russian Federation in the North Caucasus and elsewhere. They also discussed the feasibility of increasing Russia’s participation in international humanitarian operations.
Egeland is now on his way to Ukraine and Belarus. We have a press release with more information upstairs.
Here at Headquarters, in a bulletin issued to UN staff today, the Secretary-General reported his decision that a marriage recognized as valid under the law of the country of a staff member’s nationality will qualify that staff member to receive the entitlements provided for eligible family members.
A domestic partnership contracted by a staff member, which is legally recognized under his or her country’s law, will also qualify that staff member to receive the entitlements provided for eligible family members.
That decision is in keeping with the long-established practice that matters of personal status are determined by reference to the law of nationality of the staff member concerned. This decision will continue to ensure respect for the social, religious and cultural diversity of the Member States and their nationals.
The bulletin’s provisions will enter into force on February 1. We have copies of that bulletin upstairs in the Spokesman’s office.
Turning to the Security Council, there is no programme today for the Security Council. No meetings or consultations of the Security Council are scheduled for today.
There is a letter from the Secretary-General to the Security Council President in which he appoints a monitoring group composed of four experts on Somalia, and we will be getting bios on these four individuals shortly.
**Bird Flu Vaccine
The last two items: The production of a vaccine against avian influenza, also known as “bird flu”, could take several months, according the World Health Organization.
Speaking in Geneva yesterday, Dr. Klaus Stöhr, who is leading the World Health Organization’s response to the spread of the disease, estimated that it will take four to six months before a significant amount of vaccine can be produced.
And finally, this is a heads-up for an event next week. All nations, industrialized or developing, are being urged to develop a science and technology strategy in order to help address the challenges faced in the modern world.
That’s one of the key recommendations of the first report of the InterAcademy Council (IAC), a new organization created by 90 of the world’s science academies to provide expert knowledge to international bodies, such as the United Nations and the World Bank.
The report, entitled “Inventing a Better Future: A Strategy for Building Worldwide Capacities in Science and Technology”, is to be launched here at UN Headquarters on Thursday next week, at 3 p.m., in Conference Room 1.
The Secretary-General will preside over the launch of the report. The UNDP’s Administrator, Mark Malloch Brown, will moderate the meeting.
Preceding the launch, there will be a press briefing on the report, at 2 p.m., also in Conference Room 1. And there is a note to correspondents on all the details of this upstairs and on the racks.
And that’s all I have for you today. Before we turn to our guest, does anybody have any questions for me? Richard?
Questions and Answers
Question: Does the UN -- while you’re on camera here -- have a response to David Kay’s conclusions on the weapons hunt that there may never have been anything there considering how UN weapons officials here were castigated by many quarters especially in the U.S.?
Associate Spokesman: The only comment I can refer you to is the Secretary-General’s which he made in a press encounter over the weekend in Davos. I have to refer you to his comments in which the Secretary-General says the report or his words should be taken seriously. But I would like to refer you to his comments directly. Yes?
Question: That was before he delivered, though.
Associate Spokesman: I haven’t seen any comments from the Secretary-General since then. Yes?
Question: There seems to be a Web site that links the UN to a religion resolution. Could you comment on that, if it’s actually a hoax, and is there going to be any legal action taken by the United Nations?
Associate Spokesman: I have nothing to comment on that. I have not seen that Web site myself, but we will look into it and get back to you. Yes, Richard. [She later announced that the General Assembly is not examining any draft resolution on religion, and no legal action has been taken.]
Question: Any re-examination or analysis upstairs on the closing of the building? Some staff members wondered what happened since there not that much snow the next day, in considering some of the conditions UN people work around the world in? What went into the decision? What happened?
Associate Spokesman: The decision was taken by the United Nations based on information as of midnight the night before the closing. As you know, at that time, it was the height of the snowstorm and the information that we had at that hour was already that public schools would be closed; that the morning commute would be difficult; and as a preventive measure in order to alert staff to that possibility and based on the information we had then, the notice was put on the intranet for the staff bulletin board and on the UN hotline so staff members could make plans, because obviously childcare issues and commuting issues were on their minds. The fact that the storm stopped in the middle of the night, the sun was shining the next day, I think was a surprise to everybody, to all New Yorkers. Yes?
Question: Is there any update on the security team in Baghdad -- when they might be coming back?
Associate Spokesman: Only that they are on the ground doing their work and doing their work on schedule.
Question: Will the SG be back in the building on Tuesday, Wednesday?
Associate Spokesman: I don’t know precisely what day he will be back. He will be returning after his last stop in Geneva over the weekend. I’ll have to let you know exactly when. Monday is, as you know a holiday for UN staff. So, the building will be closed on Monday.
Question: Can you confirm the latest regarding the efforts of director Sydney Pollack of the movie “The Interpreter” to film inside the building here?
Associate Spokesman: Yes, I do have some information on that. For those of you who may not be up to date on the film business, Sydney Pollack is a movie director who wants to film a movie called “The Interpreter”, a fictional feature set primarily at the United Nations. The Secretary-General, I can inform you, has agreed in principle to this request subject conclusion of satisfactory agreements relating to practical arrangements. And in this regard, also I was just informed by the spokespeople for the President of the General Assembly, as well as the President of the Security Council, that they have also given their green light to the use of, filming on those premises.
Question: Since the lawyers have said for years “No filming”, what changed then? Is there any money being paid?
Associate Spokesman: The decisions are based on a case-by-case basis and all I can say in this regard is that the Secretary-General and his advisers decided that it was in the Organization’s interest to bring its work to the attention of the ordinary cinema-viewing public. The answer to your second question is “No”. Yes?
Question: I wondered also, was the Secretary-General asked to be in the movie?
Associate Spokesman: I don’t know. Yes?
Question: Going back to the question of the teams in Baghdad. You have two teams there. To what extent are they working together? Are they sharing information and facilities? And to what extent is their mission intertwined?
Associate Spokesman: I am going back to my line of earlier this week. All I can tell you is that there was a security liaison team that went in a week ago now, Friday. That was set up to go in prior to the January 19th talks. They were there to liase with the CPA and the Coalition forces with an aim to the eventual return of international staff and to provide national staff with security guidance. The second team that went in, which we confirmed, is an assessment team looking into the security arrangements for the electoral mission team. Beyond that, I can’t tell you anything else except that their work is going on schedule.
Question: There is a deadline of, I think, some time late in February. Are subsequent deadlines backing up when this group might be required or expected to give some conclusions?
Associate Spokesman: We’re working as quickly as we can. We’re working on scheduled. But beyond that, because this matter again, is a security issue, we just simply can’t get into the details of who is there, where they are, and I can only probably confirm to you when something has happened and confirm that it has happened. Yes, Serge?
Question: You mentioned something that marriage -- this decision is in conformity with the long outstanding rules and regulations of the staff by the Secretary-General?
Associate Spokesman: Well, what I mentioned to you is that there is a bulletin issued today that is consistent with the practice of the United Nations over the years. And that has been to determine the family status of staff members by reference to the law of nationality of each staff member. As you know, there has been a growing trend over the past few years in several Member States towards recognition of same-sex marriages or recognition of domestic partnerships which may involve partners of the same or different sex. The bulletin acknowledges this trend and simply extends to these new situations the existing practice of accepting as a fact the family status of UN staff members as determined by the laws of the country of their nationality. Yes. Edie and then Mark.
Question: Marie, two things: Who requested that that ruling on domestic partnerships and benefits? What happens in the case of the United States where it is a state issue rather than a federal issue?
Associate Spokesman: On the first question, the Secretary-General has instructed his staff to look into this. And as I said, the bulletin acknowledged this trend. And in answer to your second question: I believe that it only applies to the federal State. [She later clarified that the United Nations would act on the basis of determinations provided by federal governments.]
Question: With regard to the movie to be filmed here; have you been given assurances that UN officials and resident correspondents will be invited to play parts as extras and stand-ins?
Associate Spokesman: I really don’t have any more details about this film. While you were not here, I did mention that there are a number of practical arrangements that still need to be worked out. So, we’ll pass on your request. Yes?
Question: On the same-sex story, how many people does this apply to? What is the cost for the UN? What’s changing?
Associate Spokesman: I also don’t have a monetary figure. I think we’ll have to see how many applications come in. This application is effective as of February 1st and we’ll have to see how many applications come in. But I am told that it’s expected to be a small number. But I don’t have a figure on that. But let me look into it and get back to you. Yes, Evelyn?
Question: I still find that very confusing. Do we know how many States this involves? Or is this just; there’s probably hardly any in the world and most of the people are living in this country. Why was this issued?
Associate Spokesman: Well, I mean, I can’t give you the specific countries because I don’t have a list. However, it acknowledges this trend that has been occurring and several Member States have been recognizing these same-sex marriages and domestic partnerships and we simply wanted to be in line with that. As for the number of countries, again, it’s probably not a very long list.
Question: And the second question.
Associate Spokesman: Yes?
Question: Does anyone know if the UN ever allowed feature filming? Because I know they turned down “North by Northwest” because they said that it’s bad experience.
Associate Spokesman: I don’t have any record of any film. Let me look into that one for you. There has been an animation “The Rescuers Down Under” that took place at the United Nations for those of you who might recall. Yes? [She later confirmed that there were no records of a feature film being filmed at UN Headquarters.]
Question: I just want to make sure I understand correctly. So, you have rights as a gay couple here if your State recognizes those rights, yeah? When has the UN ever applied different standards? I thought every international civil servant was an international civil servant. But this seems to suggest that every international servant has different rights according to the nationality. Is the UN about to apply similar standards, let’s say in rights to free speech, rights of assembly and so forth, depending on which original country the international civil servant is from?
Associate Spokesman: This is not a new practice. The UN obviously is not able to elaborate on rules governing the validity of marriage. The UN must respect the diversity of culture. I mean, this simply extends to this new grouping the same benefits that have been extended to other staff members pertaining to heterosexual marriages recognized from their country of origin or the country recognized by the United Nations as their country of origin.
Question: Well, in what other cases does the UN apply different standards to its staff according to which nationality they are from?
Associate Spokesman: I’d have to look into that for you. I don’t know. [She later announced that other administrative benefits, such as home leave policy and education grants, differ depending on whether the staff member is a national of the country in which he or she is posted, or not.]
Any other questions? If not, I’d like to turn the floor over to Ms. Acar, Chairperson on the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.
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