DAILY PRESS BRIEFING BY THE OFFICE OF THE SPOKESPERSON FOR THE SECRETARY-GENERAL

27 March 2007

DAILY PRESS BRIEFING BY THE OFFICE OF THE SPOKESPERSON FOR THE SECRETARY-GENERAL

27 March 2007
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.

** Sri Lanka

I have the following statement attributable to the Spokesperson of the Secretary-General concerning Sri Lanka:

The Secretary-General is disturbed by the extensive and escalating violations of the ceasefire in Sri Lanka, which now includes an air attack this week by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

He deeply regrets that air raids, military confrontations on the ground and suicide bombings have become a daily occurrence, prompting massive displacement and suffering for civilians.

The Secretary-General appeals to the parties of the conflict to break this vicious cycle of attack and retaliation, which only leads to more bloodshed and victims.  He urges them to return to the negotiating table as soon as possible, without preconditions.

**Secretary-General’s Travels

Meanwhile, the Secretary-General has arrived in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, where tomorrow he will address the Summit of the League of Arab States.  He will also discuss his key concerns about Darfur and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, among other topics, with the gathered Arab leaders.

This evening, prior to the start of the Summit, he will meet with President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

Earlier today, he met with the United Nations country team in Jerusalem, before stopping over in Jordan where he met the King of Jordan, also named King Abdullah, who is also travelling to the summit in Riyadh, and the two discussed the Secretary-General’s recent meetings during his Middle East tour, particularly concerning the new momentum for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Speaking to the press before departing Israel yesterday, the Secretary-General said that, despite the obstacles ahead, he believes that solid grounds exist for hoping we can advance the peace process in the coming period.  He said, “I believe we can and must make progress in the coming weeks and months.”

We have the transcript of that press conference upstairs and on the web.

**Sudan

On Sudan, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Darfur, Jan Eliasson, and African Union Special Envoy, Salim Ahmed Salim, held today in Khartoum separate meetings with representatives of Darfur’s Arab tribes and leaders of civil society groups.  Discussions during the two meetings focused on the joint efforts of the two envoys to re-energize the Darfur peace process.  The two Envoys heard from their interlocutors their views on how to move forward with the political process and reach a sustainable settlement of the Darfur problem.  Mr. Eliasson and Mr. Salim will hold a joint press conference this evening in Khartoum. 

Also, the United Nations Mission today reports that, to date, nearly 9,000 internally displaced persons have returned to Southern Sudan and the transitional areas since January, under the joint plan for returns that brings together the United Nations, the Sudanese Government and the Government of Southern Sudan.

We have more information about developments in Sudan in today’s bulletin from the United Nations Mission.

**Security Council

The Security Council this morning unanimously voted to extend the mandate of the International Independent Investigation Commission, headed by Serge Brammertz, by another year, until 15 June 2008.

Council members then went into consultations to hear from Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, Hédi Annabi, about the recent developments in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

** Democratic Republic of the Congo

And on that subject: the situation is calm and life has resumed its normal pace in Kinshasa, reports the United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  United Nations peacekeepers, meanwhile, are patrolling the city, and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs is working with local authorities to assess the number of civilian casualties of last week’s fighting between Government forces and the security detail of Senator Jean-Pierre Bemba.

Here at Headquarters, out on the racks today is the Secretary-General’s latest report on the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in which he urges Congolese leaders to respect the principles of transparency, inclusiveness and tolerance of dissent.  He also notes that assisting the Government in facing the challenge of disarming groups operating in the eastern part of the country remains a key priority for the United Nations Mission.

**European Commission/United Nations Cooperation 

The United Nations today is hosting a workshop on United Nations cooperation with the European Commission.  In remarks to the workshop participants, Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro said that cooperation between the two institutions is invaluable in carrying out the United Nations’ reform agenda.  She said that there is an old saying that encapsulates this idea: “A problem shared is a problem halved.”  And we have copies of her remarks upstairs.

**Human Rights Council

Turning to Geneva, the Human Rights Council today adopted, by consensus, two resolutions: one on the Occupied Palestinian Territory; and the other on the human rights special procedures, namely the special rapporteurs, independent experts and other mandate holders reporting to the Council.

The resolution on the Occupied Palestinian Territory calls for the implementation of the decisions taken at the Council’s special sessions on that topic, in particular to dispatch the fact-finding missions mandated by the Council at those sessions.

Earlier in the day, the Human Rights Council held a series of discussions with various human rights mandate holders, including those dealing with counter-terrorism, torture, freedom of religion and expression, arbitrary detention, extrajudicial executions and racism, among others.

** Haiti

From Haiti, the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) reports that more than 400 gang members have been arrested since the beginning of the year as a result of operations undertaken by the Haitian National Police and backed up by the United Nations police and military.  The local population played a vital role in many of these arrests by providing information on the whereabouts of gang members to the Haitian and United Nations police via confidential hot-lines.  Haitian police and UN peacekeepers continue these operations throughout the country in order to apprehend gang leaders and members who remain at large, and to confiscate illegally possessed weapons and ammunition.

** Central African Republic

Concerning the Central African Republic, the United Nations refugee agency reports that United Nations and non-governmental organization representatives have completed a visit to the town of Birao in the north-eastern part of the Central African Republic and found the town in ruins and almost empty some three weeks after it was attacked by an armed group.  The joint team also found that, while some of the town's residents were slowly returning and attempting to resume normal life, many others remained too afraid to return. 

The UNHCR-led team also visited the border town of Am Dafok to assess the situation following a rebel attack earlier this month, which caused some 14,000 to flee the fighting.  Some 700 houses and vital stocks of food were destroyed during that attack, UNHCR said.  And we have more on this upstairs.

**World Food Programme -- Djibouti

The World Food Programme (WFP) says it may soon have to stop delivering food to 53,000 people in Djibouti, due to a critical shortage of funds.  WFP says child malnutrition rates are at emergency levels in the Horn of Africa country, which has suffered a series of droughts during the past five years.  The agency says it needs $1 million immediately to avoid halting distributions in May and $6 million in order to continue operations through the end of the year.

**World Health Organization -- Guinea Worm

From the World Health Organization (WHO): The World Health Organization reports that guinea worm disease could be wiped out worldwide in just two years, if progress continues at its present rate.  Earlier this month, 12 more countries were declared guinea worm free.  There are still some 25,000 cases of the tropical disease in nine countries, and it remains endemic in some villages in sub-Saharan Africa.  If current efforts are successful, guinea worm would become only the second disease -- after smallpox -- to be completely eradicated.

**Under-Secretary-General’s Visit to Chad and Sudan

I have something hot off the presses from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, John Holmes, arrived in the town of Abéché in eastern Chad this morning, on the second leg of his two-week, three-country mission to Africa.  The Emergency Relief Coordinator said he was looking forward to travelling to IDP settlements the next day, in order to assess for himself the situation on the ground.  And we have upstairs, just now, a press release that you can pick up with some more details on Mr. Holmes’ strip.

**Press Conferences

Tomorrow, there will be a press conference at 12:30 in this room with Ambassador Frank Majoor, the Permanent Representative of the Netherlands to the United Nations, who will brief you on the Peacebuilding Commission field visit to Sierra Leone.  Ambassador Majoor was the leader of the Commission’s delegation there.

And do you have any questions?

**Questions and Answers

Question:  A couple of quick ones.  First of all, you announced that the Secretary-General is in Riyadh and he’s going to be meeting with Bashar al-Assad and King Abdullah.  Is that going to be all together?

Associate Spokesperson:  No, those are two separate bilateral meetings.  And whenever we can get the readouts of those meetings, I’ll try and squawk them.

Question:  And the other thing is that, you read out some comments from the Secretary-General.  Was that in response to -- because I haven’t seen the transcript yet -- was that in response to questions about [Condoleezza] Rice’s statement that she made last night?

Associate Spokesperson:  No, not directly.  This had to do with the press conference that he did, that did take place in Israel last night with reporters there.  But he was talking more generally about his feelings about progress on the Israeli-Palestinian peace track.

And that, by the way, includes his hopes for progress because of the recent attitudes expressed by Israeli Prime Minister [Ehud] Olmert, Palestinian President [Mahmoud] Abbas, but also because of the efforts by others, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, to push for progress on this.

And so, while he is in Riyadh, he’s going to continue with that effort, and we’ll see what sort of initiative the Arab leaders are willing to get behind while they’re there at the Summit.

Question:  A follow-up on the Summit.  You did not mention a possible meeting between Mr. Ban Ki-moon and President [Omer al-]Bashir of Sudan.  So I was wondering if this has been cancelled, or…?

Associate Spokesperson:  No, it hasn’t.  It’s… What we expect is that he will meet President Bashir tomorrow.  I just gave out the bilaterals that will take place later today, but we should have a list of bilaterals tomorrow.  But we do expect that that will include President Bashir.

Question:  Concerning his visit to Palestine and Israel, did the Secretary-General have any reaction to reports that settlers have illegally reoccupied a settlement that’s already been evacuated by the Israelis in the summer of ’05?

Associate Spokesperson:  We haven’t made any specific comment about that particular settlement.  Obviously, as you know, we have repeatedly called for a halt to settlement activities in general that could complicate any final [resolution].

Question:  Any change you see in the final leg of the Secretary-General’s travels?  Is everything going to plan?  There are no more “surprises”, like it was in Baghdad?

Associate Spokesperson:  If there were more “surprises”, it would come as a surprise.  But no.  As far as I know, the idea is that he will go from Saudi Arabia, he will go at the end of this week to Lebanon, and after that they should return some time over the weekend to New York.

Question:  I understand that the French citizen who happens to be the station manager of the biggest Israeli newspaper in Washington and was in the entourage of the Secretary of State, previously, to Riyadh, now was denied entrance by the Saudis while in the entourage of the Secretary-General.  My question is: did the Secretary-General say something?  Because this is a step against the United Nations -- did he speak up for the United Nations?

Associate Spokesperson:  Yes.  We have spoken to the relevant authorities, trying to make sure that all the reporters that have been travelling with the Secretary-General have access to visit all of the countries on that tour, including the reporter that you are referring to.

Question:  Is she going to Riyadh?

Associate Spokesperson:  The question is whether the Saudis will provide the visa.  But yes, we have spoken up on the need for this reporter, and indeed all the reporters, to have the necessary visas.

Question:  Will you be able, tomorrow, to tell us what happened in this case?

Associate Spokesperson:  I’ll try to get that information.  You can also check with the Saudis whether they’ve provided any of the necessary visas.

Question:  No, no, no, I want to check with the United Nations.  Because my question is: What is at stake here is the honour of the Secretary-General, because the United States Secretary of State was able to take that person.

Associate Spokesperson:  Thank you for telling me what’s at stake here.  But my point is: yes, we have spoken up on behalf of this.  Obviously, we don’t give the visas on behalf of the Saudi Government.  The Saudi Government does.

Question:  Kinshasa’s now calm and all this.  Did the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC) have a readout on whether Mr. Bemba’s still in the South African compound?  How many people were killed in this round of fighting?  What’s next?

Associate Spokesperson:  In terms of the assessment on damage, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs is trying to assess what kind of damage has been done.  I believe I had read that out earlier -- that they’re working with local authorities to assess the number of civilian casualties that took place last week.  So we’ll see back from them what assessment they get, once that exercise is complete.

As for Mr. Bemba, I don’t have… I could try to get the latest information for you.  But I believe that he has been, in recent days, inside the embassy of South Africa.

[The Associate Spokesperson later confirmed that was still the case.]

Question:  Has The Secretary-General, in fact, addressed a written invitation to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates to attend the next meeting of the Quartet?

Associate Spokesperson:  There’s nothing we can announce on that just yet.  The arrangements for the Quartet meeting would still have to be made.  As you’re aware, there are some plans to expand that meeting beyond the principal members of the Quartet.  At this stage, all I can say is what the Quartet said in their communiqué of last week, which is that the Quartet principals do intend to meet shortly in the region.  And we’ll have to see what we can say about the full guest list later on, once that develops.

Question:  I wanted to ask you about the Central African Republic-United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) assessment mission.  When there was another assessment mission done for Chad and the Central African Republic, there was a note in the report saying they would take note of the Central African Republic Government’s…mention that a lot of the fighting, or problems on the north-eastern border, were a spillover from Darfur.  But the assessment mission did not think so.  Do you know if the UNHCR assessment mission now believes -- I know there are two different missions -- believes that that is from spillover?  Do they specify that at all?

Associate Spokesperson:  That’s not part of the note I read.  I can check up, or we can get in touch with UNHCR afterwards to see what their own individual assessment is of that.  Certainly, two things have been happening.  There has been a rebellion in some areas of the Central African Republic.  Plus, there has been some degree of spillover fighting.  How they gauge that, how UNHCR gauges that, you can check with them.

[The Associate Spokesperson later said that Birao was attacked on 3-4 March by a Central African Republic group, the UFDR.]

Question:  Back to my question earlier.  Some press indicate that the Secretary-General had invited these four countries I mentioned to the next meeting of the Quartet.  Would you deny that?

Associate Spokesperson:  I’m not denying anything.  What I’m saying is that I don’t have anything to announce about the next Quartet meeting until that schedule has firmed up.  Yes, it is clear that the Secretary-General and others have indicated that this could be a larger meeting -- an expanded meeting of the Quartet.  But who precisely will be invited, those details I still have to wait for.

Question:  Do I understand that more invitations have been issued?

Associate Spokesperson:  There’s nothing for me formally to announce so far.  I would need to wait until the plans are set before we can make an announcement about who the invitees are.

Question:  Do you have any update for us on banning Mr. Holmes from visiting certain towns in the Darfur region, and whether there’s an effort to allow him to have access there?

Associate Spokesperson:  Well, as I just read, Mr. Holmes did in fact leave Darfur.  He is now in Chad, in eastern Chad, in Abéché today, and we have a press release on his travels there.  He did visit some parts of Darfur, but there were some areas where he was denied.  And we reported on that earlier this week.  So what we mentioned yesterday is where we stand on that.

Question:  Two questions.  One is the Ivory Coast.  It’s reported that [Guillaume] Soro, the rebel, is going to become the Prime Minister.  I’m wondering what that means for [Prime Minister Charles Konan] Banny and whether [Gerard] Stoudmann, or anyone else in the United Nations system, has had anything to say about these developments?

Associate Spokesperson:  Well, we have seen the press reports indicating that Guillaume Soro has accepted the post of Prime Minister.  But we have yet to see an official announcement by the Facilitator, President [Blaise] Compaore of Burkina Faso, or from President [Laurent] Gbagbo or Mr. Soro himself, for that matter.  The United Nations will work closely with whoever is appointed as Prime Minister and the new Government to support the implementation of the Ouagadougou Agreement.  And I’ve seen some signs that over the next day or so, there’s a chance that the Security Council may also pronounce itself on this topic.  So you might want to check with the President of the Security Council, what they have to say about this.

Question:  The other question is about whistle-blower protection in the United Nations system.  I’ve recently become aware of a UNOPS [United Nations Office of Project Services] e-mail sent by Jan Mattson to all staff, saying anyone who speaks to the press will face the most severe repercussions.  And I’ve seen similar communications within some other funds and programmes.  Does the Secretary-General’s bulletin on the protections for whistle-blowing apply throughout the United Nations system?  Only the Secretariat?  And what does the Ethics Office do to implement these rights?Associate Spokesperson:  Well, the Ethics Office is there to hear of any complaints… If someone, for example, believes that their rights as a whistle-blower are being violated, they can always take that to the Ethics Office.  And yes, the Secretary-General’s bulletin is applicable.  And whistle-blowers are protected in the system, as is underscored by the Secretary-General’s bulletin. 

Question:  But I mean, if the e-mail sent to staff in order to chill communications to the press is presented either to the Secretary-General or someone else, what happens?

Associate Spokesperson:  I don’t have any details about that particular email.

Question:  If such an e-mail…?

Associate Spokesperson:  Certainly we do have a whistle-blower policy.  You can look at the Secretary-General’s bulletin.  And whistle-blowers do have protection and rights within the system, yes.

If that’s it, have a good afternoon.

*  ***  *

For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.