31 August 2007


31 August 2007
Spokesperson's Noon Briefing
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York


The following is a near-verbatim transcript of today’s noon briefing by Marie Okabe, Deputy Spokesperson for the Secretary-General.

Good afternoon.

**Guest at Noon

Our guest at the noon briefing today, shortly, is going to be Margareta Wahlström, the Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, who will update you on the humanitarian situation in Sudan and in Darfur on the eve of the Secretary-General’s visit to Sudan.  That trip will also take him to Chad and to Libya.

**Secretary-General on UNMOVIC

Earlier today, we issued a statement attributable to the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General on the discovery of materials at the UNMOVIC office yesterday.  And in it, the Secretary-General says that he takes very seriously the discovery of potentially hazardous material at the UNMOVIC office in New York.  He has given immediate instructions to launch an internal investigation drawing on external expertise in close cooperation with the US and New York City authorities.  He has asked the Under-Secretary-General for Safety and Security Services, David Veness, and the Under-Secretary-General for Management, Alicia Bárcena, in charge of the safety and security of staff and Secretariat premises, to immediately return to Headquarters.  They are to provide substantive support to the Deputy Secretary-General and the Chef de Cabinet who have both cancelled their participation in the senior leadership meeting in Turin, in order to closely monitor the situation on his behalf.

The Secretary-General immediately sought and was given confirmation that the materials in the custody of UNMOVIC posed no risk to the staff or general population.  All necessary safety measures continue to be taken.  The inquiry will examine the circumstances under which potentially hazardous substances were brought to the United Nations Headquarters in New York from Iraq, the reasons why discovery of the items was made only in 2007, and the safety procedures in place at Headquarters and in the field offices, as well as the extent to which these procedures were followed.  And that statement is available for you upstairs.

And just to bring you up to speed from yesterday’s briefing on this, shortly after 4:30 p.m. yesterday, the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) confirmed that US officials successfully completed the removal and handover to the FBI of the liquid substances discovered in the UNMOVIC archives located in 866 UN Plaza.  We are assured by the national and UNMOVIC experts that the site has not been contaminated and it is safe for the occupants to return to their workplace.

**Secretary-General on Afghanistan

Also late yesterday afternoon, we had a statement attributable to the Spokesperson on the release of the Korean hostages in Afghanistan, in which the Secretary-General welcomed the release of the remaining Korean hostages who have been held by the Taliban for over six weeks.  He commended the effort of the Afghan authorities and of all those who have assisted with the negotiations to obtain their release.  Despite the tragic death of two of the hostages in July, he is happy that those released are now on their way to being safely reunited with their loved ones.  The Secretary-General remains deeply concerned for the safety and welfare of the other nationals who are being held against their will in Afghanistan.  These include several Afghans and one German national.  The Secretary-General deplores the ongoing abductions and senseless murders of innocent civilians in Afghanistan.

**Appointment on Counter-Terrorism

And today we have one Secretary-General appointment.  He has informed the Security Council of his intention to appoint Mr. Mike Smith of Australia to serve as Executive Director of the Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate at the Assistant Secretary-General level.  Mr. Smith will succeed Mr. Javier Ruperez of Spain who left the post at the end of June.  Mr. Smith is currently serving as Australia’s Ambassador for Counter-Terrorism and prior to that he held a number of senior postings in the Australian diplomatic service.  And there’s more information on the appointment upstairs.

**Security Council

And today here at UN Headquarters, it is the last day of the Republic of Congo presidency of the Security Council and there are no meetings or consultations scheduled.  On the first, tomorrow, France will formally assume the presidency of the Council for the month of September.  And we expect the French Ambassador to brief you here on Wednesday, at a time yet to be confirmed, on the month’s programme.

** Palestinian Territories

And in a new report on the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) details the humanitarian impact on Palestinians in the West Bank of Israeli settlements and other infrastructure.  Some 38 per cent of the West Bank is now taken up by Israeli infrastructure, the report says.  Israeli settlements and other infrastructure in the West Bank, including an extensive road network, checkpoints, roadblocks, and the barrier, deprive Palestinians of access to land and limit their ability to move freely, OCHA says.  It adds that the West Bank has been split into a series of enclaves separating Palestinian communities from each other.  The report, cited by UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Michael Williams at a Security Council earlier this week, is available on OCHA’s website.

**Democratic Republic of Congo -- Mission

And turning to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the UN Mission in the DRC continues to follow closely the situation in North Kivu where fighting occurred yesterday between the FARDC [Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo] and pro-Nkunda elements of the mixed forces in the town of Katale.  MONUC is exerting pressure on both sides to cease fighting and to resume dialogue to settle their differences.  As a result of the fighting in the area of Katale, MONUC sent 200 reinforcement troops to that area from elsewhere in the Kivus.  The Mission has also increased overflights by helicopters to get a better picture on the ground, as well as to deter further fighting.  Furthermore, MONUC, the Mission, is working closely with the humanitarian community to provide humanitarian assistance to persons affected by this recent fighting, including those who have been displaced.

**Democratic Republic of Congo -- Humanitarian

And John Holmes, the Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and the UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator, will arrive in the Democratic Republic of Congo Monday for a weeklong visit and he is expected to visit the Kivus.  And concerning that region, the UN Refugee Agency, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), reports that thousands of newly displaced people are fleeing tensions and insecurity in North Kivu.  According to the agency, the population of one of the makeshift camps has doubled in three weeks, hosting now an estimated 18,000 people.  UNHCR also says that more displaced persons have arrived at various sites in the last few days as the population fears clashes between regular DRC Government troops, troops resisting integration into the regular army and various rebel groups.  UNHCR expressed concern over the spiralling displacements in eastern DRC and said the situation could turn into a humanitarian and human rights disaster.  And there’s more on this in the UNHCR briefing notes from Geneva.

**UNHCR in Mauritania and Syria

And also in UNHCR news today, they launched a $7 million appeal to fund a voluntary repatriation of Mauritanian refugees from Senegal and Mali.  And there’s more on that upstairs.  And in Syria, UNHCR announced that it will start the first food distribution programme for Iraqi refugees tomorrow.  Along with the World Food Programme (WFP), the agency will distribute two months of food rations to cover the needs of refugee families during the upcoming month of Ramadan.

And in the note, the UNHCR mentions that they find text messages to mobile phones as one the most effective ways of communicating with the refugees who often do not have a stable address but either they or someone close to them in their immediate community has a mobile phone.  There’s more details on that in the UNHCR briefing notes upstairs.

** Nepal Floods

And in Nepal, the UN World Health Organization (WHO) assesses that the floods and landslides in the country by 21 August have caused at least 146 deaths, displaced more than 22,000 families and affected close to 500,000 people.  And there’s more upstairs in a WHO press release.

** Pakistan Humanitarian

And in Pakistan, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reports that the situation there remains critical for an estimated 250,000 people in the worst affected areas after the June cyclone and recent flooding.  There’s more on that upstairs as well.

**Climate Change Talks

And the 2007 Vienna Climate Change talks, which were held all week long, are expected to conclude today.  In an interview with UN Radio, Yvo de Boer, the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), noted that the talks helped to point to the main elements needed for a long-term climate change approach.  He stressed the importance of mobilizing investment in order to address climate change and said the international community had a responsibility to developing countries in providing them with incentives and financial assistance.  Yvo de Boer also said that the Secretary-General’s High level meeting on climate change, scheduled in September, was a very important step.  “The world needs a political sign at the highest political level that serious negotiations need to begin,” he said.

**Week Ahead

And turning to the Week Ahead, which we have for you, I just wanted to flag a couple of things.  The International Criminal Court says that a hearing ahead of the resumption of the trial of former Congolese rebel leader Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, who is accused of recruiting child soldiers among other crimes, will take place in the courtroom at The Hague on Tuesday.  There’s more on that upstairs.

And next Tuesday, the spokesman for the President of the sixth-second session of the General Assembly will be formally introduced to you at the noon briefing.

And finally, on Wednesday next week, the same day as the Security Council President’s briefing to you, Ibrahim Gambari, the Special Adviser on the International Compact and Other Issues, will provide an update on the implementation of the Secretary-General’s good offices mandate in Myanmar, at your request.

And that’s what I have for you.  Anything for me?  Matthew.

**Questions and Answers

Question:  On Wednesday, the UN Staff Council passed a resolution calling on the Secretary-General to direct the Administrator of the UNDP to accept the UN Ethics Office, to restore this whistle-blower to UN employment and to disperse the culture of impunity and other things.  What is the Secretary-General’s response to this resolution by the UN Staff Council?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I don’t have an immediate response from him.  I think his response stands from his press conference that he had with you just earlier this week.  And we are awaiting the UNDP Executive Board to make an announcement on their independent auditing members.

Question:  But obviously, the Staff Council was aware of what he said and I guess they’re pretty unconvinced if they then passed a resolution calling on him to this.

Deputy Spokesperson:  I don’t have any immediate reaction for the Secretary-General.  As you know, he’s over in Turin.  I’m not sure he saw that.  But I can tell you, as of now, his position is the same as is outlined in his remarks to you earlier this week on Tuesday.  Evelyn.

Question:  What’s with the envoys to Iraq and Sudan that he said he would announce?  Are they going to be announced in Sudan?

Deputy Spokesperson:  All I can say is we don’t have the announcement today.

Question:  He said a couple of days before he left.

Deputy Spokesperson:  Unfortunately, we do not have the announcements of the appointments to make today.  I will try to let you know by the end of the day when we hope to have these announcements.

Question:  And to follow up, it seems there’s no rational reason for the Secretary-General not to have filled the Sudan post for nearly a year.  And since he’s not an irrational man, is it Khartoum who has turned down candidates or what?  Because with the top being vacant, it generates other vacancies.

Deputy Spokesperson:  I think we can’t really discuss the details of why this appointment cannot be announced today but we will hope to have it as soon as possible.

Question:  I’m not talking about today.  That’s not what I asked.

Deputy Spokesperson:  We will have the announcement as soon as we have it ready to go.  We’ll let you know.

Question:  I asked why it’s taken a year or nearly a year.

Deputy Spokesperson:  First of all, we’ve had an able acting Special Representative on the ground, Taye-Brook Zerihoun, who has been there and ably leading the Mission.  In the meantime, the Secretary-General has appointed a Special Envoy for the peace process who’s been very active, Jan Eliasson, who’s been working together with the AU.  And he has appointed a joint special representative for Darfur.  There are people who are in place who are dealing with issues in Sudan and in Darfur.

Question:  Reports from the region say that, because the top isn’t filled, a lot of other vacancies aren’t filled.

Deputy Spokesperson:  Evelyn, I think I’ve said as much as I can on this.

Question:  Are you aware about any other components that were dismantled in Iraq under UNMOVIC, any others stored here in New York other than these tubes?

Deputy Spokesperson:  No.

Question:  Are we going to get a readout of what’s under discussion in Turin?  And also, on the Secretary-General as he thinks through what the Staff Union decided in the resolution Matthew mentioned?  That readout, too.  Are they discussing the Staff Union resolution?

Deputy Spokesperson:  As you know, the overall purpose of the senior-level retreat is to look ahead, take stock of the first eight months and look ahead to the whole UN system implementing the Secretary-General’s vision.  So it is a discussion on a macro level.  In terms of a readout on how it went, we will, of course, try to get one for you from the people who are there.

Question:  And specifically, what and if anything was discussed on the Staff Union resolution, that would be helpful.

Deputy Spokesperson:  Okay.

Question:  Now the hostages in Afghanistan are released and are on their way home.  Did Mr. Ban speak with the Taliban for releasing them and, if so, does that mean the United Nations does not mind any more negotiating with terrorist groups like the Taliban?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I cannot confirm the Secretary-General’s involvement in the process.  As you know, hostage negotiations --

Question:  Making contacts --

Deputy Spokesperson:  He is the Secretary-General and he was doing his mission, he [does] what he can to obviously expedite the process.  In terms of the UN’s dealing with organizations like the Taliban, regardless of this particular incident, I would like to mention that the UN does, especially for humanitarian considerations, negotiate with all parties whenever it needs to.

Question:  Including with terrorist groups, right?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I won’t go beyond what I just said.  Matthew.

Question:  A follow-up question on the phosgene.  Is it possible to know two things?  When did UNMOVIC, they found it Friday, when did they tell UN Security?  And also, when did Mr. Ban become aware that something had been found, not necessarily that it was phosgene, but when did he become aware something had been found and when was the host country informed?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I mentioned to you yesterday that as soon as they were able to identify, to match the numbers, the host Government was informed.  When Security was informed, we’d have to ask UNMOVIC about that.

Question:  How about Mr. Ban?

Deputy Spokesperson:  The Secretary-General obviously was the one who informed the Security Council so he obviously was on top of the situation.

Question:  I’m just focusing on, to put the story to rest, if they found it on Friday, what happened then?  Even if they didn’t yet know what it was, if they found an unknown substance in a UN facility on Friday, what happens in the four days before --

Deputy Spokesperson:  We’ll have to ask UNMOVIC when they informed Security.

Question:  Just the SG question.  It would be good to know when he knew, that’s all.

Deputy Spokesperson:  Okay.  [The Deputy Spokesperson announced that the Secretary-General was informed early evening Wednesday.]

Question:  On Darfur, is there any reaction to the letter written by Prime Minister Gordon-Brown and President Sarkozy, where they are asking to deploy the force, I mean, they’re asking basically what the SG has been asking several times.  Does he think it’s a positive step?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Again, I don’t have a direct comment on what came out in the press today but I know the Secretary-General has, in his recent meetings and conversations with both those leaders, discussed Darfur.  And I think they are working on the same page and trying to consolidate the progress that is being made.

Question:  On Darfur, does the Secretary-General insist that the Khartoum Government hand over indicted war criminals?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Sorry?

Question:  Does the Secretary-General insist that the Khartoum Government had over alleged war criminals indicted by the International Criminal Court?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I think the issue that there can be no impunity is one that will be raised during his visit there.

Question:  But with regards to Sudan, does the Secretary-General insist that Khartoum hand over alleged war criminals indicted by the Criminal Court?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Well, the Criminal Court, as you know, has an indictment out and the Secretary-General obviously supports the actions of the ICC.  As Michèle mentioned to you the other day, the Secretary-General did meet with the ICC Prosecutor just recently and they discussed this matter.

Question:  But he didn’t say whether he was going to bring this up with the President.  He was asked and he didn’t answer that question.  And since he’s going to Sudan, the fact that he supports the Court is one thing, but --

Deputy Spokesperson:  Let’s get a readout for you after his meeting with the President.

Question:  Since there are so many unanswered questions related to this phosgene incident, would it be possible, since we’re now heading for a long weekend and all, that someone could come in from Security and brief us on Tuesday or Wednesday of next week?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Well, as you know, right now, we’ve just asked, the Secretary-General has asked Mr. Veness and Alicia Bárcena to come back.  So he’s ordered an investigation and he’s asked those two to come back.  So let’s see how the investigation goes.  I think right now the investigation will be looking into a lot of the questions we have and what they’ll be looking into is spelled out in the Secretary-General’s statement.

Question:  On a human level, I think all of us working in the building and probably staff as well, it’s a little freakish to have an agent sitting in an office that could potentially cause people’s lungs to collapse.  So would it be possible to not wait too long for people to get back to us to brief us on our own security and what’s being done?  You know, there are whole levels of things.  We even had that scare with the white substance some time ago, there are issues with asbestos in the building and things like that.

Deputy Spokesperson:  We’ll ask Security if they can do a briefing for you.

Question:  I have a follow-up to that.  Bruno Henn, I guess he’s in charge of Security in the Headquarters building.  Is he around and could he maybe we can hear from him today given that he wasn’t going to Turin, I don’t think he was going.

Deputy Spokesperson:  I don’t think we have anything today scheduled for you.  And as I said, Mr. Veness, who is the head of overall Security for the United Nations, is on his way back.

Question:  On Iran, what are Mr. Ban’s comments to the IAEA report in which Mr. ElBaradei announces that Iran has already started slowing down its nuclear programme, which is operating beyond its capacity, which of course contradicts with the US doubts about the real intention of Tehran?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I don’t have an immediate reaction to the IAEA report by the Secretary-General.  The report was just posted on the IAEA website, I believe yesterday, and the IAEA Board will be assessing that report in their meeting on 10 September.  So as of now, what I have for the Secretary-General on Iran, is what he mentioned to you on Tuesday at his press conference.  Yes, Matthew.

Question:  I want to ask you about this Turin meeting while it’s still going on.  Yesterday you gave me a list of non-UN people who were attending.  I thank you for that.  But I wanted to know, first, you said it was a non-public meeting.  So, two of these people are journalists.  In what capacity are they participating?  Who decided?  It seems strange that ,if its an internal UN meeting, to decide how to do it, what’s the purpose, process and, I guess, the agreement to have --

Deputy Spokesperson:  The purpose, it’s a wide-ranging look at various aspects of the United Nations and my understanding is that there’ll be a segment on communications of the United Nations, and if the journalists are there, I guess they’re probably there for that segment.  But as I just mentioned to Jonathan, we’ll try to get a readout from a participant on how it went.

Question:  Also, yesterday you said the Chef de Cabinet was still in town, Mr. Nambiar.  Was it always intended that he would remain here when everyone went to Turin?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I just mentioned to you that both the Deputy Secretary-General and the Chef de Cabinet have cancelled their appearance in Turin in order to deal with this situation.

Question:  I thought you said yesterday that the Chef de Cabinet was on the case but he was already in transit?

Deputy Spokesperson:  No, the Chef de Cabinet was here, he never departed.  The idea was always to have one or the other of them here but they have both now cancelled their appearance in Turin.

Question:  And then this is the last question on this Chef de Cabinet.  There’s this story that he was quoted as saying a couple of weeks ago that India had not done enough to get on the Security Council or in the UN.  Now there’s a story quoting the Indian Ambassador taking issue with that, saying, if that’s what Vijay Nambiar said, that’s wrong.  So, I guess I’m asking you, in what capacity was Vijay Nambiar speaking in the Indian press?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I’m not familiar with the press report so I’ll have to look into that for you.

[The Deputy Spokesperson later informed the correspondent that Mr. Nambiar was speaking in his personal capacity given his former position as Permanent Representative of India.]

Question:  Two questions.  One, is the list of who is at Turin, is that available for everybody, for all journalists, or is it someplace that we can look at?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I believe that the Spokeswoman, who is over there, mentioned today that there were 54 Under-Secretaries-General and Assistant Secretaries-General over there.

Question:  And the non-UN people, is that available, the list that you just mentioned to Matthew?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Yes.

Question:  And then the second question, with the change in the new General Assembly, will there be any more briefings from the current spokesperson?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Oh, yes.  On Tuesday I think they will.  As you know, the current session is still in place, so we’ll have them brief and they will introduce the Spokesperson for the next General Assembly session.  Yes, Mark.

Question:  I’m just following the effective announcement three weeks ago by the US Mission that Staffan de Mistura would be the new UN rep to Iraq.  Has that changed or what is the situation now?  Why is it taking the Secretary-General so long to confirm what the US announced?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I have no announcement to give you.  I have no reason except that we’re not ready.

Question:  Is there a readout on the Kosovo round of negotiations on Wednesday?

Deputy Spokesperson:  No immediate UN reaction.  I think they have a deadline to report back to the Security Council so we’re waiting for that.

If there are no other questions, have a good long weekend.  Monday is a UN holiday.  The Secretary-General will be heading towards Sudan.

* *** *

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