1 May 2008


1 May 2008
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, and Janos Tisovszky, Spokesperson for the General Assembly President.

Briefing by the Deputy Spokesperson for the Secretary-General

Good afternoon.  We do have Janos, the General Assembly Spokesperson, who will brief you immediately after my briefing is over.

**Secretary-General’s Travels

The Secretary-General is in London today, where this afternoon he is meeting with some of the other senior officials attending tomorrow’s Quartet meeting on the Middle East, which he will chair.

He has already met today with European Commissioner for External Relations Benita Ferrero-Waldner and with Salam Fayad, Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority.  He is scheduled to meet later today and tomorrow with other officials, including Quartet envoy Tony Blair and EU High Representative Javier Solana.

**Security Council

For those of you who were here last night, you know this, but for those of you who weren’t, the Security Council concluded its work for April last night by adopting resolutions extending the UN peacekeeping missions in Western Sahara and Sudan, and by issuing a presidential statement on Ethiopia and Eritrea.  It extended the UN Missions in Sudan and in Western Sahara by one year each.

In its presidential statement, the Security Council recalled its prior condemnation of Eritrea's obstructions and said that the restrictions posed by Eritrea have induced the UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) to relocate temporarily.  The Security Council will, in the light of consultations with the parties, decide on the terms of a future UN engagement and on the future of UNMEE.

Today, Ambassador John Sawers of the United Kingdom replaces Ambassador Dumisani Kumalo of South Africa in the rotating Presidency of the Security Council.  Tomorrow, the Security Council is expected to hold consultations on its programme of work for the month of May, after which Ambassador Sawers will talk to you in this Room about the Council’s work in the coming month, at about 12:30.  But we will let you know if there are any changes to that.

** Chad -– OCHA Statement

Turning to the situation in Chad, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes strongly condemns the killing of the Country Director of Save the Children UK in Chad, and extends his condolences to the agency and to Pascal Marlinge’s family.

The incident occurred earlier today about 20 kilometres east of Farchana, on the road to the town of André.

The targeting of humanitarian workers, who are in Chad to assist people affected by civil strife, is an inexcusable crime, Mr. Holmes says, adding that the killing must be quickly investigated and those responsible brought to justice.

** Afghanistan

Meanwhile, Kai Eide, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, is meeting today in Ottawa with the Canadian Foreign Minister and Defence Minister as part of his continuing effort to consult with concerned countries about how we can increase assistance for Afghanistan.

Tomorrow, he’ll be in New York to talk to Secretariat officials about the upcoming Paris conference that is to be held this June in support of the Government of Afghanistan, and also to speak with Afghanistan’s international partners about how we can step up coordination efforts.

We have some details in today’s Kabul briefing notes, which also mention the work the World Food Programme (WFP) has been doing to assess food security in Afghanistan.

Based on its recent travels to assess food security in Afghanistan, the World Food Programme says that inflation in food costs hit 30 per cent in February, with wheat prices rising by 50 to 100 per cent in parts of the country.  WFP is using $77 million from a recent appeal to provide food assistance to 2.5 million Afghans.


Meanwhile, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, says the underlying inequalities and inabilities to access food must be addressed by a comprehensive solution.

She stresses that, addressing the plight of the socially excluded, and the causes of any such discrimination, will be essential to resolving the current crisis.

She adds that food-related social unrest could also result in other human rights risks, such as the freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.  There’s more on this upstairs.

**World Press Freedom Day

And yesterday, as you know, we did flag for you the Secretary-General’s message for World Press Freedom Day.  Today High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour has issued her message.

And in it, she says that Governments are becoming more secretive and offering propaganda disguised as objective information, especially when alleged security-related issues are on the table.

The proliferation of new or strengthened secrecy laws means that the media are forced to resort to speculation, which can then be used against them to further undermine their credibility, or even as a justification for initiating legal proceedings against them, she adds.  And her statement is available upstairs.

I have just a couple of announcements and a clarification.

**Capital Master Plan -– Groundbreaking

On Monday, 5 May, the Secretary-General, together with senior representatives of Member States, special guests from the Host Country, and senior officials of the Organization, will break ground for the construction of the North Lawn Conference Building, marking the beginning of the renovation of the United Nations Headquarters under the Capital Master Plan.

Almost 60 years after the original groundbreaking, the UN Headquarters will go through a complete renovation, resulting in a greener, safer, more secure and more occupant-friendly facility by its completion in 2013, while its unique architectural heritage will be preserved.

The event, I am told, will be happening rain or shine, and will start at 11 a.m. sharp.  And you will be receiving a more detailed media advisory on this tomorrow.


For those of you who have been asking about the whereabouts of the former Spokesperson for the Secretary-General, Stephane Dujarric, we have an announcement for you.  He will, as of today, be the Spokesperson for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Senior Adviser in the Office of Communications.  And we’ll have to ask him to come here to brief you sometime.

**IFAD Clarification

The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) has asked us to clear up some confusion about two announcements made earlier this week regarding projects it is undertaking and the amounts of money involved.

IFAD is making $200 million available to small farmers to buy seeds and fertilizer before the next growing season and improve their harvests.  This is separate from the $72 million for rural poverty programmes IFAD’s board recently approved as part of its regular ongoing work.

**Press Conferences

In addition to Janos, the General Assembly Spokesperson, we have at 1:15 p.m. today, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, Chairperson of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, and other indigenous representatives, and they will be here to brief you on the outcomes of the Forum's seventh session.

Tomorrow at 11:15 a.m., there will be a press conference by Olivier de Schutter, who starts his term as the new Special Rapporteur on the right to food today.

And at 12:30 p.m., as I already mentioned, Ambassador John Sawers of the United Kingdom is scheduled to brief you in his capacity as the President of the Security Council for the month of May, on the upcoming month’s programme of work in the Security Council.

That’s what I have for you.

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Yesterday, a US judge threw out a case in which Ruud Lubbers was accused of sexual harassment towards a UN employee.  It’s a rather old case, but he threw it out saying that whatever her case is it can’t stand up in court against UN immunity.  I’m trying to understand what the UN … what is the UN doing to ensure that justice is indeed served and this immunity blanket, immunity’s not just thrown in there as some sort of saving grace when really at the end of the day shouldn’t we be caring about employees and their rights, rather than the immunity necessary in an organization if there has been wrongdoing?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Well, we think that the appropriate forum for staff members to air their grievances is the UN internal justice system, in answer to your first question.  As for the judge’s ruling yesterday, we would have no comment since there could be an appeal.  And our position on immunity remains the same and nothing has changed on that.  If you want further information on that, we can get you more.

Question:  What are exactly those positions as far as immunity to someone that is being sued in an American court?  What is the position of immunity on that?

Deputy Spokesperson:  The UN, as you know, without getting into legalities, does extend immunities so as not to hamper the work of its staff members.  As for this case, I have nothing beyond what I just said.

Question:  The Secretary-General has been extensively speaking about the food crisis and the measures to be taken to alleviate the situation.  Does he think that food is a human rights issue?

Deputy Spokesperson:  You just saw Louise Arbour’s statement.  And as the human rights top official, she has her views on this.  So obviously it is a major issue of human rights as well.

Question:  Do you have anything to say on Somalia?  I mean, what’s the position of Mr. Ban Ki-moon on the killing of 30 people by US strikes?

Deputy Spokesperson:  We obviously do not have any direct information on this or comments on these reports.  But just to say that the UN, as you know, continues its efforts through its Special Representative and our office there to promote dialogue and reconciliation, security sector reform and other areas in its mandate, in addition, obviously, to our humanitarian work in Somalia.

Question:  I have some rather bad news to share with everyone and everyone may already know this.  Ed Bellando…sent me an email, and perhaps everyone else here, that Thomas Schindlmayr died on Saturday following a battle with cancer.  He was the very together guy in the wheelchair that used to come in and help remind us how we should treat people with disabilities and so on and so forth.

Deputy Spokesperson:  We had a statement on that earlier this week, so please pick that up upstairs.

Question:  There are competing statements by Russia and Georgia about the build-up of forces on both sides regarding Abkhazia.  So is the UN Mission in Georgia, UNOMIG, monitoring this and what are the facts, according to them?

Deputy Spokesperson:  We note with concern the current dynamics in the bilateral relations between Georgia and the Russian Federation, which clearly affect the Georgia/Abkhazia and Georgia/South Ossetia conflicts.

The issue of recent decisions by the Russian Federation to establish direct ties with Georgia's breakaway territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, has been brought to the attention of the Security Council by Georgia and others on 23 April.

At this point, we wish to recall that the Security Council has established a clear framework in its resolutions on “The Situation in Georgia”.  All actions by the parties and Member States should be in full compliance with the letter and spirit of the Security Council decisions, including with regard to the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Georgia within its internationally recognized borders.

As for UNOMIG’s role, UNOMIG has indeed observed movement of CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States] personnel and equipment both on train and road from Sukhumi, in Abkhazia, to the conflict zone. 

Such movements were observed on 29 April, when the Russian decision was announced, and yesterday CIS notified UNOMIG of the increase without specifying troop numbers. 

At this point, it is difficult to say whether these movements will continue and how many more soldiers and equipment will arrive.  

At this point, UNOMIG cannot confirm the number of CIS troops deployed.  That’s all I have on this.

Question:  Is there UN personnel on the ground, it’s an observer force obviously, but is there also some sort of ability of them to have some sort of engagement if things…

Deputy Spokesperson:  It’s an observer force.

Question:  Do you have any clarification regarding the questions Matthew and I asked yesterday with regard to possible increases in the co-payment?

Deputy Spokesperson:  No, I don’t have anything on that.

Question:  Just to follow up on that, did you say that, I mean on what do you base your assessment that the relations between Russia and Georgia are part of this whole Abkhazia thing?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I just read you a statement on the political and on our Mission’s role there.

Question:  That’s more analysis.  Is there any observation that you can base this on?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I just read to you the observation that our Mission has on the ground under its mandate.

Question:  Is that statement from DPA [Department of Political Affairs] or from UNOMIG?

Deputy Spokesperson:  It’s a Spokesman’s readout in answer to your question.

Question:  A follow-up on this immunity question, generally are the UN dollar-a-year individuals or people brought back by UN agencies past retirement for part-time work, do all these people have immunity?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Without getting into the details of the legal side, which obviously I am not a lawyer so I can’t answer, as you know, the Secretary-General does waive immunity if and when he is advised by his legal counsellor to do so.

Question:  Is there a list -- I know I’ve asked this before -- a list of the dollar-a-year and the individuals that still have G-4 visa status and immunity?  There seems that there’s kind of a murky world of people that seem to be gone from the system but are still benefiting from those things.

Deputy Spokesperson:  I don’t know if it’s available, but I’ll look into it for you.

Question:  You mentioned that there’s every encouragement for people who have issues of sexual harassment or other problems to go through the judicial system within the UN.  But it’s been widely reported and there’ve been complaints that that judicial system itself, the international justice system within the UN itself, is fraught.  So is there some sort of recourse other than encountering this wall of immunity that staff members might be able to turn to, other than forcing them to go through a system that…

Deputy Spokesperson:  You are talking about one case, which as I said, we can’t comment on because there could be an appeal.  But as for the Secretary-General, as you know, [first of all]…the person in question no longer works for the United Nations, and the current Secretary-General has made it a top priority to improve the internal justice system.  This is something he does put a lot of effort into.

With that, I’m going to turn over to Janos, the General Assembly Spokesperson.  At 1:15, there is another press conference in here on the Indigenous Issues Forum.  Thank you very much.

Briefing by the Spokesperson for the General Assembly President

Good afternoon.  Good to see you.  I haven’t been here for about a week, so I have a couple of things to announce, first on the programme and activities of the President himself.

**Message for World Press Freedom Day

Let’s start with World Press Freedom Day.  General Assembly President Srgjan Kerim also attended this morning’s special observance meeting organized by the Department of Public Information and UNESCO [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization] for World Press Freedom Day.

In his message for the Day, the President underlined the importance of the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of the press and stressed that, not just on this particular day, but on every day, we had to cherish these rights and do our utmost to uphold the universal freedom of the press.

Referring to this year’s theme, “Access to Information and the Empowerment of People”, the President noted that, besides rights and opportunities, it was access to information that truly empowered the individual to become more active and more responsible.  In this free press was a crucial ally.

The media embodied both the necessity and the legal right of every single individual in society to be informed about what happened around him or her.  It was for this reason that press freedom today was of critical importance as a right but also as a responsibility.

**Statement to Indigenous Forum

The General Assembly President also attended this morning the seventh session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

In his statement, the President paid tribute to the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by the General Assembly, which happened in September 2007.

He said that, although it was a non-binding text, the adoption of the Declaration -– after more than 20 years of negotiations -– marked a milestone in the recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples worldwide and, more so, it was an important call for justice to put an end to the social exclusion and marginalization of approximately 370 million people worldwide, and to ensure that their identity would be preserved. 

He stressed that indigenous people were affected in a disproportionate manner by a high level of poverty as well as the lack of access to health and education services.  The President noted that those issues were a priority at this session of the General Assembly and that was why it was of crucial importance that indigenous people become an active partner to address the international developmental challenges, because for far too long their specific needs and potentials had been neglected.

**Meetings of President

The President yesterday met with the Deputy Foreign Minister of Slovakia.

We have a statement that is attributable to the Spokesperson of the General Assembly on that.  It reads as follows:

United Nations General Assembly President Srgjan Kerim met on 30 April with H.E. Olga Algayerova, the Deputy Foreign Minister of Slovakia.  The Deputy Minister expressed her Government’s support for the work of the President during the current General Assembly session especially as regards his efforts to advance on reforms related to the work and composition of the Security Council and to United Nations management practices.

The President and the Deputy Minister discussed Slovakia’s involvement in current United Nations activities, including Slovakia’s increased interest as a newly emerging donor in development assistance efforts.  In light of the President’s recent visit to the United Nations Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia during his trip to Turkmenistan, they also discussed the appointment of Slovak diplomat Miroslav Jenca to head the Centre.

The President expressed his appreciation for Slovakia’s active involvement in the work of the General Assembly, and for the country’s efforts to advance on the priority issues of the current session.  In this regard, he especially thanked the Deputy Minister for her Government’s pledge to substantially increase Slovakia’s official development assistance (ODA) in the coming years.

The President yesterday also had a meeting with Walter Kolbow, Vice-Chairman of the Parliamentary Group of the Social Democratic Party of Germany.

In that meeting, the President highlighted the growing role of non-State actors, including parliaments and parliamentarians, in addressing major global challenges and the importance of their contribution to United Nations efforts.  The President briefed on the major priorities of the session, with a special focus on the UN’s development agenda.  The two sides discussed ongoing efforts to reform the UN especially as regards reforming the Security Council.  And they both stressed the significance of having had the Pope address the General Assembly.

Still on the President’s programme, let me give a heads up for next week:  President Kerim will be travelling to London on Monday to take part in a special private sector Millennium Development Goals event convened by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.  From London, we will also be travelling on to Turkey and Egypt for official visits. 

I will have more on that as they happen next week.

**General Assembly Plenary

The General Assembly held a very brief plenary meeting Tuesday afternoon to approve a list of 696 civil society organizations to take part in the high-level meeting on a comprehensive review of the progress achieved in realizing the 2001 Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS and the 2006 Political Declaration on HV/AIDS.  The meeting is set for 10-11 June.

This action was based on the resolution that the General Assembly adopted on 19 December 2007.  The symbol for that resolution, if anybody’s interested, is 62/178.  That dealt with the organizational aspects of this upcoming high-level review meeting.  In that resolution, the General Assembly President was asked to draw up the list of organizations in consultation with Member States.  So that is what was adopted.

Also on the Assembly’s work -- but you know this -- that the Committee on Information started its session, its thirtieth session, on Monday.  And, as you know, the Committee’s report that it will adopt at the end of its session will go to the General Assembly through the Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization), but only at the sixty-third session. 

**Fifth Committee

Another thing for next week, the Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary) -- I’ve said this many times, but this time it’s becoming more pertinent -- the Fifth Committee will begin the second part of its resumed session on Monday.  And, as a first action, it is expected to adopt its work programme.  The Committee will be meeting for a duration of four weeks, so it is expected to end on 30 May.

As you may know, and as I have said many times, the second part of the resumed sessions of the Committee tend to mainly focus on the budgetary and administrative issues related to peacekeeping missions.  This is in line with resolution 49/233 which established the budget cycle for peacekeeping missions to run from 1 July to 30 June.  So the focus will mostly be those questions.  But again, let’s see what the Member States decide on Monday as regards the programme of work.  There is a modified, tentative and provisional programme of work on the website of the Fifth Committee, available for you also with a list of the status of documentation.  In that tentative programme of work, you will see that, apart from the peacekeeping issues, procurement comes up.  This is something that was deferred from the first part of the resumed session and also -- this goes to something that Jonathan was asking -- the issue of administration of justice.  As you know, Member States have agreed to have a new administration of justice system starting up on 1 January 2009.  The Sixth Committee (Legal) has been looking at the legal aspects.  Last week on Friday, the ad hoc committee that looked at these aspects ended its session and decided to continue discussions on these issues in the sixty-third session in the framework of a working group, while at the same time, the Fifth Committee is going to look at the administrative and budgetary aspects and that is -- and this is what I wanted to say -- on the agenda as well.  So the whole overhaul of the administration of justice system, with a formal and an informal aspect, is very much on the agenda and it is happening.

**Questions and Answers

Question:  What you indicated, the President of the Assembly is committed to the freedom of the press…

Spokesperson:  That is correct.

Question:  Would he be in favour of the subject of the difficulties facing the press being taken by the General Assembly and perhaps adopting a fresh resolution on the problems of journalists around the world?

Spokesperson:  I will certainly convey this concern.  He has talked to you on a number of occasions and I’ve mentioned this.  In fact, during one of the first press conferences he had with you last year when he was still President-elect, on 24 May, transparency and access to information was one of the things that he talked about, all the more so, because, as you know, he also comes from the press, so to speak, as he has been in the private sector as a manager of one of the major European media conglomerates, the WAZ media group.  So he’s very much close to press issues.  But I’ll convey this special concern to him.

Question:  Could you give us some more details on the President’s visit to Egypt and Turkey next week, as you mentioned?

Spokesperson:  On Monday, I will give you all the details.  But, one of the things that we do know, in Turkey, he’s going to have an address to Bilkent University and, of course, he’s going to have various official meetings while in Turkey and also in Egypt.  In Egypt, one of the major events that he will have is an address to the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs.  But, on Monday, I’ll give you all the details.  First, it will be London and then Turkey and then Egypt.

Question:  On a follow-up on press access, on this issue of the Host Country Committee, has there been…the non-UN press was excluded last Tuesday.  Have you invited the Ambassador of Cyprus to come?  I spoke to their Mission and they said, if they’re invited by you, they’ll come. 

Spokesperson:  Okay.  I have not talked to them because I left it up to you to approach the Chair (of the Committee).  But if you insist, I will convey this message.

Question:  Given what you just said about this press freedom idea, the Cyprus Mission says there was no legal authority to exclude the press from that meeting.  They were unable to provide any vote or document of the Committee on the Host Country saying the press should be excluded.  But they said to have the press come in now would require a vote in the next session in June.  Is it Srgjan Kerim’s position that the presumption is that General Assembly meetings are open unless the committees decided otherwise, or is the presumption is it’s closed?

Spokesperson:  Several things.  First, it goes back to what I mentioned.  As far as the President is concerned, he is for access of information, open meetings, transparency.  He has said that many times.  At the same time, of course -- and we have said this -- that the President is very much governed by the rules and regulations of the General Assembly.  He’s also very much guided by the wishes, desires of Member States.  So that’s one angle.  The other angle is meetings themselves.  Yes, as you’ve stressed, as we have said, meetings generally are considered open unless otherwise decided by Member States.  This is what has been the case here.  At least, that’s the way I understand it.  So it’s basically up to Member States to decide whether they want to have a meeting closed or open.  Normally, it is open, as I said, unless otherwise indicated -- whether it’s indicated in the Journal as an informal consultation closed, or whether as it was indicated in the clarification from Ambassador Mavroyiannis that the Member States decided, maybe on the spot or maybe based on past practices, to have press excluded from that particular meeting or from a set of meetings.  But, as I said and as I promised, I will get back to the Cyprus Mission and try to get them to come to give you a brief exactly on this particular aspect of the Committee on Host Country Relations.

Thank you.

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