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

2 May 2008

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

2 May 2008
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.

Good afternoon.  We will be having the President of the Security Council, Ambassador John Sawers of the United Kingdom, coming to this room at about 12:30, so we’ll try to go through this very quickly.

**Secretary-General at Quartet Meeting

The Secretary-General met with the other principal members of the Middle East Quartet in London today to discuss the situation in that region, and they were joined by Quartet Representative Tony Blair.

The Secretary-General read a joint statement by the Quartet after that meeting, when he and the other principal members spoke to the press.  He said that the Quartet expressed its strong support for ongoing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and encouraged the parties to make every effort to realize the shared goal of an agreement on the establishment of a Palestinian State by the end of 2008.

The Quartet expressed its deep concern at continuing settlement activity and called on Israel to freeze all settlement activity, including natural growth, and to dismantle outposts erected since March 2001.  It called on the Palestinian Authority to fulfil its commitments to fight terrorism and to accelerate steps to rebuild and refocus its security apparatus.

The Quartet also called for continued emergency and humanitarian assistance and the provision of essential services to Gaza without obstruction.

After the Quartet meeting, the Secretary-General chaired an ad hoc meeting of Quartet members and Tony Blair, with Arab participants in the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee, as well as with the United Kingdom and Norway as the hosts and chairs of the Committee.

During that meeting, participants discussed the ongoing political negotiations, as well as the efforts under way to ensure implementation of Road Map commitments, support the Palestinian Authority and improve the situation on the ground in both the West Bank and Gaza, in furtherance of the Annapolis process.

The Secretary-General also participated in an enlarged meeting of the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee on Economic Development for the West Bank and Gaza.  He also held a number of bilateral meetings before flying back to New York.

**UNRWA

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) reports that soaring food prices have led to severe financial burdens.  The Agency’s General Fund is currently facing a shortfall of more than $117 million.  That hampers its efforts to provide emergency and regular food aid to nearly 1 million refugees in the West Bank and Gaza alone.

Regarding the fuel situation in Gaza, UNRWA says that, even though the fuel it has gotten has allowed it to resume food aid distribution, the haphazard supply is making it impossible to carry out any planning.  And today the Agency is worried that it is again running out of fuel.

The agency reports that the streets of Gaza are virtually empty of cars and that public transportation has stopped.  Enrolment in UNRWA schools is now basically limited to those who are able to walk to school.  There’s more on that in the Geneva press notes.

**Security Council

The Security Council held consultations this morning on its programme of work for May, in its first meeting under the Council presidency of the United Kingdom.

Ambassador John Sawers, the Council President for this month, will brief you in this room about the Council’s work over the coming month and he should be here at about 12:30.

Right now, the Council is going into a formal meeting to adopt a presidential statement on Myanmar.  They also discussed the text of that statement in this morning’s consultations.

**Kosovo

With regard to Kosovo, Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Jean-Marie Guéhenno is leaving today on a fact-finding mission to the region. He will be holding talks with all stakeholders in both Pristina and in Belgrade concerning the future of the international civil presence in Kosovo.

** Somalia -- Humanitarian

We have an update from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) on Somalia.  It reports that the situation there is deteriorating due to soaring food prices and worsening drought.  More than a third of the population now needs food assistance, largely because of an increase in the number of urban poor who don’t have enough to eat.

The World Food Programme (WFP) has signed an agreement with the Danish Refugee Council to continue providing cooked meals to 50,000 people a day in Mogadishu.  WFP is also feeding nearly 400,000 people in Puntland, Somaliland and south-central Somalia.

** Liberia

Turning to Liberia, the UN has handed over a newly rehabilitated Ministry of Internal Affairs building to the Government.

Speaking at a ceremony on Wednesday, Jordan Ryan, the Deputy Special Representative for Liberia and UNDP resident representative, called the handover a crucial step in rebuilding Liberia’s post-war infrastructure, as well as consolidating peace and fostering development.  The UN provided more than $200,000, or nearly three quarters of the cost, to refurbish the building.  And we have more information upstairs.

**Food

The World Food Programme and the World Bank have issued statements welcoming United States President Bush’s call for an additional $770 million in financing for food and development programmes.

WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran noted that, ever since reaching out to a hungry world devastated by the Second World War, the American people have generously come to the urgent aid of those trapped in hunger.

World Bank President Robert Zoellick encouraged other countries to follow the lead of the United States and take similar bold action.  We have both of those statements upstairs.

**Disabilities Convention

The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is set to enter into force tomorrow.  Twenty-five countries have now ratified the treaty, which aims to ensure that existing rights are fully extended and guaranteed to the world’s estimated 650 million people with disabilities. 

A ceremony to mark the Convention’s entry into force will take place in the General Assembly Hall on 12 May.  And we have more information upstairs.

** Maldives

On the Maldives, a UN inter-agency fact-finding mission, led by the Department of Political Affairs, will visit the Maldives between 4 and 9 May, in response to a request from the Government.

The mission will meet with a broad spectrum of interlocutors, including Government officials, political leaders, civil society, non-governmental organizations and other important national actors, as well as diplomatic representatives, in order to assess whether UN assistance to the forthcoming elections would be appropriate.

**Commission on Sustainable Development

On Monday, the Commission on Sustainable Development opens its sixteenth session.  It will be devoted to issues at the core of the global food crisis: agriculture, land use, rural development, drought and desertification, with a special focus on Africa.

The commission’s proceedings run through 16 May.  A press kit is available at the media desk on the third floor.

**The Week Ahead

We also have available upstairs “The Week Ahead”, which includes information that, on Saturday, you’ll have the observance of World Press Freedom Day.

On Monday at 11 a.m., the Secretary-General takes part in the groundbreaking for the construction of the North Lawn Conference Building.

And on Tuesday, in Oslo, Norway, the Deputy Secretary-General, Asha-Rose Migiro, will attend the opening of the Sudan Consortium, a donor conference that will also review progress on the implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between North and South Sudan.

That’s all for me.  And, like I said, Ambassador Sawers will be here at about 12:30.

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Human Rights Watch today urged that the Secretary-General hold Pakistani and Indian peacekeepers accountable for gold trafficking and weapons smuggling, despite what two senior UN officials had told us earlier this week.  Will the Secretary-General be commenting on that issue?

Associate Spokesperson:  Well, first of all, we’ll check whether the Secretary-General has received the Human Rights Watch letter.  As you know, the Secretary-General is just boarding a plane after a long mission, so he’s in transit today.  As we mentioned earlier this week, we take these allegations very seriously concerning misconduct by UN peacekeeping forces in the DRC.  I don’t have anything for now beyond what the Department for Peacekeeping Operations and the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) said in the background briefing given to you about the BBC’s reported allegations earlier this week.

Question:  Human Rights Watch says: “the failure by OIOS to follow up on the serious allegations of rearming murderous militia groups is extraordinary”.  So I guess I’m wondering, we had this background briefing.  Is it possible to request that the head of OIOS, Inga-Britt Ahlenius, come too?  But also, as part of this has now become public, two audits of OIOS, which are pretty damning about the agency’s performance.  So it seems it would be an opportune time to have Ms. Ahlenius, the head of the agency, come and give us a briefing.

Associate Spokesperson:  That’s certainly the agency’s decision, but we’ll put the question to them.

Question:  On this World Press Freedom issue, yesterday in a UNESCO-sponsored speech here, Justice Albie Sachs of South Africa said that the right to information is a fundamental right and is the basis of all other rights.  I wanted to know whether the Secretariat, Ban Ki-moon, is in favour of the UN itself having a right-to-information policy, and Ms. Bárcena, of Management, has talked sometimes about it.  If we could get an update on what steps the Secretariat is making to actually have there be a right to information by the press and public.

Associate Spokesperson:  In terms of that, we certainly do have a policy to provide as much information as we can.  As you know, we have the Department of Public Information that’s designed specifically to put out as much information about the work that the UN does across a variety of fields.  And this briefing is part of that effort.  In terms of a policy, yes, I believe the Department of Management is dealing with that issue and we’ll see whether they have anything, what the progress of that is.

Question:  Do you have anything to say regarding Sami al-Haj, the cameraman of Al Jazeera, who spent six years in Guantanamo, after his release yesterday?  Is there any statement regarding the remaining prisoners on this occasion?

Associate Spokesperson:  There’s nothing specific to Mr. al-Haj.  However, as you are aware, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, has commented on conditions in Guantanamo.  And she has been one of those calling for an early closure of the system there so that the people residing in Guantanamo can face due process.  And, of course, we favour due process for all people accused of any criminal charge.

Question:  You mentioned the humanitarian situation in Somalia is deteriorating.  I would like to ask how far Mr. Ban Ki-moon believes the repeated US strikes on Somalia can or might deteriorate the reconciliation efforts, and in turn more deterioration to the humanitarian situation there.

Associate Spokesperson:  In terms of that, we don’t have any specific comment about the military activities by any one party or any one group dealing with Somalia.  What we have tried to do is push for an effort to draw as many of parties on the ground into a dialogue as possible so that the situation can be resolved peacefully.  And we’re continuing with that effort on the ground through the work of our Special Representative, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah.

Question:  On Somalia, there have been some reports talking about Ethiopians selling weapons widely to the militias in Somalia.  Did you get anything in this regard?

Associate Spokesperson:  We don’t have any first-hand knowledge of that, no.

Question:  What are the issues Mr. Kai Eide discussed when he met the Canadian Prime Minister yesterday and other foreign officials?  Is he going back to Afghanistan or some other country?

Associate Spokesperson:  He’ll be going back to Afghanistan, I believe, over the coming week.  In terms of his meetings with the Canadian officials, part of what he’s been doing is talking to different Governments about support for the Government of Afghanistan prior to the conference that will take place in Paris next month that’s designed to boost support for the people and Government of Afghanistan.

Question:  Is he coming back here before going back to Afghanistan?

Associate Spokesperson:  Mr. Eide is here in New York today for internal discussions with other UN officials and with some of the diplomatic community here.  But he does intend to return to Afghanistan, I believe, in the coming week.

Question:  Any reaction to the Zimbabwean presidential vote being announced?

Associate Spokesperson:  There’s no statement we have on that.  Clearly, this is something that we had been calling for -- the release of the electoral results.  And we continue to hope that all parties will try to deal with matters on the ground peacefully and in dialogue.  Beyond that, as you were informed earlier this week, the Secretary-General is willing to use his good offices in coordination and conjunction with the efforts being made by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and by the African Union.

Question:  If there is a run-off, how ready are the UN and the Secretary-General to provide election monitors, and do they encourage authorities in Harare to accept a United Nations component?

Associate Spokesperson:  Well, first of all, let’s see whether there’s agreement on holding a run-off round of elections and whether there’s any request to the United Nations.  Certainly we have the capacity to assist with these sorts of tasks upon request, but we haven’t received a request.  I don’t want to speculate on whether there will be a run-off.

Question:  This report on a plane crash in Southern Sudan and including, they say, two Government Ministers were on board.  Does UNMIS have any information on this?

Associate Spokesperson:  At this stage, UNMIS is trying to provide a helicopter to the area so that we can assist in any recovery efforts.  At this stage, we wouldn’t have any solid first-hand information to provide beyond the same reports that you’ve seen.

[The United Nations Mission in the Sudan (UNMIS) later confirmed the death of Sudanese officials on that flight.]

Question:  Do you have any reaction regarding Hillary Clinton’s pact to obliterate Iran?

Associate Spokesperson:  I’m aware that the Iranian Government did send a letter to the Secretary-General and the President of the Security Council concerning this and I believe they asked for that letter to be circulated as a document and I believe it will become a document.

Question:  In the past, there were statements from Iran regarding rhetoric between Iran and Israel.  Why don’t you react now to this letter?

Associate Spokesperson:  That was a statement made by the head of the Iranian Government.  In general, you’re quite right.  As a general principle, we would like all individuals to avoid rhetoric that threatens any group of peoples or any States.

Question:  This group, La Via Campesina, it’s the group of cross-borders, they call themselves peasants, have criticized Ban Ki-moon’s call for an end for food export bans, saying that, in fact, these bans can help small farmers and that his call encourages free trade to benefit wealthy countries.  Is he aware of that criticism, and what does he have to say about it?

Associate Spokesperson:  Obviously, there’s a number of complexities in dealing with the food issues.  This is one of the reasons why Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is wanting as large a turn-out, and as senior a turn-out, as is possible at the Global Food Summit that is scheduled to take place in Rome next month.  And there can be a wider discussion of these issues at that time.  Beyond that, I simply would reiterate and draw your attention again to the rather extensive comments that the Secretary-General has been making on the food issue over the past several weeks.

Question:  There’s a report out today saying that WFP, despite comments that they had no money or had only $18 million in the bank at the time of these appeals, actually had $1.22 billion on hand.  That’s what the report says, and so they take specific issue with Ban Ki-moon having said there was only $18 million in bank.  And the report also said WFP didn’t respond to questions.  Is there a response to that?

Associate Spokesperson:  Actually, WFP has conveyed to us that they are handling all the questions on this so please address your questions over to them.  I think that they can handle that.

And with that, I wish you all a good afternoon.  And if you come back here in a few minutes, we should have Ambassador John Sawers of the United Kingdom in his capacity as Security Council President.

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