20 May 2008


20 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.

**Statement on Sudan

Good afternoon.  Let me start with a statement attributable to the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General on Abyei in Sudan.

The Secretary-General is deeply concerned about the fighting between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army in the area of Abyei.  The clashes, which began on 13 May, have resulted in the destruction of Abyei town and the displacement of between 30,000 and 50,000 people from Abyei and the surrounding area. 

The Secretary-General regrets that, despite an agreement by the parties on 18 May to end hostilities, fighting has resumed today.  If the situation is not urgently addressed, the achievements thus far of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement could be placed at serious risk.

The Secretary-General thus urges both parties to immediately observe the terms of the ceasefire agreed through the Ceasefire Joint Military Commission on 18 May, including the disengagement of forces.  He stresses that there can be no military solution to the parties’ differences over Abyei, and reminds them of their commitment to find a political solution which respects the needs and rights of both sides, and of the people of the Abyei area.

And that statement is available upstairs, as is a statement by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Sudan, Mr. Ashraf Qazi.  And in his statement, he notes a number of humanitarian operations under way to assist the displaced, which are numbered to be between 30,000 and 50,000.  So we have both the Secretary-General’s and the Special Representative’s statements upstairs.

**Secretary-General on Myanmar

As you know, the Secretary-General is now on his way to Myanmar.  Speaking to reporters before leaving, he said that he’s going to Myanmar to see for himself the situation on the ground, as well as the conditions under which relief teams are working.  He plans to tour the hardest hit parts of the Irrawaddy delta and meet senior Myanmar officials.  The Secretary-General stressed that Myanmar has reached a “critical moment”.  There is a functioning relief programme in place, but it has only been able to reach about 25 per cent of the people in need.  He welcomed the Government’s recent flexibility in allowing in Asian relief workers, under the auspices of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and giving permission for nine helicopters to operate in areas that have largely been inaccessible until now.

The Secretary-General also stressed the importance of addressing Myanmar’s long-term reconstruction and rehabilitation.  This will be the subject of Sunday’s Pledging Conference, jointly sponsored by the UN and ASEAN.  He noted that the cyclone devastated the country’s agricultural heartland, where it may already be too late for farmers to plant the next harvest.  As a result, the economic effects of the cyclone could be more severe and longer lasting than the 2004 tsunami, he said.  And we have the text of his remarks and his answers to questions there.

** Myanmar -- Humanitarian

The Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, John Holmes, in Yangon this morning held key meetings with Myanmar Government officials, including the Ministers for Planning, Health, and Relief and Development, as well as the Prime Minister.  Holmes, who doubles as the Emergency Relief Coordinator, as I just mentioned, discussed with them all aspects of the response to the disaster, including coordination and access, to improve relief operations.  He said he hopes to put international expertise, including that of the UN and the Red Cross, to better use.  In his discussions with the Prime Minister, Holmes also noted the need for early recovery, particularly in agriculture and fisheries, in parallel with the relief effort, which is still far from over.

Briefing the press today on his trip to the affected areas, Mr. Holmes stressed that supplies such as clean water, food and medicines will be needed for some months, and that a major push is required now to address those needs over the next three to six months.  In terms of early recovery, he noted it was a protracted process.  According to OCHA [Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs], as of today, some $99.6 million has been committed to relief operations, with a further $108 million pledged.

**Security Council

And here, the Security Council began its work this morning by holding a minute of silence for China’s earthquake victims.  It is now holding an open debate on post-conflict peacebuilding, chaired by the United Kingdom’s Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, David Miliband.

In remarks to the Council, the Secretary-General said that there were three things needed in order to strengthen our collective response to the immediate aftermath of conflict.  First, we must be coherent, he said.  Coordination and clarity of leadership is critical to ensuring that each partner brings its distinctive strength to the broad collective effort.  Second, we need sufficient capacity.  In that context, the Secretary-General said that, if the UN is to lead on the ground, the Special Representative needs to be empowered to do so.  Third, we need to build up civilian expertise.  He said the small, but agile, UN Standing Police Capacity is an important step in the right direction, as is the recent launch of a Standby Team of Mediation Experts.  But we remain desperately short of judges, prison warders, state administrators and managers, he said.  Ultimately, all this requires early and flexible funding.  In that context, the Secretary-General called for approaches such as a common start-up fund to be explored.  We have his full remarks upstairs and a presidential statement is expected at the end of today’s meeting.

** Burundi

And turning to Burundi, Burundi’s rapid relapse into violent conflict is alarming evidence of the extremely fragile security and political situation in the country.  This is the key observation in the Secretary-General’s latest report on Burundi, which is out as a document today.  In it, he warns that, unless the Comprehensive Ceasefire Agreement is put back on track, the new outbreak of violence could undo all of the painstakingly achieved gains of recent months.  Other sources of concern include continued violations of human rights by both Government and rebel forces and non-compliance with the framework agreement for national consultations on transitional justice mechanisms.  The Secretary-General also notes that the Peacebuilding Commission’s engagement provides valuable support to promote stability and prevent Burundi from spiralling back into all-out violence.

** Democratic Republic of the Congo

And the UN refugee agency has begun repatriation of Congolese refugees from Zambia.  The first group of some 400 returned last week to the Katanga Province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has planned the next convoy for Friday and intends to complete 36 trips by boat, each carrying about 400 refugees, and another 4 road trips for 800 refugees each.  In total, the agency intends to repatriate 20,000 Congolese from Zambia by November of this year.

** Ethiopia

And the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs is warning of massive food shortages in Ethiopia due to widespread drought and rising food prices.  OCHA says the number of malnutrition cases is soaring; more than 3 million people are in need of life-saving aid.  UNICEF warns that 126,000 children are suffering from severe malnutrition and need urgent care.  In addition, as many as 6 million children under the age of 5 require urgent preventive care.  All of this comes at a time when humanitarian agencies in the country are facing a food aid shortfall of nearly $150 million.  Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes is calling for a rapid scaling up of resources in Ethiopia.  And there’s more information on this situation upstairs.


And as we mentioned to you yesterday, the World Health Assembly is currently under way in Geneva.  A number of reports are due to be presented this year on health conditions in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.  Today, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) introduced its annual report on health services in the Middle East.  According to the UNRWA report, no epidemics have been observed recently among the 4 million Palestinian refugees it serves in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza.  Nevertheless, in the West Bank and Gaza especially, Palestinians’ health is being threatened by growing poverty and a lack of access to quality food.  UNRWA also noted an increase in diabetes, hypertension, post-traumatic stress and other behavioural disorders related to violence.  And there’s more information on this upstairs.

**World Health Organization

And the global burden of disease is shifting from infectious diseases to those that do not pass from person to person, according to a new World Health Organization (WHO) report.  In fact, chronic conditions such as heart disease and stroke are now the chief causes of death globally.  The shifting health trends indicate that leading infectious diseases, including diarrhoea, HIV, tuberculosis, neonatal infections and malaria, will become less important causes of death globally over the next 20 years.  Meanwhile, in response to the serious shortage of health workers across the world, the Global Health Workforce Alliance, which is hosted and administered by the WHO, has commissioned the first ever joint guidelines on incentives for the retention and recruitment of health professionals.  There’s more on both of these upstairs.


And the UN Conference on Biodiversity is meeting all week and next week in Bonn, Germany.  Key issues on their agenda include the current food price crisis, the loss of forests, climate change and efforts to eradicate poverty.  There’s more information on that.

**Economic and Social Council

And to flag to you, which we did yesterday as well, at 3 o’clock this afternoon, the Economic and Social Council is holding a special meeting on the global food crisis.  The Deputy Secretary-General is expected to deliver prepared remarks and there will also be briefings from the Presidents of the General Assembly, Security Council and ECOSOC, as well as international experts, including Jeffrey Sachs, the Director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute.  The meeting will focus on ways to minimize the negative impacts of the current food crisis.  It’s expected that the President of ECOSOC will, at the end of the meeting, propose a set of policy actions over the short, medium and long term.

**Press Conference Tomorrow

And just two things to invite you to.  Tomorrow at 11 a.m., Andrew Mack, Director of the Human Security Report Project, will hold a press conference to discuss the Project’s new report on the threat of global terrorism.  This press conference is sponsored by the Permanent Mission of Canada.  It’s at 11 a.m. tomorrow.

**Department of Public Information Briefing

And the Department of Public Information is inviting all correspondents to attend a presentation and discussion on the content and usefulness of the UN Press Release website.  And that’s tomorrow from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. in Room 1027-D on the 10th floor.  And that’s an invitation to a meeting from DPI.  That’s all I have for you.

**Questions and Answers

Question:  On the Secretary-General’s trip, do we know which leaders he’ll be meeting with and is there a possibility he’ll be meeting with the junta leader?

Deputy Spokesperson:  He was asked that question this morning and he said he hoped to do so.  I refer you to his remarks.  Beyond that, right now, I think we have to wait for them to get on the ground and then we’ll give you a day-by-day update on whom he meets.

Question:  Also on Myanmar and the Secretary-General’s visit, do we anticipate some type of acknowledgement of the level of transparency that the Government provides?  Does he expect to get a very transparent read on the situation?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I think for right now I will refer you to the Secretary-General’s remarks at the stakeout, which he just delivered to you a short while ago.

Question:  Do we have any numbers on how many UN relief workers have been allowed into Myanmar since the meeting yesterday, whether they’re ASEAN or international aid workers?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I have not seen any update.  Perhaps the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs can provide that if they do, if they’re compiling a composite on that.

[The Deputy Spokesperson later added that, overall, 90 visas have been granted.  United Nations national staff are able to travel the hard hit delta region.  United Nations international staff are not.

Question:  Any reaction to the xenophobic attacks in South Africa against foreign nationals?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Nothing beyond what the Spokesperson told you yesterday, that the Secretary-General is watching quite closely.  We are very concerned about the situation and regret the loss of life and we hope that these attacks end and calm is restored.

Question:  Is there any update on yesterday’s story in The New York Times, actually the Associated Press covered it, saying they are holding 500 juveniles in jails in Iraq?  That’s bad, but there are thousands of other Iraqi prisoners.  Do we have an update on all that from the Special Representative there?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I don’t know if the Special Representative has it in his report, but I believe the report you refer to was a report to [the Committee on the Rights of the Child].  So I’m sure that is available if you are interested.

Question:  That was actually the United States reporting to [inaudible].  But I just want to find out overall in Iraq, the situation as it is, do we have any update at all?

Deputy Spokesperson:  We constantly have updates on the situation in Iraq, as you know, from the field, from the Special Representative there, from Mr. [Staffan] de Mistura, from the Secretary-General’s reports and from the reports to the Security Council.

Question:  Back to Myanmar, does the Secretary-General have any remark on the vote this Saturday?  I know he’ll be leaving the country on Saturday, or rather Friday afternoon, to go to Bangkok and come back on Sunday.  He’ll be out of the country on Saturday, but, in the meantime, the referendum will take place.  Last time they rescheduled it he had a remark, saying basically that he advises the Myanmar Government to focus on humanitarian relief.  Does he have any such remark for this?  

Deputy Spokesperson:  I think that’s where it stands. 

Question:  Is it the UN’s understanding in Kosovo that this EULEX programme that was supposed to begin in June will begin at that time or will not begin?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I have nothing beyond what we’ve been telling you on Kosovo.  Nothing new.

Question:  I had asked you earlier in the week on Uganda, these reports of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) continuing to abduct children.  Now the Ugandan Army has said that they abducted 100 children in the Central African Republic and Sudan.  So the question is, we just had a press conference here about children and armed conflict.  Since the UN has a Mission in Southern Sudan and people in the Central African Republic, is the UN even trying to validate or disprove these serious claims of child abduction by the LRA?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Somebody from the Office of Children and Armed Conflict was here as well?

Question:  No, I’m saying that the UN has said that it takes this topic seriously, but it looks like there’s been no attempt by the UN to either free these children or find out if it happened.  Is there some way to get a sense of what the UN is doing now that the Ugandan Army has put a number on it, 100 children?

Deputy Spokesperson:  All right, let’s see if there’s some latest update for you, but, as you know, this is an area the UN has been talking about through the Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, and the humanitarian agencies have always been very [engaged and] vocal about the situation.

Question:  One last question.  There was this letter on Friday from the Staff Union to Mr. Ban that raised a number of critiques, of the hiring of the new Head of the Department of Management, of the lack of responsiveness to the issue of the administration of justice.  What’s the response of the Secretariat to that?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I don’t think I’d like to go point by point on the letter, but I think, in essence, the Secretary-General, and more specifically the Department of Management, have tried to solve all the requests put forward by the Staff Union of New York, and most importantly, have established a solid mechanism of negotiation.  Recently, it was discussed very seriously how to extend this mechanism on the global level and, therefore, the Secretary-General is surprised to have received this letter.

Question:  Marie, one question.  Since the Government of Myanmar has changed the name from Burma to Myanmar, what is the position of the United Nations?  Does it call Burma Myanmar or still calls it Burma and Myanmar?

Deputy Spokesperson:  It’s Myanmar.  On that note, have a good afternoon.  Thank you.

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