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

22 May 2008

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

22 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 Marie Okabe, Deputy Spokesperson for the Secretary-General.

Good afternoon. 

**Noon Guest

Our guest today will be Ian Martin, Special Representative in Nepal.  He just briefed the Security Council and he should be here at 12:30 p.m., so I will try to zip through this briefing.

**Secretary-General’s Travels

As you have all seen and read, the Secretary-General arrived in Yangon, Myanmar, today and was flown by military helicopter over the heavily devastated Irrawaddy Delta.  The tour that lasted four hours included two stops, one at a makeshift relief camp, where he met survivors of the village of Kyondah.  There, he told one of the families, “The whole world is trying to help Myanmar.”  The other stop was at a distribution centre stocked with dozens of bags of rice and cartons of sealed bottles of drinking water.

In a meeting earlier with Prime Minister Thein Sein, Ban stressed that foreign aid experts needed to be rushed in because the crisis had exceeded Myanmar's national capacity.  He felt that at least six months of assistance to feed people in need and give them medical care was needed and should be led in parallel with the recovery effort.  He appealed to the Prime Minister to open the doors to international humanitarian experts to coordinate the relief effort that has left many local staff exhausted and overstretched.

He started the day in Yangon by signing a book of condolences to the victims of Cyclone Nargis.  He later visited the 2,000-year-old Shwedagon pagoda, the holiest Buddhist shrine in Myanmar.  Walking barefoot in a show of respect for Buddhist tradition, he offered flowers to the statue of Buddha.  He also offered some money to the trustees of the pagoda for the victims of the cyclone.  “The United Nations and the whole international community stand ready to help you overcome this tragedy,” he said.  “That is why I am here.  The main purpose of my coming to Myanmar is to demonstrate my solidarity and bring a message of hope,” he said.

On Friday, the Secretary-General is scheduled to head to the new capital of Naypyitaw, about 350 kilometres north of Yangon, for talks with Senior General Than Shwe.  He will also meet with humanitarian workers.  He plans to return to Bangkok Friday night, tomorrow night.  Then the Secretary-General will return to Yangon on Sunday, as you know, to preside over the UN-ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nations) pledging conference for Myanmar.

** Myanmar Humanitarian

And the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says five international medical teams, from Thailand, India, China, Bangladesh, and Laos, are now providing medical care to those in need, and support to national health-care staff in the affected areas of Myanmar.  The sixth team, from Singapore, is expected to arrive today.  Since the cyclone hit, the World Food Programme has dispatched more than 2,000 tons of food to affected areas, of which nearly 1,400 tons have been distributed among nearly 350,000 beneficiaries.  The logistics operation is now operating a 4,000-square-metre warehouse in Yangon, managed by DHL, along with a fleet of 30 trucks, four barges with four barge pushers, and two boats.  In five local hubs, six mobile storage units have been or are being constructed.

Meanwhile, preparations for the pledging conference, which we just mentioned to you are well under way, with tomorrow being the deadline for registration by interested participants.  So far, 31 countries along with nine United Nations agencies and the ASEAN Secretariat have registered to attend.  And we expect the programme to be finalized tomorrow.

** China Earthquake

And turning to China, last Friday we announced that the Secretary-General was granting up to $7 million from the Central Emergency Response Fund for humanitarian efforts, following the earthquake in China.  Just to update you, the CERF allocation has increased to $8 million based on the higher value of projects ultimately approved.  Meantime, the World Health Organization (WHO) is rushing enough additional medical supplies to treat 130,000 people.  It is also sending an expert team to work with the Government on rebuilding hospitals and other health-care services.  And WHO is also providing disinfection tablets, drinking-water treatment units and mobile toilets.  And the International Telecommunication Union has deployed 100 mobile satellite terminals to help restore vital communication links and enable better coordination of relief operations.

**Security Council

And as I mentioned to you today, here, the Security Council held consultations this morning on Nepal.  The Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Nepal, Ian Martin, briefed Council Members and he will be our guest in a few minutes.  And also in consultations this morning, the Council took up the issue of Somalia sanctions and other matters.  Then, at three this afternoon, the Security Council is scheduled to hold a meeting on Burundi.  That will be followed by consultations on Burundi, during which the Secretary-General’s Executive Representative for Burundi, Youssef Mahmoud, will brief, and other matters.  Mr. Mahmoud will go the stakeout once those consultations end.  And for those of you who may have missed this, the Security Council President did speak at the stakeout following those consultations this morning and mentioned that they may come back to Lebanon later.

[It was later announced when the Council invited Members to short consultations at 3 p.m. in connection with the situation in the Middle East, Lebanon, preceding the formal meeting on Burundi.]

** Democratic Republic of the Congo

Turning to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, and the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Alan Doss, have denounced the sentencing to death of three civilians by a Congolese military tribunal.  The three are among a group of people facing charges of complicity in the June 2007 murder of a Radio Okapi staff member, a UN and Swiss-funded broadcaster for the UN Mission in the DRC (MONUC).  Both Arbour and Doss also denounced other irregularities in the controversial trial, including the prosecution of civilians by military courts, the threats against defence lawyers and the military prosecutor’s refusal to consider other theories for the crime.  Welcoming the acquittal of two other accused civilians in the case, Arbour and Doss said many questions remain unanswered, and appealed to Congolese authorities to pursue the case, in accordance with their obligations under international law.

** Sudan

The UN-African Union mission in Darfur (UNAMID) reports that a Nigerian battalion was ambushed yesterday afternoon along El Geneina New Airport Road in Darfur by approximately 50 to 60 men on horses, dressed in military camouflage -- not the horses, the men, sorry.  They were armed with AK-47 rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns.  They abducted some rifles, ammunition, phones and cash.  And UNAMID has sent a fact-finding mission to an area of North Darfur where fighting had been reported over water resources that led to the reported killing of nine civilians.

And the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) reports that humanitarian space and access are being challenged by increased attacks on aid agencies and staff and theft of supplies and equipment.  These attacks serve only to worsen the condition of Darfurians, they say.  For example, according to the latest humanitarian bulletin issued by that Mission, which is available upstairs, the hijacking of the North Darfur State Water Corporation’s drilling rig by an armed group in March means that 180,000 people may not have access to clean water this year.

**Nigerian Peacekeepers Mourned

And UNAMID, the Mission in Darfur, just issued a press release saying that the leadership and staff of the mission are deeply saddened by the reported death of 46 former peacekeepers of the Nigerian contingent in a road accident yesterday.  The soldiers had returned to Nigeria from Sudan where they had just completed their tour of duty as part of UNAMID’s Nigerian battalion based in Darfur.

**ILO on the Middle East

And a couple of other announcements.  The International Labour Office (ILO) has released its annual report on the situation of workers in the Occupied Arab Territories, including the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights.  According to the report, only one in three people of working age in the Territories is employed full-time or part-time.  Unemployment hovers about 20 per cent.  Working poverty is rising, genuine employment is declining, and frustration is growing, according to the report.  And there’s more on that upstairs.

** South Africa

And the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) distributed 2,000 blankets and 2,000 mats among victims of a wave of xenophobia in South Africa's Gauteng province.  On the advice of South African authorities, many of the displaced have sought protection at police stations across the northeast, but are sleeping in the open.  And in one town, for example, some 2,800 people, including more than 100 children, found shelter in the local community hall, and some of the UNHCR blankets and mats were handed out there.  Other distribution continues at police stations in the north-east, in coordination with South African authorities, who have opened joint operation centres to coordinate aid delivery by humanitarian agencies and individuals sympathetic to the victims.  Meanwhile, UNHCR notes that most of the displaced are migrants from neighbouring countries, but there are also refugees and asylum seekers among them.

**Human Rights Council on Food

And today in Geneva, the Human Rights Council is holding a special session on the food crisis.  Addressing the gathering this morning, High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour stressed that, while the immediate needs involved humanitarian aid, States should also focus on the longer-term human rights dimension of the food crisis.  Failure to act in a comprehensive manner, Arbour says, could trigger a domino effect by putting at risk other fundamental rights, including the right to health or education, as people are forced to forego other necessities in order to feed themselves and their families.  Arbour also recommended that the hardest-hit groups be fully involved in crafting responses to the crisis.  Such an approach would help clarify the imbalances in society that have triggered and exacerbated the food crisis.  We have more on that upstairs.

**FAO on Food

And in its latest Food Outlook, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that, despite increased production and possibly record harvests this year, food prices remain high.  This is especially affecting vulnerable populations in countries that spend a large part of their income on food.  Such countries are likely to spend 40 per cent more on food imports this year than they did last year, and could end up spending four times as much as they did in 2000, the report says.  While international prices for most agricultural commodities have started to fall, they are unlikely to return to previous levels, FAO says.  Average food prices in the first four months of 2008 are still more than 50 per cent higher than a year ago.  FAO is forecasting record cereal production this year, with the greatest gains coming in the wheat sector.  But FAO notes that it will take more than one good season to replenish stocks and reduce price volatility.  And there’s more information in the FAO press release upstairs. 

**Biodiversity

And as the world's growing population faces rising food prices and pressures from climate change effects on the fields and orchards that feed the world, celebrations of the International Day of Biological Diversity today will stress the need to properly protect and manage the world's biodiversity, in order to ensure a secure supply of food for a growing world population.  The Secretary-General, in his message for this International Day, says “Of the 7,000 species of plants that have been domesticated over the 10,000-year history of agriculture, only 30 account for the vast majority of the food we eat every day.  Relying on so few species for sustenance is a losing strategy.”  And that message is upstairs.

**UNFPA Population Award

The UN Population Fund is giving out its annual population award this afternoon.  This year’s recipients are Dame Billie Antoinette Miller, a former Minister from Barbados; and Family Care International, a U.S. non-governmental organization committed to making pregnancy and childbirth safer around the world.  In remarks on behalf of the Secretary-General, Under-Secretary-General Kiyotaka Akasaka is expected to thank both recipients for the significant contributions they have made to providing life-saving information and services to individuals.  We have copies of those remarks, as prepared for delivery, upstairs.  And the ceremony itself is taking place at 5 p.m. in the Trusteeship Council Chamber.

**Press Conference

And as I mentioned, in a few minutes Ian Martin will be here, and that briefing is going to have to stop at about five or 10 minutes before 1 p.m. because at 1 p.m., there will be a press conference by the President of the General Assembly and Prince El-Hassan bin Talal of Jordan, on the General Assembly’s first-ever thematic debate on human security.

So that’s what I have for you today.  Let’s start in the front.

**Questions and Answers

Question:  On Myanmar, the Government has said the relief crisis was over.  On the other hand, the Secretary-General has been urging the Government of Myanmar to accept more foreign aid workers.  Is it fair to say that the Government of Myanmar denies a request by the United Nations?

Deputy Spokesperson:  That would be your interpretation.  As I just mentioned to you, the Secretary-General personally saw the effects of the cyclone in the Delta region today.  He met with the Prime Minister, he met with senior officials, and emphasized the need to get more assistance in as quickly as possible, at the same time focusing on the medium- to long-term needs, so I will refer you to his remarks that he’s made while on the ground today.

Question:  Has the Secretary-General requested a meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi while in Burma?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Not that I know of.  As I mentioned to you, this is a meeting focused on the victims of the cyclone and we don’t have tomorrow’s programme yet, but the agenda, as we just mentioned to you, does include a meeting with the Senior General.

Question:  On Iraq, I was wondering why you did not have any reaction or statement to the killing of eight civilians this morning or yesterday evening by US air strikes.  Also, on similar incidents happening in Iraq, the UN mission requested an investigation and to have the results of these investigations made public.  I was wondering if there is any kind of follow up.

Deputy Spokesperson:  Let me check with the Mission for you, okay?

Question:  Back on Myanmar, I wonder when there would be a list of participants to the pledging conference on Myanmar.

Deputy Spokesperson:  You may have missed what I just said.  The deadline for the registration is tomorrow, so hopefully we’ll have something for you by the end of the day.

Question:  Do you have anything preliminary?

Deputy Spokesperson:  We just mentioned to you the number of countries signed up so far, so I’m sure OCHA, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, could give you further information on breakdown on who has signed up.

Question:  Two parts to my question.  One, the Secretary-General has basically said the talks have been very constructive.  How does he translate the talks with the Myanmar Prime Minister?  Is he satisfied with the level of cooperation being extended to the United Nations by the Myanmar Government and is that satisfaction being expressed?  And what is it that he thinks has changed since he’s been there?  

Deputy Spokesperson:  As you know, the Secretary-General just completed his first day.  I literally got this update a minute before I came down and the Secretary-General has just completed, a short while ago, a four-hour visit to the devastated region, he’s seen it now for himself.  I think he met with the victims, he’s talked to the leaders.  I think his point that he’s making over and over again, about the urgency to get as much assistance to the people on the ground, the need for more access, at the same time starting to look, as in any humanitarian or natural disaster emergency, the United Nations system always looks at the immediate and the medium- and longer-term recovery needs, so I think he’s looking at all of that, but remember, he’s gone there to press the case and he’s just in the middle of the first day of his visit to the region.

Question:  Another question, on Pakistan, about the Foreign Minister and Law Minister coming to meet with the Secretary-General here to underscore the importance and submitting a letter asking for a formal UN inquiry into the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.  Has such a request been received yet by the Secretary-General?

Deputy Spokesperson:  No, it hasn’t.

Question:  Will you let us know when it does?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Yes, of course. 

Question:  On Iran’s letter to the Secretary-General, has there been a response by the Secretariat yet?

Deputy Spokesperson:  No.

Question:  What’s the delay?

Deputy Spokesperson:  There is no delay.  As I mentioned, the letter was sent to the Secretary-General as well as to the “P-5 Plus 1”.  The Secretary-General’s position regarding Iran has not changed.  In terms of the letter you’re talking about, it is being looked at by his advisers, as well as the other parties involved.  One more, and then we’ll have to move very quickly to Ian Martin because we do have to clear the room at five of 1 p.m.

Question:  Aung San Suu Kyi’s lawyer maintains that Saturday that according to Burmese law they can hold her in jail.  Is the Secretary-General aware of that, and is he going to ask them about this case at all while he’s there because it’s on the day that he’s there?

Deputy Spokesperson:  First of all, Saturday he will not be in Myanmar.  He’ll be back on Sunday and, as I said, the purpose of this mission is to save as many lives as possible on the ground in the aftermath of the cyclone.

Question:  Is he aware of the situation at all?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I’ll have to look into that for you.

[The Deputy Spokesperson later told the correspondent that he is aware and that his position on Aung San Suu Kyi remains unchanged.  He strongly believes that the sooner restrictions on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other political figures are lifted, the sooner Myanmar will be able to move towards inclusive national reconciliation, the restoration of democracy and full respect for human rights.]

Question:  Regarding the meeting tomorrow with Than Shwe, will John Holmes be present?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I don’t know who’s in line-up for the meeting, but John Holmes is accompanying the Secretary-General as part of his delegation on this mission.

[The Deputy Spokesperson later announced that Holmes is expected to be part of that delegation.]

Question:  You mentioned that the Secretary-General told the Prime Minister of Myanmar that, to put it bluntly, it’s beyond your capacity, therefore you need help.  Do we have any record of what the Prime Minister’s response was?

Deputy Spokesperson:  You’d have to ask the Myanmar Mission about that.

Question:  Is the Secretary-General now counting on the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) as the main diplomatic vehicle to convince the Myanmar authorities to open more access for assistance?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Clearly he has indicated in the many public statements he has made to you that he is working closely with ASEAN members and the UN and ASEAN are co-chairing the pledging conference on Sunday, and yes, he believes it is the appropriate mechanism on a practical level, to try to get to the victims as quickly as feasible.

Question:  In Nigeria, it’s reported that the Government asked the Special Representative for West Africa whether the UN will help resettle people from the Bakassi Peninsula?  One, can you confirm that request has been received, and two, is the UN in fact going to help?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Let me look into that, I don’t have anything on that now.

Question:  About Alexander Downer, the Prime Minister of Australia has now been quoted as “the United Nations has asked for the Government’s response to a role for Mr. Downer”.  So can you confirm that, in order for him to have a role in the Cyprus process, Australia has to confirm?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I have nothing on any appointments today.

Question:  I understand the Secretary-General has the intention to designate a new UN-ASEAN coordinator.  Do you have any idea who that would be?

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

Question:  Does Mr. Ban take note of Israel’s plan to build new houses in the West Bank, and what is his reaction?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I think we gave you the reaction.

Question:  Is there a new statement because what I got yesterday is not a statement?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Well, because his position hasn’t changed, that’s why.  And on that note, Ian Martin is with us today and he can be with us for 20 minutes now.

* *** *

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