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

18 November 2008

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

18 November 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.

Okay, we’ll try and keep this fairly quick, I know you’ve had a very extensive briefing just now from Mr. Doss.

**Secretary-General in Geneva

In Geneva today, the Secretary-General spoke at the inauguration ceremony for the new Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room at the Palais des Nations, which was donated by Spain.  Saying that “human rights are a fundamental part of the work of the United Nations and of the Organization’s very identity”, the Secretary-General said that he was pleased to inaugurate the new room on the eve of the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

He said that the Alliance of Civilizations is a “very important and practical initiative that is linked intrinsically to human rights”, adding that Spain and Turkey have played a dynamic role as conveners of the Alliance.

Later, the Secretary-General met with the King and Queen of Spain and with Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero.  He also spoke with the Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development of Germany, in conjunction with her role as a Special Envoy to the Conference on Financing for Development.

Earlier today, the Secretary-General met with the head of the World Intellectual Property Organization and had a town hall meeting with WIPO staff.  I also expect to be able to say something before this briefing is out about the Secretary-General’s upcoming trip to Doha.  Also, by the way, we do expect sometime this afternoon to have a statement from the Secretary-General regarding the recent violence in Darfur.

** Sudan

The UN-AU Mission in Darfur has received reports from various sources pointing to increased military activities throughout Darfur during the past few days.  These include reports of aerial bombings by the Government of Sudan in the Kutum area; UNAMID is trying to confirm these reports.

Meanwhile, Ashraf Qazi, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Sudan, welcomes the National Assembly’s approval of the appointment of a National Elections Commission.  Qazi congratulated the new Commissioners and pledged the UN Mission in Sudan’s readiness to support and assist with preparations for upcoming elections to ensure that they are carried out in accordance with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement.

Meanwhile, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has welcomed the announcement by Sudan’s Minister of Humanitarian Affairs on the extension of the Moratorium facilitating humanitarian aid to Darfur until 31 January 2010.  And we have a Press Release on that upstairs.

** Gaza

High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay today called for an immediate end to the Israeli blockade of Gaza.  She added that, because of the blockade, 1.5 million Palestinian men, women and children have been forcibly deprived of their most basic human rights.  Pillay said, “This is in direct contravention of international human rights and humanitarian law.  It must end now.”

According to the Office of the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process (UNSCO), no fuel, humanitarian supplies or commercial commodities were allowed into Gaza today.

The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) is drawing attention to what it calls “unprecedented levels of hardship”.  For example, it says, mothers are being turned away from UNRWA food centres without powdered milk for their babies.  The agency also notes that it is unable to get in supplies even for blind children.

** Democratic Republic of the Congo

You just had an extensive briefing by Mr. Doss concerning the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Meanwhile, the International Criminal Court says Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga Dyilo will remain in its custody until the start of his trial in January 2009.  The Court earlier today lifted the stay of proceedings in the case against Lubanga after a status conference in The Hague.  The suspension was imposed in June when judges found Lubanga would not receive a fair trial because the Prosecutor had failed to share with the defense confidential information from the United Nations and other agencies that he has used in his case against Lubanga.  The Court now says that the reasons for imposing a halt “have fallen away”.  And there is more on the Court’s website.

Meanwhile, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the UN Mission (MONUC) says that some 25,000 internally displaced persons have gathered around its base in Bambu, about 80 kilometres north of Goma.  According to the Mission, the displaced civilians are without assistance, as there are currently no humanitarian workers in or around Bambu.  In the provincial capital Goma, the World Food Programme says it is stepping up food distribution to some 100,000 displaced people.  The agency also intends to cross into rebel territory to assist some 100,000 civilians.  UNICEF, meanwhile, says that some 150,000 school children have stopped going to school as a result of the insecurity.

**Deputy Secretary-General

The Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro leaves New York later today for Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to attend the Second Meeting of the Africa Commission convened by the Government of Denmark from 20 to 21 November.  The meeting will focus on the creation of jobs and furthering economic growth in Africa as a way to enhance implementation of the Millennium Development Goals.  The Commission will examine underlying issues relating to education, youth and women employment and climate change.

In addition, the Deputy Secretary-General will address the Sixth African Development Forum meeting, where she will give remarks on gender equality and the elimination of violence against women.

**Honduras/Guatemala

The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says that the reports it has received on Honduras following the floods there indicate that the living conditions for 313,350 affected people will remain precarious for several months, owing to the extent of damage to livelihood and infrastructure.  However, only 10 per cent of the $17 million requested in a flash appeal has been committed, and the limited resources available so far are slowing down the humanitarian response.

UNICEF is providing cleaning equipment and material to the families that were sheltered in school buildings, in order for them to keep the premises clean, and it has also developed a work plan to restore the provision of safe water in the affected areas.  The World Food Programme, meanwhile, urgently needs at least 2,000 metric tons of food in order to start recovery activities.

In neighbouring Guatemala, floods have affected 30,000 families.  UNICEF and WFP have sent in teams to plan response, and the UN Population Fund is distributing 2,000 hygiene kits.  WFP has already delivered food for more than 28,000 people.

** Kyrgyzstan

In Kyrgyzstan, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, with other UN agencies and NGO partners, is concerned about some 700,000 vulnerable people in that country facing the winter season without adequate shelter and facilities.

This includes 250,000 people at risk of electricity and water shortages during the extremely cold winter months, and 580,000 people considered to be food insecure.

To ensure minimum standards of critical services during the winter months, from this December to April 2009, the agencies are working to complement government efforts to ensure priority interventions through a Winter Response Plan.  The response plan requires some $18 million.

**International Court of Justice

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) reports that the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, known as FYROM, has instituted proceedings against Greece.  FYROM contends that Greece violated a previous agreement between the two States when it decided to veto FYROM’s application to join NATO because of the “name issue”.

FYROM requests the Court to order Greece to cease and desist from objecting in any way to its membership of NATO or any other organization of which Greece is a member.

Meanwhile, the Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy for the talks between Greece and FYROM, Matthew Nimetz, says that the FYROM Government assured him that this latest action did not lessen its commitment to continue the process under the Secretary-General’s auspices to seek a solution to the “name issue”.

In other developments at the ICJ, the Court today, despite Serbian objections, affirmed that it has jurisdiction to rule on a Croatian case alleging that Serbs committed genocide during the Balkans conflicts of the 1990s.  And we have more information upstairs.

**Secretary-General to Doha

As I mentioned earlier at this briefing, I have a note about the Secretary-General’s trip to Doha.

At last weekend's summit in Washington, DC, the Secretary-General pressed world leaders to attend the upcoming Conference on Financing for Development, to be held in Doha beginning 28 November. 

This meeting has since grown to be a full-fledged summit, with some 40 Heads of State or Government from the developed and developing world arriving to discuss the next steps for follow-up to the Monterrey Consensus and managing the global financial crisis.

The Secretary-General's goal at Doha is to broaden the debate beyond the need for a global stimulus package -- the main theme in Washington -- to include 1) protections for the needs of developing nations, by maintaining international commitments on aid and trade and minimizing negative impact on global security and well-being of people, 2) to promote "green jobs" and "green economy" as an integral element in any stimulus package, and 3) to ensure that inclusive multilateralism be the watch-word for institutional financial reform.

As the Secretary-General sees it, the world does not face a single crisis.  It faces a nexus of interrelated crises which can only be dealt with comprehensively.  Solutions to each challenge must therefore be solutions to all.

** Comoros

Beginning tomorrow, international experts are meeting in the capital of Comoros for a three-day conference on managing and promoting the Karthala Volcano.  Covering two thirds of the country’s largest island, this active volcano has long been considered a threat to the population.  But recently, it is increasingly being recognized for its development and economic potential, in the areas of eco-tourism and geothermic energy.  We have a Press Rlease upstairs with more information, including press contacts.

**International Labour Organization

Juan Somavía of Chile was elected to a third term as Director-General of the International Labour Organization (ILO) today.

There was no other candidate for that position.

Somavía is the ninth Director-General to hold the office, and formally begins his new five-year term in March 2009.  And we have a Press Release on that upstairs.

**Budget

Lastly today we have an update on Member States’ status of contributions to the UN regular budget.

As of 17 November, a total of 131 Member States have paid in full their assessments to the regular budget for 2008.

With inclusion of current assessments, a total of approximately $4.3 billion is still outstanding as of today.  Of this, $533 million is for the regular budget and $3.6 billion relates to peacekeeping operations.  The remaining outstanding contributions consist of $52 million for the international tribunals and $79 million for the Capital Master Plan.

And details on the contributions by each Member State are available online at www.un.org/ga/contributions.

That’s it from me.  There won’t be any briefing from Enrique.  Are there any questions?  Yes.

**Questions and Answers

Question:  It’s about MONUC.  We understand that the SG asked for an increase in terms of the soldiers to join MONUC.  Is he also asking for a change in the mandate itself?

Associate Spokesperson:  At this stage, what we’re looking for, and as the Secretary-General and Mr. Doss have made clear repeatedly, is additional personnel with some additional capabilities for rapid deployment.  And so, this is what we want to see achieved.  The Security Council has been considering this request, and hopefully Member States will also consider this and see this as urgent.  This is certainly something we had asked for even prior to the latest flare up of fighting.  And we believe that the recent violence has made the situation and the urgency of this request all the more apparent.  Yes, Edie.

Question:  Farhan, two questions.  First, is there a list of the 40 Heads of State and Government who said they’re going to Doha?

Associate Spokesperson:  I don’t have that, but we’ll see whether we can try and get that for you.

Question:  And secondly, of this $4.3 billion that’s outstanding.  How much of that is owed by the United States?

Associate Spokesperson:  I don’t have that figure with me, but it is available on the website, so we can go and look at that later.  But there is a contributions website.  There is a certain amount outstanding from them.

[The Associate Spokesperson later added that $1.7 billion was owed by the United States.  That figure includes dues for the regular budget, peacekeeping, tribunals and the Capital Master Plan, he said.]

Question:  This morning, you announced about this Human Rights Room in Geneva and I am sure you’re aware there is some controversy about how it was paid for.  Yesterday it was said that the UN’s understanding is it was all paid for by a foundation.  But the Spanish Government has since said that 40 per cent of the money came from their Government, including over half a million dollars from a fund for development aid and international organizations.  So, I want to ask again -- does the UN think it’s appropriate for it to use development for the renovation of this $25 million ceiling?  What was the answer on that?  And why was it said that it was a foundation when in fact it was the Spanish Government?

Associate Spokesperson:  I can only refer back to our understanding of this.  If the Spanish Government says some of the money is coming from them, I suggest that you ask them how they’re funding that money.  Certainly it would be Spain’s decision in terms of how to provide it.  But that’s not a decision made by the United Nations.

Question:  But I guess what I want to know is, I mean this controversy has been growing over a number of days, so, it’s surprising to me that the UN system, when it saw these major headlines saying “Development aid used to renovate UN premises”, that nobody checked out where the money came from.  I guess what I’m saying is if Spain had said openly that, if your understanding was “yes, we’re using developing aid to fix this $25 million ceiling”, would the UN have said “fine, no problem”?

Associate Spokesperson:  That’s a hypothetical question.  The information we had gotten was that this had come from a foundation.  Ultimately it’s not that we investigate, what people say about this.  We get this information from Governments and like I said, I suggest that you inquire with the Government what the particulars are of this.

Question:  So, is the UN itself going to enquire?  Because we were told it was coming from one thing, and now turns out to be something else.

Associate Spokesperson:  If the information we initially got is not the case, we’ll certainly try to get more information on this.

[The Associate Spokesperson later clarified that the cost of the renovations for the new Human Rights Council and Alliance of Civilizations Room (Room XX) at Palais des Nations were entirely funded by the ONUART Foundation, which was established by the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation to collect public and private money from Spanish society.]

Question:  Farhan, are you saying that -– I wasn’t here for the briefing yesterday.

Associate Spokesperson:  Nor was I.

Question:  Okay.  I don’t know whether this question was asked, but was there no UN funds that went into this?  No planning, no payment at all that went from the UN itself?

Associate Spokesperson:  No.  This is a room that has been donated by the Spanish Government for the United Nations.  So, this is not UN money that’s going into this.  But it’s money that was provided, you know, it’s a room that was provided by Spain.

Question:  But I mean, you say you’re not going to talk about a hypothetical, at least you told Matthew, but really, he does ask a legitimate question.  What is the UN’s position about money that is part of a country –- okay, it’s up to the country to decide what it wants to do with the money, but if you make recommendations that this money was earmarked for African development and it’s now going up on a ceiling, so how’s…

Associate Spokesperson:  Well, let’s see where the money is coming from.  The information, like I said, is not the UN information.  It’s from the Government of Spain and there is a couple of differing reports about what the money would have gone to.  But first let’s get the information from the Spanish Government about what money this is before making any judgement about whether it’s appropriate or not.

Question:  But…

Associate Spokesperson:  But you can make the judgement once we have the accurate information about that.

Question:  I understand in that hindsight you can make a (inaudible), but is there a general UN policy when it comes to this?  This isn’t the first time that a nation has decided to give something to the UN.  But is there a process of trying to determine where this money is coming from?  Is it being spent in a fashion that is sensible or not?

Associate Spokesperson:  Well, in terms of sensible funding for projects, our general rule is that we don’t like to see money directed away from development.  For example, whenever there are other sorts of projects, we try to make sure that existing aid commitments are not hindered and that would apply across the board.  But again, let’s get what the accurate information on this is first before making any judgement about this particular money.  Yes?

Question:  There have been reports on the news this morning that these checkpoints into Gaza from Israel were opened and there were trucks of supplies going through.  Is there a timing problem at least from…?

Associate Spokesperson:  No, the latest information is that the checkpoints as of right now are closed.  This is the latest information that we got from our people on the ground at UNSCO and UNRWA.  And, I don’t know whether you were here for the start of this briefing, but there’s a statement from the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, reflecting her views about this.  Yes?

Question:  Thank you.  Does the Secretary-General have any comment to make about the latest act of piracy off the coast of Somalia, and in general, about the situation in Somalia?  There are reports that militants are 15 miles from Mogadishu.

Associate Spokesperson:  In terms of that, I don’t have anything specific to say.  The Secretary-General, in general, in recent months, has made clear his concerns about the rise in piracy in and off the coast of Somalia.  He has also made it clear his support for efforts to have the naval escorts so that, in particular, needed humanitarian goods can travel through those waters.  At the same time, I don’t have anything specific right now on the latest incident.

Question:  There are some news reports claiming that the Secretary-General has sent a letter to the Iraqi Government and an organization known as MKO.  Has he sent such a letter?

Associate Spokesperson:  No, the Secretary-General has not written to the Government of Iraq regarding that particular issue, which involves Camp Ashraf.  The letter that you’re referring to, I believe was written by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, and there is some relevant language on this that appears in the latest human rights section of the Secretary-General’s recent report on Iraq that came out last week.  Yes?

Question:  When you were talking about the dues and the figures that you gave; when is deadline for… are we past the deadline for when those dues were due?  Where are we in the process?

Associate Spokesperson:  The official deadline for when those dues are due was at the end of January this year.  So, yes, we’re a little behind that deadline.  At the same time, we understand the reality of different countries’ budgetary funding cycles, and we know that, with some countries, the money will come later in the year, depending upon how each nation deals with budgetary matters.  But, certainly this is money that is late, and we would expect to see it paid.

Question:  And what sort of pressure or mechanism do you bring to bear when it gets to a point in which it’s starting to get painful in terms of the hold back and also, I was just wondering, is there any consideration now that there is this global financial crisis that some countries may be in more difficulty a position to (inaudible) now?

Associate Spokesperson:  Well, first of all, payment of dues is not a voluntary thing -- it’s a treaty obligation, and when countries are members of the United Nations, they are obliged to pay their dues in full, on time and without preconditions.  Beyond that, if a country falls so far behind in its dues that the amount that it owes is equivalent to the last two years worth of its dues, it will lose its voting rights in the General Assembly.  And that’s a fairly stiff penalty.  There are some exceptions that are made.  The GA members can sometimes make exceptions for specific countries who are facing particular hardships, for example.  But that is the main penalty, yes.

Question:  (Inaudible)…country losing its voting rights…?

Associate Spokesperson:  Yes.  There is a number of countries; even now there is a number of countries that do not have their voting rights for the present session because of dues non-payments.  But, like I said, sometimes the GA makes exceptions under what’s called Article 19 of the Charter.  So, those certain countries with a large amount of non-payment still have an exception where they get to maintain their voting rights.

Question:  Is there a list of those countries?

Associate Spokesperson:  Yes, there is a list that comes out regularly as a document of the General Assembly.

Question:  But you’re saying across the board they’re not allowed to vote?  So, for instance, when we’re watching these votes for Security Council seats of, you know, the recent one of Turkey and Austria and Iceland and we notice that there were some, you know, you had in favour and against, and then there is a tally and there was some, it never adds up to 192.  Are those some of the result of…?

Associate Spokesperson:  Some of those countries, yes, are countries that cannot vote.

Question:  So they didn’t vote?  It’s not just because they didn’t show up; they just didn’t have a say in this?

Associate Spokesperson:  Yes.  Every year there is a certain number of countries –- I don’t know what the number is, it’s a fairly low number of counties whose dues non-payment are so severe that they lose their voting rights.  But there are regular lists that the GA puts out on the documents counter of countries that either do not have their vote or who have been granted the Article 19 exception to maintain their vote despite no-payments.

[The Associate Spokesperson later clarified that the seven Member States currently in arrears had been granted voting rights by General Assembly resolution 63/4 (in connection with Article 19).  So currently there are no United Nations Member States that are without voting rights, he added.]

Question:  Just one follow-up on the sculpture in Geneva.  Can we get some sort of official readout of what Secretary-General Ban thinks about this whole incident?  I mean, it really has sort of ballooned over the last days and we haven’t heard any guidance; you’ve tried the best you can to explain the position, but when it comes down to…

Associate Spokesperson:  Well, in terms of his official views, the Secretary-General did make comments at the unveiling of this exhibit today.  That is his official comment, and it is available upstairs on the counter.

Question:  But he didn’t mention (inaudible) this is an appropriate use of…  That’s why I am saying, it was asked yesterday…

Associate Spokesperson:  No, because that would be putting words into his mouth.  In terms of what his official views are, those are encompassed in his actual comments which is available upstairs.

Question:  And that’s (inaudible)… to the questions…

Associate Spokesperson:  That is to be read as his official views about the sculpture.  In terms of this particular issue, like I said, what I would suggest is that you get the information from the Spanish Government.  There have been some discrepant reports about where the money came from and you need to get what the solid information is about where the money came from.

Question:  But Farhan, you said that the Spanish Government doesn’t answer the full question, you know, it only gets a portion of their decision in justifying their decision, but the UN played a role in this.

Associate Spokesperson:  Well, this was gift made to the United Nations.  But in terms of our reaction, yes, we would need to see what the information is, what the last information is…

Question:  I mean, when you and I receive a gift; if you and I receive a gift from someone, I’ll put it in this context, but if you receive a gift and there is something a little funny about how the way that the gift got to you, you’re going to speak up if you’re a person who has some sort of sensitivity about such a thing… you know.

Associate Spokesperson:  Well, first of all, once we received it we were not aware that there was anything that was, as you put it, funny about it. 

The initial information we had was what we’d said.  Now, if there is any difference in that information, we’ll have to react accordingly.  But first we’ll wait for what that accurate information is, right?

Question:  (Inaudible) ceiling?  I mean, how do they transfer, what, this renovation?  Was it a call for a donation or did Spain offer, for some reason?

Associate Spokesperson:  As far as I am aware, this was a donation from the Government of Spain.

Question:  Without any (inaudible)…?

Associate Spokesperson: As far as I am aware, yes.  This was something that Spain had proposed.  And with that, have a good afternoon.

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