Daily Press Briefing by the Offices of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General and the Spokesperson for the General Assembly President

18 February 2009

Daily Press Briefing by the Offices of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General and the Spokesperson for the General Assembly President

18 February 2009
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 Enrique Yeves, Spokesperson for the President of the General Assembly.

Briefing by the Deputy Spokesperson for the Secretary-General

Good afternoon.

I’ll start with the announcement of the Secretary-General’s next trip.  And we also are expecting the General Assembly Spokesperson to brief you after this briefing.

**Secretary-General Trip

The Secretary-General is scheduled to travel early next week to South Africa, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Egypt.

It will be his first official visit to South Africa and Tanzania, where he will hold discussions on national, regional and international issues.  In South Africa he will meet with President [Kgalema] Motlanthe, as well as the Ministers for Finance and Environment.  The Secretary-General is also expected to meet with former President Nelson Mandela.

In Tanzania, one of the pilot countries for the UN reform programme on “Delivering as One”, the Secretary-General will hold discussions with President [Jakaya Mrisho] Kikwete.  He will address the diplomatic and academic community in Dar es Salaam.  In Zanzibar he will inaugurate the One UN Office provided by the government of Zanzibar to house all UN agencies.  The Secretary-General is also due to fly over the receding ice cap of Mount Kilimanjaro on his way to Arusha to visit the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, his next stop, he will meet with President [Joseph] Kabila, with parliamentarians as well as members of civil society.  He will then go to Bukavu to visit Panzi Hospital, where victims of sexual violence are cared for.  In Goma, he will meet with members of the UN peacekeeping mission, MONUC, and with local authorities.  He will also visit in Goma the Mugunga camp for people displaced by the conflict there, before flying to Rwanda to meet with President [Paul] Kagame.

The Secretary-General then plans to travel to Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, where he will participate on 2 March in the International Conference in support of the Palestinian Economy, for the reconstruction of Gaza.  The Conference is co-chaired by Egypt and Norway.

**Security Council

And here at UN Headquarters today, the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Robert Serry, briefed the Security Council this morning on the Middle East, as you know.  And he said a number of realities have to be squarely addressed if peace is to be advanced.

Those include the severe humanitarian, economic and political repercussions of the Gaza crisis; continued Palestinian divisions; a new political situation in Israel; the inconclusive results of last year’s Israeli-Palestinian negotiations; unmet Road Map obligations, especially regarding settlements; and the freeze in indirect Israeli-Syrian negotiations.

On Gaza, Serry noted that, one month since unilateral ceasefires were declared, a proper ceasefire regime is still not in place.  As a result, there is an ever-present danger of a return to renewed and more devastating violence.

He added that a ceasefire regime will only be durable if there is broader progress, including an exchange of Palestinian prisoners for the release of Israeli captive Gilad Shalit; continued cooperation and action to prevent the re-supply of weapons in Gaza; the full implementation of the Agreement on Movement and Access; and Palestinian unity.  Such steps would also pave the way for the longer-term recovery and reconstruction of Gaza.

And, turning to Lebanon, Serry said that country continues to enjoy a period of relative stability, but there are also signs of increased political tension in the run-up to the parliamentary elections there.  We have Serry’s full statement upstairs.

The Security Council is now holding consultations on the Middle East.  Following those, Serry will head to the stakeout, which I am told will be shortly.  And I am also told that the Security Council President will go to the stakeout following the briefing.

** Sri Lanka

Turning to Sri Lanka, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and the UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator, John Holmes, will travel to Colombo this week, at the invitation of the Government of Sri Lanka.

During his three-day visit, from 19 to 21 February, Holmes will discuss and review the humanitarian situation with a wide array of representatives from the Government, Member States, the United Nations, the International Red Cross and non-governmental organizations.

He will also have the opportunity to meet internally displaced persons in the Vavuniya and its vicinity.  And he is set to hold a press conference to wrap up his visit there.

** Sudan

And turning to Sudan, the Under-Secretary-General for Field Support, Susanna Malcorra, is currently in Khartoum for a regular tripartite meeting with the Government of Sudan and the African Union, as part of our efforts to ensure the continued deployment of troops and equipment for the AU-UN Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID).

This is the fourth such regular meeting to ensure that every effort is made by all parties to speed up the deployment of troops and equipment.

Meanwhile, senior officials of the United Nations have gained assurances from the Deputy Governor of South Darfur for continued access to Muhajaria and surrounding localities.

The UN’s humanitarian chief in Sudan, Ameerah Haq, led the discussions that resulted in commitments to see aid programmes reach some 100,000 people.

Discussions also broached the need for independent humanitarian assessments of population movements, and of requirements for other relief, including early recovery assistance.

** Democratic Republic of the Congo

On the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the embattled ethnic Hutu rebel group FDLR is terrorizing civilians through systematic looting, abduction, rape and murder.  That’s according to the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC). The Mission condemns these “cowardly terror tactics”, through which FDLR is attempting to undermine a joint Democratic Republic of the Congo-Rwanda military operation to flush it out of the Congo.

A UN-backed disarmament and voluntary repatriation programme remains available to FDLR fighters, but most of them have so far shunned this opportunity.  The FDLR’s assault on civilians also seeks to frustrate an eventual restoration of Congolese State authority in north-eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.  In response, the Mission has maintained civilian protection teams at peacekeepers’ bases, and round-the-clock patrols continue.  The Mission and Congolese authorities are also collaborating in monitoring the situation and are preparing to beef up their engagement in other areas.

And, in a briefing to the Security Council yesterday, John Holmes, the Emergency Relief Coordinator and Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, said that the security situation in the eastern and northern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo has added another half million people to the internally displaced population.

Holmes, who recently conducted an assessment mission to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, says that, despite the overall difficult and unpredictable security situation, UN agencies are working as rapidly as possible to address the major humanitarian crisis there.  And as you know, we have his statement upstairs.

** Burundi

UNAIDS today welcomed the Burundian Senate’s rejection of a draft law that sought to criminalize homosexuality in Burundi.

Michel Sidibé, the Executive Director of UNAIDS, said that, by rejecting the amendment, senators in Burundi protected the human rights of their people and set a standard for other lawmakers around the world.

According to UNAIDS, criminalizing adult sexual behaviour and violating the human rights of people living with HIV are hampering HIV responses across the world.  And there is more on this upstairs.

** Geneva Discussions

In Geneva today, the co-Presidents of the international discussions briefed the press at the Palais des Nations, following the wrap-up of their two-day meeting.

They noted that participants in the talks had agreed by consensus on proposals for joint incident prevention and response mechanisms.  The co-Presidents added that those agreed proposals were an important step in helping to bring stability and security.

On the humanitarian front, they noted various positive developments on the ground, including the resumption of gas deliveries.  But they also acknowledged that no agreement had been reached yet on a specific proposal to get humanitarian aid to the needy population using simultaneous convoys and certain routes from the north and south.

Participants did, however, agree to focus their future efforts on facilitating the voluntary return of refugees and displaced persons.

You’ll recall that the co-Presidents for these talks are Johan Verbeke, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative and Head of the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG), as well as representatives of the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).  And there is more information on these talks upstairs.

**UNEP -- Amazonia Report

And just two other brief items.

A report on the environmental outlook for the Amazon region prepared in part by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and released today, finds growing environmental degradation in the planet’s most extensive forest zone.  The Amazonian ecosystem is being rapidly transformed by changes in land use, the exploitation of natural resources and expanding urbanization.  There is more on this upstairs.

**UNEP – Beijing Olympics

And UNEP also said today that they released an assessment of the Beijing Olympics.  It found that the Games met, if not exceeded, many environmental pledges -- from reducing air pollution to investing $17 billion in public transport, renewable energies and other environmental projects.

The report adds, however, that more could have been done to engage with non-governmental organizations and to cut the Olympic and Paralympic Games’ carbon footprint.  And there is more information on that as well.

**Press Conference Tomorrow

And just to flag for you, I mentioned that Robert Serry will be talking about the Middle East at the stakeout shortly, and the Security Council President will follow him there.  And at 1 p.m. in Room S-226, tomorrow, Melvyn Levitsky, member of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) will present the main findings of the INCB’s 2008 report.  And that’s what I have for you.  Anything for me?  Yes?

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Thanks, Marie.  The UAE Ambassador has written a letter to the Secretary-General about a settlement of the long-standing issue over three Gulf islands dispute with Iran.  Does the SG support efforts to resolve the dispute peacefully?

Deputy Spokesperson:  He obviously supports all efforts to resolve issues peacefully.  I have not seen that report, the letter, yet, so we’ll look into it and we’ll get back to you.  Matthew?

[The Deputy Spokesperson later told the reporter that the letter had been received by the Secretary-General and circulated as a document of the Security Council as requested.]

Question:  First, it’s been reported that the Al-Qaida in Islamic Maghreb has said that they are holding Mr. Fowler and Mr. Guay.  Is the UN aware of that?  They have also said that they’re asking for a prisoner exchange.  What’s the UN’s position in response to this?

Deputy Spokesperson:  We’re aware of the reports but we have nothing further to comment on it.

Question:  But I mean, just recently, in Pakistan, when a group said that they had a UNHCR official, they put out… the local office put out a press release saying speak with us directly.  Is that decision made by the local office in each case or by Headquarters?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Matthew, both cases are very different, as in all cases involving a hostage situation.  So, I really could not go into further details on that.

Question:  And also I wanted to ask you, in his press conference, I guess last week, the Secretary-General said he was sending his political director to Sri Lanka.  And then Mr. Pascoe has said that he was sending, I guess, somebody that works, I am not sure if it’s the same person, that works for DPA on the region there.  Which individual went and what’s been the outcome?  What did they find there?

Deputy Spokesperson:  As you know, the Secretary-General said that he will also be sending a humanitarian mission, which we just announced to you before you walked in.  As for the earlier mission, we did have a senior DPA official go, and as far as I know right now what we have on that… You know what, let me get what we said on that last week, because I don’t think I have anything further to add than what we’ve already announced on that mission there. 

[The Deputy Spokesperson later confirmed that Mr. Tamrat Samuel, Director of the Asia and Pacific Division of the Department for Political Affairs, has travelled to Sri Lanka for consultations with the country team on the ground.]

Question:  A couple of questions…?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Sure.

Question:  This UN report yesterday about civilian deaths in Afghanistan.  It came up with the number for all of 2008.  I guess I wanted to know, in light of something that I saw added to the transcript yesterday, that the UN doesn’t count civilian casualties but only relies on Government statistics.  What was the Afghanistan civilian casualty report based on?

Deputy Spokesperson:  For all casualties that are related to conflict areas, the UN has to rely on the local authorities’ figures for that, and the UN does not have a mandate to go and count bodies.  So, statistics that you see mostly are citing either local authorities, local hospitals, you know, that kind of thing.

Question:  Well, like in Myanmar after the cyclone, I remember there was a dispute between the Government’s numbers and the UN’s numbers.  So, clearly the UN didn’t just rely on the Government number in that case.  I mean there are disputes sometimes between UN estimates and Government estimates.  So, I guess I am wondering…

Deputy Spokesperson:  But local authorities range from anything from hospitals, local NGOs, local people on the ground, things like that.  So, it’s not necessarily just the Government itself.

[The Deputy Spokesperson later conveyed to the reporter that, in undertaking investigation and analysis of specific incidents, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) endeavours to corroborate and cross-check all information from as wide a range of sources as possible including, for example, testimony of victims, victim’s relatives and witnesses; health personnel, community elders, religious leaders and tribal leaders; pro-Government military forces; local, provincial, regional and central Government officials; the United Nations Department of Safety and Security; mass media; published reports and documents; and other secondary sources.

Question:  One final question on this.  In Sri Lanka, groups that are sometimes accused of being Tamil Tiger-affiliated or Tamil-related, they have a number, which is 1,800 civilian casualties since the beginning of the year.  So are they not a local authority?  I mean they have a count by day, by locations…

Deputy Spokesperson:  Matthew, I have nothing beyond what Michèle had already discussed with you on this matter yesterday.  With that, thank you.  Enrique?

Briefing by the Spokesperson for the General Assembly President

Good afternoon to everybody.  Good to see you.

This morning the President of the General Assembly chaired a General Committee session.  As you know, the General Committee meets to decide on agenda items for the General Assembly.  At the session, President d´Escoto informed that he received a letter from the Secretary-General informing of his intention to organize a high-level event on climate change in September 2009.  The Secretary-General has asked that the general debate of the sixty-fourth session of the Assembly start on Wednesday 23 September 2009 in order to allow the high-level event on climate change to be held on Tuesday 22 September.  The President of the General Assembly is supporting this request by the Secretary-General.

At the same meeting today, it was decided to include in the agenda of the General Assembly an item on financing the activities arising from a Security Council resolution on Somalia, resolution 1863 (2009).

On another front, Security Council reform, today the President of the General Assembly, Miguel d´Escoto, circulated a letter to Member States on Security Council reform, providing a road map for the intergovernmental negotiations ahead of the next meeting of the informal plenary on Thursday 19 February, that is tomorrow.

In his letter, the President announced that the first round of the intergovernmental negotiations will consist of meetings on the five key issues.  And when the time comes to take action, we will move to a formal meeting of the General Assembly, whereupon the rules of procedure of the General Assembly will take effect.

Let me remind you the five key issues that the President of the General Assembly put forward for the negotiations:  categories of membership; the question of the veto; regional representation; size of an enlarged Council and working methods of the Security Council; and relations between the Council and the General Assembly.

In the road map provided by the President of the General Assembly to the Member States today he announces the agenda for the negotiations.

On 4 March 2009, discussion on categories of membership.  Also in March 2009 we have will discuss the question of veto.  In March 2009, as well, the regional representation.  Then in April 2009, we will discuss first the size of the enlarged Council.  And also in April 2009, we will discuss the relations between the Council and the General Assembly.  In May 2009, we will have the second round of negotiations, if needed.  I have copies of the letter in case you need it.

I also would like to announce that President d´Escoto will hold a press conference tomorrow on Security Council reform, here at 11:15 a.m., to reply and to attend to all your questions.

[It was later announced that the press conference had been cancelled.]

And since we are on announcements, I would like also to mention that President d´Escoto will be travelling at the end of this week to several capitals, including Damascus, Helsinki, Beijing, Manama in Bahrain, Geneva, Tehran and London.

The main purpose of the trip, that will last around three weeks, will be to inform Heads of State about the reform process of the Organization undertaken by President d´Escoto.   And this is all I have for you, unless you have questions for me.  Masood?

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Enrique, is this letter available on the Internet also?  The one that…?

Spokesperson:  I am not sure whether the letter is already available or on the Internet.  It will certainly be available at least in a couple of hours for sure.  I have copies here with me, in case you need it.

Question:  The step that the President of the General Assembly is undertaking is (inaudible) Security Council reforms, essentially?

Spokesperson:  Not on the Security Council reform.  On all the reform efforts.  As you know, he has announced that we’re going to have a high-level meeting in June on the financial institutions and also Security Council reform and the General Assembly.  Therefore, this meeting is basically the first meeting that he is going to have as President to meet with Heads of State from several countries.

Question:  Overall, as a whole?  Not only Security Council but…?

Spokesperson:  Correct, as a whole.  He is going to discuss several issues.

Question:  I’m sorry, Enrique, I walked in a little late, but I just wanted to make sort of an unofficial request to see if broadcasters can come into the meeting tomorrow to have a video sprayer, some sort of video (inaudible) intergovernmental negotiations during the informal, however you call it, if this is possible.

Spokesperson:  Okay, let me check into that.  But the meeting tomorrow is closed, as you know.  The difference between an informal meeting and the plenary meeting, the formal meeting, is that these ones are for negotiations and they are closed.

Question:  (inaudible) that’s why I am saying at the beginning at least to have some sort of video sprayer…

Spokesperson:  Okay, let me check with the News and Media Division to see whether we can arrange something like that.  Matthew?

Question:  I saw last week the President of the General Assembly said the world’s poor should not have to bear the brunt of the financial crisis.  Since then it seems like the head of the World Bank has called for a portion, 1 per cent or 0.7 per cent of the various bailouts and stimulus packages around the world should be devoted either to the UN or to the Millennium Development Goals.  I’m trying to look at Mr. d´Escoto’s speech.  What’s his view?  Would he think that’s enough?  Does he join in that call?  Does he have a separate call, and should the UN be the body to distribute that aid if it is given?

Spokesperson:  Well, certainly I can tell you that for President d´Escoto whatever we do for the weakest people in the world is not enough.  We should be doing the utmost possible to face all the challenges that we have in the current worldwide crises.  He is, as you know, working on several fronts, including the financial crisis and its impact on the developing world, and he is going to have an important meeting on Friday on the modalities of the summit that is going to be coming up -- the high-level meeting that will be coming up, hopefully in the first week of June.  And this is also one of the main priorities on his agenda for the trip that he is undertaking now to see the Heads of State and asking them to attend, because, as you know very well, the President of the General Assembly believes that the General Assembly, the 192 countries representing the whole world, is the forum where this important issue should be discussed and decisions should be taken.

Question:  There is an article quoting unnamed Secretariat officials saying that the UN is going to be making a pitch at the G-20 meeting in London in April to get this set aside from the various bailout packages.  Is your office or the President of the General Assembly aware of that?  Who in the UN would be making that pitch if not Mr. d´Escoto?

Spokesperson:  Well, it is the Secretary-General, but I think you should refer that question to the Secretary-General’s office.

Question:  What criteria did President d´Escoto use in selecting which countries to visit?

Spokesperson:  The criteria are that he has been invited by several Member States and he is trying to make an utmost effort to go to as many countries as he can.  And in this particular case, he is now going to some of the countries that, for geographical and timely reasons, could be put together into a full trip.  It is already going to be almost three weeks and it is going to be a long trip, but he expects to meet with Heads of State and inform them about the democratization efforts of the Organization that he has been undertaking and also to try to count on their support for the reform process that he is leading.

Question:  Could you repeat the capitals that he is going to visit, please?

Spokesperson:  Sure.  He will be leaving on Friday for Damascus… this is the order that trip is going to take place -- Damascus, Helsinki, Beijing, Manama in Bahrain, Geneva. In Geneva he will be talking at the Human Rights Council.  Then from Geneva we’ll move to Tehran and from Tehran to London, and from London back to Headquarters.  James?

Question:  When the GA President travels, who pays for the flights and what class does he fly?  (laughter)

Spokesperson:  When the General Assembly President flies, he can either be invited and then the host country pays for it or he uses his own budget.  In this particular case I think most of the trips are being funded by some of the countries inviting him to attend.

Question:  And if it’s coming out of his budget, what class does he fly?

Spokesperson:  Well, the same one as everybody else, according to the rules of the Organization, and I think if you fly more than seven hours you fly in business.  That’s what the rules are.

Question:  Can I follow up on James’ question?  Is he meeting the Queen in London?

Spokesperson:  I am not sure yet.  I think in the agenda that we have right now he will be meeting Gordon Brown.  That’s my understanding.  Matthew?

Question:  Just on this travel, has he considered, or does he implement what they call carbon off-setting?  Does he view, since everything that he says about climate change, is it something that the office that purchased his credits in some way, or what does he think of carbon off-setting in the sense of his travel?

Spokesperson:  I think this is a very good question for tomorrow for the press conference.

Question:  Okay.

Question:  Will you be travelling with him?

Spokesperson:  Yes.

Question:  Speaking about this letter that’s gone out for the first round of meetings, is this an official close to the Open-Ended Working Group?  Has there been any official statement from the President of the General Assembly that says the Open-Ended Working Group has officially disbanded or moved?

Spokesperson:  Let me go technically here.  Officially, or technically, the Open-Ended Working Group has not been closed.  So they can meet any time they want to discuss something.  The Open-Ended Working Group has not been officially closed, but as you know, the position of the President of the General Assembly and the mandate that he has is to move to intergovernmental negotiations and he is making his utmost to get those negotiations on the road.

No more questions?  Thank you very much.

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