The following is a near-verbatim transcript of today’s noon briefing by Farhan Haq, Associate Spokesperson for the Secretary-General.
This morning, here at UN Headquarters, the Secretary-General spoke at an event in observance of World Press Freedom Day. He said that at a time of economic crisis and other serious threats, it was crucial to support a free and independent media so that people can better understand the events that shape their lives, and the choices they face.
The Secretary-General also noted that the work of journalists contributes to stability and democracy, and should be encouraged. Journalists should be able to do their job free of intimidation and harassment, he said -– adding that a free press is essential for building a better world for all. And we have those remarks upstairs.
The Security Council this morning heard a briefing on Lebanon from the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Implementation of Resolution 1559 (2004), Terje Roed-Larsen, who told the Council that the situation in Lebanon has improved markedly over the past year. He said the Secretary-General is also glad that relations between Syria and Lebanon have improved significantly and entered a new phase, particularly with the establishment of diplomatic relations.
Roed-Larsen noted that the Secretary-General has been informed by the Government of Egypt that, during 2008, a cell led by a Lebanese member of Hezbollah was uncovered in Egypt. The Government of Egypt informed the United Nations that the issue was now in the hands of the judiciary authorities. Also, Roed-Larsen said, over the last few weeks, the Lebanese authorities have arrested a series of individuals on suspicion of spying for Israel. If those allegations prove true, they would constitute a serious violation of Lebanon’s sovereignty, he said.
The Special Envoy told the Council that the parliamentary elections scheduled for 7 June will constitute a new milestone in Lebanon’s momentous transition, and said it was heartening that Lebanese leaders have committed themselves to a free and fair election devoid of violence and inflammatory rhetoric. We have his speech upstairs.
The Council then continued its discussions on Lebanon with Roed-Larsen in closed consultations.
**Occupied Palestinian Territory
The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) today issued a new report entitled: “Shrinking Space: Urban Contraction and Rural Fragmentation in the Bethlehem Governorate”. This report examines how Israeli measures -- such as the barrier, settlements and closures -- have affected Palestinian livelihoods, development and residential expansion in Bethlehem.
The report’s key findings include the fact that only 13 per cent of Bethlehem land is available for Palestinian use, and much of it is fragmented. Also, Israel retains security control and jurisdiction over building and planning in 66 per cent of the Bethlehem governorate.
The report finds that the historic, religious, economic and cultural connection between Bethlehem and East Jerusalem has been weakened by Israeli measures. It also notes that the Barrier route in the Bethlehem governorate reaches 10 kilometres into the West Bank. If completed, it will cut off some of the most fertile cultivated land in the governorate as well as 21,000 Palestinian villagers from the urban centre.
As of now, the report says, around 175,000 Palestinians live in the Bethlehem governorate. Since 1967, some 86,000 Israelis have also been settled there, and they live in 19 settlements and 16 settlement outposts.
Regarding the way forward, OCHA outlines steps that can be taken to prevent further deterioration, including halting construction of the barrier inside the West Bank, opening closed military areas and nature reserves for sustainable Palestinian development, and freezing settlement construction. The full report is available online at ochaopt.org.
** Sri Lanka –- Humanitarian Update
In Sri Lanka, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs confirms that a shipment of 25 metric tons of food and some medicine were sent by an International Committee of the Red Cross boat to the conflict zone, while 495 people were evacuated from the conflict zone.
So far over 196,000 people have crossed to Sri Lankan Government-controlled areas. Some 194,303 people are now in camps, while 1,741 wounded and their caregivers are in hospitals. The UN still estimates that the number left in the conflict zone are at least 50,000 and no new internally displaced persons (IDPs) are reported to be in transit.
A Temporary Learning Space is being built by UNICEF for 550 children from an IDP camp while another learning space is being provided for 600 children from a separate camp. UNICEF and NGOs will provide water, sanitation and hygiene services for the learning spaces, as well as stationery, text books and uniforms, while the World Food Programme will provide mid-morning meals.
John Holmes, the Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, and Haroun Lual, Minister for Humanitarian Affairs of Sudan, today co-chaired the High Level Committee (HLC) meeting on the implementation of the Joint Communiqué on the Facilitation of Humanitarian Activities in Darfur.
John Holmes said after the meeting: “We still regret the decision that resulted in the departure of the NGOs. It was not justified. The optimal way forward would be a reversal of the decision. However, in the meantime, we need to work with the Government of Sudan to find ways forward. It is positive that today there was a reaffirmation that we are welcome in Sudan, both for existing NGOs and new NGOs. We need to work towards having a better operating environment than we had before March 4."
Holmes tomorrow will proceed to Southern Sudan where he will meet UN officials and representatives from the Government of Southern Sudan. And in Southern Sudan, he will advocate for greater attention to north-south issues, the needs of civilians and a strategy for relief and recovery in Southern Sudan.
The World Food Programme (WFP) says it has temporarily suspended food aid distribution for some 22,000 Sudanese refugees in eastern Chad. The order to suspend work came on Tuesday after rebel activities were reported in the region around the Goz-Amir camp where the refugees are sheltered. WFP says camp residents have sufficient rations of food to wait out the rise in insecurity. And while it has relocated some staff to the regional hub of Goz Beida, WFP’s life-saving work continues unabated in the 11 other UN-run camps in eastern Chad. However, it says it will evacuate staff from other areas if necessary.
Two hundred and fifty thousand refugees in eastern Chad, 180,000 internally displaced people and 150,000 of their local hosts rely on WFP assistance for their daily subsistence.
On the influenza A (H1N1) virus, the World Health Organization (WHO) confirms that the number of lab-confirmed cases has increased to 2,099 –- from 1,658 yesterday. That revised figure includes 44 deaths -- 42 in Mexico and two in the United States.
WHO says that it continues to see human-to-human transmission at the community level primarily in North America. Such transmission is not yet taking place in other parts of the world. But the agency also stressed that, although the influenza alert level remains at phase 5, and even though H1N1 cases have been relatively mild so far, we should not become complacent, as the situation is still evolving.
Meanwhile, in related news, WHO, along with the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Organization for Animal Health, reiterated today that pork and pork products, handled in accordance with good hygienic practices, will not be a source of H1N1 infection.
On Zimbabwe, the downward trend in reported cholera cases in Zimbabwe continued throughout April. According to an update provided by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, by the end of April, the cumulative cholera case load was at more than 97,400. The cumulative number of deaths since August 2008 stood at 4,271.
The Cholera Command and Control Centre continues to provide medical supplies to the districts. All provinces have received the provincial cholera kits and generators, which are being delivered by the logistics working group. Health partners are still providing support to the control effort across the country, including case management, distribution of non-food items, borehole drilling and water trucking. Aid agencies working in water, sanitation and hygiene continue to respond to cholera spikes as they occur. Particular emphasis in April has been in Harare.
** Democratic Republic of the Congo
UN peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are reinforcing their numbers in the north-eastern provinces there. Our Mission there (MONUC) says the move will allow peacekeepers to provide better support to the Congolese army in its bid to flush out illegal armed groups. The regions concerned are Haut Uélé, Ituri and North Kivu.
Meanwhile, the Mission says that the Congolese army has continued to extract children from the ranks of local armed groups, with another 10 youth freed from the Lord’s Resistance Army in recent days.
Kai Eide, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, today opened the nineteenth UN office in that country, in Tirin Kot, the capital of the province of Uruzgan.
Speaking at the opening of the office, Eide said that the UN Mission is gradually expanding its presence in Afghanistan. By next week, the United Nations will have a permanent presence in 20 provinces in the country. He added his hope that all sides will see the United Nations as an independent interlocutor that can be trusted. And we have a press release with more details upstairs.
**Secretary-General’s Statement on Sudan
I have the following statement attributable to the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General on Sudan and the Abyei Arbitration:
The Secretary-General welcomes the conclusion of the written and verbal arguments on the final settlement of the Abyei dispute before the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague by the two signatories to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), the National Congress Party (NCP) and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM).
The Secretary-General commends the reiteration, in the Abyei Roadmap Agreement, of the NCP’s and SPLM’s commitment to abide by and implement the decision of the Abyei Arbitral Tribunal. He encourages the two CPA signatories to achieve a peaceful final settlement to this dispute and to further strengthen their relationship as partners for peace in Sudan.
On refugees, the UN Refugee Agency has voiced deep concern about the fate of some 230 migrants rescued early Wednesday by Italian coast guards in Maltese waters. And we have a press release on that upstairs.
** Inter-Parliamentary Union
In a message he sent to a two-day meeting of the Inter-Parliamentary Union on the global economic crisis in Geneva, the Secretary-General said that parliamentarians possess considerable authority to make decisions that will have long-term repercussions for our collective future. The world needs your influence in addressing a number of urgent, interrelated global concerns, he stressed. And we have the full message upstairs.
**UN Convention against Corruption
The Global Compact Office informs us that CEOs from around the world have written a letter to the Secretary-General, strongly advocating the Convention against Corruption. They are describing the Convention as “an essential instrument in the fight against corruption”, which is particularly crucial now, in a period of deep financial and economic turmoil, in order to prevent an “erosion of ethical standards that will be hard to reverse”. They have also stressed the need for the establishment of an effective implementation review mechanism at the next Conference of States Parties, to be held in Doha this November.
**Press Conference Today
And in terms of other press conferences, today at 4 p.m., Nirupam Sen, the former Permanent Representative of India and senior adviser to President of the General Assembly, and Michael Clark, another senior adviser to the President of the General Assembly, will be here to brief on the General Assembly’s upcoming Economic Crisis Summit. The briefing will have a regional focus on Africa.
And we apologize that earlier we had mistakenly announced Mr. Sen’s title as the Permanent Representative of India, yesterday. He is the former Permanent Representative.
That is all I have for you.
**Questions and Answers
Question: Farhan, I wanted to ask about this invitation that’s been made to the Secretary-General to visit Sri Lanka. First I wanted to ask if on Monday when he met with the Ambassador of Japan, whether he was briefed on a visit by Mr. [Yasushi] Akashi to Sri Lanka and was urged by Japan that he should take this visit. And I also wanted to know whether he would be in New York 11 May for the Middle East debate, and 15 May to meet with the Chinese diplomats, that in fact this is one reason that he is considering not going, as I have been told by senior Secretariat staff.
Associate Spokesperson: Well, first of all, we don’t announce the trips of the Secretary-General until they are close to occurring. And in that regard, I don’t have anything to announce about a trip to Sri Lanka at this stage. At the same time, as Michèle told you yesterday, and is still true for today, if the Secretary-General believes that visiting Sri Lanka can have an impact in terms of saving lives there, he will certainly try to go. So he is considering that. But part of what he is studying is what the impact of a potential trip would be.
Question: But if he had that belief, that would be without regard to attending the 11 May Middle East thing or the 15 May meeting with the Chinese diplomats? I am told that’s a major factor in his planning.
Associate Spokesperson: Scheduling is a separate issue. What we’re talking about is the decision of whether or not to go. And certainly if he can make a difference and can save civilian lives, which is what his priority has been on this case, then he will go. At present, we don’t have anything to announce at all in this regard, though.
Question: Just one last one on that. I wanted to know, can you at least confirm that he met with Ambassador Takasu on Monday in his office inside the Security Council? Can you give a read-out of that meeting and say why it wasn’t on his public schedule?
Associate Spokesperson: I can confirm that he met with the Permanent Representative of Japan. He did that, yes. It was in his office in the Security Council. We don’t provide readouts of meetings with ambassadors.
Question: And why wasn’t it on the schedule?
Associate Spokesperson: It came up all of a sudden when he had a bit of free time in between other appointments on a fairly hectic day.
Question: Do you have an update on the humanitarian situation in Swat Valley in Pakistan?
Associate Spokesperson: We don’t have a humanitarian update for today. We did provide you with some information yesterday about the concerns expressed by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, and I can refer you back to that. What he said, his statement is still available upstairs and on the UNHCR web site.
Question: I was just going to ask if yesterday, if President [Shimon] Peres offered a specific sum amount in compensation for the Gaza offensive.
Associate Spokesperson: That is nothing I can confirm. You can certainly get any further information from the Israeli Government about that. Certainly, we did discuss reparations and you know from the summary that was provided by the Secretary-General what the figure is. The total figure is around $11.2 million.
Question: Both the European Union and the Georgian Orthodox leaders are warning about the ongoing violence in Georgia and the deterioration of the situation there. What does the Secretary-General have to say, or do you have any comments from the UN standpoint?
Associate Spokesperson: In terms of that, we don’t have any immediate comment on the last couple of days’ worth of incidents on the ground in Georgia. You’re aware from previous statements our concerns and our desire that all parties in Georgia work through the normal political process.
Question: Sure. Two questions; one is on Kosovo. There are these reports that the UN has decided to drop any investigation of irregularities in privatizations in Kosovo during UNMIK’s [United Nations Mission in Kosovo] time. I am sure you’ve seen these reports. I wonder, the reports said that the UN investigators had recommended criminal investigation, but now it’s all being dropped without anything. And I wanted also, related to that, to know whether the UN is tracking the involvement in privatizations of its former envoys to Kosovo such as Steven Schook and others. Or is that part of theUN’s...(inaudible)?
Associate Spokesperson: Well, first of all there were a certain number of investigations that took place by a group, the Investigative Task Force, which was established through UNMIK regulations and was comprised of representatives of the UN, through the Office of Internal Oversight Services, the European Anti-Fraud Office, and the Financial Investigation Unit.
The Special Representative of the Secretary-General acted appropriately on all of the recommendations of the Task Force, which issued its last report in June 2008. The actions taken by the Special Representative included referring cases to the Department of Justice and forwarding recommendations to Pillar IV of UNMIK. As a result of the Investigative Task Force’s recommendations, criminal investigations were conducted and proceedings were initiated against personnel who were found to have committed criminal offences.
The Department of Justice ceased operations and all of the Department’s case files have been handed over to the European Union Mission in Kosovo. Any further criminal sanctions would have to be pursued by that mission's investigators and prosecutors.
Question: I also wanted to know, you mentioned Kai Eide. It’s a small thing, but Mr. [Peter] Galbraith, who was named his Deputy, is speaking at some commencement on 16 May in New England. When is he going to actually deploy to Afghanistan? When is his beginning day? Is he already a UN staff, and if so, why isn’t he in Afghanistan at this moment?
Associate Spokesperson: I believe when we mentioned the announcement we mentioned when he would start his duties. He’s already participated in preparation for taking up his duties; he almost immediately participated in some of the meetings on Afghanistan that took place about a month ago. So he’s already taken up some of his duties in that regard.
Question: I guess what I am saying is, has he already made the transition? Does he have a UN pass, privileges and immunities, Laissez-Passer, is he being paid?
Associate Spokesperson: I believe we mentioned his starting time at the announcement, so you’d have to go back to our announcement and that would let you know. And with that, I wish you a good afternoon.