Daily Press Briefing by the Office of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General

16 April 2010

Daily Press Briefing by the Office of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General

16 April 2010
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 Martin Nesirky, Spokesperson for the Secretary-General.

Good Afternoon.  Welcome to the noon briefing.

**Noon Briefing Guest

I have as my guest at the briefing today Ján Kubiš, who is the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe and, as you all know, was recently in Kyrgyzstan at the request of the Secretary-General.  So, I will pass the floor to Mr. Kubiš, who has a few remarks to begin with, I think, and then he is very happy to take questions -- probably for about 20 minutes or so.  And then I will continue with the rest of the briefing.  Thanks very much, Ján.

Just couple of other points for you, and then I am happy to take a few questions if you have any.

**Secretary-General at Security Council

The Secretary-General addressed the Security Council’s open debate on post-conflict peacebuilding this morning.  He said that we must seize the crucial opportunity after the end of a major conflict.  We must respond early and robustly, he said, adding that we must then stay engaged over the long term.

The Secretary-General said that peacebuilding was a complex and multifaceted undertaking -- requiring significant amounts of human, financial and institutional resources.  And we have his remarks in my Office, and the open debate continues.

**Security Council to Africa

The lead country for the Security Council mission to Africa, France, in consultations with Council members, has decided to cancel the planned Security Council mission to Africa as you probably heard earlier on this morning.  This is due to the unforeseen developments relating to the volcanic ash clouds, which have disrupted international flights in and across Europe.

** Iceland Volcano

And on that note, the World Health Organization (WHO) says that the health risks related to the ashes from Iceland’s volcanic eruption are not known yet.  But it adds that the types of particles deposited in the ash from this volcano could be harmful when inhaled, especially for people with asthma or respiratory problems. 

WHO says it is studying the situation closely.  The cloud is at present suspended high in the atmosphere and the particles have not begun to settle.  When they do, WHO says this could cause an increase in health concerns.  At that point, WHO might recommend that people stay indoors as much as possible.

** Poland

The Secretary-General has asked Sergei Ordzhonikidze, the Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva, to represent him at the funeral of the Polish President Lech Kaczynski on Sunday, 18 April, in Poland.

**Press Conference Today

Another press conference this afternoon at 3:30 p.m. here.  Hidenobu Sobashima, the Deputy Press Secretary for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, will be here to brief you on the Foreign Minister [Katsuya] Okada’s visit as chair of the open debate I was just referring to of the Security Council on post-conflict peacebuilding.

So, questions please. 

**Questions and Answers

Question:  I wonder if you can tell us anything more about the five UN staff members who disappeared in Afghanistan, whether they have been abducted, or what happened?  And secondly, I have noticed now that the Spokesman’s Office has said the preliminary conclusions of the investigation into the Kabul attack may have shown that one staff member was killed by friendly fire.  Is there any further comment with regards to the reports that this staff member was actually executed by Afghan forces?

Spokesperson:  On the first question, what I understand from our colleagues in Afghanistan is that five Afghan staff members from the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) are currently unaccounted for.  The United Nations is working with the Afghan authorities to ascertain where they are, and the exact circumstances of the situation at the moment.  That is what I have for you on that. 

And on the other story you are referring to, the other incident that you have mentioned, the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) and Department of Field Support (DFS) along with the Department of Safety and Security (DSS) have devoted a great deal of time and energy in addressing this obviously tragic case.  And as you know, the background is that on 28 October last year a private guest house in Kabul where UN personnel were staying was attacked by insurgents equipped with automatic weapons, grenades and suicide bomb vests.

In the ensuing attack and response by Afghan Security forces, five UN personnel were tragically killed.  As the attack highlighted that the United Nations had become a specific target in Afghanistan, additional security measures were immediately instituted for all our operations in the country.

And then in the aftermath of the attack, the UN Mission to Afghanistan undertook an initial inquiry into the events.  Based on their findings, additional assistance from UN Headquarters was determined necessary to more fully establish all the facts.  And so in January, the United Nations established a high-level Board of Inquiry to establish the facts and look for lessons learned.  We expect the Board of Inquiry report to be finalized in the coming days, and so we cannot comment further on that at this time.

In response to your very specific question, the preliminary conclusions of the Mission's investigation raised the disturbing possibility that a specific UN staff member may have died due to so-called “friendly fire” from Afghan security forces.  Once the Board of Inquiry is finalized, we will share our findings with the Government of Afghanistan and, if warranted, we will ask for a thorough investigation surrounding the death of this UN employee and the circumstances of the deaths of the other UN employees.  That is what I have for you.

Question:  Can I ask a follow-up on that?

Spokesperson:  By all means.

Question:  And maybe this may seem procedural to you, but this question about the guest house attack and the alleged summary execution of Louis Maxwell has been raised in this room the last couple of days.  It seems like this statement, which was given to “stern.de” about it being friendly fire… it just was not clear to why it was not either squawked yesterday or said in response to the questions raised here.  What is the policy of your Office on responding to questions that are raised formally in this room, as opposed to selectively giving the information elsewhere?

Spokesperson:  There is nothing procedural about the death of UN staff.

Question:  I am just limiting myself to… since this has been asked the last few days.

Spokesperson:  The answer is quite simple.  When I have the information, I share it with you and I do not share it selectively as you suggest. 

Question:  This quote showed up in Stern last night.  When was it given? 

Spokesperson:  This information is the information that I have to be able to give you now.

Question:  I am just saying.  This issue has been being raised here.  I think many people have a question of why the UN did not unilaterally say that there were these issues of possible friendly fire.  For future reference I want to understand.  If things are raised and your Office comes to know that there is an answer, do you give the answer to the people that asked the question, or do you give it out elsewhere?  I do not understand it.

Spokesperson:  The answer here is that when we have information we share it as widely as we can.  If individuals have asked a specific question of us, not in this briefing room but elsewhere -- as you do, as others do -- then we try to provide the individual with that answer.  If the answer is clearly of broader interest because we have received a number of inquiries, then of course we try to share it.

Question:  But why in this case wouldn’t you have -- and I am sorry to personalize it -- but, given that I have asked this question throughout this week, why wasn’t this answer given?  Obviously the focus is really on the fact that there is friendly fire and what the UN is going to do about.  But I guess I just did not understand when I saw this quote.

Spokesperson:  The information I have here for you for this noon briefing is the information that I have.  And I have given it to you now.

Question:  But it was given to Stern yesterday.

Spokesperson:  Next question.

Question:  What was the Secretary-General’s position regarding this conference taking place in Tehran on disarmament and nuclear issues?

Spokesperson:  The Secretary-General was attending a conference in Washington, D.C., on nuclear disarmament, and he has spoken very clearly on what is required in that area with regards to nuclear non-proliferation.  And on nuclear security, as well, he has spoken very clearly.

Question:  But this is a regional and international one.  Does he have another say, especially regarding demilitarization or denuclearization of the Middle East?

Spokesperson:  The Secretary-General spoke about that topic just the other day.  He was asked about that topic, and he has spoken about the need for regional nuclear-weapon-free zones and the desirability for those and how you get there, and the fact that it is in some parts of the world, including the Middle East, that is not easy.  So I do not think I need to elaborate further on that.

Question:  So he does not send any message to the conference itself?

Spokesperson:  Not that I am aware of, no.

Question:  It is actually on the same topic.  Is he sending anyone?  Has the United Nations, first of all, been invited?

Spokesperson:  Not to my knowledge.

Question:  It has not been invited?

Spokesperson:  Well, to both of your questions, not to my knowledge.

Question:  So as far as you know, nobody from the UN is attending, not even somebody from the region?

Spokesperson:  Not to my knowledge, but I will find out.  I am sure that my colleagues will help me to find out if that is the case.  But not to my knowledge.

[The Spokesperson later said that the United Nations is invited to that conference and that the Office for Disarmament Affairs is sending an expert to the conference.]

Question:  Mr. [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad raised this same issue in his letter to the Secretary-General and to others.  Do you have any response to his letter?

Spokesperson:  So this is the letter again?  The same letter?

Question:  It is not going to go away, of course.

Spokesperson:  No it is not, and you are welcome to keep on asking, and when I have something different to say, I will be able to give you a different answer.  At the moment, I cannot.

Question:  Another issue -- what is the role of UNIFIL [United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon] if not to prevent others from occupying further lands?  Today, for example, the civilians had to liberate their land by hand and UNIFIL was just standing by for those three days when the Israelis annexed further land in South Lebanon.

Spokesperson:  There are two things.  One is that UNIFIL and indeed the Lebanese army were on site, were in the area and remained at the location to monitor the situation.  That is the previous event that you are referring to earlier in the week.  And then today, as you mentioned, I think it was about 20 people, and including a Lebanese MP, gathered in this area of Abbassiyeh -- you will excuse my pronunciation -- in Sector East near the location of these recent IDF [Israel Defense Forces] activities south of the Line of Withdrawal that you referred to.

As I have been told by my colleagues in UNIFIL, at around 10:45 a.m., the demonstrators crossed the Line of Withdrawal -- the so-called Blue Line -- and arrived in the area where there had been recent IDF activities, and this is about 50 metres south of the Line of Withdrawal.  And I understand from my colleagues that demonstrators removed sign posts of a minefield as well as concertina wire, which was laid by the Israel Defense Forces three days ago, and planted a couple of Lebanese flags next to the Israeli Technical Fence.

The Lebanese Armed Forces were present at the location, and a UNIFIL patrol was also deployed.  UNIFIL has contacted the parties concerned to prevent any escalation of the situation, urging restraint and calling on them to take all the necessary steps in accordance with their obligations under UN Security Council resolution 1701 (2006).  UNIFIL has repeatedly demanded full respect of the Line of Withdrawal as identified by the UN in 2000.

Question:  But the technical line, as you call it “the border”, is disputed by Lebanon.  Even the Blue Line is disputed here.  Shouldn’t the UNIFIL prevent any unilateral action from the Israelis when they do an incursion?  And, as was the case today, they brought in more than 20 tanks to the area.  Shouldn’t the UNIFIL be preventing any conflict or preventing any clash in the area?

Spokesperson:  I think that is precisely what I just said.  That UNIFIL was present in the area and they have been in touch with the parties.

Question:  But without the civilians, nobody would have removed anything.

Spokesperson:  I do not think that is the case.  Earlier in the week, when there were other incidents, UNIFIL was on the spot and indeed had similar contacts with the parties. 

Question:  The Israelis last week made changes on the ground, and the UNIFIL did not remove that.  Even the Lebanese army did not remove.  It is only the civilians who removed it.

Spokesperson:  During the work that was carried out, the site of the works that you refer to, the Israeli army was observed by UNIFIL.  UNIFIL was there at 7:20 in the morning and the UN Interim Force in Lebanon observed the Israeli army carrying out some work on the Israeli so-called Technical Fence.  The site of the works is south of the Line of Withdrawal, but at no point in the works in this area did the Israeli army cross the Line of Withdrawal.

As I mentioned, the UNIFIL and indeed, the Force Commander, Major-General [Alberto Asarta] Cuevas, was in contact with the parties to ensure full respect for UN Security Council resolution 1701 (2006) and for the Line of Withdrawal.  So there was a clear contact with the Israelis, with others on that topic, and UNIFIL and the Lebanese army sent patrols to the area and remained there to monitor what was going on.   And at around 9:30 hours -- so from 7:20 to 9:30 a.m. -- the Israeli army withdrew from the area. 

Question:  Are they changing the geography of the area after occupying new land?

Spokesperson:  At no point during the works, according to my colleagues from UNIFIL, did the Israeli army cross the Line of Withdrawal.

Question:  But there are [inaudible] of bulldozers working inside, and the owners of the land themselves went there to restore things.

Spokesperson:  As I say, you are welcome to ask my colleagues in UNIFIL for more details if you prefer.  But what I can tell you is that UNIFIL was there, UNIFIL was in touch with both the Israeli authorities and others, and that at no point during the works in this area did the Israeli army cross the Line of Withdrawal.  That is what I have.

Question:  The Foreign Minister of Georgia is scheduled to have a meeting today, 3:30 p.m. in the Office of the Secretary-General.  Do you know if they will be discussing any military build-up in South Ossetia and Abkhazia?  And what is the Secretary-General’s position on protecting the innocent civilians in Georgia, who feel like the territorial integrity of Georgia has been violated?

Spokesperson:  I am not privy to what the Foreign Minister of Georgia is going to raise with the Secretary-General, but I do understand that Mr. [Gregory] Vashadze will be giving a press conference next week and you will be able to ask him about it then. 

[The Spokesperson later said that the Secretary-General met today with Mr. Grigol Vashadze, Foreign Minister of Georgia.  The Secretary-General expressed appreciation for Georgia's support for the appointment of Mr. Antti Turunen as the new United Nations representative and affirmed the United Nations continuing commitment to supporting the Joint Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism and the Geneva international discussions.  The Secretary-General stressed the importance of increased dialogue and confidence-building and encouraged efforts to promote pragmatic discussions and progress on practical issues of mutual concern.]

Question:  On Nigeria, there is a report in The Punch publication of Nigeria reporting a meeting between the Secretary-General and Goodluck Jonathan, the Acting President of Nigeria, saying that the UN chief intends to assist Jonathan to tackle electoral reform, the Niger Delta and Jos.  And quoting the Ambassador of Nigeria that Ban urged the Acting President “to ensure the passage of electoral reform so that Nigeria can take its place as the natural leader in Africa”.  It seemed like a strange quote to me, so I wanted to know, what did the Secretary-General discuss with Goodluck Jonathan?  Is the UN offering electoral support, and does the UN believe that Nigeria is the natural leader of Africa?

Spokesperson:  Let me find out exactly what we can tell you about the conversation that they had.  But I am not going to pass comment on what someone else has reported the Secretary-General as saying.  I would rather refer to what we say the Secretary-General is saying.

[The Spokesperson later told the reporter that during that meeting, the Secretary-General emphasized the importance of the United Nations' partnership with Nigeria, which is one of the largest troop contributor for UN peacekeeping operations.  The Secretary-General invited Nigeria to participate in the summit on the Millennium Development Goals next September and also expressed his desire to visit Nigeria.  Meeting on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit, the Secretary-General and the Acting President discussed non-proliferation efforts.  The Acting President expressed a desire to see greater international action to tackle the scourge of the illegal trade in small arms. ]

Question:  Given all these electoral issues, it would be interesting to know.

Spokesperson:  We will let you know and we will let everybody know what was said to the extent possible.

Question:  Another question, and hopefully you can explain this.  Among the other developments of the Security Council in its new location -- whether it has to do with the new location or not -- is a reported change in which there is some change in access to the consultations of the Security Council.  This may affect staffers of DPKO as well, but specifically your office.  Is it your understanding that there is less access than there was, as many of the ambassadors say, and what has your Office done?  Does that injure, in any way, your ability to give us information that we need?  And what does your Office or the Executive Office of the Secretary-General, Mr. [Vijay] Nambiar et al, what have they done to try to regain you access so that you can provide the information we are all wanting to have from you.

Spokesperson:  I was with the Secretary-General in Central Asia last week and therefore I could not be here.  Marie Okabe is my deputy, and has long experience working in the Spokesperson’s Office and in working with the Security Council.  So there is nothing unusual in the approach that we took, and I think that you need to understand that very clearly.  That is the first thing. 

The second thing is that the Security Council can speak for itself and I think it has done on any changes and arrangements.  But I would simply say that the Executive Office of the Secretary-General is in contact with the Security Council to talk about this matter.

Question:  But there has been a change in access.  I understand that Mr. Nambiar wrote a letter saying that you disagree, but that it is up to the Council if it chooses to do that.  And I just wonder is that the final position? 

Spokesperson:  I think you should ask the Security Council what the arrangements are.  You should ask the President of the Security Council or others to explain.  Our role here is to be able to provide you with information to the best of our ability, and we do that to the best of our ability.  And I think it is not for me to second guess what the Security Council is doing. 

And also, as I said in the beginning, it is a strange way to approach this, to assume that this has just been fobbed off.  Delegation is a very normal practice in any office, and if I am not around, then my Deputy can handle things very, very well and that is what she does.

Question:  No, I think the focus is much more on if there has been this change.  It is sort of a separation of powers, like within the UN, in the GA [General Assembly], Secretariat [and] Security Council.  If some major change took place giving the Secretariat, including DPKO and your Office, less access to the Council, I was just wondering whether you would say that it somehow injures the work of your Office. 

Spokesperson:  That is not what I said.  Do not put words into my mouth, or write words into my mouth.  I do not think that that is fair.  In the United Nations, as you well know far better than I do, it is a complex organization with different parts and different memberships of the different parts, including the Security Council.  We are keen to understand precisely what the arrangements are, and we are trying to establish what the arrangements are.  I am not going to prejudge anything until I and my colleagues fully understand what those arrangements are. 

Thank you very much.

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