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

18 March 2014

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

18 March 2014
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 Stéphane Dujarric, Spokesman for the Secretary-General.

Good afternoon.

**Security Council

Starting with the Security Council, Jeffrey Feltman, the Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, briefed the Security Council this morning on the Middle East.  He said that the latest surge of fighting shows that the fragile status quo between Israelis and Palestinians is not sustainable. He noted the tensions in the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and said that the parties must show utmost restraint, and the sanctity of holy sites of all faiths must be fully respected.

Regarding Syria, Mr Feltman said that the situation in [the] Golan remains volatile, with heavy clashes between the Syrian armed forces and armed opposition.

And as usual, we have his remarks available in my Office.

** Afghanistan

In Afghanistan, the UN Assistance Mission otherwise known as UNAMA, strongly condemned a deadly suicide attack which took place today in the northern province of Faryab, killing 15 civilians and injuring another 47.

Nicholas Haysom, the Secretary-General’s Deputy Special Representative in Afghanistan and the acting Head of the Mission, said that the continuing rise in civilian deaths from improvised explosive devices is tragic.  He reiterated the call for an immediate stop to their indiscriminate use, especially in areas known to be populated by civilians.

In the first two and a half months of 2014, improvised explosive devices have killed 190 civilians in Afghanistan, and that’s a 14 per cent increase from the same period last year.  We have a press release from UNAMA available in the office as well.

** Libya

Moving on to Libya, the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) strongly condemns the terrorist bombing that took place yesterday in Benghazi.  The attack targeted members of the military, killing a number and wounding others.

The Mission calls upon all Libyans to denounce and reject the continued series of acts of violence and terror, such as kidnappings, assassinations and bombings, which have hit Benghazi and other parts of Libya.

The Mission urges Libyans to rally around their national institutions in confronting these crimes and calls upon officials and all forces to intensify efforts to put an end to all actions that add insecurity and hamper the building of the Libyan State.

**South Sudan

In South Sudan, the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) reports fighting between the opposition forces and Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in Malakal, in the Upper Nile State.

The Mission says that two tank shells exploded about 200 metres from its compound last evening, wounding a displaced civilian sheltering at the protection site.  This person is currently being treated at the UN hospital within the site.  The Mission also reports that sporadic arms fire and artillery shell explosions were heard earlier in the day yesterday, also not far away from the compound.

The Mission reiterates the importance for both parties to fully comply with the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement and to ensure a swift establishment of the monitoring and verification mechanism.

It also stresses that both parties to the conflict must respect the inviolability of UN premises and facilities, as well as the life-saving work that the United Nations is doing on the ground.

**World Food Programme — South Sudan

Also from South Sudan, the World Food Programme (WFP) has started a series of air drops of food assistance to remote areas of the country.  The two rounds of airdrops today delivered enough cereals for about 8,000 displaced people for about 15 days in the town of Ganyiel in Unity state.  Air drops are planned for nine locations in Upper Nile, Jonglei and Unity states, and may be expanded to reach other areas.

The World Food Programme says it is in a race against time to get assistance to people who are in critical need in places that can’t be reached by road or river transport.

We have more information, or rather WFP has more information on their website.

**UNRWA

The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, better known as UNRWA, has been leading a campaign using Thunderclap social media to push for greater humanitarian access to civilians in Syria, including in the Yarmouk Camp.

The campaign, #LetUsThrough, is supported by 130 organizations.  The Thunderclap to get the message out took place at noon, in Yarmouk today.

And we have more information available from UNRWA, should you be interested.

** Lebanon

Also on Lebanon, in a press conference in Geneva today, the new acting Humanitarian Coordinator for Lebanon, Ross Mountain, said that Lebanon is the largest per capita recipient of refugees anywhere in the world.  The country has virtually 1 million refugees registered by the UN Refugee Agency, about 25 per cent of the population.

Mr. Mountain expressed his concerns for the future as flows of refugees continue — with new arrivals today of families in the border town of Arsal — as conflict continues in neighbouring Syria.  He said that there are already signs of tensions between Syrian families and Lebanese host communities.  He noted that the appeal to help Syrians who have fled the conflict and host communities in the region is only 14 per cent funded so far.

**Internet

And this morning, we issued a statement attributable to the Secretary-General on the intent of the United States to transition key Internet domain name functions.  It reads as follows:

“The Secretary-General welcomes the announcement by the United States Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) on 14 March 2014, concerning its intent to transition key Internet domain name functions to the global multi-stakeholder community.

The Secretary-General takes note of this important development, especially in light of the results of decisions taken at the World Summit on the Information Society that agreed on a multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance.  He encourages Governments, intergovernmental organizations, civil society, the private sector and the Internet technical community to engage in furthering the process to ensure a single, open, free, secure and trustworthy Internet.”

And if you are like me and didn’t know much about Internet governance, I’ll add a little background on this rather technical issue.  Until now, the United States has had the final say in changes to globally used data on top-level Internet domain names, such as .com.

This announcement is a significant step towards the globalization of the function of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, better known as IANA.  It is therefore in line with the need for a more global multi-stakeholder basis for the governance of the Internet, which the United Nations, along with many other actors, has been advocating.

** Uganda

And lastly, Speciosa Wandira-Kazibwe, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for AIDS in Africa, said that she has highlighted to Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni that the criminalization of homosexuality only serves to fuel stigma and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons, and risks undermining the national AIDS response, which is otherwise making significant progress.

She said that she will continue to engage with the Government of Uganda and civil society organizations on this important matter, and she continues to urge the Government of Uganda to repeal the Anti-Homosexuality Act at the earliest possible opportunity.

That’s it for me. Kahraman?

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane. I guess the most important issue of today is Ukraine.  And Syria too.  There are a lot of important issues.

Spokesman:  It all depends where you sit.

Question:  Well, what is the Secretary-General’s reaction to President [Vladimir] Putin’s signing into law the annexation of Crimea?  What is the United Nations position other than calling for restraint?

Spokesman:  I wouldn’t want you to answer for me.  The Secretary-General, the UN is following very, very closely these developments with mounting concern, first the holding of the referendum and now actions taken in relation to the annexation of Crimea.  I think the Secretary-General’s position has been straightforward and clear from the start of these developments.  He maintains that, his position really has been that all parties must avoid precipitating steps under the complex and tense current situation that we find ourselves.  And it’s important, I think, that all parties involved work for a solution that’s really guided by the principles of the Charter, of the UN, including respect for Ukraine’s unity, sovereignty, territorial integrity.  And as the Secretary-General intensifies his diplomatic efforts, he strongly urges an immediate resumption of constructive dialogues between all concerned parties in order to resolve the crisis.

Question:  Does the Secretary-General recognize the results of the referendum in Crimea?  And also President Putin said that actually the referendum was not in contrast with the UN Charter.

Spokesman:  It’s not up to the Secretary-General to recognize or not recognize the results.  I think the Secretary-General, as I just said, has made his concerns known about hasty actions and that remains his position.  Joe?

Question:  Yes, in light of the statement you just read out concerning the possible transfer of control of governance over the Internet to a global model from the United States, does the Secretary-General have any comment on the attempts by, for example, the Turkish Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, to clamp down on access to YouTube?  So that’s the first question because he talked about an open and free Internet and this runs contrary.  And secondly, does the Secretary-General have any comment on the seizure of the oil tanker by US Navy SEALS?

Spokesman:  I don’t have any specific comments at this point on the Libyan developments.  Just to refer back to what the Mission in Libya said, which is, in general, highlighting its grave concern about the increased violence and lawlessness in parts of Libya, especially in Benghazi.  On the issue of Internet, the Secretary-General has always advocated for access to information and the statement clearly says that he encourages Governments, NGOs (non-governmental organizations), civil society and others to ensure single, open, free, secure and trustworthy Internet.  Pam?

Question:  Stéphane, can you elaborate on what is going on with the UN monitoring team that Assistant Secretary-General [for Human Rights] Ivan Šimonović mentioned?  Is there any comment in response to a comment today by the Russian Foreign Ministry that Mr. Šimonović is biased and his comments on Friday were biased?

Spokesman:  On Mr. Šimonović, he’s on his way back here and we’re trying to secure some time for him to meet with you in this room.  So that’ll be tomorrow.  What day is it tomorrow?

Correspondent:  Thursday.

Spokesman:  Thursday.

Correspondent:  No, Wednesday. [Laughter]

Spokesman:  I thought you would be less confused than I am.  Later this week.  So he’ll be able to answer those issues.  We’re also obviously waiting for him to debrief the team here and the Secretary-General.  In all Mr. Šimonović’s work, he put great emphasis and concern on the protection of all minorities in the Ukraine and throughout the country.  And we obviously have great confidence in his work.

Question: [inaudible]

Spokesman:  I guess my way of answering you was saying that he’s on his way back here.  He has to debrief his colleagues here, and we expect to put him in front of you, so he can answer your questions directly.

Question:  And you don’t have the answer on the monitor?

Spokesman:  I guess that’s a long way of saying, no, I don’t have the answer.  Very short follow up.  Matthew yields this time.

Question:  Did Mr. Šimonović try in the meantime, try to go to Crimea or he didn’t try to go after that attempt? 

Spokesman:  Mr. Šimonović, from day one, had been intent and really wanted to go to Crimea.  But I think, as we as we had extensive discussions here, both the logistical aspects were not, did not make it easy or possible for him to go and as well as the security situation on the ground.  Yes, Matthew?

Question:  Sure, thanks a lot.  The new US envoy on Syria has just announced that the United States is closing, or ordering the closure of Syria’s embassy in D.C. and two consulates in the country, and I wanted, since it seems like it’s a big diplomatic move, if the Secretary-General has any view of countries closing each other’s facilities?  And also, I wanted to know, is there a readout of the meeting yesterday with the Italian Interior Minister?  I know that the PGA [President of the General Assembly]’s Office gave a readout, but I know that the Secretary-General met with him.  Did he speak about the sailors and what can you say about the meeting?

Spokesman:  I can’t say anything about the meeting because I don’t have any information on it.  We’ll see if we can get a readout.  On the issue of embassies, it’s obviously, these are bilateral steps.  The Secretary-General’s own position on the need for a diplomatic process stands.

[The Spokesman later provided the following: “The Secretary-General called on Italy to ensure that refugees crossing the Mediterranean are treated with dignity and that the principle of non-refoulement is respected.  He expressed concern about reports of severe treatment of migrants, especially women, at reception camps and underscored the need to ensure their human rights.  The Secretary-General praised Italy for its contribution to peacekeeping, the fight against organized crime and counter-terrorism efforts, especially in North Africa, the Sahel and the Horn.  He thanked Italy for accepting another group of residents from Camp Hurriya.”] 

Correspondent:  His position is that countries should allow other countries’ embassies to be open…

Spokesman:  I have nothing more to add to that.  Yes, sir?

Question:  The Israeli-Palestinian thing that you talked about.  Mr. Abbas has been on record after meeting with President [Barack] Obama that both things — settlement and talks — cannot continue at the same time.  And he said that something has got to give, meaning thereby that at some point in time the peace process can be shelved.  Does the Secretary-General have anything to do with that?  I mean, can he say anything about it?  And the so-called Quartet, can that be activated towards this end? 

Spokesman:  The Quartet and the United Nations have been working very hard to support the peace process.  The Secretary-General’s position on the peace process, on the settlements has been elaborated here a number of times and through the work that we do here and the work that we do through the Special Coordinator, we’re doing what we can to support the peace process.

Question:  At any point in time is there any progress in these talks at all?

Spokesman:  You know, I think everyone is hoping for progress.  Everyone is supporting the process to get some progress.  It’s a long haul. 

Question:  This is just a quick one.  Mr. Feltman mentioned in his briefing this morning’s incident in Golan Heights in which three Israeli soldiers were injured.  Do you expect the Secretary-General to comment on it?  Or is there going to be further comment from anyone?

Spokesman:  The further comment that I have is that the UN Disengagement, concerning the reports of the explosion that wounded two Israeli soldiers, the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) has been in touch with both the IDF, the Israeli Defence Forces, and senior Syrian, the Syrian — I don’t know what it is today — and the senior Syrian Arab delegate.  The IDF has confirmed to UNDOF that it observed an individual crossing the ceasefire line and that an IDF patrol was sent to the location.  The IDF soldiers got out of their vehicle and crossed the technical fence when an improvised explosive device exploded, resulting in injuries.  So that’s what I have from the observer, what the Observer Force reported.  Yes, ma’am?  Okay, go ahead.

Question:  The observers basically confirmed that the incident started with someone crossing the ceasefire line.  Is that what you said?

Spokesman:  What I said is that UNDOF has been in touch, both with the IDF and the senior Syrian Arab delegate, and the IDF confirmed to UNDOF that it observed the individual crossing.  Yes, Nizar?

Question:  How do the observers deal with the other insurgents in the region who are active across the border, who even go all the way to Nahariya, to other towns in Palestine?  And do they get medication and treatment there?  How do they deal with them there, in such circumstances, especially after the explosion?

Spokesman:  I think UNDOF, in light of the events going on in Syria, the work of UNDOF has not been made any easier.  They operate in a difficult situation.  As to the specific issues of border-crossings, I don’t have anything.  If I get something, I’ll let you know.

Correspondent:  Because the disengagement, this area should be unarmed, but rebels are just crossing and going all over the place…

Spokesman:  I think we would urge all that have authority and influence over those groups to ensure international agreements and the UN is respected on the ground.  Yes, ma’am.

Question:  I’m with the Press Trust of India.  This is regard to the Italian marines being held in India.  Italy has said it’s willing to try the marines back home but they want them to be freed.  Does the Secretary-General have any comment given that it’s been a long-standing issue between India and Italy, and the Italian Mnister met with the Secretary-General yesterday?

Spokesman:  No, no further comments than I think what Martin, my predecessor, had elaborated here.  Yes?  And then we’ll go this way.

Question:  Mr. Putin today in his statement, he said Russia doesn’t use the armed forces in Ukraine, in Crimea.  And Ukraine today said the Government said that it’s a robbery on an international scale.  My question is: how does the United Nations consider what happened today?

Spokesman:  I answered that earlier that the Secretary-General maintains his position, that none of the parties should engage in any precipitating steps that would complicate the situation further, in what is already a very tense situation.

Question:  Thank you.  Just a follow-up on Kahraman’s question of Ukraine.  Once again, so President Putin said neither this referendum nor this annexation [is] violating the UN Charter.  Can you comment on that?

Spokesman:  I really don’t have any further comment than what I’ve already said.  Yes, Madame?  Okay, go ahead.

Question:  So what’s Crimea now from the UN point of view?  Do you still consider it a part of Ukraine or not?

Spokesman:  I’m not going to get into, at this point, I’m not going to get into the details of what we consider what.  As a very, very general observance, the issue of borders are really dealt with bilaterally between States.  It’s not up to the Secretary-General to go down that route.  But that’s a very general statement.  On the Ukraine, I will stick to what I’ve already said.  Yes, ma’am.

Question:  Going back to Ukraine, initially when all this started, Russia said that they were moving their troops to Crimea because they wanted to protect the pro-Russians and those that spoke Russian.  However, the latest reports that we have received from Crimea is that those that are pro-Ukrainian have been attacked.  Some of them have fled from their locations.  Is a concern about human rights violations or anything like that that initially was claimed by Russia, is now being, happening according to the reports?  Any plans to try to help them?  To try to get somebody to assist them?

Spokesman:  I think it’s part of what Mr. Šimonović was looking at.  The human rights situation in Ukraine is one that is of concern to the Secretary-General and, as I mentioned earlier, especially the protection of minorities throughout Ukraine, and in any country really.  But in terms of this particular area, there are a lot of different minority groups in different places and it’s incumbent on the authorities in charge to ensure that the rights of those minorities are protected.  Yes, ma’am.

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  Has the Secretary-General or the Deputy Secretary-General made any personal, I understand you would give us, not a personal, but professional calls to Ukraine in their official capacity, to the Russian Federation, to anyone to pursue their interest in making sure that negotiations are on schedule?

Spokesman:  There’s been a lot of high-level contacts, which I’m not going to go into details at this point, between various UN officials and the Secretary-General and all parties involved.  And the message that we continue to put out is for all of them to intensify their diplomatic efforts for the creation of a really constructive dialogue between all those involved.

Question:  Can you get any more information or characterization, in other words, those high-level discussions were with Russia or with Ukraine?

Spokesman:  They were with all main parties involved and all those who have an interest.  I tried to filter nothing.  As soon as we feel we can share it with you, I will share it with you.  Erol, Matthew and then Benny.

Question:  Stéphane, let me put it this way, after the Secretary-General talked to President Putin, did he anticipate that these development will go on and that Crimea will go this way, actually, will be annexed?  And also, does the Secretary-General think now that the doors for diplomacy are…  Is he concerned, rather, that the doors for diplomacy are shut down with these actions by Moscow?

Spokesman:  No, we don’t believe the door for diplomacy is shut.  We are ourselves engaged and we encourage others to ensure that the door remains open and that dialogue flows both ways.  I think it’s very dangerous for anyone to get into the prediction game, either Monday morning, if you’ll allow me an American football reference, or on a Saturday night trying to predict what’s going to happen on Sunday.  Matthew?

Question:  I want to ask about South Sudan and also dollar-a-year contracts.  On South Sudan, there’s this announcement by the UN World Food Programme that they’re, quote, air dropping aid into the country.

Spokesman:  I know, I made that announcement.

Correspondent:  Okay, I guess I wanted to ask you…I’ve heard…a couple of people have chimed in and said what’s the…one, what explains them not being… can they not do it by road?  And what sort of safeguards are in place obviously so that food doesn’t actually fall on people.  And I wanted to ask you a freedom of press question there… the, the President’s advisor to Salva Kiir has said that, although the Government never brings in journalists for questioning, it occasionally quotes ‘offers them advice’ on how to cover the conflict and I wonder…I haven’t heard UNMISS say much about it.  What is… given that the UN has this big presence there, what’s the UN’s position?  CPJ [Committee to Protect Journalists] has said there’s a big problem with freedom of press in South Sudan. What’s… what does the UN, or what do you think of the idea of journalists being given advice on how to cover the conflict?

Spokesman:  What was your first question?  Oh, WFP.  My colleagues in WFP have been distributing food for decades, including air dropping food.  I would not only assume, but I would expect that they have perfected the art of air dropping food to ensure that nobody gets hurt.  So that, to me, is a given.  On the issue of freedom of the press, I think the Secretary-General has expressed his support for the freedom of the press in many different fora, so I have nothing to add on that.  And you had a third question?

Question:  Yeah, I wanted to ask on dollar-a-year contract…I know you had answered me that Iqbal Riza is the senior adviser and the dollar-a-year person, but it looks like the General Assembly back in April of last year asked for a report… told the Secretary-General that they should be given out only in extraordinarily limited circumstances, that there should be greater transparency in how they’re given out.  So I wanted to ask, one, has the Secretary-General prepared that report, two, the status of Mr. [Terje] Rød-Larsen.  I’ve asked you about a couple of other officials, what’s… what’s, how many of them are there and where can we find.

Spokesman:  I saw your question on the security, the request for a report of the Secretary-General.  It’s on my to-do list, so we’ve got to check where that is and see what else I can answer in what you have emailed me.  Benny, then Evelyn, then Masood, and then…

Question:  So maybe you don’t have anything on it, but apparently, one Ukrainian soldier was killed by Russian forces in Simferopol and is there…

Spokesman:  No, I haven’t seen it, so. Yes, sir? And then we’ll go to Evelyn.

Question:  Okay, I probably missed that, did the Secretary-General comment on, what does he think regarding the comparison of Mr. Putin, often now said, that Ukraine is similar to the case of Kosovo?

Spokesman:  I don’t think we’re going to get into the comparison game at this point.  I think the Secretary-General’s position on what has happened in the last 24 hours, I think I made clear earlier.  Evelyn?

Question:  I may have missed this but apparently Eritrean refugees are being tortured by groups in Sudan and Egypt, some in the Sinai, some elsewhere, and nobody known officials sort of collaborate with traffickers.  Do you know anything about that? 

Spokesman:  No, but let me check with UNHCR if they do.  Pam?  Pam and then, Masood.  Sorry.

Question:  When the Executive Director of the CTBTO [Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization] Lassina Zerbo was here, he said that the UN, that the CTBTO may be looking into seeing if there were any explosions to see about Malaysia flight 370.  Do you have any follow-up on that?

Spokesman:  I did.  I mentioned that yesterday — that their network did not detect any explosion in the air or on the ground.  That’s in yesterday’s briefing transcript.

Question:  Yes, I saw that, but there was also a comment on their website that they may continue to follow up.

Spokesman:  I mean, we don’t have anything else.  What they were also doing was they were encouraging other scientists to look at the data they provided.

Question:  I do want to follow up on my colleague’s question about Kosovo and I’ll ask it this way: You probably don’t have this right at your fingertips, but has any analysis been done, either by the Department of Political Affairs or some other part of the UN Secretariat, maybe at the time of the Kosovo crisis or since, that looked at the question of the legality of the declaration of independence by Kosovo in the context of several Security Council resolutions that were then passed?  Again, you don’t have that at your fingertips.  If you could look and see and send us links and a transcript, we’d appreciate it.  Thank you.

Spokesman:  Well, I think there are two things.  One, the Secretary-General gets advice from advisers, which is confidential and is his to take, including legal advice.  Second, I mean, the whole debate, what was said over Kosovo, Security Council, those transcripts are all available on the website and everything’s public about what was made public.  Masood.

Question:  Yes, my question is about Crimea again.  Yes, the thing is that the deed is done.  Ninety-five per cent of the Crimeans voted for joining Russia.  Now what is it that, in diplomatic world, what is it that is left of diplomacy that can reverse this decision?

Spokesman:  I’m sorry, say again?  I was reading this breaking news here. 

Question:  You were distracted.

Spokesman:  Yes.

Question:  I was saying, now that the result is there, Putin has signed an order to annex it and 95 per cent of the people voted for joining Russia, how much more diplomacy is left to be done to reverse this?

Spokesman:  I think there is always room for diplomacy and discussion, and also especially diplomacy to ensure that people’s rights are respected, human rights are respected, the rights of minorities, rights of majorities, so I think there’s always room for a discussion.  Last question, because apparently, the Security Council president is waiting for you, so she can brief.

Question:  Do you have a quick update on Lakhdar Brahimi’s visit to Iran?

Spokesman:  No.  As soon as we have something, we’ll share it.  Thank you all. 

* *** *

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