|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
Daily Press Briefing by the Office of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General
The following is a near-verbatim transcript of today’s noon briefing by Farhan Haq, Deputy Spokesman for the Secretary-General.
Good afternoon, everyone.
The Secretary-General is in Cairo and has been in intense discussions with a number of key interlocutors, including the Egyptian Foreign Minister and the [ United States] Secretary of State, as they work to build support for a possible ceasefire in Israel and Gaza. They may make press remarks later today; we’ll keep you posted on that. The Secretary-General also spoke to the staff of the UN Relief and Works Agency in Gaza by video link today. He expressed his deep appreciation and thanks for the brave work that they were doing. The staff briefed the Secretary-General on their efforts to improve the humanitarian situation in Gaza. He also heard about the daily challenges they face. Yesterday evening, he spoke to the press after meeting [ United States] Secretary of State John Kerry, and he told the Israelis and Palestinians, “You must stop fighting, and enter into dialogue. Whatever grievances you may have, this is wrong.”
The Secretary-General arrived in Cairo after visiting Iraq yesterday, and he concluded that trip by travelling to Erbil, where he met with President Massoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Speaking to the press afterward, he said that at this difficult time, it is important that all political leaders exert maximum effort to engage in meaningful and constructive dialogue within the framework of the Constitution. This crisis requires leaders in Erbil and leaders in Baghdad to work together to maintain the unity of the country within its federal system and remove the dangers of further tensions and conflicts. We have the transcripts of those press remarks online.
This afternoon, in Gaza, a team from the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees [in the Near East] (UNRWA), which included an international weapons expert, went to the school at Beit Hanoun, which came under attack yesterday, causing multiple deaths and injuries. The aim of the visit to the site was to survey the scene in the aftermath of the incident. The mission had to be cut short and the team was forced to leave the area after gunfire around the school. The Relief and Works Agency regrets not being able to complete even this initial assessment. It will attempt to visit the site when the situation allows. UNRWA reiterates its call for an immediate and comprehensive investigation.
Meanwhile, Gordon Brown, the UN Special Envoy for Global Education, said that the bombing of the UNRWA school in Gaza and the death of innocent children will be seen as an international outrage. He said that schools should never be theatres of war but should be safe havens for boys and girls.
The Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov, has condemned in the strongest terms the recent destruction of the Prophet Jonas tomb and mosque in Mosul, as well as several other historic monuments symbolizing shared history and traditions. Mr. Mladenov said that the systematic persecution of minorities and the destruction of cultural heritage and ancient landmarks, sacred to both Islam and Christianity, show the Islamic State’s total contempt for human values. He called on the international community and Iraq’s political, religious and civic leaders to unequivocally condemn these acts. More information is available on the UN Mission’s website.
In a statement we issued last night, the Secretary-General congratulated the Malian parties on the adoption of a consensual roadmap at the end of the first round of the inter-Malian negotiations hosted by Algeria. He commends participants for their willingness to engage in constructive dialogue in line with the 18 June 2013 Ouagadougou Agreement. He welcomes Algeria’s constructive role in this process and notes that the second phase of the negotiations will start in mid-August. The Secretary-General nonetheless remains deeply concerned by the deteriorating security situation in parts of Northern Mali, including armed confrontations. Such confrontations violate the Ouagadougou Agreement and the Ceasefire Agreement of 23 May 2014. The Secretary-General calls on all parties to immediately cease all hostilities and to cooperate with the MINUSMA-led joint security commission agreed upon in Algiers. This is essential to foster conditions favourable to the progress of the ongoing talks.
Bert Koenders, the head of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), responded to the confirmation of the location of the crash of the Air Algérie flight by instructing civilian, military and police personnel to put into practice the plans already in place to assist the Malian and French authorities in search and rescue efforts. The wreckage was located in Mali, in the area between Mopti and Gao. Early this morning, the UN Mission deployed two Apache helicopters to monitor the site and troops to secure the area where the remains are located. MINUSMA also deployed medical personnel and equipment, as well as forensic experts. Mr. Koenders said that he was deeply saddened by the air disaster and offered his sincere condolences to the Governments of Algeria, France and all the countries whose nationals were on board the flight, as well as to the families and friends of the victims.
The Secretary-General has appointed Arnauld Antoine Akodjènou of Benin as his Deputy Special Representative in the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). Mr. Akodjènou succeeds Abdoulaye Bathily of Senegal, who has been appointed as the Secretary-General’s Special Representative and Head of the United Nations Regional Office for Central Africa. The Secretary-General is grateful for Mr. Bathily’s dedicated service during his tenure in Mali and for his leadership in a very challenging environment. Mr. Akodjènou is currently serving as the Secretary-General’s Deputy Special Representative for Côte d’Ivoire. We have more information on this appointment in our office.
At the press briefing in Geneva today, the World Food Programme (WFP) said that it remains concerned about the possibility of famine in South Sudan. The agency added that it needs better humanitarian access to people in need and more financial resources to avert a hunger catastrophe. WFP warned that if the world waited to respond until famine was declared, then it would be too late. WFP is currently facing a funding shortage that makes it almost impossible to carry out life-saving operations in the coming months. It needs $143 million to provide food assistance to millions of people until the end of August.
The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports that some 1.1 million people in South Sudan are facing emergency levels of food insecurity, which is associated with exceptional levels of malnutrition and significant increases in mortality. The situation is particularly worrying for displaced people or many others who have been affected by the conflict and have not been able to plant crops this year. More information is available online.
At today’s press briefing in Geneva, the World Health Organization (WHO) said that it continues to work with its partners and local authorities in West Africa to contain the spread of Ebola and treat people affected by the outbreak. As of the 24 July, there have been 660 recorded deaths and 1093 cases reported in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. Last week, the World Health Organization opened a Sub-regional Outbreak Coordination Centre in Conakry, Guinea. The Centre will coordinate technical support and help to mobilize resources for the Ebola response in the region. More information is available on WHO’s website.
The Secretary-General’s outgoing Special Envoy for the Great Lakes region of Africa, Mary Robinson, today stressed the importance of youth employment as part of efforts to bring about durable peace, security and recovery. She was speaking at an extraordinary Summit of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region in Nairobi. Young people comprise more than half the region’s population, and the unemployment rate is around 34 per cent. There is more information on this available online.
And we will have The Week Ahead available in our office. Some highlights: on Monday morning, the Security Council will hold a high-level open debate on UN Peacekeeping, focusing on regional partnership and its evolution and the Secretary-General is expected to brief. At 10 a.m. in Geneva, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights will hold a press conference to launch a new report on the human rights situation in Ukraine. And on Tuesday, 29 July, the UN headquarters will be closed for Eid al-Fitr. That’s it for me.
**Questions and Answers
Question: Which day is the Eid holiday?
Deputy Spokesman: Tuesday.
Question: How do you know it’s Tuesday?
Deputy Spokesman: These dates are selected in advance, the previous year it’s designated. It’s got nothing to do with the moon. Masood?
Question: Yes, sir, after Israeli strike in that compound… UNRWA compound in which 15 people were killed, 200 injured, Secretary Kerry has proposed a week-long cease-fire for humanitarian access and so on and so forth. Do you know… is it acceptable by both sides? Or where does it stand now?
Deputy Spokesman: There are a lot of discussions going on, including those involving the Secretary-General, the Egyptian Foreign Minister and the [ United States] Secretary of State, among others, taking place in Cairo right now. Our hope is that the Secretary-General will be able to speak to the press in Cairo in the coming hours. If that happens, we’ll let you know. And he should be able to give you the state of play at that point.
Question: My question, does the Secretary-General support this call by Mr. Kerry?
Deputy Spokesman: He’s been working with Secretary Kerry and various others, trying to get a working ceasefire. We’ll be able to give you more details about that, if that develops. Erol?
Question: Yes, Farhan. Now that we know that the Secretary-General ended his journey today in Cairo, as he announced, what can you say, did he have previous to his departure to the six-day trip to the Middle East, did he has some valid hints that he’s going to achieve ceasefire or more than a ceasefire, and how you can combine all of that and put into nexus?
Deputy Spokesman: The Secretary-General, going into the region, had no guarantees of what was going to happen, but he believes it’s essential that there be a ceasefire, as he’s made clear repeatedly. What’s necessary is to have a halt to the fighting, right away. Over time, then, you can look at the root causes of the conflict, so that we don’t have to keep coming back to the same problem every few years. But, for him, the importance was in putting as much pressure as could possibly be put on the parties in order to obtain a ceasefire right now. Yes?
Question: Just on the root causes, please, is he satisfied how they are responding to his repeated call on the root causes to be addressed? It seems to me that nobody is really taking care of the root causes.
Deputy Spokesman: Well, his point has been that if you don’t deal with those, then we’ll keep coming back to the same problem every few years. And you’ll have seen that there’s been fighting in Gaza in 2009, 2012 and now again this year. We want to be able to resolve this in a lasting manner, and that’s important. Yes?
Correspondent: Sure, thanks, Farhan. And in order to, I guess, understand the Secretary-General’s thinking, I wasn’t going to, but I wanted to ask about the statement that was put out and then was retracted. The reason I’m asking is because it has been published. AFP and others have published it. It remains online.
Deputy Spokesman: Although, they’ve now also since retracted. We’ve called them, so that everyone retracts.
Question: I’m staring at a copy of it and I could hit refresh, but it’s still there. So, for this reason, I wanted to ask, number one, is… that his position? I understand that you’ve said it’s retracted, but particularly on the issue of the UNRWA school, that’s what I wanted to ask you. In the statement, he expresses, you know, shock and he’s appalled and it’s appalling, but there’s no statement on who’s behind it. Whereas other people are pointing at these IDF [Israel Defense Force] tweets that describe them offering that people could leave and sort of trying to… as being kind of an admission by the IDF that they shelled the school. This is why I wanted you to characterize… I know it was retracted, but it was put out. What part of it is his position? Is he returning today, that type of thing?
Deputy Spokesman: Part of the reason it’s retracted, of course, they were not delivered, and in fact, they were not delivered at a time when the events on the ground are moving very quickly. So, there’s any number of things that could change between now… We hope that he will in fact deliver press remarks sometime today. When that happens, we’ll issue those. And those will stand for what he said. Regarding where he stands on the attack on Beit Hanoun, he’s made that clear, yesterday, his feelings on this and I think I said, just as you had come in, that the Relief and Works Agency had tried to do a preliminary investigation today at the Beit Hanoun school, but had been forced to leave because of gunfire.
Question: How does he view those tweets by the army saying that they had offered… the Guardian says this is an implicit acknowledgement by the IDF that they are behind the shelling. Do you view it that way?
Deputy Spokesman: Ultimately, what happened at Beit Hanoun needs to be investigated. We had made our initial efforts to try to do that, but as you can see, we were driven away this time around. But, we’ll continue with our efforts. We don’t really want to say anything until an investigation proceeds; until we have facts that we can confirm. Yes?
Question: But, obviously, today, I mean, when they attempted to go to the school, they would be able to identify where the fire is coming from — east, west or north or south. And that’s not difficult for those who are on the ground. Another thing, the spokesperson for the IDF said that we gave ample time for them to leave the school. Did they really receive such a notice to leave the school?
Deputy Spokesman: I’ve spoken to my colleagues at the Relief and Works Agency and they said that they did not get the clearance, the permission needed to allow them to evacuate that school. They had been seeking that.
Question: Thank you, Farhan. Do we have any clarity on the UN… [talkover]
Deputy Spokesman: Please don’t talk while she’s… I can’t hear her.
Question: No problem. That the UN has any clarity in trying to establish the facts on the supposedly that ISIS [Islamic State in Iraq and the Sham] was trying to get all the women in Mosul genital mutilation?
Deputy Spokesman: Yes, on that, the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) is aware that the Deputy Special Representative, Jacqueline Badcock, made reference to it during a press conference with Geneva, but it is trying to clarify in which context it was said. The United Nations is looking into the issue and trying to verify the information and will clarify accordingly. At this point, the United Nations cannot confirm or deny any of the media reports on the subject. Yes, please?
Question: So, obviously, you don’t want to point any fingers until an investigation has been done into this school attack, but can you just please tell us, separately what would you, what is the UN’s message to the IDF? What is the UN’s message to Hamas?
Deputy Spokesman: Our message to all sides, and we’ve made this before, but we have to make it more emphatically, clearly, given what’s happened is that the facilities of the UN Relief and Works Agency and of the United Nation generally are off limits in any sort of conflict. They’re off limits in terms of being installations that cannot be hit, and they’re off limits in terms of being installations where you cannot try to conduct military activity or deposit arms or anything of that sort. They’re off limits entirely, and we need to be able to preserve the inviolability of UN premises. And you’ve dramatically a reason why that is. There were hundreds of people seeking safety and seeking refuge in our premises and now some of them have been killed and wounded as a result of this attack.
Question: I’m still a little confused because yesterday you said that, you’d mentioned that UN staff were killed in that attack. We spoke to John Ging who said that no UN staff were killed. But, the Secretary-General’s statement again said that UN staff were killed. Are we talking about that specific attack?
Deputy Spokesman: I believe… actually, I think the confusion is that I think the Secretary-General was mentioning UN staff being killed in the context of the fact that UN staff have been killed this week. As I think I mentioned yesterday, we’re aware that three staff members of the UN Relief and Works Agency have been killed, not in this incident. Two of them were killed in the shelling of a house and one of them was killed while walking her way home from her work. So, we have lost three people in recent days, but not in the Beit Hanoun attack, as far as I’m aware. I’m not aware of any casualties in terms of UN staff there.
Question: They were all teachers?
Deputy Spokesman: All three were women who were school teachers for the Relief and Works Agency. Yes, Sherwyn?
Question: Farhan, the UN message has been consistently that there needs to be a ceasefire first, the fighting needs to stop so that the root causes of this conflict can be addressed. I wonder what are some of these fundamental root causes that need to be addressed, given the broad sort of spectrum of negotiations that have been ongoing for so many years? What are these specific root causes that are a priority, so that we don’t get back here in six months? Give us a couple of the root causes.
Deputy Spokesman: Well, the Secretary-General has spelled them out. I don’t want to go into all the various remarks he has made. We seem to be issuing remarks by him every few hours; but you know what the problems are, especially the problems faced by the people of Gaza, who have been cut off in many ways from the outside world for some time. You’ve seen the problems that Israel has faced in terms of having assurances of its long-term security. There are a large number of long-standing issues that the parties have, which they need to deal with in a decisive way so that they don’t have to keep coming back and dealing with this every few years. Yes, Jonathan?
Question: Farhan, back to the tragic incident at the UNRWA school yesterday, do we have any idea where the gunfire came from? And also, how much of the work that the investigating team that was over there today did they accomplish? And what’s left to be done for them to wrap up their investigation?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, this was a preliminary visit to survey the site in the aftermath of the incident. And like I said, the mission had to be cut short because of gunfire around the school. So, they regret not being able to complete even an initial assessment. They will need to do far more than an initial assessment, but certainly, they’ll need to come back to do that. Yes, Luke?
Correspondent: Thanks. Two things, first, procedurally, briefly, I’ve tried to get in touch with UNRWA about the specific time that the shells fell yesterday, but I haven’t heard back. If you could lean on them or perhaps try to obtain that, it would be very useful, I think, to reconstruct a timeline.
Deputy Spokesman: Yeah, I’m trying to get that information. But, that is one of the many things that would be part of their investigation into this. But, I don’t have those details. I think they’re trying to do an overall investigation. [He later added that UNRWA said the attack happened at 14:55 local time on Thursday.]
Question: And second, you know, I talked to Stéphane [Dujarric] earlier, saying that the expectation is still that the Secretary-General will try to leave Cairo by the end of today. That’s a similar itinerary as the [ United States] Secretary of State. It looks like, you know, hearing what you’re saying, both of their activities today, their actions seem somewhat parallel at this point, and there’s been at least one meeting a day between the Secretary-General and John Kerry, each of the last four days. When you compare that level of collaboration, perhaps, to the beginning of the trip when they appeared to have more divergent itineraries, would you say it’s fair to say they’re operating more as a singular diplomatic unit at this point, holding so many meetings together, not really having separate meetings in different parts of the region?
Deputy Spokesman: No, I wouldn’t say that. I think it’s clear that as we get closer and closer to an effort to try and secure a deal, there’s more of a need to coordinate efforts. But, their efforts have been separate and they’ve been working with separate people. The Secretary-General, for example, today has had phone calls, I believe, with the Foreign Minister of Qatar, the Foreign Minister of Turkey. He’s continuing with his own individual efforts.
Question: But, to the best of your knowledge, they’re not on the same phone calls with the same regional leaders? Those are still separate outreaches?
Deputy Spokesman: Yes.
Question: Farhan, in terms of this gunfire, can you give us more detail about what kind of gunfire? Was it just local? Was there a sense that, perhaps, there was some, you know, Israeli bombing? Or what it was?
Deputy Spokesman: I’ll try to get further details from UNRWA, but at this point, I don’t have any more specific details. It was gunfire that was in the area and it forced them to vacate the premises.
Question: And just one quick question, turning to Syria: can you give us an update in terms of what the latest developments are there, in terms of humanitarian access or fighting, casualties? That sort of thing?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, what I can tell you on that is yesterday, a convoy of nine trucks crossed into Syria from the Turkish crossing at Bab al-Salam, carrying UN food, shelter, water purification and sanitation supplies. Yes, Erol?
Correspondent: Farhan, just in terms of what Secretary-General announced in his statement for Cairo, again. He specifically commended the peace initiative…
Deputy Spokesman: Again, that’s the statement that was retracted, is what you’re talking about. It’s not operable.
Question: Let me put it this way: as far as you know, can you say that there was any other peace initiative than Egyptian peace initiative that was on the table, that was considered by the Secretary-General, or that was the only one peace initiative?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, certainly, we’ve been trying to make advances with the Egyptian-led peace initiative, but in terms of what’s on the table, I think it will become more clear in the hours ahead. So I’d, in this sense, basically beg your patience to see whether he has something to say in the coming hours and then that will make it more clear.
Question: Farhan, my question is regarding the negotiations. The Israeli representative here said the goal of this war is to destroy Hamas. Is this still the main goal while the negotiations are ongoing? Is this what the Israelis are saying in their negotiations with the Secretary-General or with the Americans? Or have they come down from that goal?
Deputy Spokesman: I don’t speak for the Israeli Government and can’t attest to what their goals are.
Correspondent: Probably you are privy to know what’s going on in negotiations.
Deputy Spokesman: The negotiations are continuing and the objective of the negotiations is to see what kind of ceasefire can be obtained.
Correspondent: I have another question regarding the religious sites.
Deputy Spokesman: Let’s move it around and we’ll come back to you. Sherwyn?
Question: Farhan, thanks, I just wanted to talk about how Chris Guinness has been characterizing the attack on the school, the UNRWA spokesperson. He has said that it’s beyond miraculous to suggest that Hamas rockets, these Qassam rockets, the inaccuracy with which they travel, could have in a sequence of minutes hit the same target several times. He seems to be taking a very more direct approach regarding who’s responsible here than you are. And I wonder why the characterizations are so different, given that it’s both United Nations spokespeople?
Deputy Spokesman: Yeah, I’m aware of Mr. Guinness’s remarks. At the same time, we want to be sure of who is responsible before we cast blame, and of course, the investigation still needs to proceed. UNRWA itself has been trying today to proceed with that investigation and of course, for the reasons I just described, they weren’t able to do their activities today, but we’ll keep with that, because it is important to get to the basic facts. Having said that, yes, I’m aware of what he said. Yes, Asma?
Question: Thank you, Farhan. I have a question from two days ago about the remarks of the Secretary-General when he was meeting Shimon Peres. The script which we have, it was written that the Secretary-General thanked Shimon Peres and thanked him for his contribution to peace, security and human rights for the international community. I just wanted to ask, which contribution to peace and security and human rights, which Shimon Peres participated, which the Secretary-General talked about?
Deputy Spokesman: I don’t really have much to add to the Secretary-General’s own words. He was referring to Mr. Peres’ career as a whole, during which time he’s been involved in many different peace efforts.
Question: Because it’s strange that all these people are killed by Israel and then Secretary-General speak about the security and human rights… is it strange, or not? I don’t want to…
Deputy Spokesman: Like I said, he was referring to Mr. Peres’ very lengthy career as a diplomat, as a statesman.
Question: But, how we can guarantee accountability if Shimon Peres is thanked for his contribution to peace?
Deputy Spokesman: Like I said, I don’t have anything to add to what he said. His words speak for themselves. Yes?
Question: Sure, thanks, Farhan. I was going to try to approach this later, but it became relevant when you said the Secretary-General has spoken with the Foreign Minister of Qatar today. I just wanted to know, just factually, I know that he began the trip on the Qatar-funded, British-registered private jet. That he took a Saudi plane, I guess to Saudi Arabia. If you can, it seems like probably you’d know, how did he get to Cairo? How does he intend to return to New York? And do you have any answer on this idea of the five most recent trips that were funded by Member State, where they were to and who funded them?
Deputy Spokesman: No, as I explained to you yesterday afternoon, that would take quite a bit of research with a number of different trip captains to do that.
Question: Sure. How did he get to Cairo? I mean, I’ve seen the photo of him stepping off the plane; what plane was that?
Deputy Spokesman: I do not know. I’d need to get that from Steph.
Question: I’m not sure if I got you right, but you said before that, regarding the school, that UNRWA workers were supposed to get permission to leave and to go somewhere else? And they didn’t get the permission?
Deputy Spokesman: We’ve been seeking clearance to evacuate…
Question: But it was before the attack, no?
Deputy Spokesman: This was prior to the attack. The idea is that we wanted to get evacuation so that people could be guarantee safety as they tried to leave.
Question: But, why did they want to leave? They wanted to leave because they got news that there would be an attack? From whom they got this news, then?
Deputy Spokesman: They were worried because there was fighting nearby. That was the basic point — there was fighting in the area.
Question: But, there’s bombarding in the area all over Gaza Strip. So, I don’t understand why they wanted to evacuate this school, and from whom they didn’t get the permission? From the Israeli Army? This is usually where they have to get the permission from, to move?
Deputy Spokesman: Yeah, exactly. They were seeking that type of clearance. Again, it was because of the risky environment because of fighting, including sounds of explosions in the area. So, they needed to see whether they could get people to a safer area. Yes?
Question: The Prime Minister of Israel they said that it is not the time of ceasefire, it is the time of protecting Israel. And this is after the meeting with the Secretary-General. It means that the meeting has no results, any results. I wanted just to know, in regarding to that, what is the specific plan which is going to be done for making ceasefire, even in the time of Eid?
Deputy Spokesman: We’ll have to see what plan can be arrived at. Like I said, bear with us and hopefully we’ll be able to have something more in the coming hours on that. Yes?
Question: On a different conflict, there’s a lot of reports that the Netherland and Australia intend to send armed police to the site of the MH17 crash in eastern Ukraine. So, I wanted to know, one, does the… obviously, it’s a pretty tricky situation, given that it’s held by separatists. Is there any UN involvement in trying to bring about this deployment? Does the Secretary-General believe that such a deployment would go through the Security Council? Should go through the Security Council? Should the consent of the separatists be sought to avoid a conflict? What’s the UN’s thinking on this deployment of armed individuals into a conflict zone?
Deputy Spokesman: I believe that this is an issue that may come up, among the members of the Security Council in the coming days, so I’ll leave it in their hands. Yes?
Question: Yeah, the destruction of religious sites have become a norm, obviously, in the Middle East because of ISIS or ISIL and also, in the occupied territories, where Al-Aqsa Mosque is threatened. What’s the message of the United Nations, I mean, to stop such ransacking or desecration of such places and to preserve such very sensitive sites and respected worship by many people in the world?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, the United Nations has repeatedly called for respect for all cultural heritage and we’re opposed to the destruction of cultural heritage in any of these countries. As you know, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has also tried to work in many of these cases to see what can be done to preserve or restore cultural heritage that has been damaged or destroyed during fighting. Have a good weekend, everyone.
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