Welcome to the United Nations. It's your world.

Deputy Secretary-General Press Conferences

Press Conferences

Transcript of press conference by the United Nations Deputy Secretary-General (DSG) in Geneva

Geneva, 15 October 2015

Deputy Secretary-General:  Thank you very much Ahmad, I'm very glad to be here.  Again, thank you for your gentle reminder of my age.  I was here, I spent months here, in 1988, with the Iran-Iraq talks on resolution 598.  So I have strong memories form this place, also meeting, probably your predecessors, in several cases.  And I'm very glad to be here in Geneva: the capital of humanitarian action, the capital of human-rights, and growingly involved in also peace-making activities, talks, negations, on conflict areas which plague our world today.  I've been at a meeting on Humanitarian Summit that is being planned in Istanbul next year. I'm going to meet Member States tomorrow to discuss the new Sustainable Development Goals.  Lots of things are going on.  But Ahmad is right, I just came back last night from a visit to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, and Turkey.  And of course, the subjects of those meetings and discussions, which were very lengthy, and very serious, were mostly the conflicts in the area.  Primarily the war in Syria, the war in Libya—sorry the war in Yemen—and the situation between the different countries in the region, in particular Saudi Arabia and Iran.  Those were the key subject that were being discussed.  And I can say a few words in introduction about these three issues.

On Syria, there was a very strong emphasis, in particular in  Iran but also from  Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE), on the threat of terrorism.  It is a common challenge, a common issue, to deal with from all sides.  And in fact, terrorism has made gains because of the on-going wars, both in Yemen and in Syria.  So that issue came up very strongly, that this issue has to be dealt with.  There was also a discussion about the military activities both in Yemen, of course, and in Saudi Arabia.  And in the Yemen case, I found an interest both from the Saudi side and the UAE side—and Iran—to encourage talks to start as soon as possible.  Our negotiator, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, is proposing talks within the next few weeks and we very much hope that these talks will take place.  And that that will be combined with a reduction of violence and cessation of hostilities which is part actually of resolution 2216, which is a basis of the talks.  The Houthis have sent a letter to the Secretary-General, which was a positive move.  We hope that the Hadi Government will also come to the talks now,  and that both sides will come to the talks without preconditions, and that they will send strong delegations to the talks.

On Syria, of course, there is increased military actions from several sides.  There was a lot of discussion on the Russian actions in Syria, and there was a hope expressed particularly from the Saudis and the UAE that that military action would be solely directed towards terrorism: Daesh, ISIS, primarily. There were doubt raised by some quarters on the Saudi and UAE aside that there were other objectives for that operation, but generally it was seen, particularly by Iran, as a positive contribution.  That the terrorist threat must be dealt with first.  I made the case, as probably you heard from Staffan de Mistura a couple days ago, that we need simultaneously as this military action is going on, to move in the direction of political talks.  We are in desperate need of ending this war.  Not only because of the suffering and enormous humanitarian challenges that we face, in particular facing this winter, another winter to support these great numbers of people in need, but also because of the dangers of this war leading to further political damage.  I think we have had enough political damage if we add up the role of Daesh and ISIL in Iraq and Syria of course, and the pressures on neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan.  We can see an increase in terrorism if this goes on, in different directions.  And therefore I think there is need to recall, from the United Nations side particularly, the formula that Kofi Annan negotiated, together with all relevant parties, on the 30th of June 2012.  Particularly the point made in that document, as you recall, about the need for a transitional governing body with full executive powers to open up for a constitutional process and later for the Syrian  people to decide their own future. 

This was an issue I discussed with all sides, there is a certain hope that one could move in that political direction and I would hope that the key political actors accept their responsibility.  That responsibility lies of course with the Security Council which has the authority to deal with all issues related to international peace and security, and primarily in this case, I think,  the United States and Russia have an important role and that the consultations between them should continue also on the issues of the political process, not only on the military actions going on right now.  I also hope that the countries in the reign would accept their responsibility; we will not have peace in Syria without the support of the Security Council AND the countries in the region.  And in the speech by the Secretary-General in the General Assembly on the 28th of September, the Secretary-General named the countries who had the key role.  He mentioned the United States and Russia, he mentioned Saudi Arabia and Iran, and he mentioned Turkey.  I would also add of course other P5 countries, and not least the European Union to also play their role, and other regional actors.  There is a need to combine our positive efforts of the Security Council and regional actors if we are to get the political process going ,which is so, so necessary. 

On the relationship in the region, there is deep mistrust, lack of confidence between the countries in the Arab world, most of them that I understand, but particular the two countries that I mentioned and visited, the UAE United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, about the Iranian intentions.  Conversely, and in the same vein, the Iranians have   similar mistrust on actions taken by the Saudi side.  And this gulf of trust is a very dangerous political fact in today’s world.  Normally, foreign policy can be understood from the perspective of geography, history and culture and in the end is important to find, create an atmosphere of dialogue even if you don’t agree on many issues.  Such dialogue is not taking place right now and I think is important that different parties in this region realize the value of at least talking and discussing their issues.  This is an underlying problem which has ramifications for both developments in Yemen and Syria. 

Q:  I would like to ask you specifically about Saudi Arabia and Yemen.  Do you have a sense of Saudi Arabia once to get out of this mess that it’s gotten into in regards to the air campaign which has been going on since March and that it will be more interested in reaching some sort of an agreement with the Houthis to get out of this?  Did you in your talks and all discussion what is your view of Amnesty International charges that the Saudi Arabia-led coalition has allegedly being involved in war crimes; is this something that you discuss, what is your view about this?  In the upcoming talks, the issues that you will be discussing are the cease fire and also the lifting of the blockade, what will you principally be discussing? 

DSG:  I found both in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates a desire, a will to move to the political phase as soon as possible.  I asked both sides to make that case very strongly to Hadi Government.  The UAE has lost great number of soldiers in the operations; t is a country of 1.2 million people so certainly has affected that country.  On the other hand, there was on both sides very strong point made about what they call stopping the Iranian influence in the region.  Now I quote them, and that goal ranges from Syria, to Iraq, to Lebanon, to Bahrain, and now they felt that the Houthis were encouraged by the Iranians to go on with their political ambitions.  They also see in both sides, both UAE and the Saudis a role for the Houthis in the future governance of the country, although not to the extent that they will lead the country, but play the role that was in line with the size of the presence in the country.  And they felt that there was a long term interest to have a neighbouring country where they did not expect hostile action and you know the Houthis and the group that sympathized were they mostly in their neighbouring area and they also promise that when the war is over reconstruction will come from both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.  So we hope the talks will start and hope the Hadi government will accept them and that both sides will come to the talks without preconditions on the basis on the resolution 2216, and I think that 2216 builds on both the issues related to cease fire and the political process ahead, and I suppose also humanitarian action will come in because we have a hugely critical situation in this regard.  The Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, has several times spoken out about the humanitarian and human effects of the bombings, the aerial bombings but also about the attacks from the ground on the Huttis side whether this is war crimes is something that needs to be seen from the serious point of accountability, but we certainly have seen the effects of the bombings and the military activities on the ground which have destroy even civilian targets and has added enormously dangers humanitarian effect, so we take this very seriously and it is just an example of the horrors that we see right now.  I also want to repeat my point that Al Qaeda has increased their influence and their territorial control because of this war.  So that is the irony that you have this extreme groups gaining from both the war in Syria and the war in Libya—sorry, war in Yemen—continuing. 

We are talking about the lifting of the blockage already now, we have developed a UN verification mechanism for commerce to come in, particularly important to get fuel into the country.  That has been going on independently of the talks, we also release funds that were discussed for a long time which were resting with the Salman Foundation and we have reached satisfactory agreement with the Salman Foundation about using this funds for humanitarian action in the country and we are also in discussion about opening the ports for access to Yemen.  So that will go on even without the talks starting but I am sure they will be parts of the talks. 

Q:  The office of the High Commission for Human Rights issued a report where stated that two thirds of the civil causalities were made by the coalition.  Did you raise this issue with the person that you met in Saudi Arabia, did you specifically ask them and said that this is stated by the UN not by the Amnesty International?  You said that you hope for the talks in Yemen to start in the next few weeks but just two days ago the Houthis leadership said that they will crash the coalition and they expel of the country, so this is not a peaceful statement. 

DSG:  Well I certainly made the point about the civilian casualties and the people wounded because of the aerial bombings.  And I did repeat, at least as I recall, in one of the two countries, the proportion that you just mentioned that two-thirds of the damage, or casualties, are by aerial bombings.  I made that case and it was registered.  On the second point, I hope I didn't give to over- optimistic view; I perhaps also told you about the deep mistrust that exists between key actors, not least between Saudi Arabia and UAE on one side and Iran on the other, and that I need to balance possible optimism with this very serious problem that we have such lack trust among the different actors.  But I think that the talks have, - there is a very strong logic for the talks to start, because as I have said, you have Al Qaeda gaining from it, you have tremendous human suffering, and you will have huge problems of reconciliation, and repair, and reparations coming, so the logic is there.  There is a need for the talks.  There is always moves before a talk starts, there have been some questions raised not only by the Houthis but by the Hadi Government about the talks and scepticism about starting the talks.  And I saw that statement that you just referred to.  I would hope that this would not exclude for them to go to the talks and discuss how a medium and long-term solution should look like.  I would just appeal to both sides and to all sides that can influence the parties that they really now should not miss this opportunity.  We in fact had hopes that these talks would start about three weeks ago. But it was aborted unfortunately.  But now we have made another try and we have received this letter from the Houthis, we got indication from both Saudi and UAE that they are willing to push for it and I would just take it from there and hope that everybody realizes that we have to have a political process in both Yemen and Syria. 

Q:  The humanitarian situation is really bad in Syria, especially with the start of the Russian intervention there, and the start of the fight against terrorism.  Don’t you think it’s time to ask maybe Assad and Russia to help to create humanitarian access to some areas, for example Hama?  Don’t you think it is time to start, to raise the questions about the peace keeping mission in Syria, taking into account that there are now a lot of actors such as the United States and Russia? Thank you.

DSG:  We would very much encourage every attempt to create local ceasefires.  There has been one successful case just recently and I think that in the absence of stopping the fighting all over the country, we should at least now, before the winter starts, try to de-escalate and reduce the level of violence.  De-escalation is, in my experience from my negotiations, a very important part of coming to a conclusion about talks.  So even if now we are going through a period of escalation, as it seems, there has to be also a de-escalation by local ceasefires.  I would encourage that strongly.  There are at least three or four  areas where ceasefires could be attempted and I have encouraged all parties to move into that direction; and I think Staffan di Mistura is doing the same right now. 
Whether we will have a peace keeping operation is another issue.  Any peace keeping operation requires the decision by the United Nations Security Council and - I don't think it's a secret that I say this to you – that we have lacked a serious or strong Security Council resolution on Syria ever since the war started.  And this is one of the problems that great negotiators, like Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, have gone through huge difficulties and, in the end, resigned.  Now we have Staffan di Mistura, heroically, trying to bring the consultations here to life. 

But of course it requires political will from the Security Council and the countries in the region to get this to come to an end.  If the Security Council comes to the decision that there is need for an international presence, that is of course something the Council has to decide.  We are not at that stage yet.  I think the stage we have to reach now is to make sure that the military actions, if they continue, are dealing with the terrorist threat.  By reducing this thread, we are increasing the possibilities to start the political process.  What the political process would lead to, I cannot spell out, but I think that a great starting point is the Communique from 30th June.  And also, certain contributions that are coming from different quarters that we have been in contact with, and I don't think that distance between the parties in insurmountable, if there is political will now.  Paradoxically, we could use this serious part of the risks involved with the present escalation to now, really, also create credible track on the political area. 

Q:  I found it very interesting that you mentioned the gulf of mistrust and the importance of having an atmosphere to talk, even if you don't agree, as I followed the Iran talks and I found that this is particularly important in that negotiation as the US and Iran, as we know, had such a long history of mistrust.  They overcame it, and then they came out with something positive, just a couple of days ago. That also went through the Iranian parliament.  So, has that success story so far given any impetus or positive influence on the mistrust you were just talking about?  Secondly, what is happening in Kunduz, Afghanistan, is very alarming.  Women were again harmed or threatened by all kinds of violence by the Taliban.  What is the UN view on that?  And what must be done at this moment to prevent a situation going back to before 2001. 

DSG:  Thank you for that question because that gives me reason to give more of good news from my visit.  I should have said that in my introduction, of course, that I was in Iran exactly those days when there was a discussion, deliberations in the Parliament, the Majlis.  Lively discussions and two schools of thought were clashing but in the end there was a solid majority in favour of the P5+1 and Iran agreement and I think we and the international community should welcome this very warmly.  I think this is a sign that patient, and skilful, diplomacy works.  And that we should use the method of dialogue, as much as possible, to deal with even such difficult and sometime intractable questions such as the issues that have been the object of these talks for three years.  I felt with all the people I met in the government, and I met a lot of them in Iran,  that there is a great sense of relief and achievement in Iran and I would hope, personally and also from the UN point of view, that this would also be translated into a closer cooperation with the outside world, not least the United Nations.  I felt a strong attachment to working through the United Nations in Iran and also, by the way, in UAE and Saudi Arabia.  In Iran, there was even a celebration of the UN 70th anniversary when I was there.  I saw something almost incredible; there was a whole bridge that was lit up in blue in honour of the United Nations done by the city of Tehran, as a side remark.

I made very strongly the case, of course, with my background and experience, that dialogue and reconciliation is a long term process and that you have to build confidence.  I was involved already in the negotiations in Europe, in 1975, the Helsinki final act.  I was involved in the confidence building measures that were developed in the 1980s.  And I would claim that the end of the Cold War, the fall of that Wall in 1989, resulted from a process of confidence building with political dialogue, economic exchange, human exchange, people-to-people contact, cultural contact.  That was the process that led to the fall of the Wall.  And I would claim, that even if you cannot compare Saudi Arabia and Iran to the Cold War, I think a similar process in the end is necessary. 

There is a need to realize that history, geography and respect of culture should bring these nations together, because this ongoing rivalry and competition and interference as it is seen by both sides, is damaging the possibilities of finding solutions to many of the regional conflicts.  So it is both the matter of immediate concern of starting talks, but it is also a matter of medium and long-term talk of creating confidence and belief in diplomacy, belief in patient diplomacy.

Women (in Kunduz, Afghanistan), yes, I saw the same report and I was very upset, I would hope to God that we don’t have to go back to the period before 2002.  Turn back the clock would be horrible in Afghanistan.  I’ve been there recently and I’ve seen the great progress for women, and the rise of really a movement of women’s empowerment in Afghanistan.  It would be a historic injustice, if they were to be successful and turn women’s situation in different direction.  I am also, of course like the Secretary-General, upset and he has made statements about Kunduz situation, particularly the bombing, and we hope that that will be dealt with in a way that is credible when that investigation once is finished.

Q:  Mr. de Mistura talked about the fear of partition in Syria.  Do you fear the same, could you elaborate on this idea?  And also, during this weeks of Russia’s airstrikes, did you feel that those airstrikes were effective?  ISIS is weakened, I mean their position is diminished.

DSG:  Well, as representative of the United Nations, I of course would very much stand by the principles of territorial integrity.  Any division of a country is a very painful process and can just lead to a continued civil war.  I would, both in the case of Syria and in the case of Iraq, strongly make the case for keeping the nations together.  I say this also from the perspective of a fear that I have that ethnic and religious factors divide nations more and more.  This is an extremely dangerous trend.  Can you imagine the world where nations are defined by homogenous ethnic or religious belongings?  We would have a horrible world.  I think it is important that we make the case that we can live together in different ethnic and religious groups.  It might seem easy way to divide countries to solve the problem, but what you do in fact was you build in, you confirm that religious and ethnic divisions legitimize the separation of a country.  I would claim very strongly that this is a challenge to the governments of countries to give decent life to people, to their citizens, they have to give them peace, development and human rights, and this is the basis of keeping the nations together.  And we have to maintain diversity of our nations, we have diversity in practically every nation: just look what migration does to Europe and to the United States.  That diversity is a sense of, a source of richness, not source of separation.  So I strongly share Staffan de Mistura’s concerns, if he expressed those.

Yes, Russia.  I am not a military expert; I read the media, I receive some reports, I see contradictory reports that, yes ISIS Daesh positions are being targeted.  I see also reports about other targets being hit, and that is, of course, a complication.  The need is to deal with the terrorist threat which is recognized by all.  I would say there was probably the only, one of the few unifying points during my talks, was the seriousness, seen from different perspectives.  And of course the need to deal with foreign influence and stopping foreign fighters from any direction, from any direction.   And financing or encouraging military, military solution, so called solution to the problems, but I am  really not a military expert on this and I do not have sources close enough to the realities on the ground.  But I would hope that the operations are indeed aimed for what they were told to be, told by the Russians to us, and that they would not be of a prolonged nature, but  that they would be now accompanied as soon as possible, by a political process.

Q:  I’d like to ask you two questions.  One is about Libya: what chances do you give for sustained peace in Libya after Bernadino Leon’s deal?  Secondly, about Syria: you say that there is a chance now of, perhaps a chance of resolving things.  The way many people saw it the Russian escalation will allow or may allow some peace, more on less on Russia’s terms, which means on Assad’s terms.  And if that’s the case, if there is a peace where Assad is allowed to stay at the table, what hope do you see of prosecuting war crimes committed by pro-Assad forces?  What guarantees or what are the Russians saying to you about what they think, you know, is a way of prosecuting those crimes if Assad were to stay on, because obviously, people would see him as getting  a free pass, there would be a lot of disquiet and the war might not stop.  Thanks. 

DSG:  I have to be rather brief on the Libya file because I have dealt 100 per cent and more with Syria and Yemen during my trip, so I hadn’t follow the Libya situation very closely, but I was very happy to see the agreement that came about a few days ago, and I just hope now and we hope that everybody would line up behind that agreement.  The situation is critical in Libya and it is important both for the Libyan people and for the region that that issue is solved.  Here I would also say that the phenomenon that we see in the Middle East and in parts of Africa today - and I have followed this for three and a half years as a Deputy Secretary-General - is the growing trend of external influence over the developments inside countries.  You have heard  the term proxy wars, of course.  We have now good cooperation with the Member States who have interest in that situation, and we hope that that would lead to the full agreement and the full implementation of the agreement.  You, Ahmad, remember that when we were negotiating, when I was negotiating the Darfur crisis, how important it was important for me to travel to Chad, Libya, Egypt, and Eritrea in order to find the solution.  And that trend has continued even more, the outside influence on internal situations.  That was a very dangerous trend.  That has complicated our work on Syria, of course, and partly also on Yemen.  But on Libya, I can just express admiration for the work by my colleague Leon Bernardino, Leon, and hope that all parties now line up behind that agreement. 

Yes, here I must say, I know we are at a situation where we either in Syria we see the continued escalation and prolongation of the conflict.  Yes, I admit that, I don’t want to be over-optimistic on this.  But I also say that, paradoxically, you can also use the situation to come to the point that you need to have parallel political process, and I don’t think it is so difficult if we have as a starting base, staring point the Geneva Agreement of the 30the of  June 2012.  The Iranians presented a four-point plan where they talked about the Government of National Unity, there is similar thinking from others that I cannot go further into detail.  But I think that, if you analyse the world transition, you realize there has to be an element of bringing in different parties to this conflict - and I admit, it is harder today that it was three years ago – but different parties to the conflict to create a transitional body, and that raises the issue which I will not dwell into in detail, but of course, the Assad Government’s role during this transition.  And there I think you see probably one of the most difficult parts of the negotiations.

On the war crimes, the Secretary-General in his speech on the 28 of September brought out the five key countries that he pointed to as playing the key role, and he also mentioned that we must not forget that with the horrors of this war, with almost a quarter of a million people now been killed, and the horrific destruction of the country, and the warfare - including chemical weapons and different form of bombs and artillery used - then of course, automatically the issue of accountability comes up.  And, at some stage that issue has to come up.  How and when, I do not know, all attempts to bring this issue at the Security Council have failed as of yet, but it is certainly from the point of the values of the United Nations stands for, an issue which must not be forgotten.

Q:  It is a little difficult to reconcile what you say was Saudi Arabia’s profession of desire for political of discussion, with the fact that the Hadi Government based in Riyadh is still demanding preconditions and withdrawal from territories gained.  So is the idea that, you know, we are now moving towards political phase – is that a wish or is that something that in your discussion convinces you  that we have turned the corner and that we are really moving into that

DSG:  Well, I can certainly confirm that it is a wish, but I, we have been disappointed before.  The Geneva Talks here started, but not very much came out of it.  We have been struggling to get these Talks started again, we had hopes about three week ago.  But there was an important letter received by the United Nations from the Houthis, where they confirmed their adherence to the resolution 2216, which was always the strongest requirement form the Hadi Government, the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates.  There are signs now that it will be difficult for them to come to that final decision to come to the talks.  We have the Hadi Government’s comments  that you just referred to, we also have the action taken by a colleague of yours who raised the issue of the statement by the Houthis.  I would hope that they would do those statements as sometimes happened before the negotiations start and they realize that this has to start immediately.

I felt a genuine desire from the side of Saudis and the United Arab Emirates to come to the political process, but of course they have expectations from these talks that might not coincide with what the Houthis would like to see.  So, there is, of course, manoeuvring from by both sides, and I would hope that not only the parties to the conflict, but also other governments now would do their best to influence the two sides to come to an agreement.  We see the cost in terms of human losses, and we see the terms of the gains of terrorism on the ground, as a reason enough to go ahead.  So, if logic would prevail, these talks would start very soon.  We have suggested that they start before the end of this month.  Well, if it was wishful thinking or not, I would hope it is not, it is a necessity to start a political process on Yemen.  My experience from having worked both Iran-Iraq war and the Syria war is that, if you want to end a war, do it early.  If the war lasts, you know, it is just getting worse.  I negotiated, I was part of the negotiation on 598 in 1987, and then I took over the talks, and I was part of the first negotiation team lead by Prime Minister Olof Palme of Sweden – I am from Sweden -   believe it or not, what we proposed in 1981, only a year into that war, is not too far away from what was the agreement in 1988.  The difference is 700,000 people killed and you see the results of that war. 

On Syria, Kofi Annan – you were there, Ahmad - negotiated together with our great colleagues, this Communique; if that had been turned into a binding Security Council resolution, we might have had the situation where the opposition was clear, we would have two negotiation parties able to go to the work.  Now we have the situation of ISIS controlling large parts of terriers it is hard to identify who are the guys on the other side, who are the people sitting on the other side of the table.  And Yemen had been on since March last year, still pretty early on although there was tremendous destruction -  now is the time to get the talks started.  That is our job.  Charter VI of the United Nations Charter.  Chapter VI of the United Nations Charter, pacific settlement of disputes, peaceful settlement of disputes.  That is our job, I think United Nations’ best comparative advantage: negotiations, mediations, arbitrations – article 33.  We need Chapter VII also, because that is the muscular part that we need to have to add to the credibility of talks.  We have to get back to talking, we have to have the narrative of peace.

Q :  Sur la succession d'António Guterres, qui est un poste important en ce moment de crise des refugiés, ou en êtes-vous?  Je crois que vous êtes en charge de proposer des noms sur une «short list».  Et une question corollaire à ça: est-ce que le HCR peut être dirigé par un ressortissant d'un pays avec une politique très restrictive sur les réfugiés?  Je pense spécifiquement à l’ancienne Première Ministre danoise qui s'est déclarée pour le poste.

DSG:  If there was anything I will not discuss here, it is the process that we follow to fill one of the most important posts of the United Nations.  I cannot comment on this.  Normally I don’t like that “No comment”, but I have to be very strict on this one.  I cannot comment on that.


Press Conferences on 15 October 2015