Deputy Secretary-General's press conference
New York, 2 October 2012
It’s very good to be with you. I know several of you from earlier incarnations in my former life and I look forward to working closely with you. I have been in this office now for three months – it feels a bit longer, but it’s been a very intense period. And the most intense period was, of course, the last ten days with the opening of the General Assembly and the gathering of Heads of State, Heads of Government and Foreign Ministers from all over the world last week.
I will give an introduction that will take 7/8 minutes. I hope you bear with me to try to give you a sense of, first of all, the temperature on the world scene, as seen from the past ten days. And then also, I will give you some insights into the meetings we had, both the political arena and on the development arena.
The meetings we had were with 75 Heads of State and Heads of Government and 40 Foreign Ministers. The Secretary-General had 150 meetings, I think. I had a third of it.
We were noting very clearly that the United Nations and New York at this time of the year is a primary meeting place. A place to go, to not only present the governments’ views of the world in the speeches, but also to meet relevant other partners in an atmosphere where you could both have public meetings and private meetings. And I think that is very much an advantage for us in the United Nations. We found very much, and heard also from comments from Heads of State and Government and Prime Ministers, that this was very useful. So we had sort of confirmation of the UN as a meeting place, also, in my view, a place where we set out new norms. You remember the discussion on the responsibility to protect – you remember now, the beginning of last week was discussion on the rule of law, which is extremely important, both for peace and security and development and human rights. The third aspect, except the meeting place dimension and the norm setting, is how the United Nations can create partnerships and dynamism in the area of development.
So I think these three aspects of last week are important: meeting place, setting out new norms and partnerships.
I was very much on the podium during the Debate and I was also in on several of the meetings with the Secretary-General and I had my own meetings. And, if I look back at these discussions, there were certain themes that came back, were recurrent. I think the most important subject, the one that was mentioned in practically every meeting, was the situation in Syria, often with a sense of alarm, a sense of frustration that this conflict continues.
There was also the discussion - the tension of the three elements on the situation in terms of the incidents with the film, the video which related to issues of principle which had to do with the basic human rights of freedom of speech and freedom of expression, but then also, with the importance of avoiding provocations and misusing the freedom of speech. And the third element - of course - the clear condemnation of violence as a response to those provocations. That theme came back also, you may recall, for instance, the speech of the President of the United States, which was devoted to a large part to this issue.
Palestine/Israel, of course, constantly there. Rule of law came back very often in the speeches, maybe because we had that high level meeting on Monday, at the beginning of the week. And nuclear disarmament, related very much to Iran, and climate change. Those were the issues that came to mind immediately, but then also I felt it was important to listen very carefully to the voices which called for achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the hope that we could set a good, realistic agenda for development after 2015, when the MDGs expire.
This would be my summary of the themes.
Then there were two categories of special events. One in the political arena and the other one in the developmental one. On the political side, I think there were two meetings which were good news. The first one was, of course, the meeting on Sudan and South Sudan, and the consultative forum, where we noted the very positive progress in Somalia and the intentions of the new President. He was sitting in on the meeting until 3am in the morning, Somali time, and followed every intervention at that meeting. He felt he wanted to be close to his own people at this time, so he was in there by teleconference. But I think we should really commend the Somali people and the Somali Government and President for the efforts taken to bring Somalia back to normalcy. I was there 20 years ago during the horrors of the period 1992/93 and Somalia simply has to get out of this ‘failed state syndrome’. They have a chance now and I think both the Somalis themselves and the international community have an obligation to contribute to this positive development that we noted at that meeting.
The second good news…sorry, I now mixed Somalia with Sudan, didn’t I? The two good [items] of news are South Sudan, Sudan of course, and the other one is Somalia. I already commented on Somalia.
On South Sudan and Sudan, there was an agreement, as you know, in Addis [Ababa] about border issues and there was also an agreement on oil, which now we hope to be implemented soon, but it will take some time, unfortunately. But was a very important step in the relationship between South Sudan and Sudan and we hope now that the outstanding issues will be dealt with – the Abyei situation, which needs a referendum for the final settlement of that issue, and then of course, the troublesome situation in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile.
There was also a meeting on the Sahel region which is in great danger – 18 million people are at risk because of the very serious drought, which has gone on for a long time, and, of course, this is exacerbated by problems around north Mali which, of course, are obvious to all, where there’s a discussion going on inside ECOWAS [Economic Community of West African States], the regional organization, but involving, of course, also if this matter will come to some type of decision, the African Union and the Security Council. Those discussions are not finalized.
There was, lastly, on the political side, a meeting on DRC - Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where, unfortunately, there is still lack of clarity on the international use of force and, I must admit, there was no narrowing of the positions between the DRC and Rwanda at that meeting. But mostly positive news on South Sudan/Sudan and on Somalia.
Lastly, special events on the development side: First of all, there was a strong vitalization on the work among the Millennium Development Goal advocates, co-chaired by President [Paul] Kagame of Rwanda and now with a new co-chair, Prime Minister [Julia] Gillard of Australia. I was in on that meeting myself and felt the energy in the room. And everybody should now be reminded that we have 3 years and 3 months to go to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. Even if we now spend a lot of time discussing the sustainable development goals – there is a working group set up, or going to be set up between governments - and we discussed also the post-2015 development agenda, the High Level Panel, which started its work last week. We should never forget that we have still work to do on the present Millennium Development Goals. There [are] grave deficiencies in the achievement of these goals. Maternal health is far too slow in making progress, sadly enough. And I myself have worked very much with water and sanitation. For sanitation, it is almost scandalous that so little is going to be achieved. We have to wait for 100 years south of Sahara to achieve the goals for sanitation. So, in other words, we should remember that we should give new energy for achieving the present MDGs.
Then there were efforts by the Secretary-General to give an extra push through partnerships on the development side. And you already know about the project ‘Every Woman Every Child’. There were new commitments to that programme which works very well – it’s very well received.
The second such initiative is ‘Sustainable Energy for All’, which is also proof of something interesting which is happening right now. And that is the growing relationship between the United Nations and the World Bank. The old issue that you all remember about the close relationship to Bretton Woods is now coming close to reality, with, first of all, the personal relationship between Ban Ki-moon and Jim [Yon] Kim, the President of the World Bank. But also the fact that the World Bank is interested in moving into issues related very much to the interests of the President of the World Bank - health issues. So we have projects coming up in a number of areas with the World Bank, and in fact we have had a delegation of 4 Assistant Secretaries-General from DESA [Department of Economic and Social Affairs], UNDP [United Nations Development Programme], UN Women and Amina Mohammed, who works with the post-2015 development agenda, in Washington at the World Bank. And we are receiving also people from the World Bank here. I think this is a qualitative and, hopefully , quantitative leap in that relationship that we could foresee, which is part of this need for partnerships, if we are to see results out there in the field.
There was also a meeting on Scaling Up on Nutrition. If you look at the children in North Korea and several other parts of the world, how stunted they are and never have a chance to grow up to full life, you realize the nutrition aspects, especially in view of the food price hike that we see right now.
Lastly, an issue to which the Secretary-General attaches very great important, and personally he feels very strongly about, ‘Education First’, where the former Prime Minister of the UK, Gordon Brown, is involved, but close together with UNESCO [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization] as a primary mover inside the UN system. We received strong commitments from many governments to this project of education, which also relates to one of the MDGs.
And then there was also the meeting on polio. You know there are three countries in the world where we still have polio: Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria. President Goodluck Jonathan committed that polio would be disappearing from his country during his term as President. And that shows, of course, his commitment also to use resources for this, with the help of the outside world, of course.
And then the Secretary-General also reminded me when I talked to him this morning about his priorities, “Don’t forget about the climate change issue”. He feels extremely strongly that we do not forget that issue and that we have work to do, Sometimes, you know, you run into the situation, don’t you, when people tell you when you have an idea, what is your plan B. But on this area, with climate change, I just suggest that there is no Planet B, and that is the spirit in which the Secretary-General looks at that issue.
That’s a long introduction, but we had an enormous number of activities, so you may have an understanding for the length of my introduction. Thank you.
Q: Mr. Eliasson, on behalf of the United Nations Correspondents Association, welcome to this press conference. I have a simple question. After all the speeches at the General Assembly, do you think that the Secretariat feels more strong or more impotent to find a peaceful solution in Syria?
DSG: Well, if you listen to the speeches from the podium, I very strongly noted the frustration of no movement, but almost all also pointed to the fact that the Security Council was not and is not united on this issue. When the Security Council is not united on the issue, it weakens the possibilities of the United Nations to make a difference.
We have two areas where we can act in this situation. One is to promote a political process, where of course Lakhdar Brahimi has the key role, and the other one is to deal with the humanitarian consequences of the situation. Those humanitarian consequences are not only limited today to Syria. They are very serious also in the neighbouring countries - Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Jordan. I have just come from a meeting where we looked at the consequences on one of these four countries. Where every day this conflict goes on, and it is almost unbearable, the Secretary-General feels extremely strongly about this, we also increase the risks of regional implications of a serious nature.
There are two ways that developments could go now. One is an escalation of hostilities with a belief on both sides that a military solution is possible. The other one is that one would hope for a possibility of a reduction of violence, and even in the best of cases, soon, a ceasefire. And with a ceasefire or reduction of fighting you would also enhance the chances to have political movement. It is hard to say which one of these options would be the one that we will see. But the consequences both for the people of Syria and the region are of course extremely serious if there is a belief that a military victory is possible.
On the other hand, we feel also the time factor, with 100 people, or 200 hundred people dying is an unbearable development. Therefore we hope to speed up all efforts. Lakhdar Brahimi will return to the area this week and continue his work. Then we hope that we will go in the direction of a reduction of violence to begin with. That should be our first goal.
Q: I do have a question, but: What do you mean by reduction of violence? That first, before my question: Who is going to reduce the violence? What is the mechanism?
DSG: Well, the mechanism is political will on the side of the Government to stop the violence against the Syrian population. There is artillery used against the population. The Secretary-General had a serious conversation with Foreign Minister [Walid] Al-Moualem of Syria yesterday about that. And then, of course, that this would be followed also by a reduction of violence on the other side as a consequence of the reduction of the violence on the first side. My experience from mediation in conflicts tells me that if you are to have a political process starting you cannot have an escalation of hostilities going on at the same time. If there is hope for a political solution, you have to reduce the level of violence and by that prepare the ground for a quick, fast movement on the political track.
And then, of course, in the end it is up to the leadership of Syria, and to the opposition in Syria, but it is also up to the Member States who can influence the parties on both sides. It is a very serious responsibility, which road they choose. Do they choose also to believe in the military solution, and take action in that vein, or would they choose the other road, and by that want to reduce the level of violence? That is another very important aspect.
Q: What I wanted to put to you is this question. Yesterday, at the Council on Foreign Relations, it was an on-the-record session with the Foreign Minister of Iran, he said the following – he said that he had presented a paper to Brahimi and to [Nabil] El Araby and he said also that he has invited the opposition to meet in Teheran, the Syrian opposition - we are still on Syria obviously – and he said that in his meetings with Brahimi, he said that our views converge, and he made a point to say that there are not much differences between the Iranian views and the views of the Secretary-General and his representative. Is this true? What’s in the paper, and is there a meeting to be held – are you encouraging a meeting for the opposition to be held in Teheran?
DSG: I have no knowledge of that, and I would doubt that the positions of Iran and Lakhdar Brahimi would be identical or even similar. All efforts to bring the opposition to a more unified position are of course welcome. There is a meeting evidently in Qatar soon on that subject. I have no information about the meeting in Iran, or the plans for such a meeting. And when I met Lakhdar Brahimi this morning, this matter was not mentioned.
Q: Are you aware that he presented a paper to Brahimi and El Araby – he said…
DSG: I am not aware of that, but I am going to have more meetings with Lakhdar Brahimi before he leaves.
Q: Deputy SG, thanks so much. You mentioned some of the main points from last week – just to go through them again: the situation in Syria, the Islamic video, the Palestine/Israeli question, nuclear disarmament with regards to Iran, climate change and the MDGs. All these issues appear to be no closer to resolution now than they were before the meetings started last week. I guess that begs the question, is the role of the United Nations diminishing in the resolution of these situations?
DSG: I think that you should look at the United Nations as a mirror of the world as it is, not a mirror of the world as we want it to be. I think also that we who work in the United Nations should try to diminish the distance between the world as it is and the world as it should be.
So, when you listen to the speeches, you get a reflection of the world as it is. The fact that they come here to discuss their issues, not only presenting them at the General Debate, but also having meetings at the side, shows that this is a very important meeting place – the primary meeting place for political, and I would hope, developmental, issues.
There was progress made. There was good news. I was extremely happy to hear about the Somalia meeting, which was of course a culmination of a process that had gone on earlier in Somalia.
And equally, on South Sudan-Sudan, I was in Addis Ababa and met the leadership of both sides to that conflict and felt that there was a positive development, and it was confirmed now with the agreements.
Also on development, the fact that you saw these commitments to ending polio, and you saw the commitments to the MDGs – it gave new energy to multilateralism.
But I recognise that we here in the United Nations have to prove that we can present international solutions that work. That is the big issue. And of course, I will admit totally that the fact that the Syria tragedy goes on day after day is very damaging for the standing of the United Nations. But let’s not forget…I am very much a field person…let’s not forget what goes on out there in the field, where lives are saved every day, that we remind ourselves that is also the reality of the United Nations.
What I would hope could be achieved is that we would come to the solution or come to the position that the good international solution – take climate or whatever issue you are thinking about – the good international solution is ultimately in the national interest. If we could take away the forced dichotomy between international and national solutions, that in fact the good international solution is in the national interest, then we have hope for the future.
Q: Mr. Deputy Secretary-General, you mentioned the Secretary-General’s meeting with the Foreign Minister of Syria. Did the Secretary-General or did you come away from that meeting with any sense that there was any hope that the Syrians were prepared to pull back their heavy weapons? And when you said that you thought that there were two roads – obviously, escalation of violence and diminishing violence – you seem to put them on the same par as possibilities. And I wondered what made you think that there was any real chance of de-escalating the violence, because I think as far as many of us have seen, we haven’t seen any signs.
DSG: Of course, you can imagine that the SG made a very strong case for the de-escalation, for the reduction of violence. It is a humanitarian disaster. It is also creating a situation where sectarian and other divisions will grow deeper. It will have regional implications and whoever continues to lead this country will have a country with very deep divisions, hatred and an enormous need for reconstruction and reconciliation. And this cannot simply go on forever. And therefore he made very strongly the case for a reduction of violence and, of course, in the best of cases, a ceasefire. And that is the case that we have to make and if that then could lead to a serious and rapid process to find a political solution in the spirit of the 30 June conclusions of transition, then I think we have a possibility. When I mentioned the two, I just mentioned this is the choice that the leadership of Syria has and the opposition also in response to this, and of course the Member States who have links and strong influence on the Government; respectively, the parties. This is a choice we have. I give no degree of probability for the two options.
Q: What was Foreign Minister Al-Moualem’s reaction?
DSG: He listened very carefully and promised to take this back to the leadership of Syria.
Q: You mentioned the Sudan/South Sudan meeting. I wanted to know, one aspect of that is this thing of the two areas – South Kordofan and Blue Nile State. One, does the Secretariat have any idea when aid will actually reach those areas? And also another issue on Sudan is Darfur – I know that you were the Special Envoy in a previous incarnation on that issue. Did it come up in the meetings? Is it as central as it once was to the Secretary-General and to yourself, and how do you see that issue progressing or not progressing?
DSG: Aid to South Kordofan and Blue Nile has been up for a long time. I brought it up already in Addis Ababa with both sides, particularly, of course, the Government of Sudan. There was in principle an agreement with the African Union, League of Arab States and UN to open up access, and we thought we had it all ready, but it has now turned out to be great problems of implementation. There are evidently problems of fighting going on and unrest in that whole area. I met the High Commissioner for Refugees some time ago and he talked about the refugee flow into Ethiopia which was caused not so much by starvation, but actually by warfare, by bombings. So the situation in that area is in flux and possibly of a dangerous nature. But we have a humanitarian situation which has to be dealt with, where there are refugees also in South Sudan from that area. So we need to have access and we continue to push for this, and [Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator] Valerie Amos is giving this issue high priority.
As to Darfur, you are right – it’s not in the limelight. I don’t think it was mentioned in many of the speeches, if any. So it turns out, it seems that the issue is not in the highest attention of Member States, and some of the issues certainly are not solved. We may have a lower level of violence than when I was mediating or before that, but the outstanding issues are still there, but perhaps not of the same nature that catches attention like the South Sudan/Sudan situation and Blue Nile and Kordofan.
Q: Thank you, Mr. Eliasson. I wanted to refer you to an earlier question by my colleague about the proposal by the Iranian President, who said there were 12 countries about to propose something on Syria. The Egyptian President said that there was a three, four-member contact group. Why is it that Mr. Brahimi and Mr. El Araby are not giving any attention to Iranian proposal? They are very dismissive about it. I believe that there is a proposal coming out from Iran. It may be good or bad, but it seems that they are making a proposal, and similarly the Egyptian President has a four-point proposal. Why have Mr. El Araby and Mr. Brahimi not considered those? Why are they so dismissive of those?
DSG: Earlier, I answered a question about a possible meeting of the opposition in Iran, which I was not aware of. Your question is another one, and that has to do with Iran’s role for a solution of the crisis in Syria, and of course they have a crucial role. And Lakhdar Brahimi and of course the Secretary-General and I and my colleagues take the initiative of the President of Egypt very seriously, when he called in this meeting which was from the beginning involving both Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, the four countries, then there was another meeting with the three. Lakhdar Brahimi is taking this work seriously. He is in contact with them. And we are very glad that also from the Egyptian side, also hopefully from the Iranian side and the Turkish side and the Iraqi side, that one listens, that one takes into account Lakhdar Brahimi’s central role. He is, after all, he is the representative of the United Nations. He is the representative of the League of Arab States. And one issue one should always avoid – and that I speak from my own experience as mediator – is that one should avoid forum-shopping, so that the different parties can play one against another. But there is coordination going on. And as you may know, Lakhdar Brahimi will work from Cairo from next week onward so that he is in the proximity of the region, and of course this implies that he will work very closely with his Egyptian colleagues. So we take that seriously.
Q: President [Barack] Obama talked about free speech in regard to the film that has caused or at least was an excuse for so many demonstrations. And there were a lot of disagreements to his position. Do you think that this indicated a slide toward blasphemy justifications that have other implications aside from this particular film?
DSG: I think that this discussion is very important, very serious. When I was President of the General Assembly [in] 2005 and 2006, and some of you were here, then you remember how sensitive the discussions were on the Human Rights Council in the spring of 2006. In the midst of our negotiations, we had this so-called Danish cartoon crisis. And it almost stopped the Human Rights Council from coming about. There was enormously strong reaction.
So this issue comes up every now and then and there are three dimensions to this issue that we always should keep in mind, and sometimes they are difficult to reconcile. The first one is the basic human rights of freedom of speech and freedom of expression. The second one is the respect for the value and beauty of this right, that provocations, a lack of respect towards others, in a world where there is enough of contradictions, antagonism and even hatred, that we should recognize that you have this gift given to us by the [Universal] Declaration of Human Rights, but it also implies some type of responsibility to use that in such a way that you don’t cause situations; which brings me to the third point, namely, of course, always strong reactions, condemnations of the violence, as a result of the provocation. So you have to have to keep in mind, yes, this is the basis for, I hope, most of the countries in the world – the freedom of speech, the freedom of expression, since this is in the Universal Declaration – but that this also is a privilege that we have, which in my view involves also the need for respect, the need to avoid provocations, in a world where we have enough of contradictions and hatred; but that when you respond to the provocations, and actually those who wanted to provoke had succeeded with the violence and the results of the violence. So we need to really make sure that we understand each other on all these three counts, and there, there is a need for dialogue. We have the Alliance of Civilizations. You have the fact that so many speeches dealt with this in a very deep way was, in my view, also a way of saying to the other side, yes, you may think that this is horrible to you, but if we infringe on the freedom of speech, we have other problems, but yes, we understand you, that you were provoked, that it was an absolutely unnecessary, stupid way of causing even more hatred among you. And when you run on the streets and people are killed and buildings are burned down, those who provoke have succeeded. We shouldn’t fall in that trap of provocation, so that’s the line I think we’ll take. And the more we talk about this in an open way on the basis of our values, then the better it is.