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Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

Off-the-Cuff

Secretary-General's press conference

New York, 12 March 2009

SG: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. It is a great pleasure to see you today. I think we have much to discuss.

As you know, U.S. President Obama and I met in Washington on Tuesday. It was an extremely encouraging first meeting, both in substance and in spirit. That it should come so early is a strong signal of the new administration's commitment to the United Nations and its cause.

Speaking personally, I would like to say that new President Obama is an enormously engaged and visionary leader. I am confident he will bring to the international arena the same ambition and appetite for bold measures that he is bringing to U.S. affairs. Our discussions were wide-ranging, and we found considerable common ground.

On climate change, we agree. It is an existential threat. We know what we must do.

President Obama and I share a fundamental commitment: 2009 must be the year of climate change. That means reaching a comprehensive agreement in Copenhagen by year's end.

Climate change also dominated my discussions with U.S. congressional leaders. Among them: Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Congressman Howard Berman, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee; and Congressman Edward Markey, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, as well as many members of their important committees.

With U.S. leadership, in partnership with the United Nations, we can and will reach a climate change deal that all nations can embrace.

On the economic crisis: President Obama and I agree that the world's poorest and most vulnerable people cannot be left behind.

I have since spoken with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who will act as Chairman of the G20 summit meeting, and he shares also this UN priority. We will press this issue at the upcoming G-20 summit in London.

President Obama and I further agreed that “green” investments must be a major part of any global stimulus plan. If we are going to spend such tremendous sums of money, let us be smart about it.

We had a lengthy discussion about Sudan, particularly the acute humanitarian situation caused by the Sudanese government's decision to expel 13 international NGOs. I have called on the Sudanese government to reverse this decision. And I do so again today.

The concern of the United Nations in Sudan has always been, and will remain, peace and the well-being of the country's people. For millions of Sudanese, these NGOs are a lifeline. They must be allowed to do their work. And of course, we must continue to push the peace process.

We discussed several other important regional issues, among them, Haiti.

As you know, I visited earlier this week with former President Bill Clinton. We saw people living in desperate poverty. We saw a country still struggling to recover from last year's hurricanes, as well as decades of dictatorship.

Yet we also saw opportunity. The United States has given Haiti duty-free and quota-free access to the American market for the next nine years. We can build on this. It is a golden opportunity to bring in investors and create hundreds of thousands of jobs.

We can make a big difference in Haiti, President Obama told me, even with relatively small investments.

At the upcoming donor's conference in Washington, I expect the Haitian government to present a focused, prioritized national plan for reducing poverty and spurring economic development. Let us throw open this new window of opportunity. Let us help Haiti lift itself from darkness into light.

Second, Afghanistan. On March 31st, I will open an international conference hosted by the Government of the Netherlands.

As you know, the security situation continues to deteriorate. Elections are coming up. Afghanistan is at another crossroads. This conference offers an opportunity to define a common way forward. I welcome the fresh thinking and focus by the new U.S. administration. But any military surge, I emphasized to President Obama, must be accompanied by a political surge.

Third, Africa and the Middle East.

During my trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, two weeks ago, I saw first-hand the progress we have made on the ground. Our job now is to consolidate those gains, and to allow millions of people to return to their homes and live in peace.

In Somalia, we can see clear progress, even though the political and security situation remains precarious.

Finally, President Obama and I agreed on the need for an urgent push on the Middle East. In Sharm el-Sheikh, donors at the meeting on Gaza reconstruction made large pledges, well beyond what was anticipated. The world has sent a clear message of solidarity to the Palestinian people. We must turn this support not only into recovery for the people of Gaza, but also into a revitalized peace process in the Middle East and between the Palestinians.

In closing, Ladies and Gentlemen, let me just say a few words about a misunderstanding that has made news yesterday.

Speaking with a group of members of the House of Representatives, I noted how generous the United States has been in supporting the UN, both in terms of assessed and voluntary contributions. At the same time, I noted that the United States is also the largest debtor, owing more than $1 billion in arrears, soon to reach $1.6 billion. My point was simply that the United Nations needs the fullest support of its members, and never more so than in these very demanding times.

Thank you very much. Now I will be happy to take your questions.

Q: Mr. Secretary-General, do you think really that President Obama pushed the reset button even in the relations between the US and the UN. And this $1.6 billion -- do you think it will be the new stimulus package from the US to the UN?

SG: I was very encouraged by such a strong commitment he has shown to me in person in the meeting, that he valued highly the role of the United Nations and he would fully support the work and activities of the United Nations. In the past when we talked over the phone, he also said he could find the United States a strong partner of the United Nations. It was very encouraging that he reaffirmed such strong commitment. Now, on this area, of course, the United States is the largest financial contributor. With such a large sum of amount in arrears, it is very difficult for the United Nations to conduct smoothly all these peacekeeping operations and other activities of the United Nations. That's what I emphasised, and many members of the Congress and Senate they have shown strong support for that, and also Administration officials. The Secretary of State and President also have showed their commitment to resolve this issue as soon as possible.

Q: Mr. Secretary-General, I don't know if you realize it, but there were several kidnappings in the Sudan, aid workers including some people from Doctors without [Borders]. I'd like to get your reaction to that.

SG: I am very much concerned about this. [I understand [five] staff working with Médecins Sans Frontières Belgium chapter were abducted last night in Darfur]. The staff were taken from their office by unknown armed men. I am deeply concerned by this development together with, again, attacks against UN peacekeepers a few days ago. Security incidents and deliberate attacks on the United Nations and aid community over the past weeks and months in Darfur have increased markedly. Clearly we all want to see the immediate, unharmed release of these staff abducted and urge all parties in Darfur, including the Government of Sudan, to fulfill their responsibility to ensure the security of UN and other aid workers.

Q: Just on the same subject, do you directly blame the government for this?

SG: Governments in principle, in general, have the responsibility as a sovereign government for whatever is taking place within their territory. That's what I have asked and urged to all the leaders in the conflict zones. When I met President [Joseph] Kabila, also when I raised this sexual violence [issue] which has taken place in that territory, that whoever or wherever it might take place, the government should be responsible to ensure the safety and security of all the people.

Q: Regarding your meeting with President Obama, sir, you discussed with him the issue of Afghanistan. My question: Are you happy by the decision taken by President Obama to send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan? And, especially, you mentioned that any military surge should be accompanied by a political surge. What political surge do you see on the horizon right now? And do you think this decision to deploy over 15,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan would help endanger the innocent human lives of the Afghani people or not? Thank you.

SG: During my meeting with President Obama, I commended his new and fresh look at this issue. And I think strengthening military capacity in Afghanistan would be helpful and effective. At the same time, I urged that a political surge also should be accompanied. This political surge can be done by President [Hamid] Karzai and his Government in engaging themselves with many other leaders both in the Government and the opposition. And also by the international community's helping the Afghanistan Government to strengthen and improve their relationship with neighbouring countries.

In that regard, the improvement in the relationship between President [Asif Ali] Zardari of Pakistan and President Karzai of Afghanistan is a very encouraging one. When I visited the two countries, I urged the two leaders to maintain such good momentum. And there will be many other issues where the international community is ready to support militarily, economically and politically, then the Afghan Government should also enhance good governance, including the eradication of corruption.

Q: Can you say clearly sir, do you think sending more U.S. troops there would help sustain stability in the country or can increase the number of innocent lives [lost]?

SG: You should know that the security situation is still volatile. Therefore, to address the security issues, strengthening military capacity will be absolutely necessary. But at the same time, what I stress is that political facilitation would be also necessary. So this should go hand in hand.

Q: Mr. Secretary-General, North Korea yesterday informed a UN agency, the IMO [International Maritime Organization], about its intention to launch a communications satellite in April. What do you know about this? What's your reaction? And also do you think it's a violation of [Security Council] resolution 1718 (2006), given the fact that the technology used would be almost identical to that of a ballistic missile?

SG: I'm concerned about DPRK's recent moves to launch a satellite or long-range missiles. This will threaten the peace and stability in the region. I hope they will abide by the relevant Security Council resolution and return to the six-party talks and fully and faithfully implement the agreement of the six-party talks.

And, at the same time, I also hope that bilateral relations between the Republic of Korea and the DPRK should also be improved. Under such conditions, this really becomes a source of great concern, not only of the Korean people or people in the region. This will not be desirable to the maintenance of regional peace and security. I sincerely hope that they will be faithfully abiding by the Security Council resolution and implement all these issues through dialogue.

Q: Do you think it's a violation of resolution 1718?

SG: That's what Security Council members will discuss when, and after, anything happens.

Q: Thank you, Secretary-General. I'd like to ask whether you any discussion with President Obama regarding the fate of Sudan's President Bashir. Then I'd like to also know, what's your own view about what the African Union is planning to do, trying to call for the suspension of the warrant of arrest. Now, are you going to use your moral bully pulpit to actually stand by the quest for justice in Sudan?

SG: Now, we spent some time to discuss and evaluate the situation in Darfur on many aspects including this imminent and urgent humanitarian crisis caused by the expulsion of NGOs. I have already made our statement. The Sudanese Government should address these peace and justice issues. Fully complying with the Security Council resolution 1593 (2005). The United Nations will continue to conduct its vital peacekeeping operations, humanitarian, human rights and development operations and activities in Sudan.

I know that there are positions held by the African Union and the League of Arab States and some other members of the international community to see the deferral of this decision by the ICC. This is something which the Security Council has the authority to decide. This is to be determined by the Security Council. But at the same time, as the Secretary-General, what I'd like to urge and appeal to the Sudanese Government is that there should be a reasonable and credible implementation of the Sudanese Government, according to judiciary procedures, to meet the requirement of Article 16 of the Rome Statute before they expect or they move to the issue of a deferral.

Q: Thank you, Mr. Secretary-General. I was going to ask you two follow-up questions on the G20. There have been reports that the United Nations may take on perhaps some extra role in monitoring what's going on in the poorer, developing countries. Do you expect the UN to play any significant role in the follow-up to that?

And as a follow-up on the Afghanistan conference that you said that you're going to open, who's going to be invited? Is it ministers? Is it Heads of State? And what exactly is going to come out of it?

SG: On the second question first. Normally I don't entertain two questions, but this is special. This is going to be a ministerial meeting, and this is not going to be a so-called donors' conference. As you understand very well the situation in Afghanistan – Afghanistan is still going through a very fragile and volatile situation in terms of security and their domestic politics. Therefore we need to address all these issues from a comprehensive perspective. As you may remember last year, March last year in Bucharest, there was a summit-level meeting on the situation of Afghanistan, which I attended. All the leaders reaffirmed and strengthened the mandate of the United Nations, as key coordinator among international actors there. I will discuss all the various aspects of the situation in Afghanistan, how we can help the Afghanistan people to overcome these difficulties.

On your first question, the G-20, as I have repeatedly said, the United Nations' major concern and priority would be to ask the leaders of G-20 not to lose sight of the challenges of many hundreds of millions of people from developing countries. They are the defenseless and voiceless people who really need support, and without support from developed countries, they cannot overcome this one. They have been very seriously impacted by this global financial crisis, and I am going to write my own position to all the Heads of State or Government attending this G-20 summit meeting. I have also discussed last Tuesday with Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and I am sure that I will have another opportunity of discussing this matter with Prime Minister Gordon Brown sometime next week. Now, as a result of the Doha International Conference on Financing for Development, the President of the General Assembly has been working with the members of experts' commissions on how the United Nations can [address] this current economic crisis, including governance, as well as reform of these global financial organizations, institutions. This will be the topic of General Assembly discussions in the months to come.

Q: Secretary-General, the arrears question. You had said that the peacekeeping operations were discussed, as well as other activities. Was there something specific and a region specific in mind that you have? Ideally, this is not a good time to be prompting the US with payback for their arrears. But if they were to come up with some funds, is there a specific peacekeeping mission that you have in mind, even a specific area?

SG: When the members pay their dues and their contributions, we receive all this as an aggregated sum and we allocate this fund to necessary activities. Of course, in the case of peacekeeping operations, when we establish a peacekeeping operation, also we get assessed contributions from Member States. But first and foremost at this time, it would be very important for the United States to pay all these arrears. I had very serious discussions on these issues last time in Sharm el Sheikh with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and this time with all the key leaders whom I have met. And I have received quite positive responses from the congressional and Government leaders.

Q: The Dalai Lama has recently said that China has turned Tibet into a “hell on earth.” What do you think of that? And in this regard, do you think the Alliance of Civilizations meeting that is going to take place in Istanbul, which you are also going to attend, can help divide the gap between the racial and religious conflicts in the world?

SG: The forthcoming meeting of the Alliance of Civilizations is to promote mutual understanding and deeper understanding of different cultures and religions, thereby contributing to the harmonious and very cooperative progress of the international community. I am very glad that this process has taken a big step since it was launched last year in Madrid. This second meeting in Istanbul, particularly with the participation of President Obama for the first time from United States at the summit level, will create a very good opportunity to discuss all the matters pertaining to differences of opinions and promote mutual understandings between the religions and traditions. This will be a very important opportunity. I hope by creating a very harmonious atmosphere worldwide, we will see the end of all the conflicts or differences of opinions, including Tibet issues.

Q: On the humanitarian crisis in Sudan, I just wanted to follow up on Frank's question. The Belgian branch of Doctors without Borders are closing their operation also, after the kidnapping in Sudan. Do you believe that the Sudanese Government can fill the gap, as they claim, after the withdrawal or the expelling of the 13 NGOs? And also can you share with us your assessment of the threat posed to NGOs and the UN operation as it stands today in Sudan?

SG: I do not believe that in the absence of those humanitarian NGOs, the United Nations and the Sudanese Government will be able to fill the gap created by this absence. While I have been discussing this matter with the Sudanese Government, and many other leaders in the region, in Africa and the Middle East and beyond the region during the last few days, at the same time the United Nations has been mobilizing all necessary resources and agencies, not to make any vacuum, so that we can deliver humanitarian assistance to 1.2 million people. To them, it is a lifeline and without such support, there will be a huge humanitarian crisis. That's why I am very much concerned. And I am grateful to many world leaders who have been really working together with me to influence the Sudanese Government to reverse the decision. Unfortunately so far we have not seen this decision, and we will continue to [try to reverse the decision] and my challenge at this time is that as this situation continues without seeing the reversal of decision by the Sudanese Government, who can really effectively fill the gap of this humanitarian vacuum there? I have been chairing the meetings among all the agencies and Mr. John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for OCHA [the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs], he also convened inter-agency meetings. We are working very hard, first of all trying to reverse this decision and not to create any humanitarian crisis so that we can continuously provide assistance. If we cannot, this may create some movement of populations and because of the lack of sanitation and water, this will create again diseases and very serious problems.

Q: I asked you also to share with us if possible your threat assessment to the remaining NGOs and to the UN operation as it stands today.

SG: The Sudanese Government has assured that, first of all, they may not expel the remaining NGOs over there. And they even offered their own contribution; they even offered their willingness to provide their national NGOs, but that will not be enough, far beyond our expectations and requirements. Now on this threat, we must keep first of all the safety and security in the region, and I do not agree to what they have been accusing, that these NGOs have been creating, making negative activities.

Q: Mr. Secretary-General, in your efforts to get the NGOs back into the Sudan, would you consider talking directly to Bashir, now an indicted war criminal, if it would help avoid a humanitarian crisis?

SG: As you may understand at this time, any contacts by senior United Nations officials with anybody who has been indicted by the ICC should be limited to what is strictly required for carrying out UN-mandated activities. Therefore I am now looking at the possibility -- I have to first of all assess the situation and I will make a decision at a due time.

Q: Secretary-General, I'd like to take you back to the issue of how you discussed with President Obama the issue of the Middle East peace process in both the Syrian track and the Palestinian track. I understand that you and your aides have been behind the scenes playing a role, or saying at least that you have been playing a role, as far as pushing forward for the Syrian track, and that you are part of the chorus that believes that this is the way to deal with Hamas and Hezbollah. If so, did you discuss this with President Obama in this context? And given that President Obama has said about Taliban that he finds he can deal with moderates in Taliban, do you discuss that sort of idea, how might that apply to Hamas? How you can step down from the conditions of the Quartet regarding Hamas?

SG: I can not disclose all what I had discussed with President Obama, as you may understand. What I said to President Obama, I really commended his immediate engagement and leadership, demonstrated by appointing Special Envoy [former] Senator George Mitchell, and also dispatching the Secretary of State to the region. That was very much commendable, and the expression of it demonstrated leadership, to be engaged in Middle East peace process. And I also emphasized the necessity of reactivating the Middle East peace process as soon as possible, including the unity of the Palestinian people. On all these issues, I think, United States and the United Nations share the same visions and same goals. As members of the Quartet, we also agreed to have an active Quartet. Therefore I am very much encouraged that the United States and United Nations will more actively engage and facilitate this peace process in close coordination with the Arab partners.

Q: Mr. Secretary-General, can you tell us if you in fact, you as the United Nations, represented by you, and others are pushing for to put priority to the Syrian track, and if that's how you discussed it with the President? And if by any chance you have discussed also, or you have in mind, stepping down from the conditions related to Hamas, so that it can be part of? since it is going to be part of a government, if there is reconciliation that you are pushing for among Palestinians? Do please kindly try to address these questions.

SG: You may remember that I have myself been engaging with the Syrian Government, President [Bashar] al-Assad, many times. I have visited twice. And in that regard, I noted with a sense of encouragement that the United States has taken some move to engage Syria and to have a dialogue for an improved relationship so that we can expect Syria can play a constructive role in the region. After all, I regard Syria is also a very important country who can, who should, play a constructive role for the peace and stability in the region. This is, I think, the right move.

Q: And Hamas?

SG: That, we will have to see how the situation develops.

Q: You mentioned a series of disturbing events in Sudan, the abduction of some humanitarian workers, the expulsion of organizations, attacks against peacekeepers. Do you feel at this point that the Sudanese President is engaged in a sort of retaliation campaign against the international community because of the ICC decision?

SG: I hope it will not be the case. I hope that President Bashir will faithfully and responsibly carry out his previous commitment, addressing this peace and justice issue in accordance with the Security Council resolution, and also commit to implement the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, and ensure safety and security of the civilian population, aid workers and United Nations personnel. This is what he should do at this time.

Q: Getting back to your discussion with President Obama on the humanitarian issues in Sudan. To what degree, if any, did you get into strategy, joint strategy, on who to call and how to put the pressure on Bashir? And along those lines, do you think that really China is key there, given their commercial interests with Bashir, with the Sudan? The influence they've had in the past, I'm recalling Ambassador Wang's intervention I think, previously. Have you reached out to China in really considering they might be the key to this?

SG: I did. I did contact, already a few days ago, soon after this happened, the Chinese Government and I discussed with President Obama, even though I am not again here to detail out, but in the range of what you have just mentioned, I think we are on the same page, what you think and I think.

Q: Who did you speak to among the Chinese leadership?

SG: I have spoken to a number of leaders in Africa, Arab and beyond this region, but I would not detail [them]. But you remember the Chinese Government has made a statement that there was a talk between myself and Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, I think during the last weekend.

Q: Did you get a good response? Did they promise to help?

SG: Yes, they commented that they would do all what they could do to influence upon President Bashir.

Q: Mr. Secretary-General, are you prepared to defend the President of the General Assembly, who's come under heavy criticism from certain Member States, if you find that the majority of the Assembly may support him?

SG: I will not say anything to defend or criticize what the President of the General Assembly has said. But what I'd like to say, as a matter of principle, that the responsible position holders like the President of the General Assembly or the Secretary-General of the United Nations should speak for the common interests, and supporting and promoting the common goals and objectives of the United Nations. That is what I'd like to emphasize at this time.

Q: When you talk about political surge in Afghanistan do you mean engaging moderate Taliban?

SG: We will have to discuss all the aspects. Basically I believe that all the issues should be resolved through dialogue with the concerned parties. But for any detailed strategy, we are going to discuss in the Netherlands.

Q: It's just a clarification of something you said earlier. It relates to Sudan again, and you spoke of the Sudanese judiciary, or urging the Sudanese judiciary to meet the requirements of the Rome Statute. I'm trying to work out what you're saying there. Are you saying that your ideal resolution to this situation with Bashir would be for the Sudanese courts to launch their own prosecution against their President?

SG: What I have been urging Sudanese President before, while engaging with him directly was, I have been advising and urging him to take necessary, first of all domestic judiciary measures, very credible [ones], that is the only way which can be regarded as meeting the requirement of Article 16. Then I think it is up to the members of the Security Council and the ICC whether their measures taken domestically would satisfy, and meet the expectations and requirements of, relevant provisions.

Anyway, you can say never say that it is too late. Even now, I think they can take and they should take the necessary measures.

Thank you very much.