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Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

Off-the-Cuff

Secretary-General's press conference prior to the opening of the 68th session of the General Assembly

New York, 17 September 2013

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am pleased to join you for my traditional press conference as we kick-off the 68th session of the General Assembly.

This is a crucial period for global cooperation.

Syria is the biggest peace, security and humanitarian challenge we face. 

Let us be clear: the use of chemical weapons in Syria is only the tip of the iceberg. 

The suffering in Syria must end.  Next week, as world leaders gather here, I will make a strong appeal to Member States for action now.

Many other issues on our agenda also merit urgent attention – not only other conflicts but also important questions of sustainable development, health, hunger and climate change.  I understand that you had a good press conference with the President of the General Assembly. Over the coming days, we will put a spotlight on these, as well.

At least 131 Heads of State or Government will be here next week -- one of the highest turnouts in United Nations history.  At least 60 Foreign Ministers will join them.

I will meet with as many world leaders as I can.  I am determined to pack a lot into these encounters.  We have much to discuss.

In my speech to the General Assembly, I will call on world leaders to uphold their political and moral responsibilities to serve, to listen, to invest, to respond to the rising and justifiable demands of people across the world for lives of freedom and prosperity.

We are moving ahead at full steam towards the crucial year of 2015, the deadline for achieving the Millennium Development Goals.  We will showcase MDG successes throughout the week and at a special partnership event on Monday.

The global discussion on the post-2015 development agenda is also well under way.  I will use next Wednesday’s special event to officially launch my report, “A Life of Dignity for All”, which contains my vision of the transformations we need.

This month will also see the release of another critical report: the latest assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  Its message will surprise no one: the heat is on all of us.

I also want to stress the importance of the very first event of the week: the Assembly’s high-level session on disabilities and development.  Fifteen per cent of the world’s people – a huge portion of humankind – live with some form of disability. The post-2015 agenda must take their needs and aspirations into account.  A world that recognizes their rights is a world that will benefit all of us.

The situations in Afghanistan, Egypt, Mali and the Central African Republic will also be high on the agenda, as we assess new approaches we are taking in peacekeeping, diplomacy and support for countries in transition.

We will hold a meeting of the oversight mechanism for the peace agreement that the United Nations brokered earlier this year for the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Great Lakes Region. And the Middle East Quartet will meet for the first time in more than a year to support the resumed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. 

The next week or two will bring many opportunities for common progress.  But success will depend on ever deeper levels of cooperation – and contributions from our partners.

In that spirit, I look forward to joining Stevie Wonder and thousands of other good friends of the United Nations at the Global Citizen Festival in Central Park.  I hope you will all join that event. We will raise our voices for action against poverty – the number one struggle of our time.

We have a full agenda.  But the events of the past days have shown once again the power of the United Nations to uncover the facts – to resolve differences – to help avoid bloodshed and forge consensus for peace and progress. 

We must harness that spirit for action to address our immediate crises and achieve our longer-term goals.

Thank you for your attention.

Q: We wish you well in this General Assembly and thank you for coming to speak with us. You said that you will be meeting with [US] Secretary [of State John] Kerry and [Russian] Foreign Minister [Sergey] Lavrov on the sidelines of the General Assembly on the 28th in order to talk about the International Conference on Syria.  With differences between the US and Russia surfacing, what are your expectations on that, and on the UN Security Council resolution?  Do you believe that it will move forward? Thank you.

SG: What is encouraging is that two Foreign Ministers have agreed on a framework agreement, how to deal with all these chemical weapons, particularly on chemical weapons. I hope that that spirit of very friendly negotiations on the basis of good rapport, according to their expressions, will really help forge unity among the Security Council and address all these issues on an urgent basis by adopting a Security Council resolution, which can really be an enforceable one. All these agreements are very good in spirit, but those good agreements in spirit should be translated into action. There is not much time to lose for all of us. Sadly, the international community has not been able to help the Syrian people to enjoy their genuine freedom and peace during the last 2.5 years. The Security Council, as a main body responsible for the peace and security of the international community, should be united at this time. The finding by Dr. [Åke] Sellström’s team was indisputable and overwhelming. They are based on scientific facts. Therefore, we must not take the “business as usual” [approach]. I sincerely hope that Russia and the United States demonstrate their leadership at this time, particularly the countries of the permanent members of the Security Council They have a crucially important historical and moral political responsibility. That is what I urged the members of the Security Council to act yesterday during my presentation.

Q: On Friday, you said Bashar al-Assad of Syria was guilty of crimes against humanity.  More as a personal interpretation after seeing the report yesterday, do you account the events cited in the report as being a crime against humanity that he is guilty of?

SG: First of all, the remarks which I made on Friday were the ones which I used, I have been saying, on general circumstances. As you know, Dr. Sellström’s mission is to find out facts and whether or not chemical weapons were used; if used, to what extent. The mandate is not to determine who used, against whom, the chemical weapons. Therefore it is quite a clear mandate. It is, as I said, for others to decide whether to pursue this matter further to determine responsibility and accountability. Therefore, I hope there should be no misunderstanding, the relationship between what I said on Friday and the findings of the report.

Q: Mr. Secretary-General: You want the Security Council to take action after it has been a stalemate since the beginning or almost the beginning of this conflict. Would that mean a Chapter VII, even if it excluded the use of force, that would be binding of all the Member States? Is that your idea of a resolution that would have some teeth?

SG: Yesterday, when there was a discussion among the members of the Security Council, all 15 members have spoken and they will discuss what kind of measure should be taken. It is the prerogative of the Security Council, whether they should take action under Chapter VII, which is a binding one. What I said to the Security Council members is that there is a good agreement between the two countries and which is shared in principle by all the Member States. In such a case, the Security Council members should take immediate action on that, action which can be enforceable. That is my sincere hope, because while we welcome the belated accession by the Syrian Government to the Chemical Weapons Convention, there are many obligations. These obligations must be implemented, true to the letter and spirit of this Chemical Weapons Convention, but in the past we have seen many such cases where their commitment has not been implemented and the Security Council has taken many resolutions to enforce the resolutions. Therefore, at this time when you have seen all the overwhelming facts that chemical weapons were used, then we must make sure that there should be no such re-emergence of using chemical weapons or any other weapons of mass destruction as a tool of war. That is a very important principle at this time.

Q: Mr. Secretary-General: You have been saying that you will be making a strong appeal next week to Heads of States during the General Debate on Syria.  Why is that you have not used that platform to make a strong appeal for reforming the Security Council, which many could argue – certainly, you can make a strong argument that that could be one of the main reasons that we have been experiencing this embarrassing paralysis that you speak of in the Council?

SG: I know that the Security Council reform is one of the very serious and top priorities and aspirations of many Member States. In fact, almost all of the Member States agree and they have a consensus understanding that the Security Council should be reformed in a more representative and more democratic way. Considering such dramatic and significant changes which have taken place since the founding of the United Nations, at least a general understanding and agreement that there should be Security Council reform, but how to reform, how to change, I mean the modalities, the Member States have not been able to agree. Therefore, it is always important to emphasize the necessity and urgency of Security Council reform. I will continue to consult with world leaders, but as you know, reform of this Charter body, including the Security Council, is what belongs to the Member State.

Q: Thank you, Mr. Secretary-General.  My question is about the East Asian region, namely the Korean peninsula.  It seems like North Korea is now taking the position of dialogue.  However, it is obvious that it keeps the nuclear development by reactivating the Yongbyon nuclear reactors.  So my question is how are you going to prevent the country from the repeated patterns of brinksmanship, as the Secretary-General?  And I want to ask you whether you are going to have a plan of going to the country and meeting up with the leader? 

SG: I would like to think that inter-Korean relations, after many months of heightened tensions, are finally getting back on track. It will be a long process, but I’m glad that the two sides have begun focusing on points of mutual interest rather than disagreement. It is my hope that recent agreement on the resumption of Kaesong Industrial Complex is just the first step towards resuming regular, normal dialogue. And I sincerely also hope that the Kaesong agreement becomes the first block in building mutual trust between the two parties, and there was the possibility of reuniting the separated families. I hope these kinds of confidence-building measures will continue, which will eventually help promote reconciliation and create a politically very conducive atmosphere between the two parties. As Secretary-General of the United Nations, I have been consistently stating and expressing my willingness to provide my help, whenever and whatever is necessary, and my position still remains unchanged. Whenever there is an opportunity, whenever I think my visit to Pyongyang will be helpful in promoting and facilitating mutual reconciliation, I will certainly take that opportunity.

On the Yongbyon issue, I am aware of the media reports. If confirmed, this would be a clear violation of the decisions of the Security Council. I remain seriously concerned about the nuclear weapons programme of the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] and I call upon the DPRK to demonstrate this commitment to a verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. I work towards paving the way towards the resumption of Six-Party Talks.

Q: Thank you, Mr. Secretary-General. Mr. [Lakhdar] Brahimi met with Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov.  I wonder if you are now, as a result of his meetings, optimistic that we all might see the new Geneva conference in the coming month or two.  And also, I wonder how concerned you are that Syria, while of course is a very important issue, is going to totally dominate and override all of the other pressing issues of the General Assembly?

SG: For that part, I think we should look at a broader perspective of our world. The Syrian situation, Syrian crisis, is the most serious and worst crisis which we have experienced in many, many years, but at the same time, there are many other pressing issues which I have already stated in my remarks: sustainable development, how we can help people [to be] lifted from abject poverty and how we can ensure that this Planet Earth becomes environmentally sustainable.  So there are many issues [on] which I expect that world leaders will focus. First and foremost, since the Syrian crisis has seen more than 100,000 people killed, more than 7.5 million people are either internally displaced or became refugees, we must address this one. Only in the Syrian situation, we also must look at broader issues, not only chemical weapons. There is ongoing fighting, refugee issues, humanitarian issues, human rights issues – we have to address all these issues. I will have several occasions when I will be able to have in-depth discussions with Foreign Ministers and leaders, particularly with the permanent five Foreign Ministers. I’m going to have some joint meetings with all permanent five Foreign Ministers, and also I will have an opportunity of meeting Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov, together with Lakhdar Brahimi, to discuss how we can promote this political resolution. I have been repeatedly saying that there is no such military solution. Military may be one part of this process, but ultimately, all these issues should be resolved by dialogue in a peaceful manner. That means we need to resolve all these issues through a political process. So it is my sincere hope that, when we meet, we’ll be able to set a date for the Geneva II meeting. This is my sincere hope and we have to work towards that direction.

Q: Secretary-General, do you have any comments on the decision by the Prime Ministers of Pakistan and India to meet on the margins of the UN General Assembly?  It would be the first such meeting in a long time.  In this context, do you have any reaction to the new turmoil in Indian-controlled Kashmir, where parts of the Valley are under curfew?

SG: You know, when I visited Pakistan last month, how to see the improvement of relationship between the two very important countries, that is, Pakistan and India, that was one of my top agendas. And I would strongly welcome such a summit-level meeting between the two leaders on the margins of the General Assembly in New York. In fact, I have strongly recommended Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to take advantage of the United Nations General Assembly, where all the leaders, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, will be here. And I will strongly welcome and I will continue to provide my own support and efforts to facilitate such dialogue.

Q: And on the second point? On the turmoil in Kashmir…?

SG: I was very much concerned about this exchange of fire and all these skirmishes along the Line of [Control]. Again, this issue should be and could be handled and discussed between the two leaders when they meet in New York.

Q: Secretary-General, we understand the mandate that you gave the UN inspectors, but you weren’t personally bound by the same mandate.  In briefing the Security Council yesterday, you could have said who was to blame for the 21 August attack.  Does it not show an analytical paralysis not to do so?  Why did you choose that course?

SG: This mandate was given reflecting the general will of the Member States and they are the scientists, they are experts; and if you really want to determine who used these chemical weapons, you would have created some different type of commission. They are the ones who are trained to verify the facts, whether or not chemical weapons were used. This is a very limited mandate, but if anybody wants to really pursue this case, then the Member States will have to give us another mandate or create another commission.  But as I said, it is others who really should pursue, who can pursue this issue of responsibility. At this time, my sense is that we have to take all the measures necessary to, first of all, learn the lessons and to prevent this kind of using of chemical weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. That is more important at this time.

Q: As an extension of that, can you confirm the fact that Dr. Sellström’s team found strong evidence that rockets carrying the chemical agent [were] fired from the Government’s locations?

SG: My answer is the same: that if you read this report – I believe you must have read it – there is no such determination where these rockets were fired from. So I do not have any information about that.

Q: Everybody is agreeing now that the collection, monitoring, and destruction of chemical weapons is not an easy task and it could take longer than expected.  For these tasks to be carried out in a very efficient way, does the resolution in your opinion require a firm sustainable ceasefire in Syria, to ensure that inspectors can carry [out] their work to monitor the weapons without fearing for their life to be caught in the crossfire?

SG: I know that this is a very difficult process. It may take a long time, but depending upon the political will and logistical and technical professional support, the duration can be shortened. That is what I understand. In that regard, your idea of having a complete ceasefire during the time of the destroying the weapons, that is most welcome. As you know, when Dr. Sellström and his team were on the ground, there was an agreement that during the time of their actual investigation, for example five or six hours a day, there was a ceasefire. Under the circumstances, they were able to carry out their investigation, even though they were fired upon by unknown snipers, but that was one incident. Then, all these processes of destroying, verifying and destroying the chemical weapons can be done expeditiously if there is political will. And I have been speaking with world leaders who would really have such a capacity, and also I spoke yesterday with the Director-General of the OPCW [Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons], Mr. [Ahmet] Üzümcü. Then all this technical support can be mobilized when there is political will. First and foremost, the Security Council should take firm action on this as soon as possible, so that this process can begin without any delay.

Q: If I may just follow up; let me put it this way: If there is no ceasefire, can the work of the inspectors be carried out safely and carried out effectively?

SG: I believe that can be done. That can be done. If not a total ceasefire, as was done during Sellström’s operation, then, you know, I think we can. Both sides who would have influence on Government forces and opposition forces could [use] influence, political pressure or whatever. I think that can be done.

Q: On many occasions, you have brought up the question of accountability. Yesterday you said that, by using chemical weapons in Syria, whichever side committed war crimes and crimes against humanity.  My first question is: do you believe that the perpetrators should be referred to the ICC [International Criminal Court]?  And my second question is that, personally, do you have any doubt, as you said on Friday, that the Government, actually, in Syria used the chemical weapons?

SG: The first part of your question – the international community is firm and I am firm that any perpetrators who have used these chemical weapons under any circumstances under any pretext must be brought to justice. So there should be a process of accountability. How to promote this process -- that has to be discussed by the Member States of the United Nations, particularly the Security Council. Whether they should be referred to the ICC or whether we should have another way of bringing perpetrators to justice -- that has to be discussed. In fact, some Member States have suggested that kind of idea, referring the perpetrators to the ICC, but all this has to be discussed, but the firm principle is that there is no impunity for anybody, whoever one may be. That is my firm principle.

Q: And the second question?

Spokesperson: I think the Secretary-General has answered that several times in different formats.  Thank you very much.

SG: Thank you very much; I hope to see you.