24 April 2007
Spokesperson's Noon Briefing

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York


The following is a near-verbatim transcript of today’s noon briefing by Michèle Montas, Spokesperson for the Secretary-General.

Good afternoon.  Our guest at the briefing today is Mr. John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator.  Mr. Holmes will brief you on the situation in Somalia.

**Secretary-General in Syria

The Secretary-General is in Syria, where he met for an hour and 15 minutes tête-à-tête with President Bashar al-Assad.

On the plane ride from Doha to Damascus, the Secretary-General and his delegation talked for two hours with the Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid al-Muallem.  And, following the meeting with President Assad, the Secretary-General met with Vice-President Farouk al-Shara.

The delegation also visited the UN Development Programme (UNDP) office in Damascus, and stopped over to see the work done by the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), whose more than 1,000 troops have been deployed in the Golan Heights since 1974, to maintain the ceasefire there.

The Secretary-General just spoke to reporters before leaving Syria, saying that he had held constructive meetings with the Syrian leaders.  He said that President Assad has assured him of cooperation in all matters relating to peace and security in the region, including the implementation of resolution 1701 (2006).

** Sudan

The UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) reports that unknown armed men attacked an international NGO vehicle yesterday near Marla, 55 kilometres south-east of Nyala, in South Darfur, and they shot at the vehicle.  As a result, two staff members were injured.

Also yesterday, the UN Mission says, a group of young men armed with sticks entered the Ardamata camp for internally displaced persons, five kilometres east of El Geneina, in West Darfur, and started threatening the people there.  Local police intervened to address the situation, but humanitarian workers suspended their activities in the camp.  The reasons behind this incident remain unclear.

We have upstairs a press release from the World Food Programme (WFP), about the visit by its Executive Director, Josette Sheeran, to Darfur and southern Sudan this week to view food aid activities on her first international mission as head of the world’s largest humanitarian relief organization.

**Security Council

This afternoon, the Security Council will hold a closed meeting of its Informal Working Group on Documentation and Other Procedural Questions.

And you’ve just been briefed by the Belgian Ambassador on the Security Council’s mission to Brussels, Belgrade, Kosovo and Vienna, which is scheduled to depart this afternoon.

** Côte d’Ivoire

Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, Hédi Annabi just wrapped up a 12 day visit to Côte d’Ivoire.  In an interview with the UN’s radio station in that country, he said he had found an easing of the situation, as well as a very clear willingness on the part of Ivorian leaders to implement the Ouagadougou Accord in a timely manner.  Annabi added that the UN would continue to help the parties implement the Accord.

We have the full transcript upstairs.

** Cyprus

The UN Mission in Cyprus today released the results of an inter-communal survey measuring public opinions on the island.

The poll, which was conducted last January and February, indicates that majorities in both of Cyprus’ communities feel that the UN has an important role to play in Cyprus and that its presence on the island is essential.

The survey also shows that Cypriots believe inter-communal contacts can pave the way for improved levels of trust, and that a federal solution is still the best hope for resolving the Cyprus problem.

We have more on this upstairs.

** Colombia

Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs B. Lynn Pascoe chaired a meeting yesterday, bringing together senior officials throughout the UN system with a high-level delegation from the Government of Colombia that was led by Vice-President Francisco Santos and Foreign Minister Fernando Araújo.

The meeting allowed an open and constructive exchange on United Nations work in Colombia, as well as on the status of peace efforts in Colombia.  In that context, United Nations officials expressed the willingness of the Secretary-General to use his good offices in support of a negotiated solution.  The Colombian delegation expressed that, should appropriate conditions exist, the Colombian Government would value UN contribution in its peace efforts. 

We have a press release upstairs with more details.

** Democratic Republic of the Congo

Renewed fighting between militias and Government troops in the north-eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo has forced thousands of civilians to flee, according to the World Food Programme (WFP) and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).  

WFP has provided more than a thousand tons of food to those displaced, while UNHCR has conducted dozens of rapid assessment missions to follow up reports of serious human rights abuses.

We have more information upstairs.

** Madagascar

WFP says it has started flying desperately needed food and other humanitarian supplies into north-western Madagascar.  The area has been cut off after one of the worst cyclone seasons in years left bridges and roads destroyed.  As part of a four-week operation, WFP plans to use helicopters to transport essential relief items to some 20,000 people in isolated villages.

We have a press release upstairs.

**United Nations Children’s Fund

UNICEF has issued a statement condemning, as a war crime, the use of a minor in a Taliban execution.

It says that, a video circulating in Pakistan, showing a young boy beheading an adult, is a “terrible example of how children can be used by adults to commit heinous crimes in times of conflict”.

We have copies of the statement upstairs.

**Guest at Noon Tomorrow

Our guest at the briefing tomorrow will be Ambassador John McNee, Permanent Representative of Canada to the UN and head of the ECOSOC Ad Hoc Advisory Group’s four-day mission to Haiti.  Ambassador McNee will brief you on the group’s evaluation of the current situation in Haiti and its assessment of the post-conflict reconstruction challenges the country faces.

This is all I have for you.  Thank you.

**Questions and Answers

Correspondent:  There was this, I am sorry if I missed this, there was this speech by Mr. Ban in Geneva, in which he said that they were the first Correspondents’ Association…

Correspondent:  I have to raise the issue officially.  The Secretary-General met with the Association of Correspondents last week in Geneva, and he told them that we here, [the United Nations Correspondents Association (UNCA)], have never invited him out.  So I wonder… and we have an official transcript of his remarks.  My colleagues were shocked by the remarks, to say it mildly.  I want to ask you, what was the reason for him to say that and why did he say that, in Geneva, while we had meetings with him here, in New York, at our invitation.  And I am pretty sure that he enjoyed the meetings, also.

Correspondent:  And also, just to add, we did invite him to the annual UNCA dinner.  He was seated with the [inaudible].  So all proper courtesies were extended to him by UNCA.

Spokesperson:  Well, thank you to all three of you.  I am sorry these remarks created a misunderstanding, which I want to lift immediately.  It was meant in a light-hearted way by the Secretary-General.  It was referring to the irritation expressed by some members of the Geneva press corps that he was not able to travel to our second headquarters at the Palais des Nations until last week.  The comments were meant in jest, and not intended to be taken seriously.  I can assure you, that the Secretary-General is most appreciative of his meetings with UNCA, particularly the two gracious invitations extended by you to him early in his tenure and, most recently, for his 100 days in office.  He has told me how highly he values these informal exchanges and the exchanges he had with the correspondents’ association.  And the work you do, covering the UN, is to him essential.

Correspondent:  As the treasurer of the Organization, I’d like to just add to that, which is that this is an official UN transcript document.  I don’t, for one minute, with the greatest respect, of course, to the Secretary-General, doubt his word when he says he meant it in jest.  But when one sees it purely in print, without the benefit of his facial and vocal expressions and his presence, it is impossible to tell that it was in fact meant in jest, which makes it somewhat more serious.

Spokesperson:  Point well taken.

Question:  Another issue is that he seems to favour Geneva to New York, calling Geneva the headquarters of the UN.  I wonder, can he show more appreciation of what New York is doing for him?

Spokesperson:  I don’t think that he appreciates Geneva more than he appreciates New York.  I can assure you that he just met with Geneva recently, and he has met with you several times.  As I said earlier, he truly appreciates these meetings, particularly the informal exchanges he has with you, which, as you know and you can tell, were open, very frank and sincere.  And I think he truly appreciated them.  And I think he has told you himself that he appreciated those meetings with you.

Question:  In his talk there, he said that Geneva was the largest UN city in the world and that there were more international organizations and more diplomatic staff.  It may be the real UN headquarters.  I am wondering, I don’t know if that was a joke as well, but if anyone could get the numbers, to know what the basis of this is.  And also, I don’t know if you will answer this, but who is writing his speeches now, like what is the process of that?

Spokesperson:  I don’t know if that was a speech.  He just improvised that.  He was answering questions after a lunch.  It was not a speech in any way.

Question:  Got you.  Can we get those numbers?

Spokesperson: Sure, sure, you can have those numbers on how many agencies there are in Geneva, how many people work there, that you can have.  No problem there.

Correspondent:  Just for the record, some in New York have advocated moving the UN out of New York, but… just for the record.

Correspondent:  I would just like to make a suggestion that, since the transcript does appear on the UN website, that perhaps there could be a note attached saying that this was said in jest.

Spokesperson:  Well, it is not right now on the website.  It has been sent to you, but it is not on the website.

Correspondent:  Some diplomatic missions saw the transcript.  I got a reaction from some missions also.

Spokesperson:  Okay.

Correspondent:  Maybe there should be a section on the website for humorous speeches.

Spokesperson:  It was just a humorous remark of an exchange that took place, and that was about very serious issues.

Question:  Since the institutions like the World Bank and the IMF are part of the Bretton Wood institutions, and here is the President of the World Bank, Mr. Wolfowitz, involved clearly in a case of nepotism, favouritism, does the Secretary-General have any problem with Mr. Wolfowitz’ continued presence at the World Bank, which is undermining the World Bank itself?

Spokesperson:  No, not at this point.

Question:  Could you please ask him?

Spokesperson:  We could ask, but I do not think that we would have a reaction to a situation that is occurring right now in the World Bank.

Question:  There was a report on National Public Radio here yesterday about reports of forced abortions in China and problems with China.  So, it, maybe… I have been sort of trying to… that is a pretty credible media source.  Is anyone in the UN system aware of this, looking at this, has the UNFPA said anything, are you aware of this?

Spokesperson:  Of course the UNFPA has been following these issues for a very long time.  You can find a number of…

Question:  This was a specific report of last week about women being forced to go to clinics and forcibly aborted…

Spokesperson:  No, I don’t have a specific remark on that specific news report.

Question:  There is a case now that the Supreme Court is considering whether New York City can collect real estate taxes from portions of diplomatic missions that are used as residences.  It is the Permanent Mission of India vs. New York.  And Mongolia as well, but the name of the case is India.  I know that the US State Department is siding with the Permanent Mission of India in this case.  Does the UN have any position on the case?  Does it feel that all of these premises should be tax exempt?

Spokesperson:  We don’t have a position on this at this point.  As you know, there is a committee about the relationship with the Host Country in the General Assembly, and they are handling this type of situation.

Question:  Are they handling it?  Because we don’t have the Spokesman for the GA…

Spokesperson:  But you can ask the Spokesman even if he is not here today.

Question:  There was a report I read about UN staff being kidnapped in Sri Lanka.  Did you talk about this?  Do you know about this situation?  Is there a situation where there are negotiations underway to ensure the freedom of these staff?

Spokesperson:  We don’t have any confirmation of those reports.  We have heard them.  As soon as we have a confirmation, we’ll get something for you on that.

Question:  I mean, are there… when you say “we”, do you mean you checked with the Sri Lankan mission and they don’t know if their staff went missing?

Spokesperson:  A mission?  I am checking with the UN presence there.

Question:  So you don’t know if there are any staff missing or not?

Spokesperson:  I don’t know.  We don’t have any confirmation.  They have not confirmed those reports.  I heard them through the press, also.

Question:  It seems a little bit confusing that the UN wouldn’t know if its staff was missing or not.

Spokesperson:  Well, they have not confirmed that it is true.

Question:  Regarding Mr. Ban’s trip to Damascus, can you confirm that he is with Nicolas Michel and Roed-Larsen?

Spokesperson:  No, he is with Roed-Larsen and with Mr. Pedersen.  He is not with Mr. Michel, who is travelling elsewhere today.

Question:  When will Mr. Michel be in New York?

Spokesperson:  Most probably Saturday or Sunday this coming weekend.

Question:  Can we have a press conference with him after he gets back?

Spokesperson:  Yes.

Question:  What is Mr. Roed-Larsen’s position in the UN right now?

Spokesperson:  Well, it hasn’t changed.  He is still in the same position, and that is why he is with the Secretary-General in Syria.

Question:  Do you have anything on Nicolas Michel’s mission?  Was it successful?  [Inaudible.] 

Spokesperson: As you know, he has met with different people and we gave you a readout of his different meetings.  He is willing to come and talk with you.  The problem was a logistics problem.  He had to travel.  He will come definitely and talk to you about it.  He did brief members of the Council and he briefed the Secretary-General about the results of his meetings.  I don’t have that yet.

Question:  And are they encouraging, I mean, since he briefed the Secretary-General, are the results encouraging, discouraging?

Spokesperson:  Well, Mr. Michel always sees encouraging signs.

Question:  The UN opinion survey in Cyprus, is this an official survey?  And if it is official, is it going to be taken as a basis for any new UN initiative on Cyprus?

Spokesperson:  Well, it was, as you know, taken to assess the two communities’ attitudes towards the UN presence.  So, of course, it is going to be part of any follow-up discussions on Cyprus.

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For information media • not an official record