10 September 2008
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, all.

**Secretary-General Travels

The Secretary-General will this afternoon be in Madison, New Jersey, where he will receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Fairleigh Dickinson University.  He will be the second Secretary-General to receive an honorary degree from the University; the first UN Secretary-General, Trygve Lie, also got one.

He will also deliver the keynote address at the University’s Academic Convocation, to talk about global citizenship.  He will highlight the need for action to deal with climate change, to implement the Millennium Development Goals and to address security issues like terrorism and organized crime.  He will argue that it is in our national, and our personal interest, to think globally.  Embargoed copies of his speech are upstairs.

** Darfur

On Darfur, John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, is deeply concerned about reports of continued serious violence in Darfur.  Of particular concern is a military offensive in North Darfur and Jebel Marra, which has included sustained aerial bombardments in the Birmaza and Disa areas in recent days and attacks on humanitarians by armed groups in the region.  

The towns of Birmasa and Disa serve as important hubs for medical, water and commerce for tens of thousands of people.  Insecurity in North Darfur has led to the suspension of vital humanitarian aid, compromising the health and well being of entire towns and villages, and affecting up to 450,000 people. 

Holmes urges all parties to the conflict to cease hostilities immediately and engage in meaningful discussions with Joint Chief Mediator Djibril Bassolé towards a negotiated settlement.

All parties to the conflict are reminded of their responsibilities under international humanitarian law to protect civilians, to differentiate between civilian and military targets, and to ensure unimpeded humanitarian access to the millions in need in the region. 

** Haiti

The UN has today issued an appeal for Haiti, which has been hit by a series of tropical storms in recent weeks.  The nearly $108 million appeal will provide humanitarian and early recovery assistance over the next six months. 

According to needs assessments, up to 800,000 people, or nearly 10 per cent of the country’s population, are in dire need of assistance.  An estimated 70,000 people are living in temporary shelters, and nearly all of the agricultural land has been flooded.  This means that the entire current harvest has either been lost or severely damaged.

Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes will be here on Friday afternoon to brief you more on the appeal and the latest situation in Haiti.

Meanwhile, the World Food Programme (WFP) is coordinating logistics for the humanitarian community in Haiti.  With roads damaged and bridges collapsed, WFP says it is only able to transport food by air and sea.  It has sent three vessels and several helicopters to Gonaives, where it is making daily distributions.

WFP also has teams in the country’s south and west, which began distributing food after the earlier Hurricane Gustav.  So far, 282 metric tons of food have been delivered to Haiti, with WFP and UNICEF together providing high-energy biscuits, rice, beans and vegetable oil, as well as safe drinking water, blankets and hygiene kits.  We have more information upstairs.

** West Africa Floods

The international community must not forget West Africans who have been hit by severe floods, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes said today.

The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reports that a series of workshops on flood preparedness and management, which it held in the affected countries ahead of the rainy season, helped reduce the floods’ impact this year.  For example, 800,000 people were affected by floods last year -- compared to 130,000 this year.

OCHA is also working with the Economic Commission of West African States (ECOWAS) to set up a regional stockpile of relief supplies in Mali as a disaster preparedness measure.  We have more on that upstairs.

** Cyprus

On Cyprus, the Secretary-General's Special Adviser on Cyprus, Alexander Downer, is in Turkey today.  He met today with President Gul, Prime Minister Erdogan, Foreign Minister Babacan and other senior Foreign Ministry officials for a useful exchange of views on the Cyprus issue.

Downer appreciated the opportunity to hear the perspectives of the Turkish Government on the recent renewal of full-fledged negotiations between the Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot leadership and looks forward to continuing to engage in a dialogue on the matter. 

As we reported previously, Downer is scheduled to be in Cyprus on Thursday to attend the first substantive meeting between Greek Cypriot leader Demetris Christofias and Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat in the context of the negotiations.


Matthew Nimetz, the Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy for the talks between Greece and The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), plans to meet tomorrow with the parties here in New York.  The purpose will be to continue discussions on the name issue.

In the morning, there will be a joint meeting.  Representing Athens will be Ambassador Adamantios Vassilakis.  Representing Skopje will be Ambassador Nikola Dimitrov and Martin Protoger, the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff.  The joint meeting will be followed by separate meetings with the parties during the afternoon tomorrow.

** Afghanistan

On Afghanistan, Kai Eide, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, today welcomed the decision by that country’s Joint Coordination and Monitoring Board to expand the Afghan National Army, increasing its strength to 134,000 personnel.

Eide said that the increase is a huge step towards ensuring that the Afghan Government has the number of soldiers it needs to gradually take over responsibility for the country’s security.  We have a press release from the UN Mission in Afghanistan with more details upstairs.

**Deputy Secretary-General

The Deputy Secretary-General will be travelling to Lebanon today to attend the twelfth meeting of the Regional Coordination Mechanism hosted by the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) from 13-14 September.

The Mechanism is intended to coordinate the work of UN agencies in the region in order to strengthen coherence, and avoid duplication of activities.

As this will be her first visit to the country, she will pay a courtesy call on Lebanese leaders, including President Michel Sleiman, House Speaker Nabih Berri and Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

** Nepal

On the Peacebuilding Fund, the Secretary-General has approved $10 million from the Peacebuilding Fund for projects in Nepal.

Pending the establishment of the new Government, areas that are strong candidates for support include the Constituent Assembly and human rights and protection efforts; recovery of communities affected by conflict; and conflict prevention and reconciliation issues.  There is more information in a press release upstairs.

** Iraq

On Iraq, the World Health Organization is offering increased support to Iraq’s cholera control activities, following an announcement by the Iraqi Government of 21 new confirmed cholera cases in the governorate of Babil, with another 90–95 suspected cases under investigation.

The Babil outbreak means Iraq now has 28 confirmed cholera cases in total.  Three deaths are now confirmed as cholera-related through laboratory analysis, but the actual toll may be higher.  WHO and other UN agencies have been supporting cholera-affected governorates since the disease resurfaced three weeks ago.  We have more details in a press release upstairs.


On Timor-Leste, under its programme of support to the Ministry of Health of Timor-Leste, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) tomorrow will hand over to the Maternity Department two ultrasound machines as well as specialized instruments and supplies for fistula surgery. 

Meanwhile, the Timorese President of the National Assembly today officially launched the “Say No to Violence against Women” campaign.  The signing ceremony is in support of the Secretary-General’s multi-year campaign to end violence against women which aims to engage leaders and mobilize men and boys as partners with women and girls to put a stop to violence against them.

The signing of the campaign will be complemented by various activities aimed at raising public awareness on gender-related violence and also collecting signatures.  UNIFEM [United Nations Development Fund for Women] hopes to amass 30,000 signatures from across the country by the end of October.

** Serbia

On Serbia, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has granted the former President of Serbia, Milan Milutinovic, temporary provisional release from detention so that he can undergo a medical procedure in Serbia.

Milutinovic, who is on trial on allegations of a campaign of terror and violence directed against Albanians and other non-Serbs living in Kosovo in 1999, will be under 24-hour electronic surveillance by the Serbian authorities while he is on temporary release.  His trial, which began in 2006, had its closing arguments end this past 27 August.

**Press Conferences

Ahead, a press conference this afternoon at 3:30 p.m., a background briefing by senior UN officials on the 25 September High-Level Event on the Millennium Development Goals and on the Millennium Development Goals Report 2008.  And you’re going to have, of course, packets of information that will be distributed that day.  As I said, it’s a background briefing by senior UN officials to prepare you for that big event which will be held on 25 September. 

Press conferences tomorrow, at 9:30 a.m., there will be a press conference by Sam Parnia, from the Weill Cornell Medical Center, on the opening of the UN/NGO symposium entitled “Beyond the Mind-Body Problem:  New Paradigms in the Science of Consciousness”.

And at 11 a.m., the Secretary-General will brief you on his priorities for the upcoming sixty-third session of the General Assembly as well as launch the Millennium Development Goals Report 2008.  There will be no noon briefing tomorrow, but we will post highlights on the web as usual.  The Secretary-General will be with you in Room 226.  And this is all I have for you, thank you.  Yes, Edie?

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Michèle, before I ask my question, I wanted to make a comment that, having recently joined the ranks of the temporarily disabled, I found how difficult it is for people who are disabled and work in this building to get around, particularly with the new fire doors.  It’s really impossible to open them if you’re in a wheelchair or, if, like me, you’re on a scooter and I think this should be brought to the attention of the people who are responsible for these things.  Secondly, I have also discovered how sparse the handicapped toilet facilities are in this building and I would hope that, if something can’t be done, at least immediately, that this will definitely be taken care of in the renovation of the building.  And now, my two questions.  First, do you have a comment on the decision of New York City to bar public school students from giving tours of the UN because they still consider the building a fire hazard?  And then I have another question after that.

Spokesperson:  Okay.  Edie, your first comment is well taken.  You can be sure that I will convey that to the people in charge of management of the building.  I think it’s a very good point and I think we have someone who has gone through the experience, so it helps to further the cause of the handicapped even though, in your case, it’s just temporary. 

And about the decision by Commissioner Tiven, I’d like to say that, as you know, the United Nations modified its guided tour route, in effect since 1 August, in direct response to concerns about safety raised by Commissioner Marjorie Tiven.  Our New York City-based safety advisers have confirmed that the building is totally safe for visitors, delegations and the staff.

Close to 50,000 students visit the United Nations each year, including many from the New York City area.  They are among the nearly 500,000 people from around the world that visit the Organization.

I would say that it is a pity that New York City’s public school children would miss the opportunity to visit one of New York’s greatest attractions, and to learn about its contributions to peace.

And we want to confirm also that we are confident that the UN facilities are very safe, and we look forward to the opening of the General Assembly later this month and the arrival of delegates from all over the world, as in the previous 60 years.  That’s what I have to say.

Question:  I have another question.  The Secretary-General received a letter yesterday from the organization of Myanmar politicians who were elected to Parliament in 1990 seeking to replace the current Government in the UN seat, challenging their credentials.  I wonder if the Secretary-General has any comment on this letter?

Spokesperson:  Well, the Secretary-General can only convey this letter to Members of the General Assembly.  As you know, the matter of credentials is something that is handled by the General Assembly, in this specific case, by the sixty-third session.  So we have a meeting of the Committee on Credentials, as you know, at the beginning of every General Assembly session.

Question:  So, the letter will be conveyed to the Credentials Committee?

Spokesperson:  It will be conveyed…And I think it should have been addressed to the President of the General Assembly. 

Question:  A follow-up on that?

Spokesperson:  Yes, sure.

Question:  If I remember correctly, a letter from the Government of Taiwan was relayed to the Secretary-General and he never did convey it to the Credentials Committee.  Is there a different standard here between those two letters?

Spokesperson:  Well, I don’t think that there is a difference.  At any rate, it is a matter for the Credentials Committee to examine.  The Secretary-General has nothing to say about this.  He has no say on it.

Question:  But he did not convey to the Credentials Committee.

Spokesperson:  The letter was conveyed to the General Assembly; not by the Secretary-General, but it was conveyed to the General Assembly on that issue.  And every year, the same issue comes up, as you know.

Question:  So, just to put a fine point on this, he has no comment on whether, on that situation, on Burma, or whether the elected officials can represent; he has no say and no comment, he has no preferences on this?

Spokesperson:  Well, he’s not commenting on this; not on the letter.  As I said, it is a matter for the General Assembly.  On the issue itself, the Secretary-General has talked a lot about this.  As you know, I am expecting to have for you a briefing on Myanmar as soon as Mr. Gambari talks to the Security Council; which should be tomorrow morning.  As soon as he talks to the Security Council, we’ll ask him to come and talk to you, so you can have more about the issue itself.

Question:  Has Gambari expressed readiness to talk to us?

Spokesperson:  Yes, he has.  Definitely, he has.

Question:  Great.

Spokesperson:  Yes, Mr. Abbadi?

Question:  Thank you, Michèle.  On Western Sahara, some media have already announced that Mr. Christopher Ross, the U.S. diplomat, will be the next Personal Envoy.  Is there any grain of truth to that?

Spokesperson:  Well, I can only say that we’re nearing a decision, but we’re not ready to make any announcement yet for a successor to Ambassador van Walsum.  Yes, Matthew?

Question:  In a similar vein, there are reports that Mr. Prodi is under consideration to be made an envoy to Africa by the Secretary-General.  Is there a position that’s open and is he being considered?

Spokesperson:  Well, I would have to say first that you probably are referring to the Corrier della Serra article and they might be referring to a joint African Union-UN panel that was set up by the Security Council on how to support African Union peacekeeping operations.  This is supposed to start on Monday.  It’s going to be for [six] weeks.  And in terms of whether I can confirm or not, we’ll have an announcement on Friday on who will be heading that group.  It was a Security Council decision.

Question:  I wanted to ask something on this incident in Georgia where the UN humanitarian personnel were stopped by Russia.  Russia has put out a statement, and I guess I just want to get your response to it, saying that they were turned back, that their paperwork, according to Russia, wasn’t in order and that no one from the UN humanitarian agencies contacted either the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or any other Russian agency with regard to arranging that trip.  Is that true? 

Spokesperson:  I cannot confirm that.  I can only try to find out for you what were the preliminary contacts.  But I can tell you that we are very involved in the situation and we’re certainly going to work out a way to have more humanitarian assistance go on the ground.  Yes, Masood?

Question:  On the Secretary-General’s visit to Lebanon, you realize that the Secretary-General has given a statement wherein he said that Israel owes $1 billion for the rebuilding of this power plant which was destroyed during Israel’s war in Lebanon in 2006.  And also, the Israelis are protesting this decision or statement by the Secretary-General, saying that how dare he ask us to pay for it because we were defending the country.  When he visits Lebanon, how is he going to resolve this issue?

Spokesperson:  Well, the Secretary-General is not going to Lebanon.  The Deputy Secretary-General is going to Lebanon.  Now, about your question, the figure that is quoted was an evaluation made by the World Bank.  The Secretary-General has not appealed to pay that amount.  You can read the report; the report is out on the racks.  You can have the exact quote from there; and not rely on what the media says that the Secretary-General said.

Question:  Michèle, what I’m saying is this is in the Israeli media in particular; there was an outrage at the suggestion coming out of the United Nations.  So how does the Deputy Secretary-General resolve this issue?

Spokesperson:  Well, the report stands for itself.  I want you to look at it and I want you to judge it by its merit.

Question:  Okay.  On another thing, on these attacks in Pakistan (inaudible), and you have been gathering information, does the Secretary-General have any response to it or is it the same usual response saying that (inaudible)…

Spokesperson:  We don’t have any specific reaction on this specific incident.  What I said earlier stands, really.  Yes, Pat?

Question:  To go back to the remodelling of the UN, I had a query recently from a city official on behalf of his (inaudible), as I understood, who were neighbours to the UN and they are concerned about rumours that they’ve heard about the General Assembly building being constructed on the North Lawn.  And they’ve heard this to be temporary, but they’re concerned whether it’s going to be, somehow end up being a permanent structure because it would block their view somehow.  How should I answer that person?

Spokesperson:  I think it’s very simple.  It is supposed to be a temporary building; it is going to be a temporary building.  And in terms of their own concerns, I don’t think they are legitimate.  The UN has to put the General Assembly somewhere and the temporary building is supposed to house the Assembly when it holds further sessions in the following years; about 4-5 years.  So you know, it’s necessary in terms of security; it is very difficult to hold this outside of the complex itself.  So that’s why there is a temporary arrangement being made.

Question:…(inaudible)…they seem to have accepted the fact that it’s going to be there, I guess they’re concerned that they might end up with something going on forever and being a permanent structure…

Spokesperson:  No, it’s not going to be a permanent structure.

Question:…but you’re saying it will be 4-5 years and then it will be…That was the other part of the question; how many years is it expected to be there?

Spokesperson:  Well, you can go to the Capital Master Plan site and you’ll get all the information you need and how long it will take and who…

Question:  I’ve referred them to that.

Spokesperson:  Okay, very good, thanks.  Yes, Benny?

Question:  To try to square Edie’s initial comment and then her question:  Isn’t the fact that the doors that were made here are not suitable for the use of handicapped people, isn’t that by itself already a problem that shows that this comment that everything is safe is a little bit lacking?

Spokesperson:  I’ll check on that and what Edie says should be examined and we should see what we can do about it.  As you know, the last phase of the work that was done was done just to meet the standards that were asked of us.

Question:  So you urge diplomats and visitors to come unless they’re handicapped? 

Spokesperson:  Benny, I said that we will see what can be done to redress the situation, and I repeat what I just said.

Question:  Michèle, the doors were put in place because the New York City Fire Department…

Spokesperson:  Exactly.

Question:…and so, hence they should be asked to resolve this crisis.

Spokesperson:  The handicap issue.

Question:  Yes, actually.  How much money has been spent on these doors?  About $2 million, $3 million?

Spokesperson:  Three million dollars has been spent on the last series of measures taken to comply with the (City safety) code.  Yes, Edie?

Question:  I just wanted to make the point that in some other buildings where there are fire doors there is a button that you push if you are handicapped that opens the doors.

Spokesperson:  Well, you have that in the Library; you have that in the Visitors’ entrance.  You have a number of doors that have a button for handicapped people so they can push it.

Question:  But not the new doors?

Spokesperson:  But the ones that were just added maybe not and this is what we have to talk about.  And certainly we will discuss this with the people in charge.

Question:  Michèle, can I just confirm that it’s the Deputy Secretary-General who is going to Lebanon for the ESCWA coordination meeting?

Spokesperson:  Yes.

Question:  And can we request a briefing either before or after the visit?

Spokesperson:  Well, she has already left.

Question:  Okay.  After that?

Spokesperson:  When she comes back, yes.  We will ask her.

Question:  It’s Africa, and then legal.  There are these reports of UN involvement in a military operation against the Lord’s Resistance Army which didn’t sign this peace agreement in Uganda.  Is the UN or MONUC, are they actually helping the Congolese Army to make this attack or they are part of the attack, based on the rules of engagement?

Spokesperson:  As far as I know, they’re not part of it.

Question:  Are they carrying any equipment for them?

Spokesperson:  I can get further details for you, but what I know is that they were not involved in the fighting.

Question:  Okay.  Also, Oxfam has put out a report about MINURCAT, the Mission in Chad, saying that, as of now, only 300 of 850 Chadian police gendarmes have been trained and none are yet in the camps.  Does the UN acknowledge that?

Spokesperson:  I’d have to check.  I was made aware of this report this morning and I am still checking.  I asked MINURCAT to give us some information, I don’t have it yet.

Question:  And then, there was this court decision in the Srebrenica case where the judge decided that the Dutch Army can’t be held responsible for Srebrenica because they were operating under a UN mandate.  It seems to imply that anything under the UN mandate, regardless, can’t be judged in the courts.  What does the UN think of that decision?

Spokesperson:  Well, that’s the decision by the court itself.  We have already said about Srebrenica, we have said our concern about the victims.  We have [talked] of course of the legal decisions that are taken and of our concerns about the victims and the serious discussions taking place to really help them even further.  They’re making new proposals to alleviate the problems of the families of the victims.  So, as far as I can say, the legal thing is one aspect of it and there is also the other aspect, the human aspect of it.

Question:  One last legal question.  There is a report of a case in France against a guy, Didier Bourguet that was with MONUC and, before that, in the Central African Republic, and accused of having sexual abuse and exploitation of under-aged girls in both places.  Did the UN waive his immunity?  Is he being charged?  I just couldn’t figure out why…I’m just trying to put the two cases together…

Spokesperson:  As you know, every time we have cases like this, the country [of nationality or one] that provides the troops has the responsibility to carry on the judicial procedures against whoever is accused of a sexual crime or any other crime.  So this is what happened in this case.  The French courts, the same way the Indian court has ruled on a number of cases, and so the French courts are working on this specific case.

Question:  What I couldn’t figure out is, it described him as being a mechanic.  I don’t know if France ever sent troops to the Congo, so it made me think that may be he is a MONUC staff member.

Spokesperson:  From what I gather he was a member of MONUC, but I can check for you on that.  In any case, it’s the country that provides the person to MONUC who is responsible for the judiciary pursuits.

Question:  And also, they’re like MONUC civilian personnel who get hired through here, through Galaxy or get hired there.  They’re not really provided by the Government.

Spokesperson:  I can check for you whether that was the case in the case for Mr. Bourguet.

Question:  Okay, thank you, I appreciate it.

Spokesperson:  You’re welcome.

Question:  Michèle, on Haiti, there are indications that one reason for the island being hit so hard compared to other Caribbean countries is that the infrastructure has been destroyed because of deforestation over the years and some organizations are now planting trees.  Is the United Nations Environment Programme participating in the planting of trees in Haiti?

Spokesperson:  Well, I can check specifically on that question.  I do know; you’re quite right; there is only 2 per cent of the cover in terms of trees, 2 per cent of the territory that is covered now with trees and what used to be forests.  It is true that is the main problem.  Of course, the main problem also is that, for the first time in quite a few years, we have been hit by three hurricanes in a row that have really crossed the country following the same path every time, except for Ike.  Ike hit only the northern part.  But every other hurricane went right through the country.  So what you say about what UNEP is doing, I can try to find out whether they have a specific programme.  But I know there are a number of NGOs who have planting programmes.  Thank you very much.

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For information media • not an official record