16 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 Marie Okabe, Deputy Spokesperson for the Secretary-General.

Good afternoon.

**Press Conferences Today

At 12:30 p.m. today, just after the noon briefing, the President of the sixty-second session of the General Assembly, Srgjan Kerim, will give his wrap-up press briefing on the work of the current session of the General Assembly.

Then at 1:30 p.m., the Under-Secretary-General and UN Special Adviser on Africa, the President of the African Securities Association and the representative from the World Bank will be joined by other speakers to launch the Socially Responsible Investment index for Africa.

Then at 5 p.m., Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann will give his first press conference as the President of the sixty-third session of the General Assembly.

** Georgia

We are expecting an update on the UN Mission in Georgia, but meanwhile, assessment teams from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) report that in the so-called “buffer zone” north of the town of Gori, most villagers who live close to Gori appear to have returned to their homes.  But deeper inside the buffer zone, the rate of return is considerably lower since beatings, looting and arson by marauding militias have created an atmosphere of fear and insecurity, according to the refugee agency.

UNHCR reports that the destruction of buildings and houses is not as widespread as was initially feared.  But the communities, which are largely dependent on agriculture, have lost 70 to 80 per cent of this year’s harvest because of restricted irrigation water from South Ossetia, crop damage from heavy military equipment passing through fields and the continued presence of landmines.

Since the local gas pipeline is no longer functioning, the price of firewood has risen by 50 per cent.  Also, there are no health services inside the buffer zone.  And there is more information on this in the UNHCR briefing notes from Geneva.

** Afghanistan

Also from Geneva, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, expressed serious concern today as new figures released by her Office showed a sharp increase in the number of civilians killed in Afghanistan during the first eight months of 2008, compared to the same period the previous year.

The human rights team attached to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) recorded a total of 1,445 civilian casualties in the first eight months of this year, an increase of 39 per cent compared to the same period in 2007, when there were 1,040 conflict-related deaths.

August was a particularly deadly month, with 330 civilians killed, including up to 92 civilian deaths reported during an operation involving Afghan and international military forces in Shindand.  “This is the highest number of civilian deaths to occur in a single month since the end of major hostilities and the ousting of the Taliban regime at the end of 2001,” Pillay said.

Exactly 800 killings -- or 55 per cent of the total number of civilian deaths recorded in the first eight months of 2008 -- are attributed to the Taliban and other insurgent forces.  Suicide attacks and improvised explosive devices, used extensively by the armed opposition, were the cause of 551 civilian deaths.  We have more details in a press release from the High Commissioner’s Office.

** Sri Lanka

On Sri Lanka -- this is to bring you up to date from yesterday -- most of the remaining United Nations staff today were relocated away from Kilinochchi in compliance with the Government’s request.

So far, 29 staff have moved.  All are now in Vavuniya, joining colleagues who had been relocated earlier last week.  The number of international NGO staff who were relocated today is 13.

Twenty-one UN national staff still remain in Kilinochchi.  These are staff the LTTE, the acronym for the Tamil Tigers, did not give passes to, or who chose to stay with families who could not get passes to move.

With the UN's continuing commitment to, and concern for, the civilians of the Vanni, senior staff are in place to mount humanitarian operations from Vavuniya.

** Chad

Meanwhile, the UN-backed integrated security contingent of the Chadian Army, which is tasked with the protection of refugees and internally displaced persons in eastern Chad, has begun a reconnaissance mission in the region.  That’s according to the Mission in Chad and the Central African Republic (MINURCAT), which says that some 70 troops of the contingent will tour six districts, including Abeche and Goz Beida.

This is the first reconnaissance mission by the security contingent ahead of its full deployment.  To date, the UN Mission has trained some 320 members of the contingent; it intends to train another 500 soon.

** Zimbabwe

Meanwhile, from Zimbabwe, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Health Organization (WHO) and their NGO partners are responding to a cholera outbreak that is reported to have claimed the lives of 11 people and infected 80 others in the outskirts of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare.  The outbreak was reported earlier this month.

UNICEF, working closely with local authorities, non-governmental organizations and WHO have established two cholera treatment centres.  The clinics are mainly managed by Médecins Sans Frontières.

Lack of clean water for domestic use fuelled the spread of the cholera.  Sewer line blockages are common in the affected area, resulting in numerous incidents of sewage flowing in open drains along the streets.

Temporary measures have been put in place to address water shortages in the most affected area.  The trucking of 30,000 litres of drinking water is being done daily and will continue for the duration of the outbreak.

** Haiti

And turning to Haiti, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Haiti, Hédi Annabi, and the UN Mission in that country are continuing to work out the logistical and security capacity available to help deliver humanitarian aid to the population in all regions affected by recent hurricanes and ensuing floods.

The Mission says it is encouraged by the solidarity shown by political actors, the private sector and the Haitian diaspora.  This past weekend, Haitian-born performing artist Wyclef Jean and actor Matt Damon visited the towns of Gonaïves and Cabaret, two of the regions hardest hit.

The stars handed out much-needed food and other emergency assistance goods.  They said that their goal in visiting the region was to get first-hand impressions of the extent of the damage wrought on the island nation by the flooding.  They also sought to receive information likely to help them collect funds and improve their assistance efforts.

**UN Conference on Trade and Development/World Trade Organization

The heads of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the World Trade Organization today called for a conclusion of the now stalled Doha trade negotiations.

Speaking at UNCTAD’s annual Trade and Development Board, they stressed that reaching such an agreement would not only bring direct gains, but also inject confidence and order into shaken economies and financial markets.  They noted that stable trade is vital for economic progress in poor nations, and requires a supportive international banking and financial climate.

**International Day -- Ozone Layer

And today is the International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer.  In a message, the Secretary-General notes that decisive action under the Montreal Protocol has resulted in the banning of substances that both deplete the ozone layer and contribute to climate change.

It may take 50 years or more for the ozone layer to fully recover, he notes, but the lesson is that “by acting on one challenge, we also act on many others”.  The Secretary-General urges Governments to move forward on a wide range of environmental challenges and reach a decisive new agreement on climate change.

In related news, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) says the ozone hole over the Antarctic this year is already larger than at its peak last year.  Amid other worrying trends, WMO is warning of potential delays in any expected recovery of the ozone layer.

Meanwhile, several UN agencies have launched a new education pack for secondary schools.  Entitled “High Sky”, it features the characters “Ozzy and Zoe Ozone”.  Through role-playing exercises, students learn simple ways to protect the ozone layer and safely enjoy the sun.  There is more on this in several press releases upstairs.

**Memorial Ceremony

And finally, a special concert and memorial ceremony will take place in Petra, Jordan, next month.  The event will pay tribute to UN Messenger for Peace Luciano Pavarotti, who died one year ago, and also raise funds for projects run by the UN refugee agency and the World Food Programme (WFP) in Afghanistan.

Stars of both classical and pop music are taking part in the October 11 and 12 event.  The line-up includes Sting, Andrea Bocelli and many others.  And you can read more about that in a press release upstairs.

**Press Conferences Tomorrow

And finally just to flag for you two press conferences tomorrow:  at 11:30 a.m., Eric Falt, Director of the Outreach Division in the Department of Public Information, will be joined by other speakers to launch the Global Model UN Student Conference.

And our guests at the noon briefing will be Alain Le Roy, Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, and Edmond Mulet, Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations.  And that’s what I have for you today.  We will have the General Assembly President and the Spokesman shortly, but do you have any questions for me?  Let’s start with Masood in the back.

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Marie, on this statement by the Secretary-General on Afghanistan, of which he has taken note, I think after a very long time, the civilian casualties occurring (inaudible) by the attacks by the coalition forces, and NATO and the United States and also (inaudible) of course, Taliban are doing the damage.  Will the Secretary-General also be speaking with the coalition (inaudible) forces or the United States or NATO in order to make sure that these civilian casualties are less, which you euphemistically call collateral damage?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I don’t think I heard your entire question, but I think I understood.  First of all, the statement I read was a statement by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, it was by Navi Pillay, who, as you know, is the Secretary-General’s top human rights official and this is a report that comes from the human rights team attached to the UN mission on the ground.  His Special Representative on the ground, Kai Eide, has also made a number of statements and representations on this issue and I really have nothing beyond that for you today.  Yes?

Question:  Marie, in light of that statement, will the United Nations or anybody pursue this?  I mean, it’s another thing to just issue a statement (inaudible) the coalition forces (inaudible).

Deputy Spokesperson:  First of all the Human Rights Office is in the lead on this report and I am sure that they are following up according to their working procedures.  And Michèle Montas, when she was here, had mentioned that the Secretary-General’s Special Representative, the UN and all the parties were in touch on this issue.  And you know the Secretary-General’s position about his concerns for civilian casualties in situations like this.

Question:  On the appointments of the Secretary-General list today, there is a “working luncheon on interreligious event”.  Can you give us any more details about what this is?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I don’t have anything more right now, but I can look into that for you.  Mr. Abbadi?

Question:  Marie, we’re witnessing a very important event, the subprime, mortgage crisis, financial crisis.  This is impacting the world economy very seriously.  What does the Secretary-General have to say about that?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Well, the Secretary-General obviously is monitoring the situation, but today I have nothing beyond what the UNCTAD report has said.

Question:  I have a couple of things:  Sima Samar, described as the UN special investigator on Sudan, has said that there was an attempt to end her mandate of investigating Sudan.  Does the Secretary-General think that the post and her work in it has been useful?

Deputy Spokesperson:  You’re asking about the Human Rights Council today?  Yes, they heard from the Special Rapporteur for Sudan, and she held a press conference.  As you know, the Special Rapporteurs are independent and this is in the context of the Council taking up country situations.  That’s all I have from Geneva today.

Question:  Okay, but I guess I just wanted to know whether the Secretary-General thinks that mandate is useful given that there is a move afoot to eliminate the position, according to Ms. Samar.

Deputy Spokesperson:  They are independent experts that are nominated by the Human Rights Council, and they’ve played an essential role as the eyes and ears of reporting human rights situations around the world.

Question:  Yesterday there was a booklet handed out to staff -- Ban Ki-moon’s view of the UN, or whatever.  Do you have anything to say about it?  Why at this time did the Secretary-General need to give out this little blue book?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I think it stems from the things that the Secretary-General has been trying to convey to you, which I think he did during his one-hour-long press conference just last week.  As you know -- and you have been reporting on, his meeting with the senior officials of the UN system, in which he also talked to them about his priorities -- it’s only natural that he also convey this to his staff, who are central in carrying out his vision.  From what I understand, the staff and interns are all under the age of 30, who are everyday standing and distributing.  In other words, they’re the younger members of the UN Secretariat who are handing out this easy-to-read booklet to UN staff members here and, from what I understand, they’re also distributing them to staff around the world.

Question:  When did the idea originate?  Did it originate after that Turin speech?  That’s I guess what I’m wondering.  When did this come about?

Deputy Spokesperson:  They were already something that, I believe, were already handed out at the Turin retreat.

Question:  Marie, the international global arms trade treaty comes up for discussion in October, as you already know.  And there’s been an appeal from various organizations asking the Member States to sign on this treaty.  Will the Secretary-General ask Member States, or somehow prod the Member States, to come to some sort of an agreement on this arms trade treaty or not?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Are you talking about the CTBT?

Correspondent:  Yes.

Deputy Spokesperson:  We had an item on that yesterday, so if you come up to the Office we can give it to you.  We flagged it and we are going to do it again later this week.  Mr. Abbadi, again?

Question:  Marie, the appointment of the Special Envoy to Western Sahara has not yet been announced despite the fact that the media has revealed the name of Mr. Christopher Ross.  What is the delay due to?  Are the consultations with the parties continuing?  Is Ambassador Ross not ready yet to take up the appointment?  What is the delay due to?

Deputy Spokesperson:  As soon as we have something, we’ll let you know.  One more?

Question:  Amnesty International said that it got out this Myanmar dissident that was rearrested on 10 September and (inaudible) is at risk of torture by the Government of Myanmar.  I’m wondering if there is anywhere in his good offices or otherwise, the Secretary-General has taken note of this and is aware of the condition of this new political prisoner.

Deputy Spokesperson:  I don’t have any immediate response to that.  I’d have to look into that for you.

Question:  In-house, but totally separate, in the Delegates’ Lounge, they’ve opened up this thing called the ICT Centre.  It seems to be like a computer either repair or training centre, but it seems to be, actually for diplomats, not for UN staff.  It was opened yesterday by Mr. Choi, Mr. Shaaban Shaaban and the Ambassador of Switzerland.  How is it funded and what is it for?

Deputy Spokesperson:  That’s a good question, I’ll find out for you, okay?  If there are no other questions for me, please stick around or come back in a few minutes, because the General Assembly President should be here in three minutes.  Have a good afternoon.  And at 5 p.m., don’t forget, the new General Assembly President will be here.

[The correspondent was later told:

The ICT Resource Centre is a Department for General Assembly Affairs and Conference Management initiative.  It is designed to serve as a central point of contact for Delegates needing information and communication technology support during the sixty-third General Assembly session.  Services provided include printing, scanning and technical recommendations, as well as assistance with IT questions and problems.  The Centre will also provide to delegates, upon request, digital recordings of just-concluded Security Council and General Assembly meetings and official United Nations documents.]

* *** *

For information media • not an official record