22 December 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 Michéle Montas, Spokesperson for the Secretary-General.

Good afternoon, all.  I can see that the numbers are shrinking.

**Security Council

The Security Council held several meetings this morning.  First, it adopted a resolution extending the mandate of the UN Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC) by one year.  The Council then voted to renew Democratic Republic of the Congo sanctions until the end of November 2009.  Following that, it voted to extend the mandate of the UN Integrated Office in Burundi (BINUB) by one year.  The Council then adopted a presidential statement on the Great Lakes region and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).  Specifically, it reiterated its welcome for the Final Peace Agreement negotiated between the Ugandan Government and the LRA.  And it agreed with Special Envoy Joaquim Chissano’s recommendations that the peace efforts should continue.  At the same time, the Council condemned the repeated failure of Joseph Kony to sign the Final Peace Agreement.  It also strongly condemned recent attacks by the LRA in the DRC and Southern Sudan.

This afternoon, the Council will meet to take action on a resolution on Iraq.  That resolution is expected to extend for a year arrangements for depositing proceeds from oil and gas export sales into the Development Fund for Iraq.  Today is supposed to be the Security Council’s last day of meetings for 2008.

** Democratic Republic of the Congo

On the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Secretary-General’s special envoy for the Great Lakes region, Olusegun Obansanjo, has formally informed the Secretary-General’s Special Representative in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Alan Doss, of the outcome of the latest round of the Nairobi talks between the Democratic Republic of the Congo Government and the Congres national pour la Défense du peuple (CNDP).  According to the UN Mission in the DRC (MONUC), Obasanjo has described the dialogue as difficult, but encouraging.  A statement from Obsanjo’s office had earlier said that three procedural documents about the planned substantive talks were discussed in Nairobi.  Of these, two documents were adopted while the third one had to be withdrawn to be resubmitted at a more appropriate future time because of the CNDP’s objections to its contents.  While some disagreements persist between the parties, both sides have publicly committed to pursuing the Nairobi dialogue, which is expected to resume on 7 January.

In their conversation this past weekend, SRSG Doss told Special Envoy Obasanjo that the UN Mission fully supports his efforts and those of his Co-Facilitator, former President Benjamin Mkapa.  Doss said the Mission is ready to help any way possible to advance that dialogue.

** Democratic Republic of the Congo -- Humanitarian

Still on the Democratic Republic of the Congo, there have been more than 100 reported attacks on humanitarian workers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo this year alone, said John Holmes, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator.  Holmes strongly condemned the “awful” tally and appealed to all armed groups operating in that country, including the national army, to ensure the safety of aid workers.  The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has repeatedly warned that the lack of humanitarian access in the region is cutting off displaced people and other needy Congolese from life-saving assistance.  It is also gravely endangering the lives of humanitarian workers.  Several key routes are no longer accessible due to widespread insecurity, in particular in Rutshuru territory.  There is more in an OCHA press release upstairs.

** Somalia

On Somalia, the Secretary-General on Friday sent a letter to the Security Council about the situation in Somalia.  Following up on his November report to the Council and his statement of 16 December during the Security Council ministerial meeting on Somalia, the Secretary General’s letter includes a paper that sets out some proposals for the next steps on security and on considerations for a possible peacekeeping option for Somalia.  The Secretary-General’s letter notes the progress made in the Djibouti peace process, but it is of the view that conditions are not as yet ripe for a UN peacekeeping operation.  His efforts to mobilize a robust stabilization force have yet to materialize.  In the absence of a stabilization force, the options forwarded to the Security Council provide a package of measures such as the strengthening of African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), intensified training of Somali military and police personnel, and the establishment of a maritime force with a quick-reaction capacity, aimed at allowing the peace process to grow roots.

** Zimbabwe

On Zimbabwe, UNICEF announced today that its first-ever airlift of critical emergency supplies to Zimbabwe has landed in Harare as Zimbabwe grapples with cholera and a collapsing health system.  The cargo, which includes intravenous fluids, drip equipment, essential drugs, midwifery and obstetric kits, will boost the UN Children’s Fund cholera response and aid Government to deliver some essential health services to expecting mothers.  UNICEF noted that it is already supplying 70 per cent of the country’s essential drugs.  The 140 tons consignment provides intravenous and oral rehydration supplies, which are the first line of treatment in any management of cholera.  The supplies also include essential midwifery kits for pregnant women.

More than 1,100 people have already died from cholera and nearly 24,000 cases have been reported in Zimbabwe, UNICEF says.  The situation is worsened by a health crisis characterized by the closure of major hospitals, a critical lack of drugs and equipment, and nurses and doctors not able to come to work.  The combined result is the poor management of cholera cases and serious risks to women and children during child birth.

** Darfur

The African Union-United Nations Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) reports that it received 85 members of the Pakistani engineering company over the weekend.  Another 176 personnel are expected to arrive in Darfur later this week.  The total strength of the company when fully deployed will be 335.  The Pakistan contingent will work primarily on the completion of a UNAMID “super camp” in El Geneina, West Darfur, and will expand other UNAMID camps in Darfur, providing infrastructure and facilities that will allow more peacekeepers to deploy.

Also over the weekend, two groups of the Ethiopian logistics unit arrived in Darfur, giving UNAMID a much needed boost in logistical support.  The strength of this company when fully deployed will be 300 personnel.  The Ethiopian unit, which brings additional logistical and engineering capabilities to the Mission in the areas of supply, transport, maintenance and force protection, will work primarily on providing logistical support to the military components in the sector.  Ethiopia’s contributions to UNAMID include one infantry battalion, one transport company, one reconnaissance company, 29 staff officers and 9 military observers. In addition, another battalion is expected to be deployed in 2009.

** Mauritania

We issued a statement on Sunday, attributable to the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General, on Mauritania.

The Secretary-General welcomes reports that President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi has been released from house arrest.  He also welcomes the removal of other restrictions imposed on him since he was deposed in a coup d’état on 6 August 2008.  The Secretary-General reiterates his call for the prompt restoration of constitutional order in Mauritania in the interest of peace and respect for the rule of law in the country.

** Middle East

The Office of the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process (UNSCO) reports that Gaza’s goods crossings are closed today.  No fuel, humanitarian aid or any other commodities have been able to get into Gaza today.  UNSCO also reports that Gaza’s power plant is still not operating.  In addition, due to the shortage of wheat grain, all Gaza mills have been shut down and more than half of Gaza’s 47 bread bakeries have had to close.  Meanwhile, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) reports that shortages of drugs and pharmaceuticals in Gaza are continuing to rise.  There are now 105 essential drugs out of stock.

For its part, the World Bank said today in a report that the Palestinian economy has the potential for dramatic growth, even in the midst of the current global recession.  But new restrictions are hampering export-oriented growth.  The report adds that an improved international trade route through Jordan would make the West Bank economy much more competitive for exports.  We have more on that upstairs.

** Cyprus

On Cyprus, the two Cypriot leaders met today in Nicosia under UN auspices.  A joint statement by them was read out by the Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on Cyprus, Alexander Downer, following the meeting.  According to that statement, the leaders reaffirmed their strong commitment to finding a comprehensive settlement.  Noting that progress so far has been insufficient, they stressed that they were resolved to do all in their power to reach a settlement as soon as possible.  In his own remarks to the press today, Downer noted that today’s discussions had featured continued talks on external affairs powers.  He added that the leaders’ next meeting will be on 5 January.  We have more on that upstairs.

** Nepal

On Nepal, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Nepal condemned today the attack against staff at Himal Media publishing house in Kathmandu as an attack against freedom of expression.  Dozens of persons entered the Himal office at midday on Sunday, physically assaulting a number of individuals, including the publisher and CEO.  UN human rights officers followed up the incident in support of investigators from the National Human Rights Commission.  The attack is the latest in a series of assaults against the media in Nepal.  OHCHR-Nepal encourages the Nepal police, which investigated Sunday’s incident, to complete its investigation as swiftly as possible so charges can be laid.  It also urges State authorities to take all steps necessary to ensure that the media has a secure environment in which to do its work.

** Papua New Guinea

On Papua New Guinea, the five-member United Nations disaster assessment and coordination (UNDAC) team arrived in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, last week, to identify the needs to assist the victims affected by the 8 December severe sea swells.  Caused by low depression in the waters of Guam and New Caledonia, the sea swell hit the northern shoreline of Papua New Guinea and severely affected five provinces, including East Sepik, Madang, Manus, New Ireland, Morobe as well as the autonomous region of Bougainville.  It is estimated that 32,000 people are affected.  The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said an inter-agency assessment team, including the UNDAC team, was deployed in East Sepik Province.  The team, set to remain in the islands for 7 to 10 days, is supporting the national disaster centre in information management by compiling available information on the damage and identifying the needs.

** Chad

On Chad, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Chad, Victor Angelo, this weekend completed a mission to the eastern region of Dogdore.  His goal was to assess humanitarian conditions and discuss the situation with local authorities.  He also met with representatives of the 28,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the region who had suffered repeated bandit attacks, prompting aid workers to temporarily suspend their work.  Angelo said that the Chadian authorities would soon be deploying gendarmes and guards to the area, in the hope that an improvement in the security situation would bring back the aid groups to assist the IDP population. 

**World Food Programme in Colombia

On Colombia, the World Food Programme (WFP) has launched an emergency operation in Colombia.  It’s aimed at helping 30,000 people throughout the country.  Heavy rain has plagued much of Colombia since September, making this the most destructive rainy season on record, authorities say.  The eruption of a volcano in southern Colombia late last month left thousands more people in need of assistance there.  WFP will begin distributions to some 4,500 people along the northern Pacific coast.  They will receive non-perishable foods to cover their nutritional needs for the next 40 days.  There is more information in a press release upstairs, and this is all I have for you today.

**Questions and Answers

Question:  With regard to Somalia, did the Secretary-General speak with the Ethiopian authorities about the decision to withdraw their troops by the end of this year?  Did he have any conversation about that, not asking to extend it or anything, but some sort of that talk?

Spokesperson:  I am not aware of that.  I will check again for you whether there was anything this weekend, but I’m not aware of any direct conversation.

Question:  There’s an announcement that the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is going to have to pull its team out of Georgia at the request of Russia.  Does the United Nations, or its existing mission, whatever its name is in Abkhazia, is it aware of that?  Is it going to change its workload at all?

Spokesperson:  I have to say -- you’re talking about the mandate of another international organization in an area [ South Ossetia] where the United Nations does not have a mandated peacekeeping or political presence.  So I don’t really have a particular comment on that.  As I understand, the OSCE mandate expires on 31 December, so I guess there’s still time for discussions.

Question:  Is there any update on Mr. Fowler in Niger and the Secretary-General’s conversation with the President of Niger?

Spokesperson:  No, we don’t have any update on this.  As you know, the UN, the Government of Canada and the Government of Niger, they are working in close partnership with each other and with regional actors to resolve this case.  We are pursuing all appropriate channels to seek further information about this case and to secure their safe return.  We will not comment or release any information which may compromise these efforts or endanger the safety of these persons, and we are in regular touch with the families to provide assistance and support.  We ask the media to respect their privacy.

Question:  There is a controversy in Lebanon against the appointment of the Chief Investigator for the Tribunal on Lebanon, Nick Kaldas, an Australian officer.  Would you comment on that?

Spokesperson:  No, I will not comment on a judicial matter, which is a matter for the Tribunal.  I will not comment on that, definitely not.

Question:  Michèle, there are some news agency reports that the Israeli envoy to the United Nations handed a letter to Mr. Ban Ki-moon, informing him that Israel is about to launch a major operation in Gaza.  So I wanted you to confirm or deny.  And also, what is the Secretary-General generally doing in light of reports that Israel might be launching an attack against Gaza?

Spokesperson:  About that letter, I asked for you this morning and we have not received this letter.  So, as we said on Friday, the Secretary-General is extremely concerned at statements calling into question the continuation of the Egyptian-brokered calm in and around Gaza.  As we said earlier, a major escalation of violence would have grave consequences for the protection of civilians, and I just mentioned earlier the situation in Gaza right there, the protection of civilians both in Israel and Gaza, the welfare of the Gazan civilian population, and also the sustainability of the political effort.  I will make no comment on a letter we have not received, really.

Question:  Has there been some informal information to the Secretary-General that Israel might be preparing for such a strike?

Spokesperson:  At any rate, we would not comment on strikes that have not taken place, and we would not comment on this publicly, of course not.

Question:  Has he asked Israel not to conduct these strikes?

Spokesperson:  He has publicly expressed his position on that.

Question:  We know the Chinese Government will soon send several warships to Aden Bay to fight the Somali pirates.  That is the first time the Chinese Government will do so.  How would the Secretary-General or anyone at the UN comment on that?

Spokesperson:  We don’t have any specific comment.  As you know, this was a matter that was discussed in the Security Council.  So this is a matter that is with the Security Council right now, and you can try to seek comments from the members of the Council.  That’s what I would suggest.

Question:  Michèle, does your note have the name of the publisher of Himal magazine that was assaulted over the last days?

Spokesperson:  We have the name upstairs.

Question:  I’m asking because, until recent days, he was a United Nations staffer.

Spokesperson:  Okay, we have the name upstairs, of course.

Question:  There was a violation of the Blue Line between Israel and Lebanon two days ago, and Israel kidnapped two Lebanese and then released them.  Do you have any comment on that?

Spokesperson:  All the violations are recorded and reported to the Security Council on a regular basis, and there are quite a few of them.

Question:  As the Budget Committee wraps up its work, I want to ask you two questions.  One is, they have a resolution about information technology, in which they say the Secretary-General began something called “enterprise content management” and “customer relations management” software programmes without approval of the General Assembly.  I want to ask you now, before it goes to a vote, did the Secretary-General agree to that critique?  What was the authorization that began those two programmes?

Spokesperson:  I do know that the Budget Committee met practically all weekend, practically all night Saturday, all night yesterday, Sunday, until early morning today, and they have been discussing different matters.  I don’t know about that specific issue, where they are on the discussion on that, and I don’t have any specific comments from the Secretary-General on any items on the budget, as long as it is being discussed in the Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary).

Question:  How about this one?  There is a peer report out by the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ), just in time for the vote, which says that it appears from his budget outline, the 2010-2011 budget, is for a $5.1 billion budget, a 36 per cent increase, rather than a 2 per cent decrease.  Is that not the number?  Does the ACABQ have the number wrong?

Spokesperson:  I am not commenting on this, I told you.  It is being discussed in the Committee.  I am not going to comment on any aspect of the budget.

Question:  After the vote will you have a comment?

Spokesperson:  After the vote we’ll have someone discuss the budget with you, okay?  And as far as I know, the discussions might last until late on 24 December, if you’re patient enough to wait.  At any rate, we are not having a press briefing on Christmas Day.

Question:  But we will have one on the 24th?

Spokesperson:  The 24th yes, we will be having one.  From the 25th until 2 January we won’t have a briefing and I’m sure you don’t wish to have one either, unless there’s really an emergency and then you’ll be immediately informed of any new development we need to share with you.  Okay, thank you.

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For information media • not an official record