19 January 2009
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.

Our guests at the noon briefing today again are John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, and John Ging, Director of Operations in Gaza for UNRWA, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.  They will provide an update on the humanitarian situation in Gaza in the aftermath of the ceasefire.  John Ging, as you are aware, will be talking to us via videoconference link from Gaza.

**Secretary-General’s Travels

Speaking at the Arab Economic Summit in Kuwait today, the Secretary-General expressed his strong feelings of grief, of relief, and of determination regarding the situation in Gaza.  He said he felt grief at the death and injury of thousands of civilians in the past 22 days; he felt relief that, early yesterday, Israel announced a cessation of hostilities in Gaza and that later Hamas, too, announced a temporary ceasefire; and he felt determination to do all possible to ensure that immediate steps are taken to bring relief to the people of Gaza.

The Secretary-General said that he will dispatch this week a high-level humanitarian and early recovery assessment mission to Gaza.  Within 10 days of this mission, he will launch a flash humanitarian appeal, and he has already directed UN staff to begin the assessment process.  Of course, John Holmes can brief you on that.

Speaking at a conference on reconstruction in Gaza that was held yesterday in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, the Secretary-General said that he expects all parties to show restraint, and to fully facilitate urgent help by the United Nations to civilians.  If fighting resumes, if crossings are closed, or if the UN is hit by further attacks, he warned, it is the people of Gaza who will suffer.  This must not happen.

Since late Friday, the Secretary-General’s travels to support efforts to halt the fighting in Gaza had taken him to Turkey, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, before he came to Kuwait.  In all those stops, he met with Government officials regarding ways to ensure a durable halt to all violence in Gaza and southern Israel.  We have the transcripts of his press encounters in those countries available on the Web.

Also, on Saturday, the Secretary-General condemned in the strongest terms an attack on an UNRWA‑run school, the third such attack.  He strongly demanded a thorough investigation into these incidents, and the punishment of those who are responsible for these appalling acts.

While he was in Kuwait today, the Secretary-General also met with World Bank President Robert Zoellick to discuss recovery and reconstruction efforts in Gaza.  They also discussed the financial crisis and how it affects the most vulnerable countries.  They exchanged ideas on how the World Bank can help peacekeeping missions, particularly in rural areas.  They agreed to meet in Madrid at the end of the month, for the High-level Meeting on Food Security.

** Darfur

The African Union-United Nations Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) has confirmed that the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) has taken full control of South Darfur’s Muhajeriya area from the Sudan Liberation Movement of Minni Minawi (SLA/M).  That followed fierce fighting that has led to additional suffering to the civilian population.  According to UNAMID, recent reports indicate that the SLA/M is regrouping for a counterattack to regain control of Muhajeriya.

UNAMID peacekeepers are on the ground to protect members of the local population, but the situation has reached a level where aid staff were evacuated from Muhajeriya, particularly after an aid agency office was destroyed.  UNAMID has evacuated six critically injured persons to Nyala, and it continues to provide some basic medical services within its compound.

UNAMID expresses grave concern for the lives and safety of the civilian population in Muhajeriya and warns that continued fighting between the two Darfurian movements could lead to a catastrophic humanitarian situation for the 30,000 residents and displaced civilians there.

UNAMID deplores this alarming military escalation that jeopardizes the prospects for successful peace negotiations.

As you’ll recall, the Secretary‑General, in a statement issued late last week, called on all parties to halt the violence, as well as any preparations for further military action.

And welcome to you John (Ging), I just saw you come in.  We’ll come to you in a second.

**Democratic Republic of Congo

The UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC) has welcomed the decision by senior leadership of the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) to end their rebellion.  The Mission welcomes the stated intention of the CNDP and the ethnic PARECO movement to place their fighters at the disposal of the Congolese Army.

Alan Doss, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative, said he is awaiting details on a recent key agreement between the Congolese Government and Rwanda, as well as on a separate agreement between Rwanda and the CNDP rebel group.  Doss said that it would be a real breakthrough if these agreements bring about “a genuine cessation of hostilities” between the Congolese parties.  He also reiterated his appeal to all parties to take into account the protection of civilians and to ensure humanitarian access to civilians in need of assistance.

**Security Council

John Holmes, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, briefed the Security Council on Friday about the recent attacks by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in several parts of Central Africa, and we have a press release about that briefing available today.

Holmes expressed concern over massive violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law and the repeated refusal of LRA leader Joseph Kony, most recently in December, to sign the Final Peace Agreement that his own delegation negotiated through the Juba Peace Talks.  He said that more than 560 civilians were estimated to have been killed in recent attacks, with more than 400 abducted.

In a press statement read out on Friday afternoon, the Security Council President, Ambassador Jean-Maurice Ripert of France, said that Council members strongly condemned the recent attacks carried out by the LRA and emphasized that those responsible must be brought to justice.

Council members demanded that the members of the LRA cease all attacks on civilians immediately, and urged them to surrender, assemble, and disarm, as required by the Final Peace Agreement.

There are no Council meetings scheduled for today.

** Zimbabwe

UNICEF’s Executive Director announced over the weekend that the United Nations will make available $5 million for the health sector in Zimbabwe as the country is battling an ongoing cholera outbreak and the effects of collapsing social services.

“The cholera outbreak is the tip of the iceberg,” Ann Veneman is quoted as saying in a UNICEF press release.  “The economy in Zimbabwe is crumbling, with the highest inflation rate in the world at 231 million per cent.  Over half the population is receiving food aid, health centres have closed and when the school term starts there is no guarantee that there will be enough teachers.”

She met with President Mugabe and key stakeholders.  Discussions underscored the humanitarian impact on women and children.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 44,000 cholera cases have been reported and more than 2,300 people have died.

** West Africa

In his latest report on West Africa, the Secretary-General says that the region continues to make progress towards consolidating peace and security.  He says that the UN Office for West Africa (UNOWA) will continue to play a mediation role in regional conflicts, including the follow-up on the settlement of the Nigeria-Cameroon dispute over the Bakassi Peninsula.  The Office will also place a stronger emphasis on conflict prevention and peacebuilding in general.

The Secretary-General remains concerned by regional food insecurity and the impact of the global financial crisis there.  Election-related issues are also of concern to the Secretary‑General, as are security sector reform, human rights and transitional justice, and the rule of law.

** Iraq

On Iraq, Staffan de Mistura, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Iraq, today expressed his deep sorrow and regret following the assassination in a suicide bomb attack of the deputy head of the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, south of Mosul.  We have a press release upstairs on that.

** Afghanistan

On Afghanistan, Kai Eide, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, condemned the Saturday suicide bomb attack in Central Kabul, which he said once more showed the blatant disregard of the insurgency for the safety of civilians.


Radhika Coomaraswamy, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, today strongly condemned the increasing number of attacks claimed by Taliban insurgents and other armed groups that utilize and target children.

She said she was particularly appalled by recent incidents, including the blowing up of five schools in north-western Pakistan.  Those attacks followed an edict in December ordering all private schools to close.

Coomaraswamy also expressed grave concern about the increase in the number of child victims of attacks against schools by Taliban insurgents who deny children the right to education.  The throwing of acid to prevent girl children and female teachers from going to school is deplorable, she stressed.

In that context, she strongly urged the Taliban and other armed groups to immediately stop using children and cease attacks against civilians, especially children.  “Children must be protected and not targeted,” she said.  We have a full statement upstairs.

** Fiji

In Fiji, national estimates put the death toll from last week’s flooding at 11 and the number of people in evacuation centres at more than 10,000.  Although the waters are expected to recede over the coming days, allowing people to return home, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs is concerned that the evacuees will still face considerable health, sanitation and livelihood challenges.

International partners have presented an overview of immediately available assistance to the Fiji Interim Government, following a request for assistance.  Several agencies, including the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and UNICEF, offered their support in technical assessment during the early recovery phase.  UNDP has secured $100,000 to conduct technical assessments.

**Mexico-United States

The United States acted in violation of the July 2008 ruling by the International Court of Justice when it executed a Mexican national held in a US prison, the Court ruled just a short while ago. This flows from a filing by Mexico seeking clarification of the July decision.

Acting on an earlier complaint by Mexico, the Court had last year decided against the execution of the Mexican man because the US appeared to have not respected key provisions of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations by not giving him and other Mexican detainees access to their embassies.

**United Nations Conference on Trade and Development

According to the latest estimates from the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), global foreign direct investment (FDI) fell by more than 20 per cent last year, and will likely fall further in 2009.

The developed world was hardest hit, with FDI falling by a third.  Developing and transition economies fared better, with some regions even posting small increases, but they haven’t felt the full impact of the global economic crisis.

UNCTAD says that a quick recovery depends on reforms to the world financial system, prompt economic stimulus packages from national Governments, and a resistance to calls for more protectionism.  There is more information in a press release upstairs.

** Enterprise Resource Planning

The UN has decided to award a contract for Enterprise Resource Planning software to a European software company called SAP.

The awarding of the contract is subject to successful negotiations, which will start immediately and are projected to wrap up within three months.  As of now, no contract has been awarded, and the value of any such contract is as yet undetermined.

A comprehensive and thorough evaluation process was undertaken, with the help of specialized external consulting services.  Criteria for selection included the software’s performance in low-bandwidth locations, so as to ensure its ability to support remote peacekeeping operations.

And this is all I have for you today.

**Questions and Answers

Question:  A housekeeping question:  tomorrow is the briefing going to be at noon?  Because that would coincide with the direct timing of President-Elect Obama’s inauguration.

Spokesperson:  We will not have a briefing tomorrow.  We will probably have a briefing on Wednesday.

[The Spokesperson later added that a briefing would be held tomorrow, at a time earlier than noon.]

Question:  On the statement by Osama bin Laden, the audiotape has now been verified and it continues to circulate on websites and even on some radio stations in the Middle East, calling for jihad in Gaza.  Has the Secretary-General issued a statement about this?

Spokesperson:  No.  We have never reacted to such statements and we are not this time either.

Question:  Is that because it’s a non-State actor?

Spokesperson:  It’s because it’s not our responsibility or mandate to react to this.

Question:  On Zimbabwe following up on the latest stats you were giving out:  last week an advocacy group argued that the failure of Mugabe’s regime to provide basic State health care constitutes a human rights violation that should be investigated by the ICC.  Does the Secretary‑General support this?

Spokesperson:  Well, if the ICC is seized of the matter, the ICC is to react, not the Secretary‑General at this point.

Question:  During the Secretary-General’s travels, when he was in Lebanon, there were what was described as protests, among other things, directed at the UN for slowness and inefficiency, and they quoted Nabih Berri and others.  Did he pick up on this critique of the UN in the meetings that he held in Lebanon?  What’s his response to those who said the UN didn’t do enough to protect civilians early in the conflict?

Spokesperson:  He was aware of the critique, but most of the demonstrations were not directed at him, but at the UN in general, and that concerned the Security Council, as well as the General Assembly.  He was aware of the critics and he was aware of the demonstrations.

Question:  I wanted to ask you one other thing.  Today is the beginning of the Executive Board meetings of UNDP and United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) and others.  There’s this controversy about the number of UNOPS posts that are going to be upgraded ‑- new D-2’s and two new ASG’s ‑- and I wanted to know if the Secretariat has any view, in this current financial climate, whether it makes sense to have this number of new senior officials at UNOPS, and if so, why?

Spokesperson:  As you know, UNDP has its own governing board and they will certainly discuss this.  As you said, the meeting is starting today and they will come up with decisions on it.

So we’ll leave it at that and I will invite John Holmes to come and join us.  John Ging is already on board.

[During the Gaza press conference, a correspondent asked if Ms. Montas could confirm that the Secretary‑General would be in Gaza tomorrow.  The Spokesperson responded that she could not confirm such a visit, and while it was being considered, no decision had been made yet.]

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For information media • not an official record