18 March 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 Michčle Montas, Spokesperson for the Secretary-General, and Enrique Yeves, Spokesperson for the President of the General Assembly.

Briefing by the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General

Good afternoon, all.

First, a warm welcome to three young visitors in our audience today; all in the senior class at Pennsbury High School in Fallsington, Pennsylvania.  Welcome.

**Press Conference Today

Following the noon briefing today, Radhika Coomaraswamy, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, Nicholas Burnett, Assistant Director-General for Education at UNESCO [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization], and Vernor Muńoz, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, will brief on the General Assembly’s ongoing thematic and interactive debate on education in emergencies.  This debate takes place all day today in the Trusteeship Council Chamber.

** Darfur

The African Union-United Nations mission in Darfur (UNAMID) reports that banditry activities and harassment of civilians continue to take place, particularly in South and West Darfur.

Today, at about 7:25 a.m. local time, a UNAMID vehicle was carjacked in Nyala, South Darfur, by two unidentified armed men in military uniforms.

The gunmen ordered the driver out of the vehicle and drove off.  No injuries were reported.  The incident was reported to the Sudanese police.

UNAMID also reported that, on Monday, two UNAMID national staff members were harassed and beaten by five armed men dressed in civilian clothes in El Geneina, West Darfur.  The two staff members were stopped while they were driving a United Nations vehicle, beaten and left by the attackers.  The incident was reported to the police.

In addition, the mission says the number of new arrivals in the Zam Zam internally displaced persons camp in North Darfur continues to rise, bringing the total to about 80,000.  The majority of the newcomers are from villages and IDP [internally displaced persons] camps in South Darfur, but there are also arrivals from elsewhere in North Darfur.

On the humanitarian front, the joint United Nations-Government of the Sudan assessments of humanitarian gaps in Darfur were extended by one day and will be completed tomorrow. 

The three teams will have wrap-up meetings at the State level tomorrow and then travel to Khartoum where they will sort through the data for the following few days.

We should have a readout for you early next week.

**Security Council

The Secretary-General this morning spoke at the open meeting of the Security Council concerning ways to strengthen the relationship between the United Nations and the African Union and to further enhance the African Union’s capacity for peacekeeping.

At that meeting, former Italian President Romano Prodi presented the report of his high-level panel on modalities for support to African Union peacekeeping operations.

Noting the report’s findings, the Secretary-General said that many of the challenges facing the African Union result from the difficulties it faces in securing the necessary resources to support both its deployments and its own long-term development.  It was in this context, he said, that the panel made its recommendations to address issues of funding and resources, which will require detailed analysis, particularly in the case of assessed contributions.

The Secretary-General said the African Union continues to develop its capacity for peacekeeping, and that the Department of Peacekeeping Operations is supporting these efforts with a dedicated capacity, through specific programmes.

There are 35 speakers inscribed so far for today’s meeting.

I understand that Mr. Prodi will be going to the Security Council stakeout to speak to the media.

** Gaza

On Gaza, according to a report by the Office of the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for the Occupied Palestinian Territory, the overall levels of humanitarian aid allowed into Gaza remain below what is urgently required.

A total of 671 truckloads of goods -- including 121 from humanitarian agencies -- were allowed entry into Gaza this past week.  That is less than the 1,080 trucks that were let in the week before.  Items banned by the Israeli authorities over the past week included jam, biscuits and tomato paste.

The Humanitarian Coordinator’s Office also notes that Israeli clearance procedures for access into Gaza by international staff from non-governmental organizations continue to be very lengthy -- thus hindering the work of aid groups.

Meanwhile, a report by the United Nations Development Programme finds that 65 per cent of Gazans live below the income poverty line and 37 per cent live in extreme poverty.  Sixty-six per cent of the unemployed are extremely poor -– compared to 56 per cent before the recent Gaza conflict.  We have more on that upstairs.

** Pakistan

In a press release issued today in Pakistan, the United Nations reiterated its concerns that the group which claims to hold John Solecki reported that his health was deteriorating.

The United Nations is keen for Solecki to receive immediate professional medical care in a clinic or hospital where the necessary medical tests can be carried out.  The swift delivery of medical help is important.  John Solecki’s well-being is the responsibility of the group who is holding him.

The United Nations appreciates all efforts on behalf of the Baloch tribal leaders to ensure Solecki’s safe release and remains in active communication and contact with them to support this goal.  The full press release is upstairs.


Today, the General Assembly is holding a thematic debate on the right to education in emergency, post-crisis and transition situations caused by man-made conflicts and natural disasters.

In her remarks, Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro said that, where children have been thrown into chaos, schools can provide some measure of stability:  “Education is the first step towards restoring security and hope.”  She added, “We must act -- for the sake of children everywhere caught in crisis, where education makes the difference between hope and despair.”

The Deputy Secretary-General also noted that protecting children and teachers was a moral imperative -- in Afghanistan alone, she said, there were more than 275 attacks against schools last year.

**Cluster Munitions

And the Deputy Secretary-General will also speak at a signing event on the Convention on Cluster Munitions later today.

In her remarks, she is expected to call on all States that have not yet done so to sign and ratify the Convention so that it can enter into force as soon as possible.

The Deputy Secretary-General will also highlight the role of the Convention in helping to address the humanitarian, socio-economic and environmental damage these weapons cause and the need to consign cluster munitions to the pages of history. 

The event -- organized by the United Nations Mine Action Team in coordination with the Cluster Munitions Coalition -- will take place in Conference Room 3 at 1:15 this afternoon.

**Chad/Central African Republic

The High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has registered more than 5,200 refugees who fled to a village (Daha) in south-eastern Chad after fighting between the Central African Republic’s army and rebels intensified in northern CAR [ Central African Republic] towards the end of 2008.

UNHCR and WFP [World Food Programme] carried out food aid distribution to the refugees this week, the second time they have been provided with food rations since their arrival.  UNICEF has also started distributing high-protein biscuits to all children in the two sites where the refugees are camped.  The agency has started the construction of five water wells for the refugees and the host population.

** Kenya

In Kenya, the United Nations World Food Programme is scaling up food assistance to feed 3.5 million people hit by drought and high food prices.

The new WFP operation –- set to start on 1 April -- will allow to increase the numbers of people in Kenya receiving general food distributions from 1.2 million people to 2.5 million through February 2010.

It will also provide 655,000 children with a meal at school and assist another 340,000 people including pregnant and nursing mothers.

WFP is appealing to donors for a total of $244 million dollars to prevent the most vulnerable from going hungry in Kenya.

** Somalia

In a report to the Security Council on piracy off the coast of Somalia, the Secretary-General says that there is a critical need to tackle the problem with a multifaceted approach, to ensure that the political process, the African Union’s peacekeeping efforts, the strengthening of law enforcement institutions and capacity-building initiatives work in tandem.  He encourages Member States to place an increased emphasis on the resolution of the lawlessness in Somalia through the development of the Djibouti peace process and support of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

He adds that it is necessary for the international community to implement effectively the existing international legal framework and consider its further strengthening to facilitate the apprehension and prosecution of those suspected of having committed piracy off the coast of Somalia.

** Sri Lanka

On Sri Lanka, the Executive Director of the United Nations Children’s Fund, Ann Veneman, today stressed that children and their families caught in the conflict zone in Sri Lanka are at risk of dying from disease and malnutrition.

Highlighting that hundreds of children have been killed and many more injured as a result of the conflict in Sri Lanka, Veneman said thousands are now at risk because of a critical lack of food, water and medicines.

She also said that the rights of children caught in the conflict must be fully respected and every effort should be taken to prevent civilian casualties.

Stressing that children are the innocent victims of Sri Lanka’s conflict, the Executive Director added that extraordinary efforts must be taken to protect them.

**Human Rights

High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay today welcomed the release of a significantly shorter draft outcome document for the Durban Review Conference, which is due to be held next month in Geneva.

Pillay said she hoped the introduction of this latest version of the draft would be a “major turning point” in preparations for the Conference.  She noted that States now had a “good, solid basis” to consider as they enter the final stretch leading up to the gathering.

She added that she hoped the new document is the breakthrough needed to achieve consensus on a text, which will offer help to hundreds of groups and millions of individuals who are subjected to racism and other forms of intolerance all across the world.  No continent is free of racism, she said, and it would be inexcusable if States failed to reach consensus on such an important issue.

Pillay urged all States to refrain from taking narrow politicized or polemical stances on particular issues, and to work together for the remainder of the process towards a successful outcome.  We have more on that upstairs.

Meanwhile, also in Geneva today, the Human Rights Council adopted Universal Periodic Review reports on Botswana, the Bahamas and Burundi. 


UNAIDS issued a statement today, stressing that its number one priority is universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support.  It adds that, with more than 7,400 new HIV infections each day, the world can not stop the AIDS epidemic without stopping new HIV infections.

According to UNAIDS, condoms are an essential part of combination prevention, which includes among other elements:  access to information about HIV; access to treatment; harm reduction measures; waiting longer to become sexually active; being faithful; reducing multiple partners and concurrent relationships; male circumcision; ensuring human rights; and the reduction of stigma.

We have the full statement in my Office.


And finally on forests, UN-REDD, the United Nations programme aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from forests and boosting livelihoods in tropical nations, has approved $18 million in support of five pilot countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

The funds will help the Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Tanzania and Viet Nam prepare their national plans for the inclusion of Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in a new climate deal.

As you remember, UN-REDD was launched in September of last year by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the Prime Minister of Norway, Jens Stoltenberg.  And we have a full press release on this upstairs.

And this is all I have for you.  In a few minutes, you’ll have Enrique, who’ll brief you on, a lot is happening today in the General Assembly.  And you’ll have also his guest in a few minutes.  Any questions? 

**Questions and Answers

Question:  The vehicle that was attacked today, so that was separate from the one that was attacked yesterday?

Spokesperson:  Yes.

Question:  So there have been two vehicles attacked and one staff member killed?

Spokesperson:  Yes.

QuestionMichčle, yesterday, Marie read out a statement on a story that I wrote about Afghanistan, the UN Mission in Afghanistan.  You know, while I am complimented that the United Nations wants to comment on my stories, it said in the statement that the story was factually inaccurate.  I asked a member of your staff yesterday what factual inaccuracies the United Nations thought the story contained, and he wasn’t able to tell me.  So I am asking, I’d like to ask you now:  what are the factual inaccuracies that you see in that story?

Spokesperson:  Well, I have not been following this.  So I am going to ask you to see our Spokesperson yesterday who spoke about that.

Question:  I was going to ask after the briefing yesterday.  I did ask this question and I wasn’t given any answer.  So shouldn’t you, before you denounce a story as factually inaccurate, actually have some idea what the factual inaccuracies are?

Spokesperson:  We will certainly get that for you.  If you come upstairs, we can discuss it.  I don’t have the facts with me.  Yes, Masood?

QuestionMichčle, last two days, I mean, not you, but there were other people we asked -- there was a letter that was written by jurists to the Secretary-General of a United Nations inquiry into the Gaza incursion by the Israelis.  Has that letter been received as yet or not?

Spokesperson:  The letter has been received.  It is being reviewed right now.  It has been received.

Question:  The other issue is about this issue of North Korea, which is now raising tension in the region.  Has the Secretary-General spoken to the Security Council members about it -- the issue of North Korea exploring the -- I mean launching another satellite?

Spokesperson:  No, the Secretary-General has not spoken to the Security Council about it.

Question:  Any concerns at all?

Spokesperson:  Of course there are concerns, and those concerns have been expressed before.

Question:  How advanced are the investigations regarding the war in Gaza?

Spokesperson:  What I have on that from the Board of Inquiry is that the investigation is supposed to end at the end of this month.  And the Secretary-General is looking forward, of course, to receiving the report of the Board of Inquiry.  He will then review it and he will then decide what to do about the conclusions.  In terms of the Human Rights Council investigation, I don’t have any new information on it. 

Question:  How about the Israeli investigations?  They promised to come forward with something…?

Spokesperson:  We don’t have anything on that yet.

Question:  Nothing yet?

Spokesperson:  No.  Matthew.

Question:  Sure.  Michčle, I want to ask you about Sri Lanka.  I think it was last month you’d said that the United Nations doesn’t count bodies, it just helps people; that it didn’t have a count of casualties.  Yesterday, it came into my possession, an OCHA [Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] document that says, unequivocally, the total minimum number of civilian casualties is 9,000, including 2,683 deaths.  So I am wondering if in fact OCHA was counting, you know, as I think it probably should be [interrupted].

Spokesperson:  No, they’re not counting them directly.  What we said was that we rely on numbers given to us locally, nationally.  We don’t ourselves count the bodies.

Question:  Right, but I guess if you had this document (interrupted).

Spokesperson:  That was an estimate, I gather.

Question:  But it says 683, so it’s a pretty precise number.  And my understanding from what I gathered is that this is the number and that the United Nations tried not to release the number in order not to offend the Government of Sri Lanka.  Is that (interrupted)?

Spokesperson:  Well, it seems to be released, since you’re reading it.

Question:  Well, yeah, I got it, so, I mean.  But I guess even, my understanding is in these OCHA briefings that they do -- with some diplomats, they didn’t give the number.  I guess I just want to square, first of all, I want to confirm that this is OCHA’s… I guess I just want you to say something about it.

Spokesperson:  No, I cannot confirm that.  This is an estimate, and you can talk to OCHA about how they reached that estimate.  

Question:  Is there some way to know why in some cases the United Nations does provide numbers?  Even recently, people have been asking about the Darfur number, the 300,000 number.  There, they gave a number.  Here, they hid a number.  So I don’t understand.

Spokesperson:  Well, because sometimes we don’t have the information, the exact information to be able to reach even an estimate.  It’s just a function of how much information we get on the ground. 

Question:  Also, it was said, I think it was earlier in the week, but on this issue of abductions.  It was said when the four who were taken in Somalia and then released, it was said over the squawk here that there had been a total of eight United Nations staff abducted and now there are only four.  And then I was reading this Secretary-General’s report on Somalia dated 9 March and it has a line in it saying one United Nations staff member remains in captivity after having been taken in captivity in June 2008.  So, unless this person has been released since 9 March, who is this person and what’s being done about their case?

Spokesperson:  Well, we cannot always get that information.  As you know, there are cases when we cannot reveal neither names nor conditions, circumstances when the security and the safety of the person being held are at stake.  This has been the case, as you know, with the abduction that took place in Niger.  However, we have been much more forward about what happened with John Solecki, as I just read a statement, not a statement, something from the field on that account.  So it varies.  It varies with the circumstances, it varies with, whether or not revealing a name or revealing more information can put the person’s safety at stake.

Question:  I’m just wondering, on Madagascar, do you have any statement on Madagascar now that it’s been confirmed the President stepped down?  What’s the United Nations mediation role now that the coup has essentially taken place?

Spokesperson:  The mediation group is still there.  What I can say is that the United Nations does not support any unconstitutional change in Government.  Our concern is stability and peace on the island, we have said that before, and a transition through a democratic process based on broad consensus to legitimize any arrangement, as the Secretary-General made clear in his statement yesterday -- the one that Marie read for you.  And we keep on appealing for calm and stability.  That’s really all I can say.  Yes.

Question:  [inaudible] yesterday would not say whether or the Secretary-General considers it a coup.  Does he consider it a coup today and, if not, why not?

Spokesperson:  Well, the legality of the situation is not something that we can determine.  A court said it is legal, although, we also heard reports that such a decision was made under duress.  The African Union is considering this question at this moment and we certainly do not condone unconstitutional changes in Government -– I repeat that line –- and our focus at the moment is to urge a transition through a democratic process.  Whether we call it this or we call it that is something that will be defined later.  Yes, Masood.

QuestionMichčle, first of all, the last communication between these people in Baluchistan and Mr. Solecki, when was it received?

Spokesperson:  Yesterday.

Question:  Now, does the Secretary-General have any response to this new report that the United States is going to start attacking inside Baluchistan?

Spokesperson:  No, we don’t have any reaction on that.  I don’t have anything on that for you.  Yes, James.

Question:  Since the expulsion and threatened expulsion of more aid workers from the Sudan, has the Secretary-General been in contact with President Bashir or tried to contact President Bashir?

Spokesperson:  No, he has not.  However, he has been in contact with a number of other leaders who can influence the situation.  His main objective is either to get the Sudanese Government to reverse some of the actions taken or to ensure that the humanitarian aid keeps on flowing towards the people who need it most.

QuestionUNDP -- where do we stand on UNDP?  I mean, is it imminent?

Spokesperson:  We don’t have it yet.  The process is still continuing.

Question:  I understand it’s going to be later this week, there’s going to be a notification or something?

Spokesperson:  I don’t know.  As far as I know, the process is still continuing.  Yes, Mr. Abbadi.

Question:  Thank you, Michčle.  The Deputy Foreign Minister of Italy, whose country will chair the meeting of the Group of Eight, the most advanced countries, later this year, has invited the African Union to attend the meeting.  Does the Secretary-General support and welcome this important initiative?

Spokesperson:  I don’t have anything really specific on that at this point.  I’ll get some information for you.  Yes, go ahead.

Question:  Yesterday, the General Assembly President had told us that there was going to be for sure a forum where different leaders will be coming together to discuss the atrocities that the Israeli Government committed in Gaza.  Is that something separate that’s being organized, and then the Secretary-General will also review this report and then decide what to do at the end of this month?

Spokesperson:  Those are two separate issues and, in terms of the General Assembly, I leave you in the able hands of my colleague.

Briefing by the Spokesperson for the General Assembly President

Good afternoon.  Good to see you all, again.

I’m going to try to be very quick because we’re already a little bit behind today.

The President of the General Assembly opened this morning “The Interactive Thematic Dialogue on Access to Education in Emergency, Post-Crisis and Transition Situations Caused by Man-Made Conflicts or Natural Disasters”.

In his opening remarks, President Miguel d´Escoto Brockmann said:

“The issues we are addressing today and the recommendations that will flow from this interactive dialogue must be translated into concrete policies and programmes that will make the difference for tens of millions of children and young people around the world.  Too often, we as the international community have failed in our obligation to protect these vulnerable groups.  We should not compound this wrong by denying them a way out of their plight.  Sustained access to, and continuity of, quality education offers them ‘a way out’.  And it is their right.”

We are going to have more details on this particular meeting in a few minutes, but I am available for you, if you have any questions non-related to the meeting I have just referred to.

**Questions and Answers

Question:  If you could just answer my question that I asked Michčle.

Spokesperson:  Can you repeat it again because I did not hear before, thanks.

Question:  Yesterday, Brockmann had, when I asked him about the meeting in Teheran and the Gaza reconstruction, he’d also said that there would be a separate meeting being organized with various leaders here at the General Assembly to discourse the atrocities that were committed by the Israeli Government on Gaza.  When is that meeting being held, who is going to be there, do you have any more information?

Spokesperson:  Correct.  During this trip, and before, many of the ambassadors and permanent missions here have been asking for a session of the General Assembly on the Gaza situation, and the President of the General Assembly is going to convene such a meeting.  We don’t have a date yet.  We need to see in the agenda what is the most available time.  It will be a General Assembly meeting.  It is one of the items in any case -- the situation in Palestine -- it is one of the items of the General Assembly.  And as soon as we have a date, I will confirm it to you.  And obviously, the ones participating will be the 192 Member countries.  Masood.

Question:  Enrique, is there any update on this inquiry that the President of the General Assembly had called for on threats to his life?

Spokesperson:  No, we have not been informed of any update on that particular issue.

Question:  Is the inquiry continuing or is it closed?

Spokesperson:  I don’t know.  We have not been informed.  I will check on that for you.

Question:  Thank you.

Spokesperson:  Matthew.

Question:  Sure, Enrique.  Yesterday, at the end of the President’s press conference, I had tried to ask him what his position is on Japan’s stated threat to shoot down North Korean -- either a satellite or missile that they intend to launch between 4 and 8 April.  He seemed to indicate that this wouldn’t be preventive war but pre-emptive war and that it was okay in self-defence.  I didn’t really understand that.  I guess I wanted to know, do you know how he… he’s talked a lot about preventive war, about preventive war being a crime under Nuremberg, but somehow this other one being okay.  What is his position on Japan’s stated intention to shoot down whatever North Korea puts into the air?

Spokesperson:  Okay, Matthew, I didn’t hear what your exchange of -- and your discussion with the President of the General Assembly yesterday, after we finished.  Let me check with him and I’ll come back to you because I am not sure what were the comments that came in to you.  Okay, thank you.  Mr. Abbadi.

Question:  Enrique, thank you.  You have undoubtedly seen the New York Times article on what President d´Escoto said yesterday.  Does he have any reaction to that article?

Spokesperson:  No, he doesn’t have any reaction.  He reads not only the New York Times, but many other newspapers around the world and he has read it, that I can confirm, and I have read it, too, but we don’t have any reaction on that.  I’m only going to take two more questions because I don’t want to keep our guests any more. 

Question:  Enrique, with reference to this supposed investigation into Israeli atrocities committed in Gaza, is that investigation, when established, going to be open to investigate atrocities also committed by Hamas against their own people?

Spokesperson:  I’m not sure what investigation you’re referring to, because [interrupted].

Question:  The same [interrupted].

Spokesperson:  No, no, no, because what I have been asked and I have just confirmed is that there is going to be a meeting on the situation in Gaza convened by the General Assembly, and it is an item of the General Assembly already approved beforehand.  I didn’t say anything about any inquiry or any report or any investigation.  So that I leave it for you.  But there is no investigation coming from the General Assembly as such.  I don’t know where you got [interrupted].

Question:  So you have no idea as to the date of this meeting?

Spokesperson:  No.  As I said, the only thing I can confirm is that it is going to take place, but we don’t have a date yet.  We hope in a few weeks, probably.

Question:  Thank you.

Spokesperson:  My pleasure.  Okay, then let’s go the press conference, and I apologize for the delay.

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