24 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 Farhan Haq, Associate Spokesperson for the Secretary-General.

Good afternoon.

** Sudan

John Holmes, the Emergency Relief Coordinator and Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, will be here shortly to speak as the guest at the noon briefing on the humanitarian situation in Sudan, and that should be around 12:30 p.m.  So it will be a little while, but he will be here for the briefing a little later on.

On that subject, we have a statement upstairs by Ameerah Haq, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Sudan, concerning a joint assessment undertaken by the Government of Sudan and the United Nations to look at the gaps following the recent expulsions of non-governmental organizations.  And we expect that Mr. Holmes will also talk about that when he is here.

Also regarding Sudan, the UN Refugee Agency today reports that the deteriorating security situation in several parts of Southern Sudan is hampering the repatriation of Southern Sudanese refugees from Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia.  Several towns in the Central and East Equatoria regions were last week paralysed by coordinated blockades organized by war veterans from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) who had not been paid their benefits for five months.  And we have more details upstairs.

** Democratic Republic of the Congo

The Secretary-General’s Special Representative for the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Alan Doss, has welcomed the agreement signed yesterday in Goma by the Congolese Government and the CNDP, the armed National Congress for the Defence of the People.  The agreement calls for an end to the fighting in north-eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, the transformation of armed groups into political parties and the integration of their officials into national political life.  It also provides for the safe return of internally displaced persons.

Special Representative Doss, while welcoming the agreement, said that what matters most now is its implementation.  He urged the parties to move speedily towards realizing the agreement to stop the suffering of the civilian population and end impunity.  He pledged UN support towards these goals.

Meanwhile, the UN Refugee Agency reports that another 11,000 civilians were forced to flee their homes in recent weeks due to attacks by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Province Orientale.  A total of 188,000 people have now been uprooted by the insecurity in the region and LRA attacks have claimed close to 1,000 lives, while the rebels have abducted some 750 civilians since September.

** Afghanistan

The Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, Kai Eide, is in Washington, D.C., where he is scheduled to meet today with US Vice-President Joseph Biden and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Yesterday, he met with other senior US officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and National Security Adviser James Jones, both of whom expressed their full support for the work of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).  They discussed the US strategy review and preparations for the conference that will take place in The Hague on 31 March.  And we have a press release upstairs with more details.

Yesterday afternoon, the Security Council adopted a resolution renewing UNAMA’s mandate for a year, until 23 March 2010.  The Secretary-General, in a statement we issued yesterday, welcomed the renewal of the Mission’s mandate and, in particular, the Security Council’s reaffirmation of the United Nations “central and impartial role” in promoting peace and stability in Afghanistan.

The Secretary-General commends the leadership by Kai Eide, who has overseen a significant expansion of UNAMA over the past year, and also warmly welcomes the Security Council’s recognition of Mr. Eide’s leadership.

And the full statement is upstairs.

** Iraq

Staffan de Mistura, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Iraq, condemned in the strongest terms the suicide bomb attack that killed and injured dozens of people at a house filled with Kurdish funeral mourners in the town of Jalawla in Diyala province.

De Mistura expressed great concern that this attack in an especially sensitive province may provoke ethnic tensions.  He urged all communities to show restraint at this difficult time, and to avoid responding to this appalling provocation.  And we have his full statement upstairs.

** Cyprus

Greek Cypriot leader Dimitris Christofias and Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat met under UN auspices in Nicosia today.

Speaking to the press after that meeting, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Cyprus, Tayé-Brook Zerihoun, said that the leaders continued their discussions on European Union matters -- noting that their tête-à-tête was “positive” and “constructive”.

Zerihoun added that the discussions on these issues should be concluded next Thursday, 2 April, when the leaders meet again.  They are then expected to take up the issue of economic matters.

And we have more on this upstairs.

** Lebanon

In a statement issued yesterday afternoon, the Secretary-General condemned the terrorist attack earlier in the day that killed Kamal Medhat, the deputy head of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Lebanon, and several of his bodyguards.  He conveyed his condolences to the families of the victims.

The Secretary-General hopes that the perpetrators of this crime will be brought to justice promptly.  Such actions must not be allowed to endanger the climate of calm that currently prevails in Lebanon.

**Security Council

The Secretary-General is attending his monthly luncheon with the members of the Security Council this afternoon.  And that luncheon is hosted by the presidency of the Council, which is Libya.

Then, tomorrow, the Council has scheduled an open debate on the Middle East, including the question of Palestine.

**UNHCR -- Solecki

Ahead of the International Day of Solidarity with Detained and Missing Staff Members tomorrow, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is again appealing for the immediate release of John Solecki.

John Solecki, UNHCR’s Head of Office in Quetta, Pakistan, was abducted on 2 February.  UNHCR is increasingly worried about his medical condition -- as the last news about John Solecki stated that his health was deteriorating.

High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said that attacks on humanitarian workers occur all too often around the world, adding that attacking them hurts all of us, but especially the most vulnerable.  We have more on this in the UNHCR briefing notes upstairs.

**Asylum Seekers

The number of asylum seekers in industrialized countries increased last year for the second year running, according to provisional statistics compiled by the UN Refugee Agency.  More than 380,000 new asylum applications were submitted in 2008 -- a 12 per cent rise compared to 2007.

UNHCR says the increase can partly be attributed to higher numbers of asylum applications by citizens of Afghanistan, Somalia and other countries experiencing turmoil or conflict.  Although the number of Iraqi asylum seekers declined by 10 per cent in 2008, Iraqis continued to be the largest nationality seeking asylum in the industrialized world.

The United States was still the main country of destination for asylum seekers of all nationalities in 2008 -- followed by Canada, France, Italy and the United Kingdom. 

And we have more on this upstairs.

** Zimbabwe

The World Health Organization (WHO) is reporting an improvement in Zimbabwe’s cholera crisis, with fewer new cases and fewer deaths by the disease.  The agency says that some 2,080 cases were reported by mid-month, well below the 3,800 cases in early March and the weekly 8,000 cases reported throughout February.  And only 2.3 per cent of those affected by the disease have died in March, compared to 6 per cent in January.

WHO notes that, while it is difficult to collect fully accurate or complete data on the cholera outbreak, the emerging trend clearly shows a decreasing toll on Zimbabwean civilians.  However, the region around Harare remains at risk of renewed outbreak of the disease.

**World Tuberculosis Day

Today marks World Tuberculosis Day.  In a message, the Secretary-General notes that TB still takes a life every 20 seconds -- underlining the need to prevent infection, to detect cases at an early stage and to provide treatment for all.  He calls for global cooperation in fighting tuberculosis.

The Secretary-General also stresses the importance of redoubling efforts to fight multi-drug-resistant (MDR-TB) and extensively drug-resistant (XDR-TB) forms of TB, as well as the TB/HIV co-epidemic.

According to the 2009 Global TB Control Report, released today by the World Health Organization (WHO), 1 out of 4 TB deaths is HIV related.  That’s twice as many as previously recognized.  Both Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General, and Michel Sidibé, Executive Director of UNAIDS, call for combining HIV and TB services in order to save lives.  And there is more on this upstairs.

**International Day of Remembrance of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade

Then tomorrow, the Secretary-General, the President of the General Assembly, representatives from Member States and other invited guests will join in a ceremony called “Breaking the silence, Beating the drum” at noon by the Japanese Peace Bell at the launching ceremony of the International Day of Remembrance of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.  The Secretary-General will beat a historical drum especially brought in from Cameroon.

The event will feature performances by solo and group percussionists from various regions of the world and a traditional spirit-invoking ceremony or griot ceremony, from Cameroon.  Correspondents are invited to attend that.

**Press Conference Tomorrow

Then following that event, at 1 p.m. in this room, Under-Secretary-General for Public Information Kiyo Akasaka, Emmy Award-winning musician and philanthropist Peter Buffett and pop star Akon will be joined by other speakers such as Gilberto Gil, the former Brazilian Minister of Culture, to brief on the UN’s commemoration of the International Day.

And again, at around 12:30 p.m., as the guest of the noon briefing, we will have John Holmes, the Emergency Relief Coordinator, to talk about the humanitarian situation in Sudan.

Any questions before then?

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Farhan, I’d like to ask again about the report of the Board of Inquiry which is supposed to come by the end of the month, because I’ve been speaking to ambassadors and they’re saying that the Secretary-General has informed them that he’s going to present the report to them but, at the same time, you’ve been repeatedly saying that he will look at what’s the next step.  So, can you clarify to me whether he is going to present it to the Security Council or not?

Associate Spokesperson:  That’s not decided yet.  Essentially, at around 31 March we expect to receive the report of the Board of Inquiry.  The Secretary-General is travelling then, but he will be able to get that information at that time, and he will review the report and at that point he will decide what further action to take, whether it includes, as you’ve mentioned, transmitting it onward to the Security Council or other Member States or any other form of transmittal.  And we’ll let you know about that decision once it’s made.

Question:  A follow-up.  There was a press statement issued by the Security Council on 13 February, I think, in which it states that they note that the Secretary-General will present the report to the Security Council.  So why is this lack of commitment?

Associate Spokesperson:  The form of what information he will transmit, and how, remains to be determined.  He does intend to convey some information to the Security Council, but we’ll let you know what he transmits once the decision has been made on that.

Question:  The President of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, has called on the African States who have signed the treaty on the [International Criminal Court] to withdraw from that organization.  How concerned is the Secretary-General about this?

Associate Spokesperson:  I don’t see it as our place to comment on decisions made by States, so we wouldn’t have a comment on that.  At the same time, of course, we encourage support for the work of the International Criminal Court and we trust that it will continue to cooperate with its member States.

Question:  Farhan, one follow-up on that, and that is, can you confirm that, at yesterday’s meeting between the Secretary-General, Mr. [Alain] Le Roy and Interpol, it arose that the International Criminal Court has not conveyed to Interpol the request to arrest President [Omer al-] Bashir of Sudan?

Associate Spokesperson:  I cannot.  I’ll see whether we can get any readout of that particular meeting.  But we don’t have any precise readout on that.

[The correspondent was later informed that Sudan had not been discussed at the meeting.]

Question:  Alright, if you could check that out.  I think I believe that took place.  On Myanmar, the UN’s working group on arbitrary detention has said that the imprisonment of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi violates not only international law, but also Myanmar domestic law.  And there is also a report in The Times of London about villages being laid to waste in the Karen areas of the country.  Is this something that either Mr. [Ibrahim] Gambari or Ban Ki-moon as Secretary-General is looking at in advance of a possible visit to the country?

Associate Spokesperson:  Well, the Secretary-General and Mr. Gambari are certainly aware of this report.  Obviously the report speaks for itself and you can get it through the website of the Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights.  As for a visit by the Secretary-General, nothing has changed in terms of what we’ve said.  There is no visit planned at this stage.  Yes?

Question:  Okay.  There is a lot of concern actually that we’re hearing about follow-up and making sure that there is security and safety for personnel and anybody working within the United Nations in the wake of the death of the documents worker, Mr. Jesmel Novoa.  And I just wanted to find out what the latest is on that.  Apparently, the Staff Union has in fact distributed a resolution on the issue calling for better procedures and safety requirements here in the building.  What can you say about this, please?

Associate Spokesperson:  Well, as far as that goes, certainly the Secretary-General is always concerned about the safety of staff and he wants to make sure that all of us do feel that our safety and security is looked after.  To that extent, in this case, in the case of Mr. Novoa, the Department of Safety and Security is in fact looking into the matter to see how the circumstances under which he collapsed and then died the following day was handled.  And so we’ll wait to see what the results of that review are.   As you’re aware, he did collapse on a Thursday evening a few weeks ago at UN Headquarters, and Security did try to respond to that.  But we’re reviewing whether that could have been handled any differently.

Question:  Why are the details of what transpired not forthcoming?  Why is this taking so long?  Is not getting to the bottom of this and moving on and making sure that everything from here on now is in some sort of safe circumstances important?  Why are we waiting so long to get to the facts?  We sort of understand the situation and what happened.  Why is it taking so long for the United Nations to actually report on what actually happened?

Associate Spokesperson:  No, they’re moving as expeditiously as they can.  But they’re also trying to be thorough.  So they’re looking into it.

[The Associate Spokesperson later said that the report has been completed and is being reviewed by the Department of Safety and Security.]

Question:  I guess, just a follow-up on that.  I’ve spoken to people that were there that night and they’ve said that it took up to an hour for an ambulance to arrive and the explanation has been when they called [the Department of Safety and Security], DSS didn’t put in a call to 911.  They also said that, when they tried to carry Mr. Novoa out, they were told by security that they couldn’t do so.  And they finally said that for that part of the building there was some agreement with the previous head of DSS, Mike McCann, to somehow solve this access to those areas.  So, I guess the Staff Union has said they don’t want the investigation to be by DSS itself.  They want OIOS or some external one.  Has the Secretary-General looked at the resolution and decided who should investigate what took place?

Associate Spokesperson:  At this stage, these are all issues that are being looked into, and first let’s await the results of what DSS says.

[The Associate Spokesperson later added that the report found that there was no delay in admitting the ambulance to the United Nations upon its arrival on the night in question.]

Question:  Yes, Farhan, if I may go back.  There was report issued yesterday by the Under-Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, Ms. [Radhika] Coomaraswamy.  And she mentioned in the report what she said were hundreds of incidents, but particularly an incident in which Israeli army soldiers used an 11-year-old boy as a human shield and that this happened many times.  Is there any reaction from the Secretary-General to this report?

Associate Spokesperson:  There is no reaction from the Secretary-General.  The report speaks for itself.  As for the account of one incident involving the use of a child as a human shield by the IDF which was mentioned in the report, that has been verified.  With regards to Hamas, there’ve also been allegations, in terms of information that’s not verified, of Hamas effectively using civilians as human shields.  In addition, there have been some reports of Hamas firing from densely populated places and near protected areas, and the working group is currently investigating these reports.  This is the working group that was dealing with the issue of children and armed conflict on the ground in Gaza.

Question:  But since this incident is verified, is there a reaction?  The others are not verified.  So there is no reaction to this one?

Associate Spokesperson:  Well, this report was presented to the Human Rights Council and was prepared in response to a request by the Human Rights Council, and we’ll await what their response is.

Question:  A follow-up on the security questions.  A couple of weeks ago, the Staff Union came out with a resolution basically complaining about the swing space, security and safety in the swing space.  Basically saying that the kind of security that the UN conducts elsewhere is not being employed in buildings around town where they’ve been moving to.  Any response to that?

Associate Spokesperson:  Just what I told you about a week or so ago, that the issue of security in the swing space is being looked into.

Question:  Coomaraswamy’s report, she’s working as mandated by the Secretary-General, presented this report to the Human Rights Council.  The Secretary-General is supposed to be reviewing further information at the end of this month.  Why is there not a response on this?  I mean, she clearly said to us last week at a press briefing that there were human rights laws abused by the Israeli Forces during this time.

Associate Spokesperson:  As far as that goes, this report was prepared in response to a request by the Human Rights Council.  The Human Rights Council resolution on the situation in Gaza mandated Special Rapporteurs as well as Mrs. Coomaraswamy to report on the situation.  So her contribution is an annex to that report, which was prepared by the country team there and specifically, the inter-agency task force on children and armed conflict on the ground.  And like I said, at this stage, this was something presented to the Human Rights Council and we’ll leave it to the Human Rights Council to respond first.

Question:  The Secretary-General called on the Israeli Government to conduct their own investigation and to submit those results to him.  Has he received those results or a timetable in which he will receive them?

Associate Spokesperson:  Not so far.  But he was promised to receive the results of any Israeli inquiry into these issues and he looks forward to receiving them.

Question:  Which issues?  This is a little vague.

Associate Spokesperson:  Into the issues surrounding the conflict in Gaza.

Question:  All the issues surrounding the conflict in Gaza?

Correspondent:  My question was referring to the period of late December, early January.

Associate Spokesperson:  Yes.

Question:  So Farhan, just to follow up, I mean it seems like the conflict ended almost 18 January and we’re almost at the end of March.  So almost two months is not enough for the Israelis to respond to the Secretary-General?  And doesn’t this sort of annoy him in one way or another?  Two months to respond to a request.

Associate Spokesperson:  As you’ve noticed from our own side, for example, our own Board of Inquiry’s work is still going on, for example.  So yes, some of these things take time.  Like I just said, the Board of Inquiry expects to turn in their own report by around the end of March.

Question:  I came in a little late.  So I just wondered, did you say anything about an update about the blockade on Gaza, because this is also, I heard a report yesterday by George Galloway saying that it’s a very devastating situation there in terms of the devastation that was done and the blockade being on.  Is there any update about anything the Secretary-General is doing to open those borders so what’s been pledged can get to the people?

Associate Spokesperson:  Our concern about the situation of humanitarian access to Gaza continues.  And yes, both on the ground and here we continue to press for improved access.  The access has improved a bit over the last week or so, but certainly we’re looking for more to be done.

Question:  There is a DPI press release yesterday -- this one about the plight of detained missing staff -- and it says that there are at least 19 UN staff members imprisoned or disappeared around the world.  Now, I remember, maybe it’s 10 days ago or so, when the four people were taken in Somalia and then were returned.  You said to the press that there were only four UN staff members abducted.  I just want to make sure I understand… so what’s the difference…?

Associate Spokesperson:  There is a difference between abductions and people, for example, who are held under arrest.  We were talking specifically about abducted staff.  At present, there are three abducted staff, that is to say two people who were taken from Niger in December, and one person who was taken from Pakistan in February.

Question:  But just two specifics I just want to ask about.  One is, the current Secretary-General’s report on Somalia talks about a UN staff member abducted there in June 2008 still held, at least as of 7 March.  And also, you just from this podium, you’ve talked about a UN staff member in Sri Lanka that was “forcefully recruited into the Tamil Tigers”.  Is that an abduction?  Is that a detention?  What is that?

Associate Spokesperson:  We’ve described that as forcible recruitment.  We’ve mentioned that every time.

Question:  I guess I’m just trying to figure out.  Like is the distinction between Governments, detain, and non-State actors, abduct?

Associate Spokesperson:  Yes, these are specific categories.  But yes, you’re right, there is for example the matter of forcible recruitment of someone in Sri Lanka.  There have been matters of people held under arrest…

Question:  And in Somalia.  I mean, I asked Ould-Abdallah about it on Friday, because it is in the Secretary-General’s report and they use the word abduction, June 2008.  I understand it’s just one individual, but it seems important to figure out like what’s happening to this guy.  What is the UN doing to free him?  And I mean, the word abduction is right in the Secretary-General’s report.  So I guess I’m just trying to understand the count.

Associate Spokesperson:  Okay, I’ll try and check up on that.

Question:  Okay, thanks.

Question:  Any update on the official abducted in Pakistan, Farhan?  We haven’t heard anything about him for so long.

Associate Spokesperson:  In terms of that, we don’t have any fresh developments to report, although we do hope that John Solecki will be released as soon as possible and we remain very concerned about his health.  Before you came in I had actually mentioned a fairly lengthy amount of information provided by António Guterres, the High Commissioner for Refugees, to highlight the situation regarding John Solecki, and there are further details in UNHCR’s briefing notes upstairs, if you want them.

And with that, I am very pleased to have with us the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, John Holmes.

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For information media • not an official record