|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
Daily Press Briefing by the Office of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General
The following is a near-verbatim transcript of today’s noon briefing by Farhan Haq, Associate Spokesperson for the Secretary-General.
Good afternoon, everyone.
I know a number of you have been asking about the situation in Sri Lanka this morning.
The United Nations has registered its strong objections to protests organized outside UN offices in Colombo today by a cabinet minister of the Government of Sri Lanka, which prevented staff and visitors from entering or leaving the premises. While respecting the right of citizens to demonstrate peacefully, preventing access to UN offices hinders the vital work being carried out by the United Nations each day to help the people of Sri Lanka. The Government has provided assurances for the safety and security of our staff and for their full access to their offices. We will be closely monitoring developments and trust these commitments will be honoured.
We do expect, possibly even over the course of this briefing, that we might have a statement coming down concerning the Secretary-General’s views on Israel’s release of measures concerning Gaza.
Robert Serry, the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, welcomed the measures announced on Gaza by the Government of Israel as important steps in the right direction. He hopes that these measures will stimulate commercial activities and allow a substantial increase in the amount of construction materials entering the Gaza Strip.
Serry said, “This can only be the beginning of the long road towards reconstruction and a functioning economy in the Gaza Strip. The United Nations stands ready to expand and accelerate its work in Gaza, including addressing chronic shortages of housing, education, water and sanitation and health facilities.” And we have his statement available in the Spokesperson’s Office. And, like I said, we may also have a statement concerning the Secretary-General’s views on the Israeli measures, later today.
**Security Council on Kosovo
The Security Council is meeting this morning on the issue of Kosovo, in the wake of an explosion which took place in Mitrovica in northern Kosovo last Friday, leaving one person dead and a dozen injured.
Serbian President Boris Tadić addressed the Council during its open meeting; as did the head of the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo, Lamberto Zannier. Zannier briefed on the circumstances on last Friday’s explosion, as well as the general situation on the ground; he also reiterated the Secretary-General’s call for all parties to commit to dialogue.
**Secretary-General’s Trip to Jamaica
The Secretary-General returned last night from Montego Bay, Jamaica, which he had visited over the weekend as the first Secretary-General to attend a meeting — a regular meeting — of the Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM).
In remarks to the regional group’s opening session on Sunday, the Secretary-General stressed the need for continued assistance to Haiti. Although there have been accomplishments over the past six months since the earthquake, we nonetheless have an enormous task ahead, he warned, especially with the onset of the hurricane season.
He also told the CARICOM leaders that the region and the world need to move forward on three priority issues: economic and development concerns, including implementing the Millennium Development Goals; security challenges, including drugs and crime; and climate change. And his remarks are available online.
The UN-African Union Joint Special Representative for Darfur, Ibrahim Gambari, yesterday chaired a retreat in El Fasher of international special envoys and mediators on the Darfur crisis. Participants at the retreat, who included representatives of Member States and UN partner organizations, adopted a joint communiqué.
In it, they stressed that all efforts must be made to convince all Darfur movements to come to the negotiation table without delay. A lasting peace deal, they say, must be reached before year’s end so that peace can take hold throughout Sudan before the January referendum on the self-determination of South Sudan. They also expressed concern over increased ethnic violence and criminal activities, including the kidnapping of aid workers and attacks on peacekeepers.
And we have that communiqué in the Spokesperson’s Office.
Meanwhile, the UN-AU mission in Darfur (UNAMID) says that more than 800 former combatants are taking part in a voluntary demobilization initiative, which began this weekend in El Geneina, in West Darfur. The mission is providing logistical support to the effort, which is part of the Sudanese Government’s disarmament programme. That itself is a result of a deal between the signatories to the Darfur Peace Agreement.
**Democratic Republic of Congo
Going back over an event this weekend, a fuel tanker overturned in the vicinity of Sange village in South Kivu, in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, last Friday. Military personnel from the UN Mission, MONUSCO, rushed to the scene and tried to disperse the crowd. However, 242 people, including some 60 children who had gone to collect spilt fuel from the tanker, were killed when it subsequently exploded.
As of yesterday, MONUSCO, the Congolese Red Cross and local hospitals in Uvira, Bukavu and Sange were caring for some 199 burn and trauma victims. MONUSCO troops and equipment were quickly deployed to Sange to provide additional security and assistance with the burials. MONUSCO and the UN country team have worked closely with the Congolese authorities and the Red Cross to provide assistance, and MONUSCO has also provided food to members of bereaved families in Sange and the surrounding areas.
And last, something I know you’re all waiting for: This afternoon, just before 3 p.m., Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip will visit the United Nations, and the Queen will address the General Assembly.
The Secretary-General will also make remarks at that event, and will note that Queen Elizabeth first visited the General Assembly in 1957, just after the start of the UN system itself. He will also note that, with Queen Elizabeth at the helm, the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth have contributed immensely to the United Nations. And we’ll have those remarks available shortly before the afternoon.
**Questions and Answers
Question: Farhan, what’s being done to protect staff at the offices in Sri Lanka, the UN staff in particular?
Associate Spokesperson: Well, a number of things are being done. First of all, we’ve been reaching, contacting Sri Lankan officials at all senior levels here and in Colombo. As for the safety of the staff themselves, it’s clear that for most of the day, UN staff were unable to come or go, and visitors were also blocked. However, by the end of the day, following interventions by the Government, all staff have now been able to leave the offices. Some protesters remain outside, and as we’ve said, we will continue to monitor developments about them.
Question: The Minister, [Wimal] Weerawansa, he’s the one who six days ago threatened to do just this. From this podium, you said it was an individual statement, and that an apology might be forthcoming from the Sri Lanka Government. I guess — what changed? What was the basis of saying it was an individual threat when he is the leader of the party that’s part of the Government?
Associate Spokesperson: Well, we’ve received certain public statements from the Government at the very highest levels, including, by the way, yesterday from the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, who met with Neil Buhne, the Resident Coordinator that we have in Sri Lanka. So we’ve received reassurances and clarifications. They’ve repeatedly said that, although they have a coalition government and there are certain parties in the coalition that have had differing views, that the Government of Sri Lanka is very clear in its support for UN staff and that the Government will try to ensure the security of UN staff. So we’d been taking those assurances. But at the same time, we take this quite seriously, and anything that hinders the movement of staff is a serious concern, and we are trying to make sure that the Government will honour its commitments to make sure that our work can be carried out without hindrance.
Question: On that, what do you make of the report by Reuters that Mr. Weerawansa, when the police were trying to allow the staff to get out, called presidential brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and the police then stopped trying to let UN staff out? That was carried by Reuters. They said that they witnessed the call and that Gotabaya Rajapaksa was put on to speak to the police and they stopped assisting UN staff. Are you going to see if that’s true, because that’s more of your interlocutors, right?
Associate Spokesperson: Like I said just a second ago, that the interventions from the Government did allow all staff to be able to leave the offices. So the bottom line is that the staff who we wanted to get out of the building have in fact gotten out of the building. I don’t know about the precise details about this call, but certainly we’re trying to make sure that all Government officials and indeed the police are abiding by their commitments to ensure the safety of UN staff. As far as that goes, we’ve always made clear that we respect the right to protest. But our main issue is that UN offices should not be blocked, and that our visitors and our work should be allowed to continue unobstructed.
Question: What preparations were made from the threat of last week to the incident that took place today, given that they were able to barricade the staff in and basically hold it hostage, as Mr. Weerawansa said, for an entire day?
Associate Spokesperson: We had actually been in touch with Government officials repeatedly over the course of recent days. And like I just mentioned to you, just yesterday, Neil Buhne did speak with the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, who had at that point stressed that the Government would abide by its obligations to ensure our security. Obviously what happened today is different from those assurances, and that’s why we’re going to try to continue to make sure that they understand fully the need for us to carry out our operations.
Question: Can you imagine the Secretary-General, it’s a pretty unprecedented situation in terms of UN staff. Is the Secretary-General considering speaking to [President] Mahinda Rajapaksa, or are you going to leave it at the level of the Resident Representative talking to a non-Rajapaksa?
Associate Spokesperson: We’re speaking at fairly senior levels. At this stage I don’t have anything to say about the Secretary-General making any such calls.
Question: Farhan, there was a report in The New York Times over the weekend that in Gaza, there are hundreds of tunnels opened and that there are shops full of stuff. Can you verify? Because it’s in conflict of what the United Nations has been saying.
Associate Spokesperson: I don’t. I don’t know whether you were here when I read out the note, but I did mention Robert Serry’s views concerning the easing of some restrictions. We do expect, I don’t have it yet, but we do expect this afternoon to have a statement by the Secretary-General on the easing of restrictions. But that’s not quite the same as what you’re asking.
Question: The thing that I am asking you is, can you verify the 800 tunnels are open through Egypt and the shops and that United Nations basically saying, lying, because…?
Associate Spokesperson: No. We’ve made clear that the lack of many, many, many key goods in Gaza and we’ve called again for the easing of the restriction so that normal commercial traffic can be restored to Gaza, and we continue to do so. And the Secretary-General, I think, will make that clear in a statement that we expect to have fairly shortly.
[The statement was later issued as follows:
The Secretary-General welcomes the further measures announced by the Government of Israel in increasing the scope and quantity of materials entering the Gaza Strip from Israel. He also notes the agreement to facilitate the immediate start of construction of 12 United Nations education and health facilities. The Secretary-General has long called for a significant shift in strategy towards meeting the great needs of Gaza’s population. Further steps must now follow to meet those needs and to allow the United Nations to accelerate and expand its efforts.
The Secretary-General reiterates that the full recovery of Gaza cannot be addressed without a durable solution consistent with Security Council resolution 1860 (2009). The United Nations will continue to work towards this aim and will closely follow the implementation of the steps already agreed.]
Question: Yes, Farhan, I’d like to follow on the weekend’s development in South Lebanon and the reported clashes that took place between the UNIFIL [United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon] and a number of residents. I wonder if the situation is calm. And I also wanted to ask you generally: does the UN believe that the UNIFIL forces can move freely without informing the Lebanese Army at all; is this what 1701 says?
Associate Spokesperson: As far as that goes, UNIFIL has been informing the Lebanese Army of its movements, and it does so as a general practice. During its operations over the course of the last, a little bit more than a week, UNIFIL has taken particular care to minimize disturbances or inconveniences to the local population. In cooperation with the Lebanese Army, UNIFIL is making every effort to talk to the communities and explain to them the nature and the purpose of its activities in order to clear any misunderstandings that they may have. And I think you will remember that last week Michael Williams did meet with Nabih Berri, the Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament, and made clear our concerns about some of the localized incidents, but incidents nevertheless of protests against UNIFIL.
Question: Does the UNIFIL mandate includes the right to open live ammunition against the residents, the local residents, if they feel they are in a dangerous situation? Is that part of the mandate?
Associate Spokesperson: The mandate is laid out in the resolutions of the Security Council, including resolution 1701 (2006). I’d simply refer you back to those.
Question: Does it allow them to open live ammunition against civilians in South Lebanon? They’re supposed to be there to protect those civilians.
Associate Spokesperson: UNIFIL is there to protect those civilians and protection of civilians is part of its mandate. I wouldn’t interpret the terms of reference beyond what’s in the resolutions.
Question: Farhan, how do you explain, before the clashes happened with the civilians in South Lebanon, how do you explain that the French battalions rammed the fields of tobacco in South Lebanon, and they just destroyed all acres of tobacco plantations there in intimidation to the residents. How do they interpret that?
Associate Spokesperson: I don’t really know the basis for you information. I am not aware of any destructive actions taken by any UNIFIL contingents. Rather the exercises that they were doing were designed simply to get a clear picture of the military assets that we have on the ground.
Question: But it has been widely covered in the local media there, and many people talked about specific acts.
Associate Spokesperson: There’s also been some misrepresentations on the ground which UNIFIL is trying to clear up. As I said, UNIFIL has been working with the local communities on the ground to make sure that its work is properly understood. And they’re doing this at a time when there has been some misrepresentation.
Question: A last follow-up: the issue was that is the UN, Mr. [Michael] Williams in his report, 1559 report which came out, he said that UNIFIL has a right to move freely without informing the Lebanese Army. So this recent incident — was that part of the understanding of UNIFIL’s mandate that they have the right to move freely without informing the Lebanese Army at all?
Associate Spokesperson: Actually, the recent incidents happened in the context of an activity in which the Lebanese Army was informed, and was fully informed. So, no, it’s not related.
Question: Thank you, Farhan. You indicated several times that the Sri Lankan Government has given, or officials have given, assurances and have made commitments not to interfere with the free movement of staff in and out of their quarters. Have these assurances and commitments been made orally or in writing, and if they were not in written form, why didn’t the UN insist on that?
Associate Spokesperson: As far as I am aware, most of these commitments were made orally. However, as you know, everywhere the United Nations operates, they operate on the basis of agreements with the host country, and those are written agreements.
Question: The head of the Polisario negotiating team has passed away like a few days ago, Mahfoud Ali Beiba. Do you think this is going to delay the efforts by Mr. [Christopher] Ross to reconvene another indirect round of negotiations?
Associate Spokesperson: No, Mr. Ross’s efforts are going to continue. I don’t have any announcements to make about any reconvening at this stage, but you’re certainly aware that his travels to the Group of Friends took place in recent weeks. So he is continuing with his efforts.
Question: Darfur and Iraq. On this meeting that you gave a readout of, of Mr. Gambari, you said that various Member States went, but many people picked up on the fact that Scott Gration of the US, neither the UK nor French envoys went. Essentially it was Russian, Chinese envoys; you can give me, if there is a longer list, give it to me. Did Mr. Gambari invite the Western envoys on the Darfur issue, and what does the UN make of their failure to attend and participate?
Associate Spokesperson: Well, first off, the full text of the communiqué is available in the Spokesperson’s office. So, you can get a clear view of the parties and the discussions there. It’s, I think, a two-page readout. I don’t know the reasons for attendance or non-attendance of some of these. You might want to check with UNAMID about that.
Question: And I wanted to ask on Iraq, I’ve been informed over the weekend that although this now goes back almost five years, but after the Canal, that there are issues that exist as to national staff that were killed in the Canal Hotel, and I wanted you to confirm either here or later today that the Department of Management has hired an outside consultant to look into these claims, and that a number of families remain uncompensated?
Associate Spokesperson: What issues?
Question: People that were killed in the Canal Hotel bombing. The understanding is that international staff received regular UN compensation, and that the issues have been raised to the Department of Management of national staff surviving, families of those perished not being compensated.
Associate Spokesperson: I’ll check up on that.
Question: One last question, please. Did Mr. Serry get information from the Israelis about the mechanism of allowing construction material inside Gaza? Has this been clarified?
Associate Spokesperson: We’re still trying; I’d refer you to the full text of his own statement about this. But we’re trying to see precisely what materials are in there. As you know, it is a fairly detailed list. So, UNSCO [Office of the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process] has been looking at this. But they do see this as a step towards the goal that we’re seeking, which is the eventual restoration of normal commercial traffic.
Question: Yeah, but I’m saying that Mr. Serry, in his talks with the Israelis, is there any progress about allowing construction material for UN supervised projects? Is this…?
Associate Spokesperson: Yes, yes. If you look at the language that was released by Israel yesterday, you will see language about allowing in construction materials for specific UN projects. Yes.
Question: Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu, as you know, is in Washington. Does he expect to see the Secretary-General, or does the Secretary-General expect to see him?
Associate Spokesperson: Yes, they expect to see each other later this week.
Question: Later, like tomorrow?
Associate Spokesperson: I don’t know. We’ll have to see about the scheduling, but it will be in the coming days, yes.
Question: Mr. Netanyahu is in New York tomorrow, so just for planning purposes…
Associate Spokesperson: As you know, we tend to get the schedule for the following day’s meetings later in the afternoon. So, probably late in the afternoon I can give you a confirmation. But I do expect him the coming days.
Question: The new campaign in Twitter bombarding the UN account, asking if the UN plans to intercede on behalf of Sakineh Ashtiani, the Iranian mother sentenced to be stoned to death for adultery. Does the UN plan on making a statement or interceding on behalf of this woman?
Associate Spokesperson: At this stage I don’t have any statement. But if you can check with our colleagues in Geneva, for Navi Pillay’s office, this is an issue that I believe the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights would be involved in first.
And with that, I wish you all a good afternoon.
* *** *For information media • not an official record