28 August 2013
Spokesperson's Noon Briefing

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.

**Secretary-General’s Travels

The Secretary-General has just completed a trip to the Netherlands, where he spoke at a ceremony marking the centennial of the Peace Palace in The Hague.

In his remarks, he spoke about Syria and noted that the use of chemical weapons by anyone, for any reasons, under any circumstances, would be an atrocious violation of international law.  He added that it is essential to establish the facts and a United Nations investigation team is now on the ground to do just that.  The team needs time to do its job.  The Secretary-General said to all parties: “Give peace a chance.  Give diplomacy a chance.  Stop fighting and start talking.”  And he said that the Security Council must at last find the unity to act and it must use its authority for peace.  His speech is online.

Later, he spoke at Leiden University on the theme of freedom, and he gave a message to all world leaders: “Listen. Listen to the concerns, demands and hopes of your people.  If you do not listen to your people, you will hear from them — in the streets, in the squares, or, most tragically, on the battlefield.”  We have also put out readouts of the Secretary-General’s meetings in the Netherlands.  He is currently on his way to Austria.

** Syria

On Wednesday, 28 August, which is today, the chemical weapons investigation team was able to visit several locations in the suburbs of Damascus, including impact sites, where it collected additional information and samples.  The Secretary-General appeals to all sides to allow the mission to continue its important work.  The evidence collected on-site by the mission is crucial for its unique ability to establish the facts of the matter in an impartial and fact-based manner.


Also on Syria, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) Executive Director António Guterres and World Food Programme Executive Director Ertharin Cousin visited Baghdad yesterday and they expressed their appreciation to Iraq for welcoming fleeing Syrians and working with UN organizations to address their basic needs.  Iraq is host to some 200,000 Syrians.  In the last two weeks alone, 46,000 Syrians crossed the border.

**Security Council

The Special Representative for the Secretary-General in Haiti, Sandra Honoré, briefed the Security Council this morning on the situation in that country.  In her remarks, Ms. Honoré said that Haiti is at a critical juncture and that progress in the fields of security and stability, as well as socio-economic development, could be undermined by instability resulting from polarization due to the electoral impasse.

The Special Representative said that the United Nations continues to support the Government of Haiti with the various short- and medium-term priorities that need to be addressed to eliminate the spread of cholera in the country.  Ms. Honoré also said that the UN Mission, MINUSTAH, stands ready to proceed with further adjustments to troop strength as may be mandated by the Security Council in October.  Her full remarks are available in our office.

** Democratic Republic of the Congo

The UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) says that, this morning, the Congolese Armed Forces (FARDC) launched an attack against M23 positions on the Kibati heights, north of Goma, in North Kivu.  The M23 has been using these positions to shell populated areas.  The objective of the operation is to remove the threat against Goma.

The UN Mission, including the Intervention Brigade, is supporting the Congolese military operations.  MONUSCO has delivered mortar and artillery fire and engaged its attack helicopters.  The Congolese Armed Forces have used attack helicopters, battle tanks and ground forces.  The operation is still ongoing.  We have just learned that one UN peacekeeper has been killed.  Three others have been wounded.

And the UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Flavia Pansieri, said today that fighting impunity and strengthening respect for human rights are essential for the stabilization of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, at the end of a seven-day visit to the country.  There are more details in a press release.

** Somalia

Nicholas Kay, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Somalia, today welcomed the agreement signed in Addis Ababa by officials on behalf of the Federal Government of Somalia and the Interim Jubba Administration, respectively.  The agreement establishes the modalities of administration and governance in Lower Jubba, Middle Jubba and Gedo.  Mr. Kay said that this is a significant step towards restoring peace in Somalia, building a strong Federal Somalia and contributing to regional and international security.

** Mali

According to preliminary results of a recent emergency assessment by the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), food insecurity has increased sharply in the Gao and Timbuktu regions of northern Mali.

The percentage of people moderately or severely food insecure increased from 60 to 90 per cent between June and mid-August 2013 due to insecurity and the impact on agriculture and access to markets.  In August, the World Food Programme scaled up its emergency operations to reach an additional 110,000 people.  Humanitarian organizations have reached an estimated 900,000 people with food assistance, treatment for malnutrition, cash transfer programmes and farming support this year so far.

That’s it from me.  Are there any questions?  Yes, Matthew?

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Sure, thanks a lot.  Just now at the… sorry, just now at the Security Council stakeout, Ambassador [Bashar] Ja'afari of Syria said that he has presented a letter, he names three incidents in… in which he says Syrian army inhaled sarin gas that he attributes to the rebels and is asking for the inspectors to… to go to these three sites.  I wanted to know, I guess, just pro… you know, practically, if you have received the letter, but also if this would in any way impact on the Secretary-General’s statement about four days needed, what he makes of it and… and I guess just if you can respond to that.

Associate Spokesperson:  Well, first of all, regarding what the Secretary-General said about four days needed, he was talking about the number of days that are needed — that the inspectors themselves believe they need — in order to inspect one particular attack, which is the 21 August attack on Ghouta.  So this is what they want to do in order so they can accomplish their current priority task, which is determining whether or not chemical weapons were used in the Ghouta attack that took place last week.  Of course, the inspectors are able and ought to be able to investigate other areas, as well.  As you are aware, there were three other areas that they were considering looking into when they first arrived in the country about a week and half ago.  And so there is always the case that they can investigate other things, including additional requests as they come up.

Question:  And one quick follow-up.  There are… there are… Lakhdar Brahimi… I mean, in his press conference in Geneva, said pretty clearly that those who seek to… to make… make a military strike or other intervention in Syria should go to the Security Council and see, take a vote; is that… is that the Secretary-General’s position?

Associate Spokesperson:  Well, regarding the Secretary-General’s position, I’d refer you to what he said today at the Peace Palace.  He spoke very extensively on Syria while he was in The Hague.  He said a number of things and I’d refer you to the full speech, but what I can say in part is, for example, that he said, and I quote: “And here in this hall dedicated to the rule of law, I say: let us adhere to the United Nations Charter.  To those providing weapons to either side, we must ask: what have those arms achieved but more bloodshed?  The military logic has given us a country on the verge of total destruction, a region in chaos and a global threat.  Why add more fuel to the fire?  We must pursue all avenues to get the parties to the negotiating table.  The Joint Envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League continues his efforts.  Most of all, the Security Council of the United Nations must uphold its responsibilities under the Charter - moral and political responsibilities under the Charter of the United Nations.”  So that’s part of what he said and that’s what his views are.  Yes?

Question:  Thank you, Farhan.  I read this morning that the United States had asked the Secretary-General to withdraw the inspectors, because, first, the Americans seem to know that these weapons were used and they also know who used them.  Can you confirm this?

Associate Spokesperson:  I cannot confirm that.  What I can confirm is that the work of the investigation is ongoing; we just provided an update on what they have been doing today, and they will continue with their work until such time as the inspectors themselves feel that they have completed their tasks.

Question:  But wouldn’t they… wouldn’t the Secretary-General endanger these people’s lives if he does not recall them?  I mean, after all, we are about two or three days away from military strikes; it looks that way, any way.

Associate Spokesperson:  If there is a need to make any such decisions down the line, we would look into that at that point.  But we wouldn’t comment on anything that is, at this point, still essentially hypothetical.  The inspectors are going about their work, and like I said, they will continue to go about their work until they feel that they have completed their look into the Ghouta attack.  Yes?

Question:  Yes, sir, today… I mean, as you were talking about Mr. Brahimi’s press conference, in which he had suggested that if the… the nations proceed to attack inside Syria without the authorization of the Security Council, it would be not legal.  Is that what the position that Secretary-General will also take?

Associate Spokesperson:  That question has been asked just seconds ago and I read out what the Secretary-General himself said at the Peace Palace today in The Hague.  That’s up online if you want to see it.  Yes?

QuestionLakhdar Brahimi did say in Geneva that there was some… that evidence suggested some kind of…

Associate Spokesperson:  Microphone, please.

Question:  Oh, sorry.  Sorry, Farhan, thank you.  The UN Special Envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, said that there are… that evidence suggested the… in his press conference in Geneva, that there is some kind of chemical substance that was used.  Is that a preliminary finding?  Is that something that that comes obviously from Angela Kane and Dr. [Åke] Sellström?  And then, what the… the rest of the report will come in four days, is that the assumption?  That’s… yeah.

Associate Spokesperson:  No, there have been no findings made in any capacity by the inspectors themselves thus far.  They are still continuing with their work.

Question:  And so, in what capacity…?

Associate Spokesperson:  Once I… I wouldn’t speak to his comments.  When it comes to the work of the chemical weapons inspection team, we need to wait for the chemical weapons inspection team to actually complete its work.  They are still continuing with that.

Question:  And so, he was just speaking off the cuff?

Associate Spokesperson:  You would have to ask him.  Yes?  It was actually the person behind you.  Yes, yes, please?  Thanks.

Question:  Just to make sure about the same question what the Secretary-General has said in The Hague about these four days needed for the inspection: does it mean four more days or four days, including the first two days past?

Associate Spokesperson:  It’s the latter.  Yes, Oleg?

Question:  Thank you, Farhan.  I missed the beginning of the briefing.  There were reports that the experts of the chemical weapons will leave Syria by the end of this week.  Can you confirm that?

Associate Spokesperson:  They will leave once they’ve completed, once they believe that they have completed their work.

Question:  But when this term of two weeks which was negotiated will end?

Associate Spokesperson:  Well, it began the Sunday before last, so you can tell quite clearly when 14 days from that is.  Yes?

Question:  I just wanted to find out, now that… until the weapons inspectors… I know they are not entrusted to find… to point out that they believe A-B-C-D used the chemical weapons.  They are just going to find…  I mean, they are entrusted to find whether the chemical weapons were used, am I right, basically?  That’s what the… So in absence of any finger pointing, in absence of any identification that this was carried out by A-B-C-D, what kind of thing that the international community is going to look at in order to ensure that attack against Syria, which is now imminent, doesn’t take place?

Associate Spokesperson:  Well, insofar as your question is about the work of the inspectors, you’re quite right that the inspectors are there to determine whether chemical weapons have been used or not.  What they will do with all the evidence that they collect is to create an evidence-based narrative of what happened.  In other words, what the facts are.  Depending upon what the facts show, that could give valuable information about the how and the why of what happened, but you’re right that they’re not explicitly to seek who was responsible for this.  But in any case, when they write up the report, they will come out with an evidence-based narrative of what the facts themselves show.  Yes, please?

Question:  Any word on how the most recent investigations went from the UN inspection team?  I know it was suspended for a day because they felt it was unsafe, but that resumed today.  Has there been any word on how things went or what it looked like?

Associate Spokesperson:  Yeah, you might have missed this, but at the very start, I said that the chemical weapons investigation team was able to visit several locations in the suburbs of Damascus today, including impact sites where it collected additional information and samples.  Yes, Evelyn?

Question:  Yes, I hope I don’t ask… you know I didn’t miss this in the briefing.  Can you go over the schedule for the team again?  Are they going to stay four days?  Is the US aware, since it also is talking about a bombing campaign soon?  Is there communication on this?  Is it… are they going to file a report quickly?  Do you have anything on the schedule, because it will affect all sorts of things in New York?

Associate Spokesperson:  The work of the chemical weapons investigation team is proceeding.  The Secretary-General did say in Leiden today that he believed that four days of work were needed for the team.  As you know, they have now completed the second day of their work today and they’re still in the middle of their 14-day mandate, which began two Sundays ago.  Yes?

Question:  When will we get reports?

Associate Spokesperson:  Which reports?

Question:  Sorry, Farhan, do we know anything about when they going to report back?  And Syria acts like they want them to stay longer; they’ve got some more places they want them to look at.

Associate Spokesperson:  They intend to report back as soon as possible.  Of course, there are certain things that need to happen, including testing in laboratories.  So that’s a process.  I wouldn’t want to put a particular time frame on it just yet, but they’ll need to professionally evaluate.  As soon as they can, they will try to report back.  Yes, Pam?

Question:  Has there been any indication, Farhan, that the Secretary-General has been given the US intelligence on other things like phone… intercepted phone calls that indicate that the Syrian Government has been involved in the attack? 

Associate Spokesperson:  I don’t have any information on that.  Yes?

Question:  Yes, sure, yesterday, at the State Department, it was said that John Kerry spoke with the Secretary-General, the UK, I think Mr. [William] Hague, has, as well.  I wanted to ask specifically whether the Secretary-General has… given all the public talk and… and planned leaks about a possible strike, has sought at least to get a heads up, given that there is UN personnel in the country?  And also, can we get a readout of… of… I guess, of his calls to… to these types of individuals about Syria?

Associate Spokesperson:  No, I don’t have any readout on those calls.  He’s been in touch with a wide range of individuals regarding the topic of Syria in recent days and those contacts continue.  We don’t have any real readout to provide you.

Question:  And what about the staff safety issue?  I guess there seems to be a concern, if they are still there.  And they’re… you can call it speculative, but clearly, there is deep thinking in the US Administration at least of taking short, sharp military action.  Where does it stand?  What’s his position that… of sort of giving a heads up so that the staff he’s in charge of could leave?

Associate Spokesperson:  Well, regarding the issue of staff safety… one second, just bear with me for a second.  The safety and security of the UN mission is of paramount importance.  All parties concerned must ensure the safety and security of the UN team on the ground.  That’s all I have to say on that for now.  Yes? 

Question:  I would like to request a readout of that phone call between Secretary of the State John Kerry and Secretary-General.  Could you please do that for us?

Associate Spokesperson:  Your request is noted, yes.  Yes?

Question:  I just want besides…

Associate Spokesperson:  You keep cutting off the man behind you.  Hold on, let Oleg go and then you.

Question:  You circulated a readout today of talk… talks between Secretary-General and the [Russian] Deputy Foreign Minister [Gennady] Gatilov.  During their consultations, did they talk about the probable use of military force in Syria?

Associate Spokesperson:  I don’t have anything to say beyond the readout, which does indicate that they discussed Syria.  Yes?

Question:  Again, I want to ask you whether or not the Secretary-General agrees with the statement or position taken by his Special Envoy, Mr. Lakhdar Brahimi, who has deemed that any attack without the authorization of the Security Council would not be legal.

Associate Spokesperson:  Again, as with the passage I read out just a few minutes ago from his speech at the Peace Palace, just delivered just a few hours ago, that contains his views where he did talk about respect of the UN Charter, he talked about the need to give diplomacy a chance, and he talked about the responsibilities of the Security Council.  I would just refer you back to that.  Yes?

Question:  You just mentioned that there were no reports of actual solid reports that chemical weapons had actually been used, but the United Nations-Arab League Envoy for Syria said that there was evidence that some form of substance had been used.  I mean, where are they getting that information?

Associate Spokesperson:  I believe we are getting the same questions over and over again in this particular briefing.  I’ve just dealt with that.  The bottom line is that the chemical weapons inspection team continues with its work.  Yes?

Question:  Okay, on… on DRC, is it true that the UN has been using attack helicopters, and can you say which DRC… which FAR… are… are they… is the UN supporting FARDC [Congolese Armed Forces] units or are these two separate military actions?  And if they are supporting, can you say which units of FARDC they are, and also, is this an Intervention Brigade action?  Is this the launch or has it already been launched?  Are they… is… is this… is the Tanzanian, Malawian and South Africans involved?  Thanks.

Associate Spokesperson:  Well, just one more time, to repeat something that I’ve read minutes earlier, the UN Mission, including the Intervention Brigade, is supporting the Congolese military operations.  MONUSCO has delivered mortar and artillery fire and engaged its attack helicopters.  The Congolese armed forces have used attack helicopters, battle tanks and ground forces and the operation is still ongoing.

Question:  Then my question is whether… what… which FARDC units the UN is supporting, consistent with its human rights due diligence policy, and if these include the 391st and 41st, both implicated in the rapes in Minova and one of them implicated in desecration of corpses?

Associate Spokesperson:  As we have been providing you with information in… in… over the months, we have been continuing with the human rights due diligence policy, including in the DRC.  And we continue to do that.  You know, we don’t, as a normal practice, provide the numbers of battalions that we are giving support to in any specific operation.  This is a task as mandated by the Security Council to provide support to the Congolese Armed Forces.

Question:  But these are two specific… these are two specific battalions that have been named in UN reports as engaged in human rights abuse, so…

Associate Spokesperson:  And in line with our policy, we have tried to make sure that the Congolese Armed Forces take action against people who are engaged in violations and we have provide the details of that to you in recent weeks, as well.  Yes?

Question:  Thank you.  Once again, can you just confirm that this… the UN team in Syria is so far supposed to stay to complete their mandate of two weeks, or this might be shortened up to the situation?

Associate Spokesperson:  Ultimately, that is a decision that is in the hands of the head of the team, Dr. Åke Sellström.  If he believes that they have gotten the information that they need in order to go about their current priority, which is to investigate the 21 August attacks, then they can leave once their work is done.  But that is his professional evaluation to make, depending upon the sort of information he receives not just today, but of course in the next… in the coming days.  Yes?

Question:  Can I just… just in the… you may have this or may can seek it, there seems to be some dispute about whether the… the… the flow of refugees has picked up in… in the last few days with the talk of… of military action.  I know that there are some newspapers in Lebanon reported it, a UNHCR person tweeted that it is not the case.  Can we get an answer, hopefully today, from the UN whether in fact these flows of refugees have picked up and if the UN thinks it has anything to do with the threatened military action?

Associate Spokesperson:  Well, UNHCR has been providing information on this and there was in fact a press release that UNHCR put out with the World Food Programme when the heads of those two organizations visited Baghdad yesterday, talking about the flow of refugees, including into northern Iraq, into the Kurdistan region.

Question:  And do you view this as tied in to the… to the very open talk about military strikes?

Associate Spokesperson:  We wouldn’t speculate about why people are fleeing.  Okay, Jonathan?

Question:  Hi, I apologize if someone asked this questions, I was out with the Syrian Ambassador just now at the stakeout.  But he mentioned that a letter has been submitted requesting that the UN team investigate attacks, alleged attacks, against what he claims, gas attacks against Syrian soldiers.  Are you aware of anything in this regard?  Can you share something?

Associate Spokesperson:  I don’t believe we’ve formally received the letter at this stage, but we will check when it gets formally received.  In any case, as I pointed out to your colleague, the team has ability to investigate other incidents as needed depending upon the circumstances.  Right now, the priority is to look into the 21 August attack.

[The Associate Spokesperson later added that the letter had been received today.]

Question:  A quick follow-up on that.  Have they actually requested an extension of their stay in Syria?  Any news on their remaining time?

Associate Spokesperson:  No, they have not.

Question:  Can I just, one…?

Associate Spokesperson:  Sure.

Question:  I’ve just been meaning to ask this for a couple of days, it has to do with Madagascar.  There was a… I know that the UN is… is… is… has some involvement, and the elections seem to have been postponed and a number of the candidates ruled illegal, including one that wasn’t running, Marc Ravalomanana, so I wanted to know, what… what does DPA [Department of Political Affairs] say about this pushing back of the date?  Do they think… wha… Mr. Rava… the… the… the… the banning of people that were ousted from power, do they… do they think that that’s a legitimate thing and what… what’s going to be their role in trying to resolve the crisis in Madagascar?

Associate Spokesperson:  Well, we don’t have any recent reaction to provide, but we’ll check with the Department of Political Affairs whether one is needed.  Yes, Sylviane?

Question:  Thank you, Farhan.  I don’t know, I came very late, maybe you have answered already the question.  Can you tell me please how many sites the UN investigators will be visiting in Syria?  Will they visit Syria, Khan al-Asal?

Associate Spokesperson:  Right now the priority is to look into the 21 August Ghouta attack.  As you know, there are three other sites that they have been intending to look at and they still intend to look at that in due course.

Have a good afternoon, everyone.

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