19 March 2014
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, Deputy Spokesman for the Secretary-General.

Good afternoon everybody. 

**Secretary‑General Travels

The Secretary-General is departing New York this afternoon for a visit which will take him to the Russian Federation and to Ukraine as part of his diplomatic efforts to encourage all parties to resolve the current crisis peacefully.

The Secretary-General has consistently called for a solution that is guided by the principles of the United Nations Charter.

His first stop will be Moscow, where tomorrow, he will meet with President Vladimir Putin, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and other senior officials.

The Secretary-General will travel on Friday, 21 March, to Kyiv, where he will hold talks with Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and other officials.

While in the Ukrainian capital, he will also meet with members of the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission and representatives of civil society.

**Security Council

The Security Council is discussing post-conflict peacebuilding in an open meeting this morning.  The Deputy Secretary-General, Jan Eliasson, told Council members that the recent example of Sierra Leone — and of Timor Leste before it — provide evidence of how post-conflict peacebuilding can prevent a relapse into violence and underpin a country’s development after conflict.

He added that the recent upsurges of violence in the Central African Republic and in South Sudan demonstrate the unpredictable environment for peacebuilding and the great risks involved. 

The Deputy Secretary-General will also speak to the Council this afternoon at 3, when Council members have scheduled a meeting concerning a letter dated 28 February 2014 from the Permanent Representative of Ukraine.  Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Šimonović will also brief the Council.

**South Sudan

In Malakal, in Upper Nile State, the UN Mission in South Sudan reported fighting between Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and opposition forces in the vicinity of the its compound this afternoon, local time.  Two rounds of mortar fire also landed close to the Mission compound, where some 22,000 displaced civilians are under the UN’s protection.

In addition, heavy shelling is reported in areas between Malakal town and the Mission’s premises.  Earlier today, the Mission also witnessed troop and tank movements towards the town.

Yesterday, fighting between SPLA and opposition forces was reported in Akoka, which is north of Malakal.

The Mission once again calls on both parties to comply fully with the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement and to ensure a swift establishment of the monitoring and verification mechanism.

** Somalia

The Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Somalia, Nicholas Kay, has welcomed the military progress made by the Somali National Army and the African Union Mission in Somalia in south-central Somalia where they regained control of key towns and areas from Al Shabaab.

Kay said the UN and international partners had begun addressing humanitarian needs where access is possible.  He added that Somalis living in areas now under Government control should quickly receive better security and justice, services such as health and education, and a decent livelihood.  And he called for more international support.

There is a statement available online.

** Democratic Republic of the Congo

The UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo announced today during a press briefing that the Congolese Army, with the support of UN troops, had conducted several successful operations against armed groups in North Kivu.

Operations are also ongoing against the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda between Tongo and Kalengera, with little resistance so far.


After a break of more than two weeks, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, or UNRWA, has been able to get into Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus and distribute hundreds of food parcels to besieged civilians.

The Agency says it has distributed 465 food parcels, but adds that this is not nearly enough for some 20,000 people there, which is why it is demanding secure, substantial and sustained access.

Meanwhile, the image of crowds of Palestinians lining up for UN Relief and Works Agency food parcels, which has emerged as an icon of the Syria conflict, is to be displayed simultaneously on the massive electronic billboard in New York’s Times Square and its Asian equivalent in Tokyo’s Shibuya district.  There’s more information on the Agency’s website.

** Afghanistan

And last, the Secretary-General’s Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan and Acting Head of the UN Mission there, Nicholas Haysom, said today that women’s full participation in the forthcoming presidential and provincial councils is essential to ensure an inclusive and credible electoral process.  Mr. Haysom met today with civil society representatives, and he said that elections can only be truly representative and credible when women fully participate and are included in all parts of the electoral process.

That’s it for me.  Yes?

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Thank you, Farhan.  Can you please clarify how many days would Ban Ki-moon be in Moscow and how many days in Ukraine?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, as I just mentioned at the start, he’s leaving today.  He’ll be in Moscow tomorrow, and then he will travel on Friday, 21 March to Kyiv.  And so, he’ll basically be in each for about a day.

Question:  Cause the Ukrainian Foreign Minister said that he’s going to be in Kyiv for 21 and 22 of March.

Deputy Spokesman:  Yes, he arrives on the 21st and then he leaves on 22 March.  And I do expect later this week we may have some further travels to announce.  Yes?

Question:  Also, on Ukraine.  I wanted to ask if…the UN has any comment on the physical assault on the head of the Ukraine national television company by members of the Svobodaparty.  Members of Parliament went in, beat him up and removed him from the building.  This has been reported all over the world, and I just wonder, what…does the UN say about this? 

Deputy Spokesman:  There’s no specific comment on that one incident.  We, of course, have been taking note of all of the incidents of violence in Ukraine and the Secretary-General has made clear his worries overall.  What he’s calling for, ultimately, is a de-escalation and restraint by all sides and he will continue to plead for that when he goes both to Russia and Ukraine.

Question:  Do you think he’ll meet with members of this party while he’s in Kyiv?

Deputy Spokesman:  We’ll announce his specific travels once he’s there.  I’ve given you a brief outline of what his travels will be.  Yes?

Question:  Can I be more specific?  What the Secretary-General is going to achieve during this visit?

Deputy Spokesman:  What he has made clear is that he wants to build constructive dialogue, and he’s made clear that we’re at a crossroads; and as he has said, the focus must be to engage in direct dialogue between Moscow and Kyiv, aimed at agreeing on specific measures that will pave the way towards a diplomatic solution.  And so, he is going to go to both Moscow and Kyiv and see what progress can be made on that end.  He believes that although matters have been difficult in recent days, the path towards a peaceful resolution of the crisis is still open.  Yes, Jonathan?

Question:  Farhan, more specifically — what is the Secretary-General’s position on Russian’s annexation of Crimea?  We so far have not seen any statement other than asking for an exercise in restraint for both sides, but does he have any convictions about the crisis itself and weighing in his own personal opinions?

Deputy Spokesman:  You’ve seen the statement that we put out a few days ago after the referendum.  And the Secretary-General made clear that he was deeply disappointed and concerned that the Crimea referendum will only exacerbate the situation on the ground.  He still maintains that all parties must avoid precipitous steps under the complex and tense current circumstances and all parties must work for a solution that’s guided by the principles of the United Nations Charter.  And I believe this afternoon, if you hear the presentations made by Mr. [Jan] Eliasson and Mr. [Ivan] Šimonović at the Security Council, you will hear further the sort of points that we’re trying to emphasize.

Question:  Just one follow-up on that — the United Nations hasn’t fared particularly well in terms of access to Crimea.  There have been some incidents and things like that.  What gives the Secretary-General confidence that he can actually achieve something on this trip?

Deputy Spokesman:  The Secretary-General will always be a believer in the effort to try to engage parties in dialogue.  Certainly, the authorities in both Moscow and Kyiv have made clear that they’ll be meeting with him, and he will do his utmost to try to get them to come to a positive relationship, a constructive relationship with each other again and to engage in direct dialogue.  Yes?

Question:  Coming back a little bit to that — access to Crimea — so far we haven’t had the access that we would want to have there — does he have a specific plan that he’s going to present to Mr. Putin to be able to bring monitors to that section of Crimea to be able to, you know, protect those that might be in danger right now?  And is it a specific amount of people or [inaudible] that you might be able to send there?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, let’s wait for the meeting first to take place.  If there’s any proposal or key points of their discussions that we can share with you, what we’ll try to do is provide a readout of that meeting once it’s happened.  Yes?

Question:  Farhan, the Russians have, in part, justified their actions in Crimea, the annexation of Crimea, by calling events in Ukraine a coup, the fleeing of Victor Yanukovych.  Does the UN dispute that there was a coup in Ukraine that started this process?

Deputy Spokesman:  Frankly, we haven’t pronounced ourselves on that matter.  It’s not our role to interpret the process on the ground in Ukraine in terms of whether it was according to their Constitution or not.  That’s ultimately for the people and the authorities of Ukraine to decide on, not for us.  Yes?

Question:  [inaudible] This is just a follow-up on what Johnathan has been asking.  Did the Secretary-General receive any assurances from the Russians that there will be discussions on this topic of Crimea and other things?  Did he have any assurances from Mr. [Sergey] Lavrov or anybody else that there will be discussions at all when he undertook the trip?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, as you can see from the fact that he is travelling to Russia that he believes he has the understandings needed to allow for a good discussion of the issues at hand.  And we’ll try to provide you with details of those discussions when they take place tomorrow.

Question:  [inaudible] in the Crimea and Ukraine.  Will he be talking about Syria, which is now…

Deputy Spokesman:  We’ll try to give you a full readout of all his discussions once they’ve taken place.  Yes, please?

Question:  Thanks.  Does the Secretary-General have a position on the legality of the referendum and its results?

Deputy Spokesman:  I don’t have anything to say on this at this point.  Ultimately, the question of the referendum and the results of the referendum is primarily a concern for Member States to deal with, and we’ll have to see what role we have in that as that progresses. 

Question:  Expanding on that, does the Secretary-General have any comment or intend to bring up the subject of Russia’s apparent seizure of a natural gas facility on the mainland of eastern Ukraine and try to see if he can get any clear commitments from Mr. [Vladimir] Putin not to take any further actions in the mainland?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, again, the sort of details of the discussions he will have, we’ll present to you at the time that they have it.  We’re not going to announce all this in advance; otherwise, there wouldn’t be any point in having the discussions.

Question:  But, does the Secretary-General have any comments specific to that incident?  I know the general idea of restraint and so forth, but this was an incursion beyond Crimea into eastern Ukraine, on the mainland, with a potential for more to come.  Does he have any comment specific on that expansion?

Deputy Spokesman:  I don’t have any specific comment on that particular incident.  We have commented about a range of incidents that have been worrying in Ukraine, including in Crimea, but also outside of it and we’ll take up some of those issues again this afternoon in the discussions in the Security Council and you can hear what we have to say then.  Yes?

Question:  [inaudible] or the recent events?

Deputy Spokesman:  As you are aware, and as I think Stéphane pointed out yesterday, the UN Disengagement Observer Force has been in touch with both the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and the Syrian Arab delegate.  And, in fact, they received a confirmation from the Israeli side that the Israeli side observed an individual crossing the ceasefire line yesterday and that an IDF patrol was sent to that location.  When the soldiers got out of their vehicle and crossed the technical fence, an improvised explosive device exploded, resulting in injuries.  So, we are aware of that, and we’re also following up to see what’s happened in the past day since then.  So, the UN Disengagement Observer Force continues to monitor the situation on the ground.  We have no further reports today to provide just yet, though.

Question:  A follow-up on that.  What do you have regarding the Israeli raid, which killed one Syrian and injured many today… near UNDOF’s area?

Deputy Spokesman:  We don’t have any comment on that.  We’re still trying to get further details of all the incidents on the ground.

[The Deputy Spokesman later shared the following information from the Department of Peacekeeping Operations: “In retaliation to yesterday's explosion on the Alpha side, the Israel Defense Forces last night fired artillery rounds and carried out air strikes on Syrian armed forces positions in the area of limitation on the Bravo side.  The IDF said that they held the Syrian Armed Forces responsible.  The Syrian authorities informed UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) that the Syrian armed forces were not responsible for the incident and that the IDF fire had hit three Syrian Armed Forces’ positions at Tal Al Ahmed, Hadar and Therese Hill, destroying one piece of artillery.  The Syrian authorities informed UNDOF that the IDF air strikes impacted areas in Sa'sa and a checkpoint in the vicinity of Camp Faouar in the area of limitation.  UNDOF has commenced an investigation of the incidents.”]

Question:  I have a question.

Deputy Spokesman:  We’re hoping that the situation on the ground will stabilize.

Question:  I have a question regarding Yarmouk, I mean.  Since there was an agreement between the inhabitants of Yarmouk and the authorities, and the Palestinians have blamed Jabhat al-Nusra for coming back into the camp and preventing the agreement from being implemented, why doesn’t the United Nations [say] that al-Nusra, which is affiliated with Qatar and Al-Qaida is responsible for the famine in Yarmouk? 

Deputy Spokesman:  We have tried to put responsibility on all the sides.  What we want is for all the sides in Yarmouk to provide access.  Ultimately, what that means is that there needs to be safe conditions on the ground to allow for humanitarian aid to travel in.  Like I said just now, some small amount of aid has gotten in today, but we need more to go in.  Yes?

Question:  But, at the end of the day, I mean, they should specify who is responsible for breaking the agreements here.

Deputy Spokesman:  In the case of Yarmouk, as in many cases in Syria, all parties bear some responsibility for the problems in obtaining access, and we’ve tried to work with all sides.  Yes, Edie?

Question:  Farhan, on another issue — yesterday at the Human Rights Council, the death last week of a prominent Chinese human rights activist, Cao Shunli, was raised.  She had been jailed because she was seeking an independent civil society participation in China’s universal periodic review of its human rights.  Does the Secretary-General have any comment on her death?

Deputy Spokesman:  Hold on just one second.  Yes, actually.  As stated by the High Commissioner for Human Rights on 14 March 2014, we are deeply saddened by the news that Chinese human rights defender, Ms. Cao Shunli, died in hospital last Friday.  The Secretary-General shares the High Commissioner’s deep concern that a human rights defender was detained in relation to her work and engagement with United Nations human rights mechanisms.  Yes, Matthew.

Question:  On South Sudan, yesterday in the Security Council, Under-Secretary [Hervé] Ladsous said that — quote — there’s been an unacceptable vilification of the UN, and he mentioned media articles.  And afterwards, the President of the Council said that in consultations, a protest sign that depicts Hilde Johnson with a revolver, clearly a spoof, but a protest sign was raised.  And I wanted to know, how do these two, especially Mr. Ladsous’ comment, how does this mean that the UN is taking issues with articles published in South Sudan by South Sudanese media raising questions, for example, about the trucking of weapons to Bentiu.  This seemed to be basically the UN… is the kind of thing that Governments say and then the UN criticizes them for… critiquing the media or critiquing the right to protest.  How can you explain this disparity or discrepancy? 

Deputy Spokesman:  I can explain it by saying, first of all, that it’s clear that we respect the freedom of the press and freedom of expression.  They are certainly entitled to express their views and their opinions, including in South Sudan.  What we’ve tried to do is put out the facts concerning the work of the Mission, including the question of the ammunition in our investigation.  And what we want to avoid is any misrepresentation that puts the UN Mission or our workers on the ground at harm.  We have a mission to do.  We’re trying to protect, as you know, tens of thousands of innocent people, and we don’t want people to spread false allegations that essentially incorrectly depict us as taking one side or another.  We have not done so.  We will not do so.  And we want it to be very clear.  So, we’re trying to get the facts out and the accurate facts out.  But yes, of course, we always stand for freedom of expression and freedom of the media.

Question:  But I guess you mean, for example… and I’ve seen this sign where it has Hilde Johnson and an enormous revolver, it’s clearly a spoof sign and it’s sort of in the nature of the kind of protest that take place here.  And I’m just wondering, has the UN written letters to the editor to publications in South Sudan about the articles that Mr. Ladsous was referring to.  I understand getting the facts out, but this seemed to be very much taking issues with a particular sign and a particular article.  And I just wonder, where do you go with that?

Deputy Spokesman:  For us, as was the case when Mr. Ladsous spoke to the Security Council yesterday, the important thing is getting the accurate facts out and to prevent any confusion about the Mission and its role.  That’s what we’re trying to do.  Of course, we know that there are different media outlets with different viewpoints, but we want to ensure accuracy, particularly when that accuracy directly affects the safety of our people on the ground.  Yes?

Question:  Recently, after the fall of Yabroud in the Qalamoun area between Lebanon and Syria, thousands of al-Nusra-affiliated fighters fled into Arsal, and now they are terrorizing the inhabitants of Arsal and other neighbouring towns.  Do you have any statement or position regarding their activities, particularly as they are affiliated with al-Qaida, these groups? 

Deputy Spokesman:  We are aware of the fight in Arsal, and we continue to be concerned, as we are about the violence throughout the country.  Of course, for us, what we’re seeking is a solution to the overall violence in Syria, and so that is what Lakhdar Brahimi, the Secretary-General and various others continue to concentrate on.  Yes, in the back?

Question:  [inaudible]

Deputy Spokesman:  Please use the microphone.

Question:  Since the UN has been so supportive of peaceful demonstrators’ right to express their will and their desires, it seems to be a bit surrealistic that there’s such a huge controversy about what was a very, very peaceful referendum in Crimea and also in other areas of eastern Ukraine, Donetsk and Kharkiv.  People have been carrying banners saying “Russian Spring”.  Is there any comment to defend… anything that’s being done to defend these people’s rights because evidently the Ukrainian is massing to put a stop to this?

Deputy Spokesman:  We are trying to make sure that the situation on the ground is resolved peacefully and the rights of all people, all Ukrainians, including the people of Crimea, will be respected.  That’s certainly the objective that the Secretary-General has in mind as he travels to the region.  Yes?

Question:  Farhan, I was wondering if the Secretary-General was intending to write a letter to the G7, which will be meeting next week at The Hague?

Deputy Spokesman:  No, I don’t have anything to announce on any such letter. Yes, Matthew.

Question:  I wanted to ask you, in Malawi, there’s some controversy about the President, Joyce Banda, selling the presidential jet.  And her response in a press conference was to say, in terms of where the funds from the sale of the jet went, was to say — we have agreed to buy military equipment for the peacekeeping mission in the DRC, in which they are part of the Force Intervention Brigade.  So, the opposition party has said that for that to check out at all, there would have to be some kind of an invoice from DPKO (Department of Peacekeeping Operations)  showing that the funds were used for that and also… whether the equipment was bought for the Force Intervention Brigade.  I wanted to know, is the UN or DPKO aware of any use by Malawi of proceeds from the sale of the presidential jet to fund equipment for the Force Intervention Brigade in DRC?

Deputy Spokesman:  I’m not personally aware of that, but I’ll have to check with our colleagues in peacekeeping.  Yes?

[The Deputy Spokesman later shared the following information from the Department of Peacekeeping Operations: “All troop-contributing countries (TCCs) are responsible for procuring and carrying their own equipment, when their personnel are deployed to UN Peacekeeping Missions.  The TCC does not inform the UN about how and where it procures such equipment.”]

Question:  I don’t know why I keep forgetting this.  Farhan, on Afghanistan, women’s full participation — that’s a nice statement — have you achieved that outside of the major cities where the educated women live?  And secondly, on Crimea, does the UN think… I think Russia would have won that vote hands down in Crimea, but in the face of all the troops there, does the UN think it’s peculiar that there’s a 96 per cent vote?  Does it not sound like Stalin?

Deputy Spokesman:  I wouldn’t comment on vote totals.  We were not the observers to that election, so I wouldn’t have any comment on that.  The comment that we had on the Crimea referendum is what we made in the statement that was issued on Monday, and so I would just refer you back to the text of that statement.  And regarding your question regarding Afghanistan, of course it’s difficult to ensure that women throughout the country have the right to vote, but we are pushing for that.  Mr. [Nicholas] Haysom made very clear today in his discussion with civil society that this is one of the key things that we’re pushing for.  And the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan will continue to press as much as they can for as large participation by women in the elections as can be achieved.  Yes?

Question:  I wanted to ask you again about the meeting with the Secretary-General with the Italian Interior Minister.  Your Office emailed a readout yesterday, and I appreciate that.  The readout doesn’t seem to mention at all the issue of the Marines being held in India, and I know that that’s something that Italy has said that it came to the UN to raise.  The PGA’s [President of the General Assembly] readout mentions it and says they will raise it to India, so… was it raised by Italy but didn’t make the readout because the Secretary-General didn’t speak about it?  Or was it not raised in the meeting?

Deputy Spokesman:  As you know, the format of our readouts is that we tend to put in the readouts the points raised by the Secretary-General.  It’s up to the other participant in those discussions to mention the points that they specifically have brought up.

Question:  So, since the PGA says… his readout of the meeting says that this was raised by Italy and he intends to raise it to India, is it fair to infer that his position in terms of taking up the cause of these Marines is different than that of the Secretary-General, since it’s not in his thing?

Deputy Spokesman:  That’s not at all a fair interpretation.  That’s a very bizarre inference.  As a rule, the things we put in the readout are the topics raised by the Secretary-General.  That’s all there is about that.

Question:  Does that rule apply to this readout, i.e. inferring [inaudible]

Deputy Spokesman:  Yes, it applies to readouts as a general rule.

Question:   Farhan, I recall just before the referendum was held in Crimea, Ban Ki-moon had a conversation with Putin, in which Vladimir Putin told him that, in his mind, the referendum complies with international law and the UN Charter.  Yet, your remarks, you said that [Mr.] Ban was opposed to Russia going ahead with the referendum in Crimea.

Deputy Spokesman:  That’s not quite what I said.  I just pointed out that he had said that he was deeply disappointed and concerned that the Crimea referendum would only exacerbate the situation.

Question:  Alright, understood.  The question is this — and it’s maybe down to UN legal experts, but who’s right?  Is Putin right?  Is Ukraine right?  What does the UN Charter say in this regard?

Deputy Spokesman:  I would refer you back to the UN Charter.  Have a good afternoon, everyone.

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For information media • not an official record