30 August 2007


30 August 2007
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 Maria Okabe, Deputy Spokesperson for the Secretary-General.

Good afternoon.  I’m sorry I’m a little late.  I was trying to get the latest information on a story that is just breaking.  It is from UNMOVIC.


In the course of its winding down activity over the past weeks the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) discovered what was yesterday identified as gram quantities of certain liquid substances including phosgene (COCl2) suspended in oil whose present state is unknown but which could be potentially hazardous.  It was immediately secured by UNMOVIC experts.  The office area was screened using UNMOVIC´s chemical weapons detection equipment and no toxic vapours were found.  There is no immediate risk or danger.  UNMOVIC staff is still working on the premises.

The Chief of Staff contacted the host country and informed them of the situation and sought their assistance in having the material safely recovered and disposed of.  We have been informed that the FBI is on its way to the premises for this purpose.  The material, unknown liquid substances, was contained in metal and glass containers ranging in size from small vials to tubes the length of a pen in one of the sealed plastic bags.  The only information we have of the contents of that bag is from an inventory of a 1996 inspection, which indicates that one of the items may contain phosgene, an old-generation chemical warfare agent.  In the other sealed package are reference standards sealed in glass tubes.  The standards are used to calibrate chemical analytical equipment.

The Secretary-General, has also informed the Security Council of this in a letter that has just gone to Security Council members.  We have here Ewen Buchanan, the Spokesperson, as you all know, from UNMOVIC, and [Brian Mullady, officer-in-charge of UNMOVIC].  If they can join us up here, they are here to take your questions on this matter as I think everybody is probably most interested in this item.  The rest of the briefing, I do have an update but I think for the purposes of today, we will make these notes available for you upstairs.

Question:  Do you have any appointment announcements?

Deputy Spokesperson:  No, we do not.  I think I would have let you know that but I have no appointments today.  We still hope to have something shortly.

So, any immediate questions on this?  As you know, this is something that is just unfolding, so the information we have is sketchy, so please bear that in mind.  Yes, Masood.

Question:  Of course, the first question that comes to mind, is this strain of the substance that was found, can it be used to produce any nuclear or WMD?  Is that a concern?

Mr. Buchanan:  No, the quantities are very minute quantities.

Question:  Chemical weapons are what your office is looking at, right?

Mr. Buchanan:  Yes.

Question:  Can anybody tell us where they were found and in what capacity?  Marie has wrapped it up but we don’t know much about it.

Mr. Buchanan:  As you know, UNMOVIC is in the process of closing down.  We’ve been trying to organize our archives, which include materials, as well as papers and documents.  And somebody’s opened a box and found in the bottom of this box these plastic sealed containers.  And as they say, when they immediately saw what they were, they immediately sealed and secured them.

Question:  Who do you think left them there?

Mr. Buchanan:  They’ve come from an inspection in Iraq, certainly.  There was an inspection way back in 1996 when we basically dug to the bottom of the Murthana chemical weapons production facility and these materials probably came from the analytical laboratory of the Murthana chemical weapons plant.

Question:  Basically, it was there all this time, since 1996?

Mr. Buchanan:  We assume so, yes.

Question:  And UNMOVIC just didn’t discover it.

Mr. Buchanan:  We’re just in the process of archiving now.  It’s been in a sealed metal box inside a plastic bag.  So there is no immediate danger.

Question:  Just to understand, this material was got in an inspection, it was brought to the US by some kind of flight, it was put in a box but nobody knew it was there until today?

Mr. Buchanan:  Yes.  Well, in fact, a couple of days ago.

Question:  That’s curious.  Why did nobody know what was in a box that was sitting in a UN facility?

Mr. Buchanan:  It was assumed to be all documents.  And in a box of documents was this particular package.

Question:  While UNMOVIC’s been in that building, what’s been its interface with either city, state or federal environmental agencies?  Have you registered the things you have there?  Is this the first interaction, I guess, with the host country or not?

Mr. Buchanan:  The first, yes.

Question:  So they’ve never inspected in the past.  Is it the idea that it’s somehow either immunity or international territory?  Why didn’t they get involved?

Mr. Buchanan:  We didn’t know there was anything hazardous in the archives.  We have 125 cabinets with archives and they’re under the OIC of UNMOVIC and in the process of archiving we went back to the historical files of the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) and we discovered this.  That’s exactly what happened.  We didn’t know we had it.  It shouldn’t have been here.  It should have gone to a laboratory.

Question:  Is there anything else?  I remember previously, there were scud missile parts and gyroscopes and other things there.  But is there anything else that would require you to register with the US Government or say that you brought it in?  How does that work?

Mr. Buchanan:  No, I don’t think so.

Question:  So it’s not international territory?  I just want to be clear.  Unlike the building here, which the Fire Department couldn’t inspect, you all have no legal issue of the host Government having access?

Deputy Spokesperson:  The point here is that we immediately contacted the host country as soon as we discovered this and that is the essential point here.

Question:  As a follow-up, what are the guidelines or the protocol for UNMOVIC dealing with hazardous materials?  Where is this stuff kept and from the very beginning when you were at Headquarters and then moved to that building, you’ve never been allowed to keep hazardous materials in the facilities?

Mr. Buchanan:  It happens.  This kind of material should certainly not have come here, that’s true.  It should have gone to a laboratory for analysis or destruction.

Question:  But how about in places like Cyprus?  Do you have hazardous materials in those sites or is that stuff destroyed?

Mr. Buchanan:  We have nothing hazardous from Iraq.  We might have something that’s declared hazardous, like a battery, to ship by air you have to go cargo under the regulations, but no, certainly nothing hazardous in the sense you’re describing.

Question:  You guys have no idea why this stuff is here, how it got here, whether it was just an accident?

Mr. Buchanan:  Accident, yes, but I assume it came with a lot of other material that was excavated from this particular site.  And that material has been under lock and key all these years.

Mr. Mullady:  I would like to stress that, since last night when we discovered this, we made an immediate sweep of all our archival material to be sure we have no more surprises, and we don’t.  This is it.

Mr. Buchanan:  Because, as you can understand, we have the expertise and the equipment to do this kind of work.

Question:  I read on this paper we were given that the UNMOVIC experts believe the packages properly secured and pose no immediate risk or danger to the immediate public.  “Believe.”  Why aren’t they sure?

Mr. Buchanan:  Well, we don’t know what the substance is.  But we’re all at work today so we’re obviously not that concerned.

Mr. Mullady:  We did a check with a device that’s called an AP2C, which is a detection device.  It registered that there was nothing harmful.  That’s what a person would do going into a possibly toxic environment.  Secondly, it’s been put in three plastic bags, into a safe, it has been sealed into the inside of the safe with tape and it’s in a room that’s isolated.  We feel very comfortable to have it.  We’re just getting rid of it, that’s all.

Question:  Just to get the circumstances correct, can you describe what would have happened, how the thing ended up there?  You say you have an inventory that says you have an item that may contain this phosgene, though I don’t really know what phosgene is, maybe you could also explain that.  So, what would have happened then?  It would have arrived.  How did it get into the building if the inventory says it could contain chemical weapons?  Did no one check that?  I just don’t fully understand the chain of events.

Mr. Buchanan:  Nor do we and we will have to try and investigate.

Mr. Mullady:  The inventory was an inventory of all the things that were involved in that inspection.  And it just so happened we looked and there were certain items that were on the list that were there, the rest weren’t.  They were destroyed, if I understand correctly.  Phosgene is a solvent.  It’s used in many different chemical processes.

Ms. Utina:  It’s a fourth-generation, an old generation of chemical weapons which were used before the Second World War.

Mr. Buchanan:  Yes, this is our colleague Svetlana Utina, who is one of our chemical experts.

Ms. Utina:  Yes, so it (phosgene) is toxic.  It affects your lungs.  Your lungs would collapse immediately if you inhale this substance.  But that’s what it says on the inventory.  Of course, we did not open the container.  We just isolated it.

Question:  Does the container say it has phosgene or you just have the inventory separately that indicates it might be?  You don’t know for sure?

Mr. Buchanan:  The inventory matches a number.

Mr. Mullady:  There is a number on this container that is the number of the inspection and the number of the item.  So then we discovered the inventory and we matched the number and it matches perfectly well with the description.

Question:  Is there a sense of what or who?  Are your inspectors going to destroy it?  What is the FBI going to do?  They’re coming in to monitor or see what happens?

Mr. Buchanan:  I believe they’re going to take it down to Edgewood in Maryland, to the laboratory we dealt with during the inspection period.  They’re used to handling this type of material and destroying it.  That’s what we’ve heard so far.

Question:  Have you taken any precautions to prevent any wild speculations among the press both here and internationally?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Well, we’re briefing you right now.  That’s the first step we’ve taken and hopefully you represent a cross-section of the international media.  The Secretary-General has informed the Security Council.  We have attached a note to the Security Council, which you now have copies of, that has a little more detail of what transpired.  The Secretary-General is fully in the picture and there will be an investigation, although I can’t tell you right now who will be in charge of that.  We came to you immediately after we had all the facts we can ascertain as of now.  Masood.

Question:  When was the FBI informed about it and when are they expected to take it away?

Deputy Spokesperson:  The host country was contacted immediately yesterday, as the note says, and the host country is the one that contacted the FBI.  The FBI is on its way now to remove and dispose of the material.

Question:  You said one gram of phosgene?  Can you give us a sense what that means in practical terms?  In certain agents that might be a lot and you can do a lot of damage, but what can you do with one gram of phosgene?

Ms. Utina:  We don’t know if its milligrams or grams inside this container, but the container is the size of a coca cola can so it cannot contain more than grams and gram quantities.  Say, if it was opened here, probably around five people would have a severe problem and a couple of people would be dead.

Question:  And this is just around people.

Mr. Buchanan:  That’s one problem.  We don’t know the status.

Ms. Utina:  We don’t open the containers, of course.

Mr. Buchanan:  We don’t have the facilities here to do such an operation.

Mr. Mullady:  We’re just taking complete precautions.

Question:  Can you give us a description of how much material UNMOVIC has over there and what’s going to be done with it?  And also, when you said you spoke with the host country, that’s the federal State Department.  Is there any communication to New York City?  And then finally, I guess this is to Marie, with all the ASGs and USGs and Mr. Ban all in Turin, is this going to, in any way, slow down or cause any problem in terms of actually acting, in investigating and so on?

Deputy Spokesperson:  The Chef de Cabinet is here.  And the Secretary-General is fully in the picture, as I mentioned.  And there will be an investigation.  And the answer to you question is yes, the host country has been in touch, we have contacted the Mission here, the Mission is in touch with the federal authorities and they are, in turn, in touch with the city.  I think we were just told that the city has also had officials dispatched to the scene.

Question:  And UNMOVIC’s status?

Mr. Buchanan:  We have a total of 17 staff members and we’re still drawing further down and quickly, but we are archiving.  And to answer the first part of your question, the archival material we’re looking at is about 125 five-drawer cabinets.  This is 16 years of inspection reports, of information from host governments and so on, and it’s very sensitive material, a great deal of it is.  And of course you know the Security Council is interested that we be sure to secure it properly.  In addition, we do have artefacts, we have artefacts in Baghdad still.  These are actually the remnants of the weapons that we took in the UNSCOM era.  We have some in Larnica, we have some here.  And if the UN does not find a way to display this in a museum, for example, the Office of Disarmament Affairs might be interested in a scud engine or missile or something, but otherwise we’ll end up destroying it.  That’s the decision that was made.

Question:  If any US authority, whether city, state or federal, asked to inspect it now, would there be any problem with that, would you grant that, is there any legal problem with that?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Would you repeat that question?

Question:  If the EPA or the state DEP or city DEP asked to inspect the material that UNMOVIC currently has, would the UN grant that request?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I don’t know the answer to that question because there’s probably some legal implications, but what I can tell you is that the host government right now is fully in the picture and they are tasking the various agencies that should be involved in the process.

Mr. Buchanan:  If I just might add, we have colleagues who are chemical weapons experts, biological weapons experts, missile people, and so on.  They know the stuff.  I trust them.  And we have some of the finest people in these disciplines.

Deputy Spokesperson:  Let’s go to somebody who hasn’t asked a question.

Question:  You said the FBI was in charge of removing the material.  Will the FBI be in charge of taking that material to the Edgewood Laboratory?  Is it out of UNMOVIC’s hands now?

Mr. Buchanan:  That’s our understanding, that FBI will use Edgewood.

Deputy Spokesperson:  As I mentioned, the FBI, we were told, is on its way.  So UNMOVIC can only confirm to you once the material has been removed from its premises.

Question:  But it will be out of UNMOVIC’s hands when the FBI takes over, yes?

Mr. Buchanan:  It should never have been here in the first place, so we’d like it to be that way when the FBI takes it away.

Question:  Is there someone who’ll be held accountable for placing those materials there?

Deputy Spokesperson:  That’s why we’ll have an investigation.

Question:  It says here on this paper that it poses no risk of danger to the immediate public.  When you say immediate public, do you mean people who are in contact with it now or to anybody in the surrounding building?

Mr. Buchanan:  We made a determination based on what it was, how we secured it, that it was safe for us to come back to work.  So we’re working in the premises.  We feel perfectly safe.

Mr. Mullady:  We’re going back to the offices after the briefing.

Deputy Spokesperson:  And the reason these gentlemen are in shortsleeves is because they’re precisely in the process of archiving the office.

Question:  How do you know it’s from al Murthana and not somewhere else?

Mr. Buchanan:  Because we can tell from the inspection reports and the inventory that it was from Murthana.  It’s quite well documented.

Question:  And is there any danger from that to the audience or something?  Immediate danger?

Mr. Buchanan:  We don’t believe so, no.  It’s well secured and well secured by people who know what they’re doing.

Question:  Is there any relation to the inspection regime of Hans Blix in search of weapons of mass destruction?  Is there a date, time, place?

Mr. Buchanan:  This is before the Hans Blix era.  We’re talking UNSCOM, that would be 1996 and the word would be Acheus.

Deputy Spokesperson:  Okay, we’ve exhausted the questions now.  I will read the rest of the briefing into the record for those who might be interested.

[The Deputy Spokesperson later said that UNMOVIC had confirmed that the materials reported to have been found earlier were taken away from its premises shortly after 4:30 p.m. and were in the hands of the FBI.]

**Security Council

Okay, as you know, here at Headquarters today, there is no Security Council meeting or consultations scheduled.

** Iran

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says, this is on Iran now, that its Director General has circulated his latest report on Iran to the upcoming meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors.  The report covers developments since Dr. ElBaradei’s report of May 2007.  The 35-member Board will consider the report at its next meetings beginning in Vienna, 10 September.

** Palestine

A few hours ago in Brussels, UN officials and others attended the opening of the UN International Conference of Civil Society in Support of the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process.  The Secretary-General, in a message to the Conference, said that he is encouraged by recent efforts to get the Palestinians and the Israelis back on the negotiating track.  The Arab Peace Initiative, Tony Blair’s appointment as Quartet Representative, and the United States’ planned Middle East Peace meeting all have the potential to result in a significant breakthrough, he said.  The Secretary-General added that he welcomes the decision by Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas to meet regularly to discuss a range of issues.  He expressed the hope that the internal challenges each faces will not deter them from moving forward with discussions on the political horizon.  We have copies of his message upstairs.  And the Conference is expected to wrap up today.

And the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) has just released its 2007 Report, which highlights recent economic developments in the occupied Palestinian territory.  UNCTAD says that the report focuses on the worsening economy, living conditions and on the impact of international and national economic policies of 2006.  It also provides an update on UNCTAD’s technical assistance to Palestinian development projects.  And we have copies of that upstairs.

** Bangladesh

On Bangladesh, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has been following developments closely from Geneva since the matter arose some months ago.  This is on the trial of Special Rapporteur Sigma Huda.  While we are aware from press reports that the Special Rapporteur has been sentenced to 3 years on corruption-related charges, the Office is working to confirm the press reports of the conviction and obtain the relevant court documents, as well as information on whether or not an appeal has been or will be lodged.

The Office is seeking this confirmation directly from the Government, as well as via the UN presence in Dhaka and Ms. Huda’s relatives.  We would also like to recall the statement of the Secretary-General, on 17 July 2007, and this is from a statement from Louise Arbour, the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

** Somalia

Meanwhile, a delegation of the International Advisory Committee led by François Lonseny Fall, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Somalia, today attended the closing ceremony of the Somali National Reconciliation Congress in Mogadishu.  Speaking on behalf of the Secretary-General, Fall paid a tribute to the Government and people of Somalia for the successful conclusion of this locally driven process.  While the conclusion of the Congress marks another milestone in the quest for peace and reconciliation, Fall said, it does not signify the end of the reconciliation process.  He said that there are challenges ahead, which will require a continued political engagement and much perseverance by all parties.  We have a press release from Mr. Fall’s office upstairs.  We also copies of the full statement upstairs, as well.

** Nepal

The Secretary-General’s Special Representative in Nepal, Ian Martin, in a press conference, appealed for an end to violence and to threats of communal violence.  While visiting the regional headquarters of the UN Mission there, Mr. Martin said it is a crucial time in the history of Nepal and that it is not going to be possible in the future for groups that have been marginalized in the past to continue to be marginalized.  There is more on that upstairs.

** Iraq Cholera

UNICEF has rushed emergency aid to help victims of a cholera outbreak in northern Iraq.  To help hospitals treat victims, the agency has delivered needles and sachets of oral rehydration salts, safe water kits to the families in the Suleimaniya area.  UNICEF is closely coordinating its response with the local authorities and the World Health Organization (WHO), which is leading the UN response.  Local authorities report that over 2,000 people have been affected so far by the outbreak and approximately 500 patients have been admitted to hospital in the last two days alone.

**Day of Disappeared

Today is the International Day of the Disappeared.  Marking the occasion, the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances expressed its concern over the increasing number of cases of enforced disappearances around the world, and reiterated its solidarity with the victims of enforced disappearances and human rights defenders working for the victims.  The Working Group stressed that, in numerous post-conflict situations or democratic transitions following a period of widespread human rights violations, disappearances frequently remain unresolved.  It also expressed particular concern about the practice of disappearances of short duration in some parts of the world.  The Working Group was established by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in 1980.

**Noon Guest Tomorrow

And this is just to alert you for tomorrow.  Our guest at the briefing will be Margareta Wahlström, Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, who will update you on the humanitarian situation in Sudan on the eve of the Secretary-General’s visit to Sudan, Chad and Libya.

That’s what I have.  I think you’ve had your briefing already, so have a good afternoon.  Thank you.

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Mr. Williams, in his address to the Security Council, recognized the fact that Israel attacked Lebanon after two of its soldiers were kidnapped by Hizbullah.  Did he reflect upon the fact that one of the reasons for this tension is that there are 12,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails also?  Did he say that?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I don’t have anything beyond what he said in the open meeting of the Security Council and at the stakeout, so if there are any more questions, we’ll pass them on to him.

Question:  Regarding the International Day of the Disappeared, this, as you know, is a very emotional issue in some countries, but usually the Secretary-General issues a message.  Is there any reason why he didn’t issue a message on this occasion?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Let me check.  As you know, we were a little hurried this morning because of the preparations for this briefing, so let me look into that for you.  Yes, Matthew.

Question:  On Myanmar, there is an article saying that various US Senators are calling on the Secretary-General to brief the Security Council about this crackdown in Myanmar, so I am wondering if any such request has been received by the UN.  Has that happened?

Deputy Spokesperson:  As far as I know, there has not been a request by the Security Council for a briefing on Myanmar.  The Secretary-General’s envoy on this subject, Ibrahim Gambari, has briefed in the past and he is willing to brief, should there be a request.  As you know, he has travelled in the region and talked to relevant parties on this issue, and he will continue to do so under the Secretary-General’s good offices auspice on this matter.

Question:  About the IAEA report, is it a five-page report or is there something longer that ElBaradei has prepared about that?

Deputy Spokesperson:  This is a report that’s part of the IAEA’s reporting mandate, I understand, to its Executive Board.  There is no parallel transmission to the Security Council on this one, so take a look at it on their website and address any questions directly to the IAEA.

Question:  Under-Secretary-General Gambari in his capacity as Envoy to the International Compact with Iraq, he gave a press conference here a while ago, which outlined a five-year plan to stabilize Iraq when America withdraws.  He indicated they might be meeting this September in Turkey, in Istanbul.  Is there any finality to that?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I don’t have a precise date or place for that meeting, but as soon as we do, we will let you know.

Question:  I don’t know if this was answered by the experts here, but this liquid came [inaudible] from Iraq and the experts at senior level from Iraq and the main thing is the experts said that it is fatal; if you smell it, you are dead.  Does it mean that one of the parties in the first Gulf war was using the poisonous gas?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I think that you’re going to have to address those questions back to Ewen.  All I can tell from what they were telling you is that they were able to identify the material based on the inventory and the numbers match, so in terms of exactly what this material is and what it is capable of, you’d have to follow up with Ewen Buchanan.

Question:  Two questions.  On the hostages released in Afghanistan that the Secretary-General spoke about during his press conference, there’s been some criticism since that talking with the Taliban kind of legitimates or treats the Taliban like a government.  I believe the Government of Afghanistan has expressed this.  I’m wondering, the Secretary-General has said he played a role behind the scenes, does he have any view on whether this was a good thing, direct negotiations between the Republic of Korea and the Taliban and the commitment to pull soldiers from Afghanistan?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I can’t go beyond what the Secretary-General said on this matter at his press conference.  And until the release of the remaining hostages in Afghanistan, I’m not sure that we will have anything more public to say.

Question:  And after that?  I guess in the press conference it seemed that it was a major statement he made.  Now I’m wondering, at the press conference you came in and said the press conference was only about the trip.  Was it thought that a question might be asked that was not about the trip?  It felt a little bit staged.

Deputy Spokesperson:  I’m sorry, I was not the moderator.  I was simply conveying to you the purpose of his appearance.

Question:  About this Turin thing.  There’s an article that may or may not be accurate that says that Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the President of Liberia, is going to Italy, including to meet with the UN.  Are there non-UN people participating in the retreat?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I believe the President of Liberia was invited to brief the participants in the [opening] segment of the retreat.

Question:  Can we get a list of the participants, particularly non-UN, but even UN ones, the USGs and ASGs?  Is there a way to get a list of the participants?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I’ll have to ask for you.

Question:  Thank you.  I appreciate that.

Deputy Spokesperson:  There are no other questions?  Have a good afternoon.  Thank you.

* *** *

For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.