29 January 2008


29 January 2008
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 Marie Okabe, Deputy Spokesperson for the Secretary-General.

Good afternoon.  I am sorry I am a little late.  I was trying to get in touch with the Secretary-General’s delegation in Kigali.

**Secretary-General in Rwanda

The Secretary-General, as you know, is in Kigali, Rwanda, today, and he toured the Genocide Memorial, saying afterwards that he was deeply moved.  It is impossible, he said, to pass through the halls of the Memorial and not be affected -- indeed, shaken to the core -- by what the Rwandan people have endured.  The genocide will haunt the United Nations, and the international community, for generations to come, he said.

Before leaving the Memorial, the Secretary-General pledged $10,000 of his own money to a fund set up by the Government to assist the survivors of the genocide and help in the education of hundreds of orphans.

The Secretary-General later met with President Paul Kagame and addressed the country’s Parliament.  The Secretary-General and President discussed the progress made by Rwanda in implementing the Millennium Development Goals, in particular in primary education and gender equality.  They also discussed the situation in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda’s contribution to the hybrid AU-UN force in Darfur, as well as support to the survivors of the genocide and the future of the Rwandan Tribunal.

The Secretary-General told the Parliament that Rwanda has made tremendous progress since the genocide, moving from successful recovery towards long-term sustainable development.  And he noted Rwanda’s important contributions to UN peacekeeping operations around the world, including in Darfur, which I just mentioned.

**Secretary-General and Kenya

Responding to questions in a joint press conference with President Kagame, the Secretary-General told the press that he was deeply concerned by the situation in Kenya, the mounting death toll, and the ethnic clashes.

He noted that he had discussed the situation this morning by telephone with former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who is leading the mediation effort in Kenya.  The Secretary-General also said he is going to meet tomorrow on recent developments in Kenya with African leaders gathered in Addis Ababa for the African Union Summit, where the Secretary-General is heading tomorrow.

** Kenya

The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says the security and humanitarian situation in Kenya is “sharply deteriorating”.

For its part, the World Food Programme (WFP) is continuing to distribute food to displaced Kenyans and slum dwellers.  However, a new round of food distribution in the Nairobi slums had to be cancelled yesterday because of security concerns.  In addition, a WFP convoy going to the Rift Valley town of Kipkelion was stoned and had to turn back.  WFP is working with the Kenyan Government to ensure military escorts for its trucks.

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) adds that it is “very concerned” about the worsening security situation.  Yesterday, UNHCR had to call off a planned evacuation of up to 400 people from a town.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reports increasing cases of sexual violence.  Recently, a UNICEF protection team at a camp in the northern Rift Valley was interviewing young women who had been raped, when a group of over a dozen men appeared, threatening the women that, if they continued to testify, they and their children would be subjected to renewed sexual violence.  A UNICEF representative, who reported the incident to the camp security authorities, was told that there was nothing going on in the camp and that everything was fine.

We have more information on Kenya from these humanitarian agencies upstairs.

**Security Council

The Security Council is holding consultations here on Georgia, with a briefing on the UN Mission in that country by the Secretary-General’s Special Representative, Jean Arnault.

You’ll recall that, in his latest report on Georgia, the Secretary-General says that there have been no recent incidents between the Georgian and Abkhaz sides.  Nevertheless, allegations concerning the deployment of forces on both sides of the ceasefire line have generated tensions during the reporting period.

After the consultations on Georgia, the Security Council is expected to resume its discussion of a draft presidential statement concerning the recent developments in Gaza.

** Gaza

Today, the Office of the UN Special Coordinator in Jerusalem (UNSCO) reports that all crossings into Gaza from Israel remain closed, except for fuel imports.  Since 18 January, when comprehensive Israeli closures were imposed, only 32 truckloads of goods have entered Gaza.  This compares to a daily average of 250 before June 2007.

UNSCO says that the influx of goods from Egypt is only temporary and that UN operations must continue.  A backlog of 224 trucks -- from the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the World Health Organization (WHO) and WFP -- has now accumulated.  WFP distributions in some areas of Gaza have already run out of sugar and salt, and UNRWA says malnutrition will rise if the current lockdown continues.

Complicating the situation is the fact that the UN’s Palestinian staff with permits to exit Gaza are currently not permitted to do so, resulting in the hampering of UN operations.

In addition, WHO is concerned that fuel distributors in Gaza are on strike in response to the Israeli restrictions.  As a result, health facilities are not getting the fuel they need.  A UN team is planning to meet with the Distributors Union tomorrow to encourage them to allow the fuel to flow.

Meanwhile, UNICEF reports that some water wells are functioning again after being reconnected to electricity and functioning generators.  Nevertheless, 40 per cent of Gazans still have limited access to safe water.

** Lebanon

The Maritime Task Force of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) today rescued 14 sailors from a disabled Lebanese ship following an extensive search-and-rescue operation at sea over four hours.

UNIFIL’s Force Commander, Major General Claudio Graziano, expressed relief at the safety of the ship’s crew and congratulated personnel from the Task Force and a French vessel which assisted the operation.  “There cannot be a higher human endeavour than to save valuable lives,” he said.

There is a press release on this upstairs.

** Western Sahara

The Secretary-General’s latest report on the negotiations on Western Sahara is out as a document today.  In it, he presents an analysis of the latest round of talks, which took place earlier this month.

He says that, while the parties reiterated their commitment to the process, their stated positions remained far apart on how to provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara.  “Although the parties dynamically interacted with each other, there was hardly any exchange that could be characterized as negotiations,” the report says.

But he noted that the parties welcomed the intention of his Personal Envoy, Peter van Walsum, to visit the region shortly.  They also agreed to meet again at the Greentree Estate from 11 to 13 March for a fourth round of talks.

** Darfur

The African Union-United Nations Joint Special Representative for Darfur, Rodolphe Adada, continued his discussions with Sudanese officials on ways and means to ensure the success of the AU-UN mission in Darfur.

And the UN Special Envoy for Darfur on the political process, Jan Eliasson, is expected to come to New York next week for his briefing to the Security Council, which has not yet been confirmed.

**Children and Armed Conflict

According to a new report by the Secretary-General on children and armed conflict, child recruitment is still taking place in Afghanistan, Burundi, Chad, Central African Republic, Colombia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Myanmar, Nepal, Philippines, Somalia, Sudan, Sri Lanka and Uganda.

Among other things, the Secretary-General says the Security Council should consider a range of measures -- including bans on military aid and travel restrictions on leaders -- to use against parties to armed conflict who continue to systematically commit grave violations against children.  He also encourages the Security Council to refer violations against children in armed conflict to the International Criminal Court.

Our guest at the noon briefing tomorrow will be Radhika Coomaraswamy, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict.  She’ll tell you more about this report.


The UN refugee agency today launched an appeal for an extra $90 million to fund programmes for millions of internally displaced persons this year.

The appeal covers UNHCR’s operations in the Central African Republic, Chad, Colombia, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia and Uganda.

And there is a press release on this upstairs.

** Nepal

The Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Dr. Kang Kyung-hwa, is en route to Nepal for a five-day visit to see first-hand the activities of the human rights office in Nepal, the largest of the organization’s field presences in the world.

The Deputy High Commissioner will also assess the current human rights situation in the country and meet with representatives of the Nepalese Government, the United Nations Mission in Nepal and the National Human rights Commission, among others.

**Holocaust Commemoration

We’ve been asked to flag for you a joint exhibition in observance of the Holocaust remembrance tonight in the Main Gallery of the Visitors’ Lobby at 6 p.m.  The exhibit features two stories of rescue during the Holocaust.

Mr. Kiyo Akasaka, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, will deliver a message from the Secretary-General.  The message is available as a press release, embargoed until 6 p.m.  You are all invited to attend.  A note to correspondents on the exhibit and the opening ceremony is also available on the racks.

And that is what I have for you.  Questions?  Shall we start in the back today?

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Did you say that the Security Council will continue consultations on a presidential statement on Gaza?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Yes, that is what I told you.

Correspondent:  Yes, but some ambassadors have told us outside that the Member States have decided to stop consultations because there is still disagreement between them regarding the final version of the presidential statement.

Deputy Spokesperson:  I think all I was trying to tell you was that the Security Council’s programme today has on its agenda:  number one, the situation in Georgia; number two, the Middle East, which was the continuation of the discussion; and number three, other matters.  So please follow up with Security Council members to see how those consultations are doing.

Question:  The UN has already lost a lot of good people to conflicts like that going on in Kenya.  I guess I am not the only person concerned about Kofi Annan.  I have a two-part question.  I guess he had no qualms about accepting the assignment right away, but what special pains is the UN able to take to guarantee his safety in that country?

Deputy Spokesperson:  You would have to talk to the former Secretary-General about the reasons why he took on the mission.  As for support to him, you have heard the Secretary-General say, and we have said, that we would provide whatever support that he needs.

Question:  Are there armed guards travelling with him or anything like that?

Deputy Spokesperson:  These are security issues that I don’t think we are going into.

Question:  The Afghan President has endorsed the death sentence of a journalist.  Is the UN aware of this?  What is the view of the Secretary-General? Does he endorse this?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Actually, you are pointing out something to me that I have seen in press reports, so let me look into that for you.

[The correspondent was later informed that the Secretary-General’s acting Special Representative for Afghanistan, Bo Asplund, said that the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan is concerned about developments in the case against Sayed Parwez Kamabaksh, a journalist who this week was sentenced to death for blasphemy by a court in Mazar-e-Sharif.  He said that the pressures for punishment -- warnings to journalists, as well as the holding of this case in closed session without Mr. Kamabaksh having legal representation -- point to possible misuse of the judicial process.  This would not serve the cause of justice.  He urged a proper and complete review of this case as it goes through the appeals process.]

Question:  A follow-up on Kenya and something else.  Is the Secretariat going to brief the Security Council about Kenya?  If so, when?  If not, why not?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Well, you would have to ask the Security Council first on that question, because it is up to them whether they would want to…

Question:  So you received no request from the Security Council on this?

Deputy Spokesperson:  My understanding is that under “other matters”, Kenya will be raised today.  So why don’t you follow up with them to see what comes out of that?  The Secretariat is prepared to brief if it is requested.

Question:  I want to ask you about this financial disclosure you announced last week.  It seems, looking at the forms, that, first of all, there doesn’t seem to be any consistency on how the disclosure is done.  Some people list their assets, some people don’t list them.  Some people have said we are not prepared … we maintain confidentiality, among them Iqbal Riza and a number of others.  What guidance has the Secretary-General provided?  He made much of that these things are being disclosed.  But if no company names are listed…  Are people supposed to put down either, I don’t know, the institutions they have an arrangement with, or…  Is he satisfied with this disclosure?  And why is Mr. Benson not on this list?  Gambari is not on the list?  Do you have any…?  I guess I am wondering…  Was…?

Deputy Spokesperson:  You know, Matthew, I understand your question and I will respond to you.  Because it was last week, I don’t have all the material compactly in front of me, but I will gather it and get back to you.  In the meantime I will take Rima’s question.

Question:  Will the Secretary-General issue a statement on the recent bombing in Algeria today?

Deputy Spokesperson:  No, I don’t think so.

Question:  And is there any update on UN mediation efforts with the Algerian Government on the probe into the Algiers bombing?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I have nothing new on this.  We are waiting, as the Secretary-General said, to announce to you the panel as soon as we have one.

Question:  There are reports that the UN will be investigating the Government of New Zealand on the 15 October raids.  Do you have any information on this?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I don’t know.  I have never heard of this.  Why don’t you follow up with us later?

Question:  I have a follow-up to Matthew’s follow-up.  First of all, on Kenya:  does the UN have anybody on the ground in Kenya?  I figure Kofi Annan is not a UN employee?

Deputy Spokesperson:  As you know, every day we have been giving you an update on Kenya…

Question:  But do you have any high-level representation there?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Nairobi is a major UN headquarters.  We have headquarters of the UN Environmental Programme, we have the headquarters of HABITAT.  We have all major humanitarian agencies on the ground, who are doing their best to try to bring assistance to the people on the ground.  We are providing whatever support that is needed for the former Secretary-General’s mission there.

Question:  And on these disclosures:  just one more detail to add to Matthew’s questions, and that is, why is it that in principle spouses are not included in the disclosures?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Okay, let me get to this after I have taken everybody else’s questions on everything else.  How’s that?

Question:  In his recent report on the Western Sahara, as you have indicated, the Secretary-General says there were discussions but no negotiations; only repetition of each other’s positions.  What does the Secretary-General do to bring about negotiations, actual negotiations, on a proposal that is before the Council and which members of the Council themselves termed as “important and serious”?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I think the answer to your question is that he has a representative, who is very engaged.  I think I just read to you that he will be going to the region shortly.  And the fact that the parties have agreed to come back to talk some more in March is a sign that things are moving.  I think that at this moment there is not much more that we can say.

Question:  Back again to Gaza.  You know, there are some political movements now, launched by Egypt, to give President Mahmoud Abbas borders between Egypt and the Gaza Strip.  So my question:  does Ban Ki-moon support such a step?  And also, there is a meeting to be held tomorrow between Hamas and Al-Fatah regarding the conditions and the situation in Gaza.  Does Mr. Ban Ki-moon also support having, or resuming, contacts with Hamas?

Deputy Spokesperson:  The Secretary-General, as you know, today he is in Kigali, so I don’t think that he is going to have an immediate reaction to what you are saying.  But in terms of discussions going on there:  these are bilateral discussions.  As far as the UN’s position is concerned, I just echoed the position of the UN Special Coordinator in Jerusalem, which is that the opening with Egypt is only temporary and UN operations must continue.

Question:  I am not asking about this.  I am asking about taking over the borders by the Palestinian President.  So what is the position of the Secretary-General on this?

Deputy Spokesperson:  This is something that is happening right now between Egypt and another party.  The Secretary-General is closely monitoring what is going on there.  His immediate concern, though -- which we have been echoing every day -- is the well-being of the people who are living in Gaza, and for the UN right now, it’s to make sure that their desperate needs are met.

Question:  A climate change question.  In his State of the Union speech last night, US President Bush said, “Let us complete an international agreement that has the potential to slow, stop, and eventually to reverse the growth of greenhouse gases.”  Does the Secretary-General, given the importance he has placed on the issue, does he have any comment on that?  Does he understand it to mean the Bali process, or the US’ major economies process?  Has he spoken recently with President Bush about these topics?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I am not sure that he has spoken to President Bush recently on climate change and I don’t think he has an immediate reaction to what you just said.  But, as you know, the Secretary-General’s position is -- heading to Bali, and since Bali -- is trying to bring all the parties together on this very important issue.  I think we will leave it at that.

Any other questions?  If not, let me get back to the financial disclosure issues.  Both Matthew and Benny, I do have a handout for you upstairs.  But just a couple of things for you to flag:

The primary purpose of the UN financial disclosure programme is to ensure that potential conflicts of interest arising from staff members’ financial holdings, private affiliations or outside activities can be identified, and advice provided as to how best to manage any potential conflicts of interests in the best interests of the UN.  This may result in staff members being advised of an appropriate course of action, such as divesting themselves of holdings, or recusing themselves from a particular activity or aspect of their official functions.

I am giving you this background because this is important to underscore why these recent public disclosures were made.  And, as I mentioned, they were voluntary.  And all of those who have undergone this process -- which is complete -- have been vetted and, therefore, have no outstanding questions on them.

As for the decisions on what is being made public in their disclosures, when completing a voluntary disclosure summary, a staff member has two options.  One is to simply state that he or she wishes to maintain the confidentiality of the information they have disclosed -- which I think you were mentioning, Matthew -- and two is to complete a public disclosure summary according to the policy guidelines and principles.  So that is what you see on there.

Now, your question about the format:  the source and nature, but not the value, of a staff member’s personal assets, stock options, income from non-UN sources or profits from the sale of personal property, and liabilities greater than or equal to $10,000 will be disclosed.  Directorships or positions of office in non-UN entities will be publicly disclosed.  The following assets or interests will not be disclosed publicly:  cash or deposits with a financial institution; pension rights; or life insurance policies.  Staff will not be required to publicly disclose details provided within their statement in respect of one’s spouse or dependent children.

As far as who is on that list:  available on that website that we mentioned [earlier]is the current list of those UN officials who have elected to provide a public summary of their disclosure in accordance with the policy of voluntary public disclosure.  As other staff members indicate their consent to the Ethics Office, these names and disclosures will be added.  So, I think you need to keep looking at that.

Question:  At least half of the links that are on that thing are not live links.  Does that mean that the person has submitted something…?

Deputy Spokesperson:  No, those are the people that have already agreed to make them public, so it is just a matter of…

Question:  [inaudible] to make it public.  For example, Mr. Rizais listed and you can click and read the form, but the form says…  I mean…

Deputy Spokesperson:  I just read the two options that they have.

Question:  Does it mean the other people didn’t turn anything in?

Deputy Spokesperson:  No, everybody has been vetted already.

Question:  [inaudible] on the list.  Even with a dead link.  I guess I just want to understand…

Deputy Spokesperson:  All of the names there are the ones who decided to have it made public.  So they will be made public as…

Question:  Does “make it public” mean saying I want to maintain confidentiality?

Deputy Spokesperson:  That is correct.

Question:  So can we assume that those people whose names are not on the list don’t even want to disclose their…

Deputy Spokesperson:  You know, you are allowed to assume whatever you like, but I am telling you that they have been vetted by the Ethics Office.  If the purpose of the exercise, as I mentioned to you, is to make sure that there is no potential conflict of interest among them, then that process is over.

Question:  How is it … because I read…?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Matthew, I have nothing beyond this.  I have read you a pretty comprehensive note now, and I will provide you more, because I think this is way more detailed…

Question:  [inaudible] So much was made of this.  Having come and described why some people don’t list their assets at all but claim they make disclosures…

Deputy Spokesperson:  Sure, maybe after you read this much more detailed paper and you need some more explanation, we can ask them to come down.  Benny?

Question:  On the other question of spouses, let me see if I understand this correctly.  They are not required to make the assets of spouses public, but they are required to make them in their financial disclosures.  Is that the case?

Deputy Spokesperson:  That is correct.

Question:  And why is the discrepancy about the public?  Because people usually live together and their assets are being divided among spouses and there is a lot of businesses that you can say:  this is not mine.  That is my husband’s or my wife’s.

Deputy Spokesperson:  As I said, all of the individuals that we mentioned had already gone through the process and there were no abnormalities found.  That’s why the Ethics Office has agreed to make this announcement.

Question:  So this is not something that the public should know?  This is just something that you decide that they should be given a free pass on the public [inaudible]

Deputy Spokesperson:  I think you miss…

Question:  “Voluntary” means gets a free pass on the public side.

Deputy Spokesperson:  What I am trying to tell you is, there were guidelines that are set, that the Ethics Office has announced, based on the guidelines that it has set…  I mean, there is a pretty high bar here.  I mean, they have already cleared the vetting process.  And the Secretary-General has said that it is entirely voluntary for staff to make these public or not.  So those…

Question: But even as voluntary, the guidelines allow to keep … no allow … says that the spouse’s assets remain confidential.

Deputy Spokesperson:  yes, but they have been vetted…

Question:  There must be a reason for that.

Deputy Spokesperson:  They have been vetted, Benny.  There are reasons, there are some…

Question:  There is a difference between…  There is a reason why originally you decide that, or the Secretary-General recommended that everybody will make their assets…

Deputy Spokesperson:  While their confidential disclosures are needed to help PricewaterhouseCoopers -- which is the company that did this -- better advise the UN staff members of a potential conflict of interests situation, there is no need to publicly disclose their private interests.  This is what was determined by PricewaterhouseCoopers, and I have nothing beyond that.

Question:  As a point of clarification, could you tell us how many staff members were subject to this request [inaudible]?

Deputy Spokesperson:  The audience of this was 105 Assistant Secretaries-General and 85 Under-Secretaries-General, and 92 have elected to make them public and…

Question:  And you are counting the ones that are saying, “I maintain confidentiality”?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Yes, Matthew.

Are there no other questions?  Have a good afternoon.

* *** *

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