22 April 2008


22 April 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 Michèle Montas, Spokesperson for the Secretary-General.

Good afternoon, all.

**Press Conference Today

Later today, at 4:45 p.m., UNIFEM Goodwill Ambassador and actress Nicole Kidman will be here in this room to brief you on UNIFEM's “Say No to Violence against Women” campaign.  She’ll be joined by Joanne Sandler, the Executive Director of UNIFEM, and Tim Wirth, President of the UN Foundation.  We have more information available upstairs.

**Secretary-General in Africa

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is now in Ougadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, after a few hours spent in Monrovia, Liberia.

The Secretary-General earlier today addressed a joint session of Liberia’s legislature in the capital, Monrovia, telling the parliamentarians that he had come to the country to see its remarkable achievements in recovering from a devastating conflict, and to reassure the Liberian people of his steadfast commitment to peace, stability and prosperity in that nation.

He noted that the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) has embarked on the first phase of its drawdown, adding that he will recommend to the Security Council that there be a gradual and phased drawdown of the Mission's military and police components, linked to the Government's ability to assume full responsibility for its national security.

The Secretary-General later spoke to the press before leaving Liberia, saying that the recent worldwide protests over soaring global food prices has demonstrated the need for Liberia to meet the Millennium Development Goals in order to be safe from the weaknesses of globalization while taking advantage of its myriad opportunities for growth and prosperity.

He added that it is regrettable that rape continues to be the most commonly committed crime in Liberia, and he called on community leaders, Government leaders, traditional chiefs, elders and prominent Liberians to take the lead in combating the scourge of rape and other acts of sexual and gender-based violence.

Upon arrival in Monrovia yesterday, the Secretary-General was greeted by an honour guard and received the traditional welcome Liberian gift of a live chicken and an egg, as well as a key to the city, making him an honorary citizen of the Liberian capital.  He met this morning with Vice-President Joseph Boakai, and with members of the Cabinet.  They discussed the recovery efforts since the war and the challenges ahead for Liberia, as well as the peacebuilding projects under way.

The Secretary-General has since travelled to Burkina Faso, where this evening he is to meet with President Blaise Compaore and Prime Minister Tertius Zongo.

**Security Council

The Security Council took up the Sudan this morning.  The African Union-United Nations Joint Special Representative for Darfur, Rodolphe Adada, and John Holmes, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, gave updates on the situation in Darfur. 

Both Mr. Adada and Mr. Holmes will brief you following consultations on the same subject –- either in this briefing room if they get out on time, or at the Security Council stakeout mike.  We’ll let you know.  Their briefings to the open meeting are available upstairs.

Special Representative Adada says that the challenges facing the AU-UN joint operation in Darfur (UNAMID) are formidable in all aspects.  It is disturbing, he says, that even though Darfur is at the top of the international agenda, this attention has not thus far been matched with the action to provide UNAMID with the means to accomplish the tasks assigned to it.  He appealed again to the Security Council to redouble its efforts to assist the mission in overcoming the logistical and political obstacles it currently faces.

John Holmes, in his briefing, says he is saddened and angry that, after five years of suffering and four years since the Security Council became actively engaged, we still have not been able to find a lasting solution to the suffering of the millions of men, women and children in Darfur.

Further progress in the deployment of UNAMID will help, he said, but only an end to all violence and concrete steps towards a political settlement will make the fundamental difference needed, as the rebel movements themselves above all need to recognize.  In the absence of any real progress towards a solution, Holmes concludes, profound human suffering will continue to grow in Darfur.

** Sudan

Still on the Sudan, the UN Mission in the Sudan, meanwhile, commends the parties to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) on the commencement of the historic 2008 Sudan census, which kicked off today.

As you’ll recall, the Secretary-General himself, in a statement issued last Friday, welcomed the intention of the Government of National Unity to proceed with the holding of the national census, saying that it is an important milestone in the implementation of the Agreement.

**WFP -– High Food Prices

Rising food prices have become a “silent tsunami” that threatens to plunge more than 100 million people into hunger.  That’s according to the World Food Programme (WFP), which says that high food prices are creating the biggest challenge in the agency’s 45-year history. 

As one example of the urgency of the situation, WFP says it will have to suspend school feeding in Cambodia next month, unless it finds new funding in time.

WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran is calling for a worldwide response on par with that following the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami.  What is needed is large-scale, high-level global action, with a special emphasis on partnerships between Governments, UN agencies and other humanitarian actors, Sheeran says.

For its part, WFP is seeking funding for scaling up mother-child health programmes, school feeding, life-saving distribution networks, cash and voucher programmes, and local purchases from small farmers.  WFP also stands ready to support policy reform and provide advice and support for Government agriculture development programmes.  We have more information on this upstairs.

** Gaza

On Gaza, international humanitarian agencies operating in Gaza held an emergency meeting there today to assess Gaza’s increasingly dire humanitarian situation, according to the Office of the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process.  It was determined that, if no fuel is allowed in tomorrow, Gaza’s power plant will shut down and there will be increased electricity cuts in most areas of Gaza, lasting up to eight hours a day.

In an effort to save fuel, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East has been prioritizing food distribution, solid waste removal and sewage projects. Despite this, some 500,000 Gazans living in 12 municipalities are already being forced to live without solid waste management capacity. UNRWA reports that its fuel supplies will be exhausted by this Thursday. If fuel still hasn’t been allowed in by then, UNRWA will have to cut food aid to 650,000 refugees and garbage collection services for 500,000 Gazans.  

** Iraq

On Iraq, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs B. Lynn Pascoe today spoke to a ministerial meeting of Iraq and its neighbours in Kuwait, on behalf of the Secretary-General. Pascoe urged more dialogue and stronger support by Iraq’s neighbours for stabilizing the country, including through the opening of embassies in Baghdad.  He said that the opening of embassies would be “a very positive step”.

Pascoe also described the stepped-up UN efforts to help the Government and people of Iraq through the work of UNAMI, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq, which Pascoe visited over the weekend.  The United Nations, he said, is helping Iraq with political dialogue, the resolution of internal territorial disputes, the holding of governorate elections later this year, the review of Iraq’s Constitution and efforts to help Iraq’s refugees and internally displaced people. We have his speech upstairs.

** Lebanon

On Lebanon, on the margins of the meeting in Kuwait of Iraq’s neighbouring countries, a number of concerned countries, along with officials from the Arab League, the European Union and the United Nations, met as the “Friends of Lebanon” to discuss the situation in that country. Terje Roed-Larsen, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Implementation of Resolution 1559, represented the Secretary-General at that meeting.

The Friends of Lebanon ended their meeting with a joint statement, saying that they are deeply dismayed at the ongoing political stalemate and calling for the immediate election of the consensual candidate, General Michel Suleiman, as President without prior conditions.

** Yemen

On Yemen, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is launching an appeal for nearly $3 million to help and protect some 77,000 people in northern Yemen, who have been affected by fighting between a rebel group and Government forces.

Both people who have returned to their villages and those who continue to be displaced need aid, according to UNHCR. With the funds it gets, the agency plans to distribute basic supplies, such as blankets, stoves and mattresses, as well as tents and reconstruction materials. We have more on that upstairs.

** Colombia

And the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has organized an emergency humanitarian mission to bring assistance to several indigenous communities along the Guaviare River in east-central Colombia, who are virtually cut off from the rest of the world. 

Last week, UNHCR delivered 14 tons of food from the World Food Programme to some 1,000 people.  The remote area is disputed by rival irregular armed groups and is reachable only by boat.  The mission made four stops along the river.

In addition to food rations, basic hygiene kits and school materials were being also distributed.  The mission was part of a series of preventive protection measures to protect indigenous groups from losing their traditional lands. There is more information in the UNHCR briefing note upstairs.

** Afghanistan

On Afghanistan, the UN Mission in Afghanistan helped to support a new Afghan theatre show, which opened today in Kabul, which highlights the need to deal with the impunity of past human rights abuses.

The play, ‘AH-5787’, is named after an anonymous Afghan prisoner, and the United Nations hopes that the show can encourage all Afghans to explore their past and come to terms with Afghanistan’s years of conflict. We have a press release with more details upstairs.

**Press Conferences Tomorrow

And at 2 p.m. tomorrow, UNICEF Executive Director Ann Veneman; Ted Turner, Chairman of the UN Foundation; Tim Wirth, President of the UN Foundation; and National Basketball Association Commissioner David Stern will hold a press conference to announce a new grassroots effort to raise funds for bed nets to help prevent malaria deaths in Africa.

This is all I have for you today. Thank you.

**Questions and Answers

Question: It was reported yesterday that the Thai Prime Minister lashed out at both the World Bank and the UN for criticizing biofuel-producing nations and not oil-exporting countries. What is the UN position on that?

Spokesperson: Well, as you know, the Secretary-General has called for a complete analysis of all the factors that influence the rise in food prices. I don’t think he has talked only about countries producing food. He has also talked about the situation, other factors that influence the price of food. So really there is no comment to add to this.  We have been relaying the Secretary-General’s comments about the food situation for quite a few weeks now.

Question: Any reaction from the Secretary-General to the sort of confusion at yesterday’s Security Council on Peter van Walsum’s report on Western Sahara? Some ambassadors said that his personal recommendations contradicted the Secretary-General’s report and that, one ambassador said, he had no capacity to produce such assessment beside the report itself.

Spokesperson: Mr. van Walsum was acting in his role as facilitator and he has some leeway to present his own conclusions to the Council. The position of the Secretary-General is contained in his report and, as you know, Mr. van Walsum, who is still the [Secretary-General’s Personal] Envoy in this case, was presenting to the Council his own conclusions and his own suggestions to break out of the impasse.

Question: Why weren’t these recommendations added to the original report instead of having them as a separate document?

Spokesperson: Well, because the Secretary-General does not share all the elements of [van Walsum’s assessment]. Those were suggestions made by Mr. van Walsum in his capacity as facilitator.

[The Spokesperson later added that the Secretary-General was not making a value judgement in his report and that some degree of latitude should be given to his Personal Envoy.]

Question: Michèle, on the same subject, according to some press reports, the Special Envoy specifically said the following: “that in the absence of any pressure on Morocco, an independent Sahara was not a realistic proposition, that there was no compromise regarding the independence of the Western Sahara and that opting for realism was not capitulation”. Can you confirm?

Spokesperson: Well, I cannot confirm these exact terms but you had, most of you had yesterday, Mr. van Walsum’s proposal in your hands, so you know what he said.

Question: (inaudible) statement made in public?

Spokesperson: I don’t know about this specific statement that you quote.

Question: This is according to press reports.

Spokesperson: I cannot confirm the exact quote. No, I cannot. Yes, Matthew?

Question: There is a report by Amnesty International that says that in recent weeks 350 people have been taken hostage by the Lord’s Resistance Army. They are the ones who are saying that the LRA did it and they call on the surrounding countries and the UN to take all actions to get the people released and to enforce the warrants. What does the UN know about this? Is in fact the LRA doing it, and what is the UN doing? What is the response to this call and to this kidnapping?

Spokesperson: Well, there is no -- any response will have to come from the Security Council. Any decision to put armies together to attack a camp -- those people would presumably be detained -- would be a decision to be taken by the Security Council.

Question: I guess in terms of UN fact-finding, I know that in the past the UN had tried to say, well we don’t know if it’s the LRA, we don’t know who is doing this kidnapping. Has there been any progress in finding out actually who is behind this?

Spokesperson: No. We cannot confirm that. No.

Question: Is there any update on the peace talks?

Spokesperson: No, we don’t have anything yet on that, but I am sure you read the latest development.

Question: There was a report from Yemen that either just UNDP or the whole UN operation in Sana’a had either been closed or curtailed due to safety and a meeting by DSS (inaudible) with Government officials. Can you confirm that in Yemen some change is taking place in UN operations?

Spokesperson: I contacted UNDP about this and they said that, contrary to press reports, the UNDP office in Sana’a has not been closed and UNDP staff continue to go about their work. A security assessment is now under way and all UNDP programmes in the country continue to operate and all UNDP project offices outside of Sana’a remain open.

Question: Is the UNDP compound there MOSS compliant? That issue came up after….

Spokesperson: I don’t have that information. We would have to get the information from DSS who, as you know, will not really give specifics on security issues.

Question: The last one. The Committee on Relations with the Host Country is meeting today and it has always been open in the past so I tried to attend it and a guy from the Office of Legal Affairs said that it is a closed meeting. It is not listed as closed and the strangest thing to me was that he said that the Department of Public Information would produce a press release about the meeting. Since it is OLA and DPI, I am asking you, is the meeting closed and, if it is closed, how can it be closed if DPI itself is inside and is producing a press release?

[The Spokesperson later clarified that the meeting in question had in fact been an open meeting.]

Question: Russia is saying that Georgia’s action in flying a pilotless reconnaissance aircraft over Abkhazia, the aircraft that was shot down on Sunday, was a violation of UN resolution and I wondered if you knew whether that was the case.

Spokesperson: Well, in this specific case, our own Mission over there did not observe firsthand the shooting down of the Georgian unmanned [aerial] vehicle. I know that they are engaged in an investigation on that matter. In terms of the relations between Russia and Georgia, it a bilateral matter. Between Georgia and Abkhazia, of course we have a Mission there, but we cannot at this point confirm who shot the drone down.

Question: That wasn’t really the question. The question was whether the UN resolutions or a resolution forbids the flying of reconnaissance aircraft by Georgia over Abkhazia.

Spokesperson: Yes, it does.

Question: It does. Can you say which resolution that is?

Spokesperson: I can give you the information, I have it upstairs.

[The Spokesperson later clarified that Security Council resolution 937 (1994) welcomes the 1994 Moscow Agreement, which says, “The parties shall scrupulously observe the cease-fire on land, at sea and in the air and shall refrain from all military actions against each other.”]

Question: Michèle, you just recounted all the situation in the occupied Gaza wherein the population continues to be undermined and they are not given relief supplies and so on and so forth. Has the Secretary-General been in touch again with the top Israeli authorities, including Prime Minister, about the situation over there?

Spokesperson: No, not the Secretary-General directly, but we have, as you know, a mission on the ground, which is constantly concerned and active over these issues.

Question: Has he had any communication with former President Carter about his peace initiative?

Spokesperson: No he hasn’t, but as I said yesterday, we welcome all initiatives trying to bring peace to the region, and our Department of Political Affairs will have to really analyze the agreement that was reached and see what it means.

Question: According to some officials in some Governments, on the current food crisis, the discussion on this situation should take place within the FAO and not the World Trade Organization. What is the position of the Secretary-General?

Spokesperson: Well, as you know, the discussion is taking place right now everywhere. Right now there is a meeting in London about this. There is going to be a meeting at the FAO. Yesterday, the Secretary-General met with the WFP director and, of course, you know, and this is as I said yesterday, this is an issue that is going to be taken up by the whole UN system when all the heads of agencies and programmes and funds meet in Bern next week. So I think everyone is involved in this.

Question: I have a question on Zimbabwe. Human Rights Watch reported yesterday that Mugabe’s party is setting up torture camps to intimidate and torture opposition activists. What is the UN’s position on that? Are you aware of the situation?

Spokesperson: We don’t have any specific information on it. As I said, the Secretary-General yesterday met with the opposition leader in Ghana and they talked about the situation there. We have no independent body there to verify what is being said in the press. Thank you very much.

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