23 May 2008


23 May 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.

**Secretary-General’s Travels:  Myanmar/ Thailand

The Secretary-General is back in Bangkok, Thailand, after his visit to Myanmar.  Earlier today, he travelled to Myanmar’s capital, Naypyidaw, for a meeting with Senior General Than Shwe.

Following the meeting, which lasted nearly two hours, the Secretary-General said substantive progress was made on all critical issues at hand regarding humanitarian assistance to Myanmar, and that the Senior General has agreed to allow international aid workers into the affected areas, regardless of nationality.  He added that Myanmar also agreed to speed up the visa issuance process for the aid workers.

Speaking to the press upon return to Yangon following the meeting, the Secretary-General expressed optimism that the Senior General also agreed to open up Yangon Airport to be used as a logistical hub for international aid from which it could be more quickly distributed to those in need.

He also said that further agreement was made that international aid could be delivered to Myanmar via civilian ships and small boats.  Adding that such a commitment by Myanmar is quite a breakthrough, the Secretary-General reiterated his hopes that all the points agreed can speedily produce results and that the immediate implementation will be key.

Following the meeting, the Secretary-General visited the City Hall, as well as the construction site of the new Parliament.

The Secretary-General has, as I mentioned, just touched down in Bangkok, where he will attend the Inaugural Relief Flight from the UN staging area at Don Mueang Airport, Thailand, for the victims of Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar.  The event will also be attended by the Prime Minister of Thailand and the Secretary-General of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

** Myanmar Humanitarian

Turning to humanitarian efforts, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says that 133 aid flights have arrived in Yangon so far, including 22 from the UN.  Amid concerns that the upcoming monsoon season could hinder road transportation, OCHA is trying to obtain more boats so that it can reach the many small islands scattered throughout the delta.

The World Food Programme (WFP) and its partners have now distributed almost 2,500 tons of food to nearly 450,000 people.  WFP has also secured the Government’s permission to purchase 20,000 tons of food, mainly rice, inside Myanmar.

As for Sunday’s Pledging Conference in Yangon, more than 45 countries and/or regional bodies have signed up to attend so far.  Roughly a dozen UN agencies, funds, and programmes, and the World Bank, will also be represented.  In total, more than 300 participants are expected, including 243 representatives from Member States, 31 from UN agencies and the World Bank, and these numbers may increase throughout the course of the day.  Our Office and the office for OCHA, will keep you updated on that.

**Statement on Saudi Arabia, WFP

I have a statement attributable to the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General on the contribution from the Kingdom of Saudia Arabia to the World Food Programme:

The Secretary-General warmly welcomes the offer of the landmark contribution of $500 million to the World Food Programme by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, under the guidance of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud.  This contribution completes the World Food Programme’s appeal target of $755 million to respond to the rise in fuel and food costs.  The Secretary-General notes that this contribution of an unprecedented size and generosity comes not a moment too soon, given the needs of millions of people dependent on food rations.

** Cyprus

Turning to Cyprus, the Greek Cypriot leader, Mr. Demetris Christofias, and the Turkish Cypriot leader, Mr. Mehmet Ali Talat, had a meeting today at the official residence of the Secretary-General’s Special Representative in Cyprus, Taye-Brook Zerihoun, in the UN Protected Area in Nicosia.

According to the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP), the two leaders had genuine and fruitful discussions.  They reaffirmed their commitment to a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation with political equality, as defined by relevant Security Council resolutions.  This partnership will have a Federal Government with a single international personality, as well as a Turkish Cypriot Constituent State and a Greek Cypriot Constituent State, which will be of equal status.

UNFICYP reports that the leaders’ representatives will consider civilian and military confidence-building measures and will pursue the opening of a number of crossing points.  It was also decided that the leaders will meet again in the second half of June to make a new assessment.  And there’s more on this upstairs.

**Security Council

There are no meetings or consultations scheduled here at UN Headquarters for the Security Council today.

Yesterday afternoon, the Security Council adopted a presidential statement on Lebanon, welcoming the agreement reached recently in Doha by Lebanese leaders to elect a President, establish a national unity Cabinet and address the electoral law.

A press statement was also read out on Burundi, in which the Council stressed the need for a cessation of hostilities and urged parties to implement fully the Comprehensive Ceasefire Agreement.

** Mali

Also yesterday afternoon, there was a statement issued in the name of the Spokesperson on Mali, in which the Secretary-General expressed his concern about the renewed deadly clashes yesterday between Malian Government forces and Tuareg rebels in the north-eastern part of that country, which have resulted in many fatalities.  The latest incident underscores the urgent need to find an immediate and lasting solution to this recurrent conflict so that Mali can focus on its development priorities and the consolidation of its democracy.  The Secretary-General says he looks forward to being briefed in further detail on the situation in Mali after the planned visit to Mali in coming days by his Special Representative for West Africa, Said Djinnit.  And that statement is available for you upstairs.


Turning to the Central African Republic, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian affairs warns that an upsurge in attacks by armed bandits in the country’s north has become a major cause of new displacement; up to 300,000 people have fled their homes.  OCHA says groups of between 10 and 30 armed men roam the area, kidnapping, assaulting and killing people, looting property, and burning homes and even entire villages.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Goodwill Ambassador Mia Farrow, who just returned from a week-long visit to the country, says such threats have become a part of everyday life, and many people are “living in fear”.  She says she met women who had been raped multiple times and children who had been held for ransom in the bush for up to two years.  There’s more information on these developments upstairs.


The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs also has a statement regarding the conditions in Ethiopia.

Without immediate new resources to carry out life-saving interventions, United Nations agencies expect the situation to deteriorate further.  The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that 176,000 children are in need of urgent therapeutic care for severe malnutrition and the number of regions at risk of a full-blown humanitarian crisis is on the increase.

UNICEF also estimates that $50 million are needed for life-saving health, nutrition, water and sanitation interventions.  To date, the agency has received only $6 million.  The World Food Programme, for its part, is facing a total relief shortfall of 181,000 tons of food valued at $145 million.

Meanwhile, attacks on aid operations are on the rise, hindering the movement of aid workers.  This is for Somalia.  And the World Food Programme says that Somalia will need some 544,000 tons of food.  Between August and March, the agency expects to provide food relief to about 2 million people per month.

**International Court of Justice -- Singapore/Malaysia

The International Court of Justice today issued a decision in the sovereignty dispute between Malaysia and Singapore over the islands of Pedra Branca (also known as Pulau Batu Puteh), Middle Rocks and South Ledge, which are located in the general area where the Singapore Strait meets the South China Sea.

Five years after it took up the dispute, following a submission by the parties in a 2003 joint letter, the Court ruled today that the island of Pedra Branca/Pulau Batu Puteh belongs to Singapore; that Middle Rocks belongs to Malaysia; and that sovereignty over South Ledge belongs to “the State in the territorial waters of which it is located”.

The full ruling, which is more than 80 pages long, is available on the website of the International Court of Justice, and you should talk to them if you have any further questions on this case.

**Economic and Social Council

A 15-point plan on the world food crisis emerged from intergovernmental talks at the Economic and Social Council, ending last night.  A presidential summary of three days of intergovernmental discussion at the UN details policies to turn “a threatening situation into an agricultural renaissance”.

In his summary of the 20-23 May session, Economic and Social Council President Léo Mérorès questions agricultural subsidies in rich countries and cites the need for compensatory financing by the Bretton Woods institutions and South-South mutual assistance.  There’s a press release on that if you need more information.

**Week Ahead

And we have “The Week Ahead” for you.  As you know, Monday is an official holiday here at UN Headquarters.  It is a holiday, but we will have duty officers as usual on duty.

Deputy Secretary-General’s Travels

This weekend, the Deputy Secretary-General begins a week-long trip to Japan.  On Monday, she will be in Hiroshima, where she is scheduled to address the Third Forum of the Global Network of Religions for Children on “Learning to Share:  Values, Action, Hope”, and participate in an Interfaith Prayer for Peace.

Then on Thursday, the Deputy Secretary-General is scheduled to address the plenary of the Fourth Tokyo International Conference on Africa’s Development (TICAD) in Yokohama.  That Conference will focus on boosting economic growth, ensuring human security, and addressing environmental issues and climate change.  Following the meeting, the Deputy Secretary-General will hold a joint press conference with the Prime Minister of Japan, the President of the World Bank and the UN Development Programme Administrator, Kemal Dervis.

On the margins of the conference, the Deputy Secretary-General is also scheduled to convene an informal breakfast meeting with members of the Millennium Development Goals Africa Working Group, as well as hold a number of bilateral meetings with Japanese and African officials.  And you can get more information on her trip upstairs.

Other Events

Just a couple of other things to flag for you next week:  on Tuesday, the Security Council is scheduled to hold an open debate on the protection of civilians in armed conflict and on Thursday it is the International Day of UN Peacekeepers, which also marks the sixtieth anniversary of UN peacekeeping.  The guest at the noon briefing that day will be Jean-Marie Guéhenno [Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations].

And that’s what I have for you before the weekend.  Warren.

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Marie, Mr. Ban was given what was by all accounts a very sanitized tour of the Irrawaddy delta and today he makes a statement reporting a very open gesture by a previously resistant Government.  My question is:  is the United Nations worried that the United Nations and Mr. Ban are being used to put a good face on the regime in Myanmar and, in that same connection, how will the United Nations make sure that the money that arrives in this donor’s conference on Sunday will be supervised internationally and will not just become a financial windfall for the regime, which is clearly what the regime wishes it to be?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Well, let’s start with the first part of your question.  I would like you to look at the Secretary-General’s remarks that he made today at his press conference in Yangon, in which he goes over his two-day visit to Yangon and to the severely affected areas.  As you know his trip to Myanmar was really focused on one thing and one thing only, which was to get assistance to the people on the ground as quickly as possible.

And, yes, he did get a glimpse of an area that, as he mentioned to you before he left, that he was being led by the Myanmarese to see, but he did see some of it.  I don’t know if you saw upstairs, but on a TV monitor you do get a sense of the kind of destruction that has happened on the ground.  He did see that.  He met with some of the victims, so I think he felt first-hand the situation on the ground and how desperate it is.

I think he was taking precisely that message when he met with the leaders and with Than Shwe.  In particular today, he came out of the meeting saying he’s encouraged by his discussions with the leadership.  In my note, I outlined three points in which the Senior General gave him agreement.  At his press conference right before he left, he was asked point-blank:  “Do you take him at his word?”  And the Secretary-General says, he made it in front of many senior generals, he is the leader, he is the authority.  Obviously, there is going to be need for follow-up on this now, but what the Secretary-General went in there for was to seek these assurances and, from what we can see, he has received them from the man in authority.

As for the details of the Pledging Conference, as you know, it is a United Nations and Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN)-sponsored event.  So the coordinating mechanisms obviously have to be put in place.  The Pledging Conference is, again as the Secretary-General mentioned, focused on getting the immediate humanitarian assistance on the ground -- and for that John Holmes, [Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator] has already issued a flash appeal -- and at the same time starting to look into the medium- and long-term needs.  But as you know, for humanitarian assistance, the money for the appeal goes to the various agencies and they’re the ones who implement the programmes.

Question:  When was the change regarding the visas?  Could this be explained by the fact that Mr. Ban was at the top of the iceberg and he put the pressure?  Who put the pressure on the Myanmar junta to change its visa policies?  And also, Michèle said that she would tell us whether Mr. Ban had an actual stamp on his visa, or if he was just invited in as a sort of … gesture.

Deputy Spokesperson:  To the latter part of your question, I think everybody who needed to go got visas from the Mission, so I don’t have anything to add to that.  In terms of visas, again I refer to his remarks:  “I specifically asked the Government to liberalize visa polices and to grant unhindered access to foreign aid experts so that they can work freely and effectively throughout Myanmar.”  So this is something that he raised directly in his meeting with the Senior General.

And in response to that, he said:  “The Senior General has agreed to allow all the aid workers regardless of nationality.  He has taken quite a flexible position on this matter.  I urged him that it would be crucially important for him to allow aid workers in as swiftly as possible.  And he also agreed that the airport should be used as a logistical hub.”  Again, these are things that I mentioned to you earlier and they are straight from the Secretary-General’s mouth.

Question:  Following on from that, admittedly, Than Shwe agreed to allow unhindered access to all nationalities, but there seems to be this caveat that that is as long as the General can be assured that they are who they say they are and not spies.  Have there been any discussions about what sort of mechanisms might be employed?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I’m sure that that is something that has been going on and will continue to go on.  But as for now, I have nothing further.

Question:  Another question about Mr. Ban’s schedule:  can you confirm that he is going to China tomorrow?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Yes I can.  The programme is currently being worked out by the Chinese authorities.

Question:  On the money from the Pledging Conference, first of all, is there a set amount that ASEAN and the UN are seeking?  You seemed to make the point that this was for immediate needs.  So does this mean that all the money will be going to UN agencies, NGOs and other humanitarian groups working there as opposed to the Government?  Nothing will be going directly to the Government?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Well, let me just clarify what I said.  What I said was that the first priority was to address the immediate needs on the ground, which, as you know, has already been assessed by the UN and issued through the Consolidated Appeal by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which has already agreed on a certain amount of aid.  Those pledges, as you know, go directly to the agencies.  That’s what I meant.

At the same time, this Pledging Conference will start to look at the medium- and longer-term assistance needs.  I don’t have a dollar figure on that, but I can certainly ask OCHA to provide an update since they are the organizers on our end.  So I don’t have any further information.

Question:  So does that mean that if I’m a potential donor and I go to this Pledging Conference that I could get up there and say that I want to give X-amount to the OCHA emergency appeal as opposed to giving anything at this point to the longer-term reconstruction?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I would think so, but let’s get OCHA to spell out exactly what is being pledged and not.

[The correspondent was later told by OCHA that, regarding longer term assistance, there is no set amount the United Nations is seeking at this juncture.  It is focusing on funding for the appeal for now, which does, however, have modest amounts requested under both early recovery and agriculture ($4.8 million and $10 million, respectively).  The medium- and longer-term needs will have to be determined through very thorough needs assessments.  As for where any money pledged will go, there is no answer to this question.  The United Nations would like to see the appeal supported, but if Governments wish to make pledges directly in support to the Government of Myanmar, that is their prerogative.]

Question:  Regarding the Saudi donation, when is that actually expected to hit the bank accounts of the WFP?

Deputy Spokesperson:  You’d have to ask WFP that.  The Secretary-General is today welcoming the offer.

Question:  Have other OPEC [Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries] countries been asked for donations?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Again, you’d have to talk to WFP on this.  This has been a generous offer in response to WFP’s appeal for the more than $750 million it had flagged that it needed to deal with the current food crisis shortage.  And if I recall, I think the statement does say that this pledge does bring it up to that amount.  But you’d have to ask WFP if it is seeking any further funding.

Question: A former Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) investigator, Matthias Basanisi, has an article in today’s New York Times, saying that in the Congo, he was in charge of the report on the trade in gold and guns and that it was all true, but it was taken out of the report and whitewashed.  He quit in response to that.  It seems pretty damning, given the fact that he’s the one who actually worked on it.  So I’m wondering if OIOS has a response and if we can get an on-the-record briefing by Ms. Ahlenius?  Just one last thing:  she said that they are trying to re-interview these two warlords that are at issue.  I’m wondering if that’s happening or not?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Normally I do not represent OIOS, as you know.  However, in response to these questions just asked, OIOS does have a number of points, so I’m going to [give] them, but this is really then for follow-up with OIOS…

Question:  But can we get someone in here, at some point, because…

Deputy Spokesperson:  Well, again, you can request.  We can request.  The other day, you did have a background briefing at which a senior OIOS official was present.  So you can certainly follow up with them.  But I will provide you with this after the briefing.

Question:  Is the UN planning to send any senior officials to Lebanon to attend the swearing in of the new President on Sunday?

Deputy Spokesperson:  My understanding is, yes, there will be a senior UN delegation, headed by Jean-Marie Guéhenno, the head of Peacekeeping Operations.

Question:  On the Saudi donation, you said it was in response to an appeal by the World Food Programme, or it was an appeal by the Secretary-General?

Deputy Spokesperson:  It was a response to WFP’s appeal for $755 million to cover their shortfalls in the recent food security crisis.

Question:  Okay, Marie, did you give any update on the UN dues that are owed now by the United States and other countries?

Deputy Spokesperson:  No, but we have asked Warren Sach for a briefing, which we’re still trying to arrange, and I believe that the General Assembly Spokesperson referred you to Warren Sach’s briefing to the Fifth Committee, in which he does outline in quite some detail the shortfalls in the budget and the overall picture.

Question:  Okay, I just want one question about the “oil-for-food” inquiry, which ended almost two years ago, but it was still being funded so that the records could be kept so Governments could access them.  Does the United Nations still have those records?  Is the money for that still being acquired from oil-for-food, or is there other funding for that particular programme?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I don’t have any updates on that for now, so you’d have to go back to when we last briefed you on that particular subject.  Yes, Louis.

Question:  Back to Myanmar, you said that more than 45 countries had confirmed participation in the Pledging Conference?  Doesn’t that actually seem to be a rather small number at this point, given the nature of the catastrophe, and is there concern on the UN’s part that what seems, at this point, low participation, could have to do with a sort of “wait and see” attitude on whether the breakthrough that the Secretary-General achieved will be followed through on?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I’m not sure that this is the absolute final number and I know that the registration was ongoing.  So why don’t we see if we can get somebody from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs who is dealing with this subject to maybe be able to talk to you this afternoon on where we stand on this.

Question:  The Secretary-General goes to China.  You confirmed that.  You said tomorrow.  Does that mean he’s going to go there and then back to Yangon?  Or will he be going to China after the Burmese part is over?

Deputy Spokesperson:  The programme, as of now, is that the Secretary-General has returned to Bangkok.  It is now, as you know, Thursday evening in Bangkok -- Friday, sorry -- this has been a long week, sorry.  He’s back in Bangkok and it’s now Friday evening.  On Saturday, he will start in Bangkok, he will go to China, he will return to Bangkok.  So that, by Saturday evening, he will be back in Bangkok.  Sunday morning, he will return to Yangon for the Pledging Conference, which he had originally been scheduled for, and he’s still planning to leave in the wee hours of Monday to be back in New York on Monday.  Okay, so that’s what I have for you….  Yes.

Question:  Do you have the itinerary in China?  Are we talking Beijing?  Are we talking Sichuan?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Well, the only thing I can tell you right now is that he’s planning to go there and the programme is being worked out by the Chinese authorities.  Yes.

Question:  Let me qualify one thing on the issue of the United States and French nationals that are trying to enter the country and deliver aid supplies [inaudible].  After meeting with General Than Shwe, did the Secretary-General raise that issue?  If he did, what was the reaction from the General?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I think that was part of what his agreement was, but I didn’t see any reference to any specific nationalities.  But that was one of the points that the Secretary-General raised and was agreed upon.

Question:  This may sound flippant, given the humanitarian disasters going on, but with all this travelling, does the Secretary-General have a carbon offset programme?  Is that something that he is interested in?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Of course he is interested in it, as he is in all issues related to issues of climate change, but let me look into that for you because I don’t have anything on that right now.

Question:  You gave a number for the total flights that have been allowed in, 133?  Is this the total since the cyclone relief began?

Deputy Spokesperson:  You’d have to look to the notes upstairs.  That’s what I read.  If you want more, you need to talk to the folks at OCHA.

Question:  In this two-hour-and-some meeting with Than Shwe, was the issue of Aung San Suu Kyi raised?  And what was the response?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Not that I know of.  As I said, this was a meeting that went on, my understanding is, for over two hours with, most of the time, members of his delegations present.  But my understanding is also that they had about a 40-minute tête-à-tête.  So the part of that that was tête-à-tête, I don’t know what transpired.

Question:  On the food security crisis, do you have an update on the workings of the Task Force?

Deputy Spokesperson:  The news that we welcomed today was a contribution to obviously help offset WFP’s aspect of that by this contribution.  And, as you know, the Secretary-General has written to countries to try to get them to the next step in this, a conference in Rome in early June to address this issue.  The Secretary-General has appealed to countries to participate.  Yes.

Question:  Back to the Saudi question.  With the undoubted link between the price of oil and the present food crisis, will you be asking the Saudis and other OPEC members to give more as oil prices continue to rise?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Today’s statement is a fairly straightforward one, it is simply…

Question:  [Inaudible] the question not the statement…

Deputy Spokesperson:  But that’s all I have on this issue today.  Okay, on that score, have a good weekend and see you Tuesday.

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