24 July 2008


24 July 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

As you can tell, there are quite a few chairs around here.  They are for our guests at the noon briefing.  They are members of the United Nations recently established Internal Justice Council, and they will brief on the Council’s activities and the implementation of the new system.  We have more information available upstairs and in this room on the table.

** High Commissioner for Human Rights

The Secretary-General, following consultations with the President of the General Assembly and the Chairmen of the five regional groups of Member States, informed the General Assembly of his intention to appoint Ms. Navanethem Pillay of South Africa as the new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.  Ms. Pillay will replace Ms. Louise Arbour.

The Secretary-General is grateful for Ms. Arbour’s dedicated service to the UN and to human rights.  He praises her untiring dedication and principled stewardship of the Organization’s human rights programme.

Judge Pillay’s nomination is made at the end of an extensive selection process, which included consultations with Member States and with the broad-based NGO community.

The Secretary-General is committed to ensure that human rights remain high on the agenda of the Organization.  He expects that the new High Commissioner will preserve the independence of her Office and will maintain effective working relations with the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council.  The Secretary-General is determined to fully support Ms. Pillay in carrying out her work, including with increased resources, as approved by the General Assembly.

Judge Pillay has outstanding credentials in human rights and justice.  Since 2003, she has served as judge on the International Criminal Court.  In 1999 she was elected Judge President of the UN International Criminal Court Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), which she joined in 1995, having been elected as judge by the UN General Assembly; her four year term with ICTR was renewed in 1998.  You can read more about Ms. Pillay upstairs in my office.

And, according to the General Assembly Spokesman, the General Assembly plenary meeting on Monday will take up the approval of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

**Statement on Middle East

We also have a statement attributable to the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General on Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank.

The Secretary-General is deeply concerned about the announcement today of the initial approval by the Ministry of Defence of 20 residential units in the Israeli military post of Maskiyot in the West Bank.  The Secretary-General has stressed many times before that settlement construction or expansion is contrary to international law and Israel’s commitments under the Road Map and the Annapolis process.  The Secretary-General urges Israel to heed the call of the Quartet to freeze all settlement activity, including natural growth, and to dismantle outposts erected since March 2001.

** Gaza

The number of households in Gaza below the poverty line has reached an unprecedented high of nearly 52 per cent, according to a new report by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

By contrast, household poverty levels in the West Bank fell to just over 19 per cent -- most likely due to the lifting of the international embargo on the Palestinian Authority.

The report adds that Israeli-imposed movement restrictions in the Occupied Palestinian Territory are the main barrier to economic recovery and development.  We have more on that upstairs.

** Sudan

The United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) reports that 126 members of the Egyptian engineering contingent began arriving in Darfur from Cairo today.  They are joining 83 personnel already deployed in El Fasher as part of the advance team.

UNAMID is expecting to receive another 126 Egyptians in the next few days, so that the company’s full strength will be 335 personnel.

The Egyptian engineering company has already been assigned the construction and maintenance of El Fasher airport.  Upon completion, the project will have the greatest impact on the Mission’s deployment and on logistical and tactical support.

UNAMID also reports today that the security situation has remained calm.

**Statement on Myanmar

We also have a statement that was distributed yesterday attributable to the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General on the situation in Myanmar.

The Secretary-General convened yesterday afternoon a meeting of the Group of Friends of the Secretary-General on Myanmar to discuss the upcoming visit of his Special Adviser, Ibrahim Gambari, to the country.

The Group expressed strong support for the Secretary-General’s good offices efforts.  Members of the Group also noted their expectations that Mr. Gambari’s next visit would need to yield tangible progress on the issues of concern to the international community, particularly with regard to the resumption of dialogue between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the Government, the credibility of the electoral process and the regularization of engagement with the good offices of the Secretary-General.

** Myanmar

Still on Myanmar, on his final day of a three-day mission in Myanmar, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes, praised the significant progress of relief and recovery in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, since his last visit two months ago.

Highlighting that access for relief workers in affected areas has been much improved, Holmes said nearly every one has been reached with some kind of assistance.  He added however, that, although people in some areas are beginning to resume regular activities, relief operations still have a long way to go, particularly in getting consistent help to remote villages in the southern part of the [Ayeyarwady] delta.

Holmes calls on the Government of Myanmar to maintain progress in its flexible approach and cooperation.

**Security Council

The Security Council this morning is holding consultations to discuss the work of the UN mission in Côte d’Ivoire.  They received a briefing from the Secretary-General’s Special Representative, Yong-jin Choi.  Then, at 3 this afternoon, the Council will hold consultations on Myanmar, with the Secretary-General’s Special Adviser, Ibrahim Gambari, attending.

Yesterday afternoon, the Council received an update on the work of the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo from Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Jean Marie Guéhenno, who will be the noon briefing guest next Tuesday.

** Somalia

Turning to Somalia, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has supported the establishment of the country’s first association of female lawyers.

The Women’s Lawyers Association in Somaliland has five members; they will soon be joined by 17 more women, who are set to graduate from the University of Hargeisa’s law faculty in September.  UNDP has provided grants to help them attend the school.  Until last year, there was only one practising female lawyer in all of Somaliland.

UNDP also helped establish, and continues to provide support to, the Women’s and Children’s Unit at the Hargeisa legal aid clinic, which provides free legal services.  There is more information upstairs.

**International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has convicted Kosovo journalist Baton Haxhiu of contempt of Tribunal and fined him €7,000.  This relates to the journalist’s revelation of information about a witness who testified under protective measures at the trial of former Kosovo leader Ramush Haradinaj.  The prosecution had sought a fine of €15,000.

Tribunal judges say the journalist revealed the information in a news article published in Kosovo while fully aware that he would be in violation of a court order.  Two other Kosovo journalists are awaiting trial for similar offences.

**Press Conference Tomorrow

And our guest at the noon briefing tomorrow will be United Nations Chief Legal Counsel Nicolas Michel.  It will be the last press conference given by Under-Secretary-General Nicolas Michel in his capacity as head of the Office of Legal Affairs.  He will speak about peace and justice issues which have been so much in the limelight recently.

And this is all I have for you, thank you.

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Michèle, will Ibrahim Gambari brief us following the consultations on Myanmar today?

Spokesperson:  I don’t know.  I don’t think so.  But we can ask.

Question:  And I have another question. The Rwandan Government has warned that it will withdraw 3,000 of its troops from UNAMID if the UN doesn’t arrest a suspected Rwandan war criminal.  Does the UN have any response to that?

Spokesperson: Surely you don’t mean “arrest”?  I don’t think that’s quite the case.

Question:  Or “hold” a Rwandan; alleged Rwandan war criminal?

Spokesperson:  Well, at this point, you know, as far as the information goes, we’re certainly aware of the indictment by a Spanish court and it is a serious matter.  We have said it before and we’re saying it again; you will recall that the United Nations looked into these allegations during the appointment process and at the time the African Union and the United Nations decided to proceed with the appointment since we did not want to change his candidacy on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations.  However, if any more information were to come to light, we would certainly review this case.  Since then, General Karenzi has played an exemplary role as the Mission’s Deputy Force Commander, and Rwandan forces make up the backbone of UNAMID’s forces.  The Rwandan contingent continues to play a strong role on the ground, even after it suffered five casualties during the 8 July attack.

In terms of the letter itself, I can confirm that there was a note verbale received by the Secretary-General coming from the Mission of Rwanda.

Question:  And did the UN respond to that letter?

Spokesperson:  Not yet.

Question:  Even though you said that the Secretary-General made the appointment of Ms. Pillay in consultations with the General Assembly President, still the General Assembly has to meet to confirm the appointment.  When will that be?

Spokesperson:  That’s what I said.  It’s going to be most probably on Monday.  That’s what we heard from the Spokesman for the President of the Assembly earlier today.

Question:  Michèle, these Internal Justice Council people are coming to brief us now, am I right?

Spokesperson:  Yes, they are coming to brief you.

Question:  I am just asking you, can I ask a question about this?

Spokesperson:  Why don’t you ask them the questions?

Question:  Will they be able…?

Spokesperson:  They will answer your questions.

Question:  There is a report today in The New York Times about the poppy growth and cultivation in Afghanistan and it’s being said that the Afghanistan Government, Karzai Government, overlooks all this and that, although they are aware of this happening, but some of this happening right under the nose of the Afghan officials.  Has the Secretary-General taken note of this?  Because (inaudible) also I think, seeing him today?

Spokesperson:  He has seen similar reports about, you know, drugs in Afghanistan from our own office and the Office on Drugs and Crime.  I have nothing more to add to what they have been saying.  Yes, Mr. Abbadi.

Question:  Thank you Michèle.  The Foreign Minister of Morocco was supposed to have met the Secretary-General this morning, presumably on the Sahara question.  Can you give us a readout on that and also what progress has been achieved so far in the preparation towards the fifth round of negotiations in Manhasset or somewhere else?

Spokesperson:  Well, I mentioned that it was probably going to be in September, the next round of negotiations.  I don’t think I have anything more to add on this.  In terms of the meeting, I will try to get a readout for you.

[The Spokesperson later issued a correction, saying that, following the Secretary-General’s latest report and the last briefing in the Security Council, the United Nations Secretariat was giving the process some additional time and thought before convening a fifth round of talks.  When a time and place for a new round of talks was determined, it would be made public.  On the readout of the meeting between the Secretary-General and the Moroccan Foreign Minister, she said they discussed Western Sahara and the need for continued regional cooperation in the fight against terrorism.]

Question:  I totally misunderstood, I think, the UNRWA analysis of the situation.  Could you go back to it?  First of all I don’t understand if there is such disparity between Gaza and the West Bank on poverty, why do they blame Israeli traffic blockades, I mean, because there are none inside Gaza?  Those exist only in the West Bank.

Spokesperson:  Well, they exist at the border.  They exist in terms of…

Question:  So, they’re talking about…?

Spokesperson:  You can have more information.  We have more upstairs from UNRWA.

Question:  So, that refers to the crossings…?

Spokesperson:  Yes.

Question:  …is that my reading of it?

Spokesperson:  Yes.

Question:  But the crossings have been open since the agreement?

Spokesperson:  I don’t know whether it was you or Matthew who had asked, but we gave you a complete reading of which crossings were open, which were closed, which were functioning only at certain times, and I think you got a complete assessment of which crossings function.

Question:  There has been more traffic going through…?

Spokesperson:  There has been more traffic, but still not enough in terms of goods coming in.

Question:  And now they argue this point about chalking it up to the lifting of a blockade on the Palestinian Authority?  Is that in the West Bank or in Gaza?

Spokesperson:  You can have more information, as I said, upstairs.

Question:  I don’t know of any blockade that was imposed on the Palestinian Authority per se.  I know one on Hamas, but on the Palestinian Authority, I don’t remember any.

Spokesperson:  You can get more upstairs, as I said.  Yes, Matthew?

Question:  Michèle, you gave this readout of John Holmes from Myanmar.  But he’s given, apparently, an interview there -- the German News Agency DPA quotes John Holmes as “acknowledging losses of millions of dollars on foreign exchange to the Myanmar Government and saying this is an extraordinary loss and where that gain goes, I am not sure”.  I wanted to just sort of… since it’s an interview in another media, that one, to get confirmation that that’s what he said, and two, to find out how much, now that he has acknowledged this, how much money since Cyclone Nargis did the UN convert through foreign exchange certificates in Myanmar and how much is all this, acknowledging the loss, worth?

Spokesperson:  I don’t have the exact number, but the Under-Secretary-General acknowledged that this is a serious issue.  There are losses which are implicit in the gap between the street rate and the official foreign exchange certificate rate.  Aid agencies and donors alike are concerned about this issue, because fewer services then can be purchased.  The issue was raised by Mr. Holmes at a meeting with the Government.  They understood the problem and they will find a way to resolve it, though no further details have been given by the Government at this time.  So this is what I have in terms of the foreign exchange rate.  As you know, any international agency has to abide by the foreign exchange rules that exist in a specific country.

Question:  I really appreciate that.  I think you were here when Dan Baker was here and they did the flash appeal.  At that time they said they were unaware of any losses and that they thought it fluctuated, they would not even be losing anything.  So, I am wondering, maybe it’s clearly a question for Mr. Baker, but if this has been going on since the cyclone, how could they either not know or not acknowledge then that they knew?  See what I mean?

Spokesperson:  Actually, you will get a chance to ask Mr. Holmes when he comes in.  He will be in on Monday.

Question:  OK, great. The Secretary-General’s report on Kosovo mentions that the independent investigation of the retaking of the court house in Mitrovica, that the investigation conducted by Francis Ssekandi has been finished and is under review.  Just the other day at the stakeout, Russian Ambassador Churkin said that this report, had been promised, should be released.  Is there any idea when it’s actually going to be…?  Is it going to be released to Member States; to the public?  What does this mean?

Spokesperson:  I don’t know.  I can ask the question where it will be released first.

Question:  Okay. We heard today that the new SRSG for Lebanon, Mr. Verbeke, that there is some concern there on the ground that, I mean, I hate to say this, but that he is not visible enough.  Some people are even saying that maybe he’s actually not going to be there as SRSG.  Is there anything in that regard?  Is he…?

Spokesperson:  I can simply tell you that Mr. Verbeke had to go back home for personal reasons, family reasons, and that’s why he was not in Lebanon.

Question:  But he is definitely the [United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon]?

Spokesperson:  Yes.

Question:  Since the Secretary-General is interested in the Olympics, I wonder if you or he has any information on why seven Iraqi athletes were just banned by China from participating in the Olympics.

Spokesperson:  Definitely the Secretary-General has no internal information on that.  So there is nothing I can say about this.  It’s a matter for China.

Question:  You were just talking about the current blockade of Gaza just now, has the Secretary-General asked for Israeli authorities to ease the blockade?  And also, there have been some arrests of Palestinians inside Gaza today…

Spokesperson:  Masood, I have been saying over and over again that the Secretary-General has been talking about the blockade for a long time.  He has been talking about increasing the access of goods and services to the Palestinian population in Gaza.  I have said it over and over again.

Question:  Do you believe that the blockade does continue and it is also…?

Spokesperson:  Actually, the information I gave the two who asked the other day, maybe I should be giving it to all of you.  I have upstairs on which crossings are open, and what type of goods go through each crossing.  Then you will know more about it.

Question:  Just a follow-up question on Mr. Abbadi’s question on Morocco.  Did the Secretary-General receive a request from the Secretary-General of the Polisario Front to respond to alleged attacks on Saharawi officials from (inaudible)?

Spokesperson:  I have been told the letter has been received.

Question:  Will the Secretary-General respond?

Spokesperson:  I don’t know yet.  Thank you very much.

* ** *

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