14 August 2008


14 August 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 Farhan Haq, Associate Spokesperson for the Secretary-General.

Good afternoon.

**Press Conferences Today

Our guests at the briefing today will be Major General Claudio Graziano, Force Commander of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), and Brigadier Patrick Davidson-Houston, Acting Force Commander of the UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE).  They will be here shortly, so we will go to them fairly quickly.

Also, at 2 p.m. today, there will be a press conference by Ambassador Irakli Alasania of Georgia.

** Georgia

On Georgia, we do expect a statement -- fairly soon, I hope -- on the humanitarian situation in that country.  In terms of further information on the humanitarian situation, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says its second humanitarian flight arrived in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, this morning, bringing in 32 tons of vital aid supplies for thousands of displaced persons.  The supplies included tents, jerrycans, blankets and telecommunications equipment.

UNHCR also reports that, today, two of its vehicles were hijacked at gunpoint by people in unmarked uniforms on the outskirts of Gori, in central Georgia.  The UNHCR team had been travelling to the Gori region to identify areas of displacement and assess the immediate needs of the displaced.  The vehicles were later recovered and the two UNHCR staff members made it safely back to Tbilisi.

Despite that incident, UNHCR is moving ahead rapidly with assessment missions and the distribution of aid to thousands of people.  Immediate needs include medication for people suffering from diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.  Sanitation and hygienic items, as well as beds and mattresses, are also in great demand.

A third UNHCR airlift flight is scheduled to land in the Georgian capital tomorrow morning.  UNHCR is also scheduling two flights to Vladikavkaz in the Russian Federation for next week.

In related news, the UN Resident Coordinator in Georgia, Robert Watkins, has appealed to all sides to allow the establishment of a humanitarian corridor, as agreed in the ceasefire plan.  And the Secretary-General’s Representative on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, Walter Kälin, has reminded both the Russian Federation and Georgia of their obligations to respect the rights of internally displaced persons, and to provide protection and aid to them.

And finally, since many of you have been asking, the Secretary-General did manage to speak with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.  President Saakashvili called him this morning.

** Bakassi Peninsula

Today in Calabar, Nigeria, a ceremony took place to mark the completion of the withdrawal and transfer of authority of the Bakassi peninsula from Nigeria to Cameroon, and Kieran Prendergast and Said Djinnit attended that ceremony on the Secretary-General’s behalf.

In a statement delivered by Mr. Prendergast, the Secretary-General said that the June 2006 agreement signed in Greentree by Nigeria and Cameroon was testimony to the determination of both countries to move beyond a difficult past and address their border dispute in a way that secured lasting peace and good neighbourly relations between their peoples.  For the United Nations, the Secretary-General added, the Greentree Agreement was also the embodiment of an innovative approach to conflict resolution and a model for the peaceful resolution of sensitive disputes.  And we have his message upstairs.

** Tripoli Bombing

Yesterday afternoon, the Secretary-General and the members of the Security Council, in separate statements, condemned the bombing that took place earlier that day in the Lebanese city of Tripoli.

The Secretary-General said that he believes this attack should not hinder the positive steps that have been taken to return Lebanon to normalcy.  And the members of the Security Council emphasized the importance of the unity of the Lebanese people and reiterated their full support for all ongoing efforts in Lebanon to combat terrorism, solidify democratic institutions, engage in political dialogue and pursue national reconciliation.  Those statements are available online, and we do expect, later today, a statement on relations between Syria and Lebanon.

** Sudan

Ashraf Qazi, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Sudan, briefed the press in Khartoum today, saying that recent months have been challenging ones, in which the Comprehensive Peace Agreement process has been put to the test by the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) attack on Omdurman and the violent clashes in Abyei.

Qazi said that, whether in the North, the South or in Darfur, peace in Sudan is indivisible and interdependent, and that the context for that process to be effective is embodied in the provisions of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement.  He expressed his hope that the Abyei road map will serve as a catalyst for progress on other outstanding issues in the framework of that Agreement.  And we have his opening remarks to that press conference upstairs.

** Democratic Republic of the Congo

The UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC) has completed the training of two more integrated battalions of the Congolese Army.  This latest achievement in the discharge of the Mission’s mandate was celebrated yesterday at a military camp in South Kivu Province.  In his remarks to the gathering, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative, Alan Doss, said that the three-month training programme for some 1,800 soldiers marks a major advance in the UN’s effort to reform the Congolese security sector.

The training programme included courses in military tactics, weapons handling, logistics and professional ethics.  To date, MONUC has trained 12 integrated Congolese battalions, and it intends to train a total of 28 battalions by September next year.

** Sierra Leone

The World Bank has approved a $4 million grant for Sierra Leone, to help the country cope with the global food crisis.  The money will be used to fund an emergency cash-for-work programme aimed at those households most vulnerable to rising food prices.  And there is more in a press release upstairs.

**Human Rights Council

In Geneva today, the Human Rights Council Advisory Committee adopted a number of draft proposals.  Among the issues addressed in the adopted texts are human rights education and training, missing persons and the global food crisis.

The Committee, which is made up of 18 experts who serve in their personal capacity, is the “think tank” of the Human Rights Council.  It provides expertise and advice and will conduct research and studies at the Human Rights Council’s request.

Tomorrow, it will wrap up its inaugural session, which began on Monday, 4 August.

**World Food Programme YouTube Videos

The World Food Programme (WFP) is targeting the YouTube generation, in an effort to raise awareness about global hunger.  As part of a video competition called Hungerbytes, WFP has been collecting submissions from around the world.  A panel has narrowed the field to five finalist videos.  Whichever one is viewed most often by World Food Day on 16 October wins the top prize:  a trip to shoot a video at a relief operation in one of WFP’s hotspots.  The finalist videos are on view for two months of voting at www.youtube.com/hungerbytes.  And we also have a press release from WFP upstairs.

**Press Conferences Tomorrow

In addition to the press conference at 2 p.m. today by the Georgian Ambassador, we will have a press conference tomorrow at 2 p.m. by the Foreign Minister of Serbia, Vuk Jeremić, on Serbia’s intentions regarding the International Court of Justice and the unilateral declaration of independence of Kosovo.

And, as I said at the start, we will shortly have the Force Commander of UNIFIL and the Acting Force Commander of UNMEE here.  Before we get to them, are there any questions?

**Questions and Answers

Question:  You mentioned Sir Kieran Prendergast speaking on behalf of the Secretary-General.  Does Sir Kieran have any role in the UN?

Associate Spokesperson:  Yes, for the last two years, I believe, since the Greentree accords, he has been the Special Envoy dealing with the situation in the Bakassi peninsula.  In that capacity, what he was in charge of was, there was a team of monitors that would deal with Cameroon and with Nigeria to make sure that the Bakassi withdrawals took place and that the Greentree accords were upheld.  So that is what he has been doing, and it was in that capacity that he spoke.

Question:  Is anybody doing an assessment of the damage done to South Ossetia and these allegations about killing 2,000 people and making 30,000 homeless?

Associate Spokesperson:  Amazingly enough, you time your question just as I was handed a statement about the humanitarian situation in South Ossetia, which I will now read.  It is rather long, so bear with me.

The Secretary-General is extremely concerned by the humanitarian impact of the recent conflict on the civilian population in Georgia, which has suffered loss of life and injury, significant damage to property and infrastructure, as well as sizeable displacement.

The Secretary-General welcomes the ceasefire agreement reached by the Governments of Georgia and the Russian Federation, but notes that, notwithstanding this agreement, there are reports of some continuing violence, with civilians bearing the brunt.  He reminds all parties concerned of their obligation to respect and protect civilians in accordance with international humanitarian law and human rights law.  All fighting should end immediately and the current state of lawlessness should cease.  Moreover, as tensions continue to run high, it is essential that measures be taken to ensure the protection of minority groups throughout Georgia.

The United Nations stands ready to assist the Governments of Georgia and the Russian Federation to respond to humanitarian needs of the affected populations.  United Nations agencies, including the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, the World Food Programme, the United Nations Children’s Fund, as well as other humanitarian actors, have begun providing relief supplies to tens of thousands of affected persons in those areas of the country that are accessible.  However, large parts of the conflict-affected area, particularly South Ossetia and the Gori region, remain, for the most part, inaccessible to humanitarian organizations due to ongoing insecurity, lawlessness and other constraints.  In this regard, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees will visit Georgia and Moscow.

The Secretary-General reiterates the critical importance of safe and unimpeded access for humanitarian actors to all conflict-affected areas.  He welcomes the express undertaking in the ceasefire agreement to allow free access of humanitarian aid.  He calls upon all parties concerned to honour this commitment and take immediate measures to allow and facilitate the work of humanitarian actors in assessing and responding to the needs of the conflict-affected population, and to ensure their safety.

Question:  Obviously, there is a lot of emphasis on Georgia, but very little on South Ossetia, which was affected before Georgia.

Associate Spokesperson:  South Ossetia is included in this statement, as you are aware, and one of the points you were asking about an assessment of what is happening in South Ossetia, and I would like to repeat what the statement says, that “large parts of the conflict-affected area, particularly South Ossetia and the Gori region, remain, for the most part, inaccessible”.  What we want is for access to humanitarian workers to be granted there.

Question:  How about the refugees who fled to North Ossetia, don’t they have access to them?

Associate Spokesperson:  Yes, in fact… You weren’t here earlier this week, but we did mention that our Office of the Resident Coordinator in Russia has been dealing with the issue.  We are trying to provide assistance as needed to the population that has reached North Ossetia.  And, as I said just now, the High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, will visit both Moscow and Georgia in the coming days to deal with the situations on both sides.

Question:  Are there any intentions to investigate war crimes in this conflict?

Associate Spokesperson:  Again, you may have missed this, but I believe the International Court of Justice said it has received a submission from Georgia concerning the dispute.  As the Court systems receive any further submissions, we will let you know.

Question:  Two questions on Myanmar.  One is, Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Mr. [Tomás Ojea] Quintana was supposed to hold a press conference in Bangkok after his visit to Myanmar.  This was cancelled and nobody was given any reason why it was cancelled.  Given the importance of the issue, why was it cancelled?

Associate Spokesperson:  I am not one of the people in Bangkok.  You could consult with my colleague there and he might be able to help you with that.

[The Associate Spokesperson later added that scheduling conflicts were given as the reason for the cancellation.]

Question:  I also wanted to ask you, it was announced today by the UN country team in Myanmar that they now have lowered their estimate of currency exchange losses from $10 million, as said by Mr. [John] Holmes, to $1.5 million now said by Mr. [Dean] Baker.  And that they said that this issue was first raised by Mr. Holmes on 24 July.  One, it was raised here on 10 July.  Two, what is the basis of these new numbers, given that the UN has said it lost a lot, and now it says it lost less?  Can we get the math?

Associate Spokesperson:  In terms of that, the figures I have is that total contributions to the cyclone relief efforts for the period of May to July 2008 are $196 million, out of which $147 million go to the UN and the remainder goes to international non-governmental organizations.  Of this, $35 million has been spent in country by the UN, and the value lost as a result of exchange-rate divergences is $1.56 million, and that represents 4.5 per cent of local expenditure, or about 1 per cent of the total contributions made to the UN.

What they explain is that, when John Holmes used the figure of $10 million, it was based on a very rough, preliminary calculation and he also said that this was the maximum amount that could have been lost.  So we have now established that the figure is, in fact, a little bit less than that.

Question:  Can you explain in these internal memos and conference calls by the country team in Myanmar, why they referred to a 20 per cent loss, and can we get somebody -- I heard these numbers come from UNDP -- and can we get somebody to actually walk through…?

Associate Spokesperson:  Well, in terms of the figures, these are the latest and most accurate figures that I have for you.  I wouldn’t characterize internal conference calls, which, as you know, are internal discussions.

Question:  Can we get a press conference on this topic?

Associate Spokesperson:  We will see whether Mr. Holmes is interested in talking about this the next time he is back here.  I don’t believe he is available right now.

We will have a chance for two more questions and then we will turn to our speakers, who are already here.

Question:  You mentioned that the Secretary-General spoke with the Georgian President.  Has he not yet spoken with the Kremlin at all?  Because you said the other day that he had put in a call…

Associate Spokesperson:  As far as I am aware, he has not spoken to anyone on the Russian side.  Today’s calls were with the President of Georgia, and he also received a call from the US Ambassador to the UN, Mr. [Zalmay] Khalilzad.

Question:  I wanted to point out to you that this situation in the border area between India and Pakistan is getting worse as the days go by.  There are demonstrations and the Indian Army has reacted.  Human rights organizations have also pointed this out and have asked the Indian Government not to fire on protesters.  Has the Secretary-General taken note of the situation?

Associate Spokesperson:  The Secretary-General has been monitoring developments, as has the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.  We don’t have any specific comment on this issue just yet, but we are studying the issue.

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