18 December 2008


18 December 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.

**Guest and Stakeout Today

The guest today will be John Holmes, Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, who is here to launch a new global advocacy campaign on internal displacement.

And at 2:30 p.m., we have the Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands and the Secretary of State for International Affairs and Human Rights of France to speak to the press at the Security Council stakeout.

** Rwanda

Three senior Rwandan military officers were today sentenced to life in prison by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda for their roles in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.  The Tribunal found Colonel Théoneste Bagosora, and two others [Colonel Anatole Nsengiyumva and Major Aloys Ntabakuze] guilty of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Among other crimes, Bagosora, the highest official of the Defence Ministry during the genocide, was found guilty of the April 1994 murder of 10 Belgian peacekeepers.  He was also proven to be responsible for the April 1994 killings of the then Prime Minister, the head of the Constitutional Court and three leaders of the opposition.

In the same ruling, the Tribunal acquitted a fourth [General Gratien Kabiligi] of all charges against him and ordered his release.

Also today, the Tribunal convicted a brother-in-law of the late President Habyarimana [Protais Zigiranyirazo] of genocide and extermination as a crime against humanity, and sentenced him to 20 years in prison.  He’ll receive credit for time served since his arrest in July 2001.

I’m expecting a statement on this shortly.

** Middle East -– Security Council

The Security Council is holding an open debate today on the Middle East.  Thirty-four speakers are expected to make remarks.

Speaking this morning, the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Robert Serry, noted the passage of resolution 1850 two days ago.  Mr. Serry said the Secretary-General welcomed that timely and important resolution, which embodied the principles on which Israeli-Palestinian peace must rest.

Mr. Serry added that we must protect, preserve and, where possible, advance the three tracks of the Annapolis process -- negotiations, institution-building and implementation of phase one of the Road Map.  We must set the stage for a decisive push for peace in 2009, he said.

Mr. Serry also noted that there were 30 rocket attacks in the past two days on Israeli towns and at the crossings through which civilians, United Nations workers and all goods entering the Gaza Strip must pass.  He condemned those attacks and called for their immediate cessation.

Mr. Serry also urged any new Israeli Government to decisively address the question of settlement expansion, which threatens the two-State solution itself.  And Israel must refrain from unilateral actions in Jerusalem which alter the status quo or undermine trust, he added.

He also noted that, because of closures, half of Gaza City’s population receives water only once a week for a few hours.  Also, United Nations projects in Gaza, worth over $150 million, remain suspended due to a lack of materials.  We have his full remarks upstairs, and Mr. Serry will speak to you at the stakeout later this afternoon.

** Middle East -– UNRWA

Also on Gaza, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) reports that, due to irregular border access and a lack of wheat flour, it has been forced to suspend its food distribution activities as of today until further notice.

A total of 750,000 refugees in Gaza depend on food aid from UNRWA.  And on average, the Agency distributes food to about 20,000 refugees per day.  We have a press release on that upstairs.

** Lebanon

Michael Williams, United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon, met today with Lebanese President [Michel Suleiman] and talked to the press afterward.  He said that he and the President had discussed a number of issues, including the Lebanese national dialogue, which will resume on 22 December.  Mr. Williams relayed the support of the United Nations to this dialogue, which the President chairs, and stressed that it is very important for the Lebanese to continue with this process irrespective of any disagreements that may inevitably arise.  The United Nations stands ready to assist when required.

Yesterday, the Security Council adopted resolution 1852, extending the mandate of the International Independent Investigation Commission dealing with Lebanon until 28 February 2009.  After that, the Secretary-General announced in a statement his decision that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon will commence functioning on 1 March 2009.

The Secretary-General underlined his firm commitment to ending impunity and to the need to bring to justice those responsible for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and related attacks.  The full statement is upstairs.

** Darfur

Almost one year after the transfer of authority from the African Union force to the African Union-United Nations operation, UNAMID, the joint operation continues to face enormous challenges, the Secretary-General says in his latest report to the Security Council on the Mission’s deployment.

He says violence and displacement continue, humanitarian operations are at risk, clashes between the parties occur with regrettable regularity and the parties have not yet reached a negotiated peace agreement.

He also reiterates his appeal to those that are in a position to provide Mission-critical capabilities to do so without delay, and he noted that pledges for a multi-role logistics unit, a medium transport unit, a heavy transport unit, an aerial reconnaissance unit, light tactical helicopters, and 18 medium-utility helicopters are all still outstanding.

The fighting in Darfur continues, innocent civilians still suffer, UNAMID and humanitarian personnel are under threat, and the parties have failed to seriously pursue a political solution, he says.

The Secretary-General also says he cannot overemphasize the need for the parties to demonstrate their commitment to a peaceful settlement of the Darfur conflict by undertaking concrete actions to reduce violence and ease human suffering.  Ultimately, peace cannot be imposed.  Both the Government of the Sudan and the armed rebel movements must come to the realization that violence will not achieve the objectives they seek, and that the crisis in Darfur can only be resolved through political negotiations and a comprehensive and inclusive peace agreement.

That report is upstairs on the racks and the Security Council is scheduled to discuss this report tomorrow.

** Darfur Today

Meanwhile, UNAMID today reports that it received the third batch of Ethiopian Infantry Battalion troops, consisting of 105 personnel, to join the 313 who have arrived already this week.

It also reports that two Nigerian formed police units consisting of 140 members each are expected to arrive in Darfur at end of this month.  They were previously scheduled to arrive in January 2009.

The Nigerian units will be the fourth and fifth formed police units to be deployed after the Bangladeshi, Nepalese and Indonesians.  The units will be deployed in West Darfur.

**Democratic Republic of Congo

The Nairobi Dialogue on the crisis in the north-eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has resumed in the Kenyan capital.  The dialogue between the Democratic Republic of the Congo Government and Laurent Nkunda’s rebel CNDP [Congrès national pour la défense du people] is being facilitated by the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Great Lakes, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, and his African Union counterpart, former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa.  This round of talks is expected to last until 20 December.  And today, participants took up outstanding issues related to procedure and other preparatory work for the upcoming substantive talks.

** Zimbabwe Cholera

The serious cholera epidemic in Zimbabwe continues to spread to new areas of Harare, as well as other towns and cities, according to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).  The fatality rate is now 5.4 per cent, but rates of 10 per cent or higher have been reported in parts of Harare.  Since September, more than 1,100 people have died from this crisis. 

The United Nations is planning for a worst-case scenario of 60,000 cases before the end of the rainy season.  That’s based on an estimate that half of the country’s population is potentially at risk of contracting cholera.

Where aid agencies are on the ground, cholera cases and fatalities have decreased substantially, OCHA notes.  The World Health Organization (WHO) has already flown in medical supplies to treat 50,000 people.  UNICEF is intensifying its support to cholera treatment centres across the country, and WHO is working with OCHA to coordinate the response through a donor-funded Cholera Command and Control Centre.

** Zimbabwe

I just wanted to correct a media report on Zimbabwe that suggested that the Secretary-General blocked The Elders’ report on Zimbabwe from being discussed in the Security Council.  This is not the case.

The Secretary-General has been fully supportive of the humanitarian initiative on Zimbabwe offered by The Elders.  He had consulted with former Secretary-General Kofi Annan frequently regarding the mission of The Elders to the region last month and offered the support of the United Nations.

The Secretary-General regretted the decision of the Government of Zimbabwe not to cooperate with their timely, well-intended effort to assist the people of Zimbabwe.  The Secretary-General hopes that another mission can take place in the near future, given the grave and deteriorating situation in the country.

On 5 December, Mr. Annan sent the report of The Elders to the Secretary-General.  The report contained recommendations to Zimbabwe's political leaders, Zimbabwe's authorities, leaders of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and donors.

** Georgia

Johan Verbeke, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Georgia, spoke to journalists at the United Nations Office in Geneva today -- after the conclusion of the latest round of international discussions on Georgia.  He was joined by his co-chairs from the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

According to a statement by the co-chairs, the discussions took place in a positive spirit.  One of the working groups focused on security and stability.  Participants discussed proposals for joint incident prevention and such points as the free movement of people through crossing points and joint visits to sensitive areas.

A second working group discussed concrete steps to improve the living conditions of displaced persons.  The parties agreed to quickly find ways to resume gas delivery to all affected populations.  Long-term activities, related to registration, documentation and return of refugees, were also debated.  Participants agreed to hold the next round of international discussions on 17 and 18 February 2009.


Today is International Migrants Day.  In a message to mark the occasion, the Secretary-General says that the world’s more than 200 million migrants are especially vulnerable in the current financial downturn.  They face greater risk of destitution, stigmatization, discrimination and abuse. 

Migration policies are growing more restrictive, and there is a growing tendency to subject migrants to mandatory or prolonged detention.  Migrants must be acknowledged as human beings whose rights deserve to be protected, the Secretary-General says, adding that “regardless of an individual’s immigration status, fundamental rights are non-negotiable”.

In her message, Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay noted that, in almost all societies, migrants are usually subject to working conditions and pay far below the standards enjoyed by citizens.  They are also consistently denied entitlements to social security or housing, and excluded from employment and other opportunities. 

Both she and the Secretary-General urged Member States to become parties to the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.  So far, only 40 States have ratified the Convention.

**Secretary-General Appointment

The Secretary-General has appointed Ján Kubiš of Slovakia as the new Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (ECE).  Mr. Kubiš will replace Marek Belka of Poland, and assume his functions in the middle of January 2009.

Mr. Kubiš has served as his country’s Foreign Minister since 2006 and held the Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe.  Prior to that, he was Secretary-General of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

There’s more information on his appointment in an announcement available for you upstairs.


The Programme Coordinating Board, which is the governing body of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), wrapped up a three-day meeting in Geneva yesterday, which was Peter Piot’s last board meeting as UNAIDS Executive Director.

The Board paid tribute to Dr. Piot’s leadership and acknowledged his many accomplishments, including placing and maintaining AIDS on the global political agenda and mobilizing significant resources to fight the spread of AIDS.

In his remarks to the Board, Dr. Piot said that, over the years, the fight against AIDS has placed human rights, gay rights, women’s rights, workplace health and gender-based violence on the agenda.

You can read more about that upstairs.

**Human Rights and Sexual Orientation

This afternoon, High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay will be addressing by video message a high-level panel discussion on “Human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity”.

In her remarks, which we have embargoed upstairs, she is expected to say that no human being should be denied their human rights –- or be subject to discrimination, violence, criminal sanctions or abuse –- simply because of their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.

That discussion will be held from 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. in the Economic and Social Council Chamber.

I am going to have to switch to John Holmes because he needs to leave at 1 p.m.  But I am going to take your questions afterwards if that’s okay with you.  Unless they are quick questions?

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Mr. Fowler, the United Nations official -– can you state whether he was on United Nations business and whether his travel documents were approved here?  And whether the man travelling with him was also a United Nations staffer or “when actually employed” person?  And the last thing:  It was reported that he was visiting Canadian-owned mines in Southern Niger.  What could be the reason for that?  Is that the case?

Spokesperson:  I know you have a lot of questions, but, for the moment, all I can tell you is that the Niger authorities are looking into the matter and we appreciate their efforts and we are working with them.  I can confirm to you that Mr. Fowler, as Special Envoy for Niger, was on official mission.


Question:  Is there anything unusual about that visit?  The way it was arranged or the way it was scheduled?

Spokesperson:  At this point, we’ve told you everything that we can.

Question:  I was wondering -- because he’s been missing for what, five days now -- can you describe what kind of communication there’s been between the Secretary-General and the Government or other entities in Niger.

Spokesperson:  Well, as you recall, the Secretary-General did express his great concern and he is doing his best to obviously make sure there is a positive outcome to this situation.

Question:  Has he been speaking to them directly.

Spokesperson:  Let me get you the phone log.  Obviously he has been talking to anybody who can help in this situation.

Question:  I’d just like one follow-up.  The Voice of America has quoted Niger Government officials that Fowler was on private business.  That’s why I’m asking you.

Spokesperson:  He was on official mission.

Question:  Can we have a description of what he was doing?  Is that possible?

Spokesperson:  At this moment, given the security implications of this situation, I think we will leave it at that for now.

Question:  One quick one on the controversy involving the United Nations General Assembly President [Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann].  The American Jewish Congress has just called for his removal or that he step down because he disallowed the Israeli Ambassador to speak at the meeting of the General Assembly, which the President of the General Assembly has denied.  Does the Secretary-General have anything to say?

Spokesperson:  I have nothing on this.  I am now going to turn it over to John Holmes.  Thank you very much.

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