23 December 2008


23 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, and Enrique Yeves, Spokesperson for the President of the General Assembly.

Briefing by the Deputy Spokesperson for the Secretary-General

I was hoping to get a statement on Guinea.  It should be coming down shortly.

** Democratic Republic of the Congo

In a statement just released a short while ago, the United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC) says there’s mounting evidence of a build-up along key roads by Laurent Nkunda’s CNDP [Congrès national pour la défense du people] rebels.  Peacekeeping bases in Masisi territory have been placed on high alert, and peacekeepers are now conducting additional patrols in strategic areas of the region.  MONUC, the Mission, is also concerned about a reported clash today between CNDP and ethnic Mai Mai forces.  It calls on all armed groups to cease any and all build-up and movement of troops likely to inflame the situation and cause new displacement of civilians.  The Mission also urges all parties to refrain from threats or the use of force.

Meanwhile, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), says it remains concerned about the safety of hundreds of families in villages around the town of Dungu in the Orientale Province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Among these civilians are many elderly and some disabled people, who are unable to make their way to safety as a massive military operation against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) is under way in the region, according to UNHCR.  The refugee agency reports that a convoy carrying 23 tons of aid has reached Dungu after an 11-day trip across the Democratic Republic.  The aid delivery included jerry cans, kitchen sets and plastic sheeting, among other items that UNHCR and UNICEF plan to hand out to some 9,000 people.

** Zimbabwe

And turning to Zimbabwe, earlier today, the UNICEF representative in Zimbabwe briefed reporters in Geneva by telephone from Harare on the cholera situation in that country.  The outbreak is not under control, said Roeland Monasch.  Since the last United Nations figures were published, there have been almost 3,000 new cases, bringing the total to more than 23,500 cases.  The number of deaths has also risen to 1,174.  The disease now affects all provinces in Zimbabwe, with half the cases in Harare.  There continue to be staffing issues at cholera treatment centres, as many medics are going without salaries and cannot show up to work.  Only a handful of professionals are staffing clinics, where several dozen are needed.  UNICEF is providing 700,000 litres of clean water a day, and even digging boreholes in urban areas.  It is also procuring 4,000 tons of water treatment chemicals for urban areas.

**Statement on Guinea

Before I turn to the next item, the statement did arrive, so I will read the statement, attributable to the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General, on the death of President Lansana Conté of Guinea: 

The Secretary-General has learned of the death of the President of the Republic of Guinea, General Lansana Conté.  He wishes to extend his sincere condolences and respect to the family of the late President and to the Government and people of Guinea as a whole.  He acknowledges President Conté’s long-standing commitment to the maintenance of peace and unity in Guinea and to the promotion of stability and regional cooperation in the Mano River Basin.  He commends, in particular, Guinea’s generosity in hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing conflict in neighbouring countries.  At this time of transition, the Secretary-General stresses the need for a peaceful and democratic transfer of power in accordance with the Constitution.  He calls for calm and urges the armed forces and all stakeholders to respect the democratic process.

** Darfur

And on Darfur today, the African Union-United Nations Mission there reports that it has received 45 members of the Ethiopian Medium Transport Company in West Darfur.  The remaining 80 personnel are expected to arrive later this week.  The Ethiopian company will primarily support the distribution of cargo between sector logistics bases, the movement of bulk cargo, including water and fuel tankers, and provide transport capabilities.  Ethiopia’s contribution to the Mission, UNAMID, includes an Ethiopian engineering unit, one infantry battalion and one multi-role logistics company.  United Nations Security Council resolution 1769 (2007) authorized UNAMID to have a strength of up to 19,555 military personnel, including 360 military observers and liaison officers.  Today’s deployment brings the total number of UNAMID military personnel in Darfur to 12,242, bringing the total percentage of military personnel in Darfur to just over 60 per cent.

** Sudan

And UNICEF today welcomed the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the Sudan Armed Forces, the National Council for Child Welfare and UNICEF as an important commitment to strengthen the effective protection of children in the Sudan.  “This is considered a remarkable step forward and a significant commitment in implementation of the International and Regional Treaties and Conventions in the Sudan relating to children,” according to UNICEF.  And there’s a press release on this upstairs. 

** Philippines

We have three other press releases I’d like to draw your attention to and one is on the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), saying that they are helping the Government of the Philippines investigate the discovery of the Ebola-Reston virus for the first time in pigs.  While this particular strain of Ebola can affect humans, no serious illness or deaths among people have been reported to date.  You can read more about this upstairs.

**UNICEF Schools

UNICEF today called for more concerted action to make schools safe for children.  And this comes after a string of school collapses in 2008, resulting from natural disasters and poor construction.  You can read more on that upstairs.

**Natural Disasters

And finally, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reports that disasters related to extreme weather events dominated the work of the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) teams in 2008.  OCHA adds that 67 Member States have now joined the team system, which ensures that more trained disaster managers can be made available to the international community.  And there’s a press release on that with more information.  And that’s all I have for you.  There’s nothing for me?

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Richard Barrett, the Coordinator on the Security Council Committee on Sanctions for Taliban and Al Qaida, said in an interview with CNN-IBN television that Pakistan had now fully complied with the demands the Committee had imposed and that he was now going to Pakistan to follow up on this thing.  Do you have anything on this, and when is he planning to go to Pakistan?

Deputy Spokesperson:  If he’s a Committee expert, then you have to ask him directly.

Question:  In Ethiopia, there are reports from the Ogaden region about the Government army perhaps killing 54 civilians in a town called Mooyaha.  There’s a call there for a United Nations fact-finding mission.  Are you aware of that call and what’s the United Nations going to do about it?  

Deputy Spokesperson:  I am not aware of that call.

Question:  Would the United Nations consider sending such a mission, considering Mr. Holmes had previously been to the Ogaden for humanitarian reasons?

Deputy Spokesperson:  We’ll check with the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs on the report you’re asking about.

[The Deputy Spokesperson later told the journalist that such a mission would have to be requested by, or take place with, the consent of the Government in question.  In this case, the Ethiopian Government had not made such a request.]

Question:  Also, I understand there’s some sensitivity to it, but, on the issue of Mr. Fowler, can you answer the issue of why no security was provided if he was in a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) car?  That seems to be a question.

Deputy Spokesperson:  I think Michèle answered the questions to the extent possible on Mr. Fowler.  I would just like to repeat for the record that the United Nations, the Government of Canada and the Government of Niger are working in close partnership with each other and with regional actors to resolve this case.  We are pursuing all appropriate channels to seek further information about this case and to secure their safe return.  We will not comment or release any information which may compromise those efforts and endanger the safety of these persons.  We are in regular touch with the families to provide assistance and support.  And we asked, and Michèle asked you as well, the media, to respect their privacy.

Question:  The question is not about the families, but the use of United Nations resources.

Deputy Spokesperson:  I have nothing beyond what I just read to you on this matter.

Question:  Also, do you have a readout on the meeting between the Secretary-General and the Ambassador of Israel?  Did it concern Gaza?

Deputy Spokesperson:  We’ll get you a readout.  Okay?  Have a good afternoon.

[The Deputy Spokesperson later added that the meeting had simply been a courtesy call.]

Briefing by the Spokesperson for the General Assembly President

I don’t have much to say except that I thought you might want to get an update on where we stand in the General Assembly, with these late minute negotiations for the budget.  The different countries were negotiating very late last night until 5 a.m. in the morning.  I think, at this point, we can say they are in agreement in principle.  But, they are working on a package and the other side of the coin is that, until everything is agreed, nothing is agreed, as you know.  But, there is a major agreement in principle and we all hope by the end of the day we will be able to have a budget.

Let me give you the general background.  As you know, there are several different positions negotiating.  For some, basically, it’s a question of the different ideas on how the Organization should work.  Some of them think we must be more political as a forum.  And some think the development pillar should be strengthened.  Those are some of the points being negotiated.

As I said, it’s a very complex agreement because there are several issues going on.  Let me give you an overview on what has already been agreed:  the International Civil Service Commission; conditions of service; financing of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda; scale of assessments for former Yugoslavia; construction sites in Nairobi and Baghdad; and the G-77 rent.

Now, let me tell you some of the elements that are still being negotiated.  I’ve been told we are very close to agreement, but they are still negotiating the human resources area and the United Nations Administration of Justice, basically the cost.  But, we have an agreement that it will start operating as of 1 July and there will be a transition period.  We have some PBIs [programme budget implication] revised estimates.  I understand that we might go for votes this afternoon on the PBI on Durban II and the PBI on the small arms agreement.  There are still some differences on the cost of the special political missions in Iraq, Sudan and Afghanistan and they are all time bound.  That means they cannot be postponed and they must reach an agreement.

However, there are two basic areas where they are having much discussion.  One is on strengthening the development pillar, which basically, as you know, is to improve empowerment in the area of development.  And in the original proposal by the Secretariat, the Secretary-General requested 152 new posts.  Our understanding at this stage is that we might get an agreement, although it has not been reached yet, of around 90 posts.  And the second large area where there has been major negotiation is in what is called preventive diplomacy, which is basically the restructuring of the Department of Political Affairs.  Again, here the original proposal by the Secretariat was to get 101 posts.  It is still being negotiated, but we believe it will be half that figure.

So, as I said at the beginning, the good news is that we are very close to the agreement.  The President of the General Assembly, I can confirm, is very happy about the constructive attitude shown by all the different parties in this exercise.  And we hope there will still be some sessions this afternoon in the Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary).  And later today in the General Assembly, we’ll try to get this approved for everybody so that we can go all on holidays.  And this is basically what I have for you.  Do you have any questions?

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Have there been any particular big stumbling blocks so far in the negotiations that have delayed it thus far?

Spokesperson:  There has been a major group, the G-77 plus China, putting forward some proposals.  Last night, they even put forward a resolution to discuss the need to underline the role of the United Nations in the area of development and strengthening what’s called the pillar of development.  And basically, the attitude here, for you to understand what is politically behind it, some countries, in this case most of the G-77, believe the United Nations should invest more in development, in fighting hunger and poverty, to avoid ending up in an Organization that is going to end up spending much more money on peacekeeping, on human rights and on international tribunals.  That is basically the concept that is behind it.  And some of the other countries, especially the countries that contribute most to the United Nations budget, are a little bit afraid about the costs.  And that’s basically the negotiation that has been going on.

Question:  Are there any particular nations or delegation that you can name who oppose this position?

Spokesperson:  It’s public, the bigger donor countries, like the United States, Japan and Europe.  It’s the traditional negotiations that we have at the United Nations, the negotiations and concessions, and that’s it.  As I said, the President of the General Assembly is, first, quite confident that we will get final agreement at the end of the day and, second, he is very happy about the very constructive attitude that has been shown by the different blocks.

Question:  Of the 90 or 92 proposed new posts, are they all in the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) and how much, more or less, will the cost be?

Spokesperson:  I don’t have that detail yet with me.  I can try to find out for you, although I have with me an expert in the cabinet of the President of the General Assembly, Luis Guilherme Nascentes da Silva, who has not slept during the whole night, but maybe he can answer your question.

Question:  Of the 90 or 92 posts in the development area, would they all be in DESA and how much would they cost?  Maybe you can compare that cost to some other numbers.

Mr. Nascentes:  There has been agreement on costs and number of posts.  The definition of where the posts are going to be is still pending.  They’re still negotiating that.  But, there will be posts in the regional branches, like the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) and other organizations of an economic character, but a regional nature.  But, yes to DESA, but others as well, related to gender issues, for instance.  So, it’s a package involving various areas, but related to development.  But, the final figures are still being negotiated.

Question:  What is the status of trying to harmonize contracts or eliminate permanent contracts?  Would that apply to these new posts, or is that one of the things under human resources that’s still not yet agreed upon?  

Mr. Nascentes:  I understand you’re referring to another issue that’s still under negotiation, the human resources management reform.  It is a broad agreement involving not only those areas, but other areas.  And this is a big package involving many areas.  And depending on the timing of the contracts of those new people, other rules might apply.  Those details about the timing are still under negotiation for human resources.  So, it depends.

Question:  One more question.  Looking at the budget for 2010 and 2011, and seeing that at least one draft said the Secretary-General should try to bring it in at $4.6 billion, where the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ) has said that it’s looking like its $5.1 billion, is that the status of it?  Is the resolution about the 2010 budget to be cut down?

Mr. Nascentes:  This is what is called a budget outline.  It is a mandatory requirement, a broad figure.  The figures are not mandatory, they just give an idea about the broad numbers for preparation of the future budget, and this issue is still under negotiation.  My understanding, right now, they are negotiating the details.  I can’t tell you for sure the exact figures, but the broad agreement is around those lines. 

Question:  Which?  The 4.6 or 5.1?

Mr. Nascentes:  Five.  I’ll get back to you to confirm.  I prefer not to say for sure.

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