Daily Press Briefing by the Office of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General

22 January 2009

Daily Press Briefing by the Office of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General

22 January 2009
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.

Before starting this briefing, I would like to remind you of the ground rules governing press conferences and briefings.  Such rules were agreed upon by the Executive Committee of the UN Correspondents Association (UNCA) and they were communicated to all of you at the time of your accreditation.

I will quote these rules:  “These briefings cannot be used as forums for public debate, polemics, or propaganda or for expressing a correspondent’s own opinion”, end of quote.

These briefings are for us to convey a maximum amount of information to correspondents and for the reporters to freely ask questions on matters pertaining to the United Nations, on the activities and positions of the Secretary‑General and on current issues of concern to you and pertaining to the Organization.  I or any briefer will do our best to answer these questions or to help you find additional information.  The additional information is conveyed as expeditiously as possible, by e-mail or it is included in our highlights.

**Press Conference

Our briefing today, at 12:30 p.m., Robert Orr, Assistant-Secretary-General for Policy Planning, and Sandro Calvani, Director of the UN Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute, will brief on the Institute’s ongoing conference on “Innovative Policies to Advance Security Governance”.

The conference opened this morning with a message from the Secretary-General, who commended the Institute for focusing on a range of critical challenges relating to security governance.  He stressed that it is important to bring in new partners and find innovative ways to build a culture of anti-terrorism.

The conference, which takes place all day today in Conference Room 4, showcases the recent activities of the Institute’s UN Security Governance and Counter-Terrorism Laboratory.  We have the Secretary-General’s message and more information on the conference upstairs, and you will have more details, of course with our 12:30 p.m. panel.

** Gaza

On Gaza, at the Secretary-General’s request, the UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator, John Holmes, and the UN’s Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Robert Serry, visited Gaza today.  This marked the launch of the international humanitarian needs assessment of the civilian population in Gaza.

The mission was struck by the scale and urgency of the needs of the people of Gaza, and the heavy and multifaceted impact that this conflict has had on the civilian population.  The UN and its partners will focus first on meeting lifesaving needs, restoring basic social services, such as water, health and education, and supporting emergency repairs of critical infrastructure.  The assessment will be concluded with a flash appeal for Gaza, which will be launched in early February in Geneva.  Work has also begun on assessing early recovery needs.

During the course of the mission, Holmes and Serry will meet with Israeli authorities to underscore that Israel must fully facilitate meeting the needs of the people of Gaza.  This includes the need for full, timely, and unrestricted access for all goods and humanitarian actors required for the well-being of the Palestinian civilian population.  Holmes and Serry are also meeting the Palestinian Authority regarding the best way to scale up humanitarian assistance in Gaza.  We have more on this in my Office.

Meanwhile, the World Food Programme (WFP) today began emergency distributions of vitamin A-fortified date bars and high-energy biscuits to thousands of displaced people in Gaza City.  The distributions also include ready-to-eat meals for hospitals and milk for children.  They are part of WFP’s recently launched Operation Lifeline Gaza.  At the same time, WFP is scaling up its regular distributions of wheat flour, vegetable oil, chick peas and sugar.  We have a press release on that upstairs.

**Secretary-General Briefs Security Council on Middle East Trip

The Secretary-General briefed the Security Council on his trip to the Middle East to push for the implementation of resolution 1860, in an open meeting yesterday afternoon.

In remarks read out by Under-Secretary-General B. Lynn Pascoe, the Secretary-General said that the declarations of unilateral ceasefires and the withdrawal of Israeli troops were important achievements that offered a much‑needed respite for suffering civilians, especially in the Gaza Strip.  But conditions are still fragile, he warned, and much more remains to be done on both the humanitarian and diplomatic fronts.

Noting the attacks on UN facilities, the Secretary-General said that he had demanded a thorough investigation by Israel into every single one of these incidents.  He expects to receive a full explanation of each incident and that those responsible will be held accountable for their actions.  Prime Minister Olmert, he said, had promised to provide the results of their inquiry on an urgent basis.  The Secretary‑General will then decide on appropriate follow‑up action.

He emphasized to the Council that, if the past weeks of violence are not followed quickly by broad political action, we face the real risk of greater polarization and frustration in the region.  A true end to violence, and lasting security for both Palestinians and Israelis, will only come through a just and comprehensive settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In a press statement read out afterward by Council President Jean-Maurice Ripert of France, Council members welcomed the ceasefire in Gaza and emphasized the need for full implementation of resolution 1860.  The members of the Security Council restated their grave concern at the humanitarian situation in Gaza and stressed the need for unimpeded provision and distribution of humanitarian aid throughout Gaza.

**Security Council

The members of the Security Council will have their monthly luncheon with the Secretary-General today.

Yesterday afternoon, following the briefing on the Middle East, the Council also heard from Said Djinnit, the head of the UN Office for West Africa, on that Office’s work.  He described the impact of the food crisis and of cross-border organized crime and drug trafficking in that region, as well as the major setbacks to regional democracy posed by the coups in Mauritania and Guinea.

**Democratic Republic of Congo

The UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC) and its partner agencies are closely assessing the consequences of recent atrocities on Congolese civilians by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).  The LRA crimes were committed in the Haut Uélé area of Province Orientale over the past months.

A multidisciplinary UN team visited the area just last week with a view to devise a humanitarian response to the attacks.  The team checked and registered damage to property; and collected eye-witness accounts from survivors.  It also took note of the civilian’s need for protection and psychosocial assistance.  Survivors also described their acute need for shelter, food and other aid.

Noting that the risk of new LRA attacks remains high, the Mission cites figures from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which placed at 900 the number of people killed by the LRA in the region.  OCHA also says that more than 130,000 were displaced, 8,000 of whom fled to South Sudan.

** Somalia

The World Food Programme (WFP) says it is in talks with local authorities and armed groups in South and Central Somalia to establish a secure work environment for the delivery of humanitarian aid to Somali civilians.  The agency’s initiative comes in response to increased violence targeting its staff, two members of which were killed by still unidentified gunmen earlier this month.  Five WFP-contracted transportation workers were also killed in 2008.

“Our only goal in Somalia as an impartial international organization is to alleviate the suffering of the Somali people,” said WFP Deputy Chief Operating Officer Ramiro Lopes da Silva.  “We cannot do that when our courageous staff are being targeted.”

** Sri Lanka

The Office of the Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka has issued its strongest possible protest to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE, for their refusal to allow UN national staff and dependents to return from the Vanni region with the present UN convoy.

The staff were part of a UN convoy which travelled to the Vanni on 16 January, delivering urgent food and emergency supplies to displaced populations trapped in the midst of fighting in the Vanni.  Due to fighting between the LTTE and Government forces, the convoy has only been able to move safely today.

The UN calls on the LTTE to meet their responsibilities and immediately permit all UN staff and dependents to freely move from this area, as its denial of safe passage is a clear abrogation of their responsibility under international humanitarian law.

**Deputy Secretary-General - Francophonie

Speaking to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Francophonie yesterday at its opening meeting at the UN Headquarters in New York, Deputy Secretary-General Asha‑Rose Migiro praised the cooperation between the French-speaking countries and the UN in prevention and settlement of conflicts, as well as promotion of human rights, democracy and development.  She also applauded the Francophonie’s active role in helping to resolve the political crises in the French-speaking world.

** Iraq

On Iraq:  Staffan de Mistura, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Iraq, today emphasized the importance of women’s full participation in the upcoming elections.  He said that the United Nations strongly supports the rightful aspiration of Iraqi women to see the law regarding the women’s quota interpreted in a fair and appropriate way that leads to greater representation of women on the Governorate Councils.

** Liberia

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is warning that a plague of caterpillars destroying crops and vegetation in northern Liberia could spread across West Africa, creating a region-wide food, health and environmental emergency.

An FAO entomologist recently visited the region.  He reports that tens of millions of the caterpillars -- suspected to be African armyworms -- are devouring everything in their path.  In some cases, they’ve overrun entire buildings, forcing terrified villagers to flee their homes.

FAO has assembled a task force to assess the situation and prepare an immediate response.  Specimens of the caterpillars are currently being examined to determine the most appropriate pesticide to use.  There is more information upstairs.

**U Thant Centenary

Today marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the birth of U Thant, who served as the third UN Secretary-General from 1961 to 1971.  We have a message by the current Secretary-General, delivered at an event in Yangon.

**Secretary-General Travels

The Secretary-General plans to be on the road again.  Beginning early next week, the Secretary-General plans to travel to Madrid for a meeting to tackle the global food crisis.  He will then go to Davos for the World Economic Forum and to Addis Ababa for a summit of the African Union (AU).

United Nations officials and representatives of international agencies belonging to the High-Level Task Force on the Global Food Security Crisis will be at the 26‑27 January meeting, which opens with technical discussions and concludes with a ministerial session.  The Secretary-General and Spanish Prime Minister Rodriguez Zapatero will be chairing the ministerial meeting.

From Madrid, the Secretary-General travels to Davos.  In addition to a series of bilaterals with world leaders and chief business executives, he will deliver remarks on subjects ranging from climate change and water scarcity to the global financial crisis.

He is expected to call for a new phase of corporate engagement on critical issues of the future.  He will also hold a press conference on development and the Millennium Development Goals, as well as participate in a special session on Gaza.

From Davos, he is scheduled to travel to Addis Ababa to take part in the AU summit.  There is a press release on the Madrid Summit upstairs, and of course, we will give you additional information as we get closer to his departure.

**Press Conference Tomorrow

Our guest at the noon briefing tomorrow will be John Ging, Director of Operations in Gaza for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.  He will update you on the situation in Gaza via videoconference link.

This is all I have for you.  Thank you.

Question and Answers

Question:  A technical question; for the UNRWA compound and the UN school and the other buildings like the American school in Gaza, right now we just have the unofficial evidence, but if it was found that Israel was responsible for the attacks, where would the money come from to rebuild?  Would it come from the general fund for Gaza or will it come from Israel being demanded to pay compensation to rebuild these facilities?  Basically, will it come from international donors or Israel itself?

Spokesperson:  Right now we are at the assessment and fact-finding level.  Of course, this will be followed through.  Actually, it is one of the topics of the discussion the Secretary‑General will have with the Security Council today.

Question:  This inquiry or investigation ‑- whatever the Secretary‑General will call for after Israel completes its part of the investigation ‑- is there a threshold or time frame, that the Secretary‑General sees for…?

Spokesperson:  The Secretary-General is very aware of the urgency of the matter and he’s pushing for gathering the facts as soon as possible.  So, I don’t have a time frame and I cannot give you one at this point.

Question:  You mentioned something about the Secretary-General attending a special session on Gaza in Madrid.  What is that on exactly?

Spokesperson:  Not in Madrid.  It’s going to be in Davos.

Question:  In Davos?  Is this like donors or political discussions or…

Spokesperson:  Actually, the Secretary‑General will hold a press conference also on Gaza.  It’s going to be about the flash appeal, which will be launched two days later in Geneva by Mr. [John] Holmes.

Question:  Yes.  And you also said that the Secretary-General is in contact with the Security Council members concerning the investigation and the…?

Spokesperson:  Yes.  The Secretary-General, as I said, is supposed to have lunch today with [the Security Council].  Even though he has not recovered his voice, he will be there.

Question:  Is this the monthly lunch?

Spokesperson:  Yes, it is.

Question:  Is he feeling a little better?

Spokesperson:  He is feeling a bit better, he told me, but you can barely hear him when he talks.

Question:  I was wondering, this problem in Sri Lanka with the UN convoy.  Does the UN consider that these people are being held hostage, perhaps because of the dispute between the LTTE and the Government?

Spokesperson:  They are not qualifying it as a hostage situation yet.  They are right now just appealing for free movement for the people who went in on a humanitarian mission.

Question:  Has the Secretary-General any comment to make on President Obama’s decision to close Guantanamo?

Spokesperson:  We don’t have a reaction from the Secretary‑General yet, but High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has welcomed today’s decision by the new US Administration to close the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, as well as the decision to ban methods of interrogation that contravene international law.  This is what we just got from them right now.

Pillay also called for a review of the US approach to detaining individuals abroad, in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the practice of “rendition”, in order to ensure conformity with international law.

Pillay said, “The fact that President Obama has placed such a high priority on closing Guantanamo and set in motion a system to safeguard the fundamental rights of the detainees there is extremely encouraging.”

The High Commissioner also welcomed the fact that President Obama’s Executive Order issued today sets a framework for regularizing the situation of the remaining detainees in Guantanamo.  She also raised the issue of compensation for those judged to be innocent and called for a thorough investigation into allegations of torture at the Guantanamo centre.  We have a press release that we just received from her on that upstairs.  And of course, if we have any further comments on that later, we will inform you.

Question:  In the DRC, with reports of peacekeepers being barred from where the offensive on the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) is taking place, does MONUC currently have access to everywhere it would need to be to protect civilians in connection with this operation?

Spokesperson:  Well, obviously not, because they are protesting the fact that there are still some areas where they cannot go at this point.

Question:  What’s being done to get them that access?

Spokesperson:  They can only express their sentiments to the Government.

Question:  If they were to witness war crimes, could they turn that information over to the International Criminal Court (ICC)?

Spokesperson:  I cannot…

Question:  Is that why they’re being barred?

Spokesperson:  I don’t know.  I cannot answer a hypothetical question, Matthew.

Question:  Let me ask you another question then.  I think about a week ago, you said, or your office said, that UN’s contracts with Satyam ‑- the ‘Indian Enron’, so to speak ‑- were quote “under assessment”.  Has there been any change in the status of those contracts and are there more than the single $6 million contract that’s listed on the procurement website?

Spokesperson:  I have no additional information on that at this point.  But we will, of course, keep you informed anytime we have new information on the Satyam issue, because I know you are interested.

Question:  This is a question I’ve been asking you for a long time:  is there any progress on the committee to be formed to investigate [the assassination of] Benazir Bhutto?  Has there been any progress at all?

Spokesperson:  As far as I know, nothing new has occurred.  I don’t have anything new, no.

Question:  Has there been any…?

Spokesperson:  The actual mandate of such a commission is still being discussed.

Question:  So there’s been no decision on the framework of the inquiry, nor on the names of the people who would be on it?

Spokesperson:  Not as yet.  As you know, it is a discussion between the UN and the Government of Pakistan.

Question:  And you will let us know when (inaudible)?

Spokesperson:  Of course I will.  Yes.

Question:  I was reading a press report today that Israel warned the Secretary‑General against visiting Gaza before he arrived there, saying that there was a personal threat to his own safety.  Can you confirm or deny this report?

Spokesperson:  Neither one.  I can neither confirm nor deny.  I can only tell you that the Secretary‑General did go to Gaza.

Correspondent:  The report states that he was warned just hours before visiting Gaza that his safety might be in danger and that they advised him not to go.

Spokesperson:  Well, as you know, safety was an issue from the start.  But the Secretary-General decided to go.

Question:  Does the Secretary-General have a reaction to the Indian Government saying yesterday that Pakistan must be disciplined for the Mumbai attacks?  Does he have any reaction to that statement?

Spokesperson:  No, we don’t.

Question:  On Afghanistan, this new group called Afghan Rights Monitors put out a new report saying the UN should be doing more in terms of meeting the humanitarian needs.  It also called for greater transparency in the reporting of how funds are spent…

Spokesperson:  How the UN’s funds are spent?

Question:  Yeah.  It seems like the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) came back and called the report “superficial” and “uninformed”, and said that [UNAMA] had a country-wide footprint.  Does the UN feel that it’s doing all that it could or should in Afghanistan?  Or are there parts of the country that you can’t reach due to safety reasons?

Spokesperson:  Well, I would say that there are, of course, parts of Afghanistan they cannot reach.  The issue of safety is always present.  In terms of what they are doing, I think UNAMA is the only one that can answer your questions.  You just mentioned that they already answered that report.

Question:  They just dismissed the report totally.  But I just think it’s strange, because sometimes you’ll say from this podium that the UN doesn’t respond to these reports.  But I guess in this case, they wanted to respond and said that they reject it totally…

Spokesperson:  So they did it locally, yes.

Question:  And there’s just one other thing:  you may or may not have any comment on it.  There’s a story, maybe it’s being misreported, that a UN-affiliated person was found with child pornography at JFK Airport yesterday.  And it’s reported as like a “UN story”.  The person works for an NGO but had previously been a consultant to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), written reports on human rights…  So, I wanted to know, are you aware of this story?  If a person were convicted of having child pornography, could they work for the UN in the future?  Could they be barred?  Is there any system in place…?

Spokesperson:  Well, they would be certainly barred, but I cannot comment on someone from an NGO affiliated to ECOSOC (Economic and Social Council) who was arrested for child pornography.

Question:  Yes, I understand, so maybe this is a housekeeping question.  Is there a system in place … this has gone out on wire services as a UN story.  Has the UN tried to correct the story?

Spokesperson:  It is the wrong attribution.

Question:  Has the UN sought a correction or is it just letting it be out there…?

Spokesperson:  I don’t know whether we have sought a correction on this matter or not.  But when you read it yourself you can tell.  How can the UN be responsible for all the NGOs and all members of NGOs possibly affiliated to it?

Correspondent:  Right.  I understand.  But just one more thing; they link to his biography, which says that he was a consultant to UNDP, training them on human rights.  So, it’s a little bit ironic.  But it doesn’t say what his current UN status is.  Can you…

Spokesperson:  He has no UN status.  I can confirm that.

Question:  Do you anticipate him having any in the future?

Spokesperson:  Not that I know of.  I don’t think the UN ever encourages child pornography -- in any way.  And this goes to hiring people also.

Question:  On UNDP:  does the Secretary-General have a shortlist of candidates to replace [UNDP Administrator Kemal] Derviş now that he has resigned as of March?

Spokesperson:  This is in process.  We don’t have a shortlist.

Question:  But you will have the shortlist?

Spokesperson:  I don’t know whether I will or not.  At this point it is with the Secretary-General.

Question:  I missed your statement on UNCA and the nature of the questions in [Room] 226.  Although this is not the London Hyde Park Speakers’ Corner where you can tell everyone (inaudible), I partially agree with the statement.  But yet, it sounds like a little bit of censorship here.  Who is going to determine whether the statements are of a political nature or the journalist’s personal view or inclination towards a certain regime or country?  Who is going to verify that?

Spokesperson: Well, these are UNCA’s ground rules.  They were discussed and agreed upon by UNCA.  Right, Matthew?  You were there.

Correspondent:  Yes.

Spokesperson:  These rules are, simply quoted, that “these briefings cannot be used as forums for public debate, polemics, or propaganda or for expressing a correspondent’s own opinion.”  This has been the case several times.

Question:  So who is going to…?

Spokesperson:  To enforce it?

Question:  No, not enforce it but who will determine what is a political statement or a view of the reporter?

Spokesperson:  Well, in this case ‑- in my case, right here on this podium ‑- if I feel that a question being asked is either completely outside of my mandate or with the view of being in front of a camera and expressing one’s own platform, I will not answer it.  I will cut it short.  And I’m afraid that, at times, this room has been used for that ‑- and too often.  I haven’t said anything before, even though I was, of course, fully aware of UNCA’s rules and regulations.  Theoretically, enforcement is in the hands of a joint group, which is UNCA and DPI (Department of Public Information).

Question:  I just want to understand; the way it’s phrased – “press conferences shall not be used for propaganda” ‑- does this apply equally to people giving a briefing?  It doesn’t say correspondents.  It says the briefings shall not be used for propaganda.  So then who…?

Spokesperson:  We usually avoid having people here, on this podium, having propaganda, in the case of UN briefers.

Question:  Well there are cases like, for instance, this press conference by the Iranian President, where diplomats from one country came in and started to haggle with him.  In this type of case, who’s responsible?  Diplomats were attending that press conference.

Spokesperson:  This was not something organized by us.  It was organized by the country in question, so we have nothing to say about it.  As you know, Member States can reserve a room in the building and say whatever they wish.

Okay.  Thank you so much, and I’ll give the floor now to our guests.

* *** *

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