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

26 January 2009

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

26 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 Marie Okabe, Deputy Spokesperson for the Secretary-General.

Good afternoon.

** Darfur

I will start with a statement attributable to the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General on clashes in North Darfur:

The Secretary-General strongly condemns the hostilities which have taken place today between a rebel movement and the Sudanese Armed Forces on the outskirts of El Fasher in North Darfur.  This follows clashes earlier this month in South Darfur involving the Sudanese Armed Forces, the Justice and Equality Movement and the Sudan Liberation Army/Minni Minawi (SLA/MM).

The Secretary-General deplores these continued military actions which continue to put civilian lives at risk and to jeopardize the political process.  The Secretary-General calls on all parties to immediately cease ongoing hostilities and to abide by their obligations under international law.

There are a number of press releases out from the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) on these clashes.

As a result of these clashes, UNAMID says, the local population and some combatants have taken refuge at UNAMID camps, a move which could endanger the safety and security of the civilian population that has taken refuge in these camps, as well as the UNAMID troops in these locations.

UNAMID today expressed its grave concern over the disturbing events that have taken place close to the city of El Fasher, as I mentioned earlier, where explosions, shelling, mortars and sounds of fighter jets alerted the inhabitants at early hours of the day.

Reports of the possible attack sent an immediate wave of fear among the people and created a sense of uncertainty of what might come next.  The market was closed, the traffic jammed and school children were sent back to their homes.

Banditry and factional clashes have also been increasing in several internally displaced persons camps, and it is likely that these events could cause wide displacements of civilians and have humanitarian implications.

UNAMID recalls its mandate to protect civilians and voices caution that the humanitarian situation might further deteriorate because of the continued violence.

The Joint Special Representative, Rodolphe Adada, expressed grave concern over the safety and security of the people in North Darfur and the region at large, warning that such escalations of insecurity would impede delivery of humanitarian assistance to the population.

He called on all warring parties to instantly cease hostilities and end this cycle of violence that would only add to the suffering of the people of Darfur.

**International Criminal Court -- Democratic Republic of the Congo

The trial of Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga Dyilo opened today before the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.  It is not only the first trial in the history of the ICC but also the first trial in the history of international law to see the active participation of victims in the proceedings.  A total of 93 victims have been recognized by ICC judges to take part in the trial.  They are represented by a team of eight lawyers.

The accused, Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, was the first suspect taken into ICC custody since the Court became effective in July 2002.  He faces charges of war crimes, including enlisting and conscripting children under the age of 15, and using them in active hostilities in the Ituri province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  He is alleged to have committed these crimes between September 2002 and August 2003.  He pleaded not guilty today.

**Secretary-General Travels

A two-day meeting on the global food crisis opened today in Madrid, Spain.  UN officials and the heads of international agencies are discussing a coordinated, effective response to food insecurity, focusing on both its immediate effects and its longer-term causes.  The meeting concludes tomorrow with a ministerial-level session, which will be co-chaired by the Secretary-General and Spain’s Prime Minister [Rodriguez] Zapatero.

Over the weekend, an op-ed co-authored by the Secretary-General and the Spanish Prime Minister ran in the International Herald Tribune.  In it, they stressed that, although the food crisis is not as much in the news, nearly 1 billion people still go hungry every day.  While prices on global markets may have fallen, they are still near their peak levels in many countries.  Development assistance for agriculture, rural development and social protection needs to be scaled up and made consistent, they said.

After Madrid, the Secretary-General plans to continue on to Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum and then to Addis Ababa for a summit of the African Union.

** Sri Lanka

The United Nations, as well as other aid agencies, still has staff in the north of Sri Lanka, working desperately to provide humanitarian aid to some 250,000 civilians trapped in the areas in which fighting is continuing.

Nearly 5,000 people have managed to cross the zones held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to Government-controlled areas since late November.

The UN Refugee Agency has taken the lead in formulating guidance for assistance to accommodate internally displaced persons fleeing from the Vanni region.  The UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Sri Lanka has urged the Government to ensure timely and transparent registration of new arrivals.  After that, the internally displaced persons should be allowed to stay with host families or move to existing welfare centres, where their freedom of movement would be guaranteed.

And we expect to have a statement later today by the Secretary-General on this subject, as well.

** Gaza

On Gaza, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reports that needs and damage assessments are currently taking place on the ground.  At this stage, aid workers are focused on re-establishing basic services to Gazans.

OCHA adds that thousands of Gazans remain homeless.  Fewer than 500 people remain in three emergency shelters run by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).  But that’s because most displaced Gazans have been staying with host families, who are overstretched themselves.

For its part, the World Food Programme (WFP) restarted its school feeding programme for Gaza today.  Thirty thousand children will now be getting a meal five days a week.  That meal will consist of canned meat, high-energy biscuits and milk.  In addition, all 10 UNRWA distribution centres are now open, feeding 25,000 people a day.

In terms of Gaza crossings, the Nahal Oz fuel pipeline, the Karni conveyor belt, and the Rafah, Kerem Shalom and Erez crossings were all open today.  OCHA stresses that these crossings need to be operational 24 hours a day.  Among the items that are critically needed right now are spare parts and fuel for the power plant, hospitals and water and sewage treatment facilities.  Also needed are cement, sand and other construction materials to rebuild destroyed schools, hospitals, clinics and homes.

Meanwhile, renowned musician Yusuf Islam, who was formerly known as Cat Stevens, today released a charity song from which all proceeds will be donated to UNRWA and Save the Children.  UNRWA welcomes this generous donation, which will help it to continue its vital work in Gaza.  And there is more on this upstairs in the Spokesperson’s Office.

** Somalia

The Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, said he is “extremely encouraged” by the majority decision by Somali lawmakers to expand the Transitional Federal Parliament by 275 seats.

The decision, which was adopted in Djibouti this past weekend, creates up to 200 new seats in the Somali Parliament, whose holders will be selected by the opposition Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia.  They will be sworn in in Djibouti, where the Alliance is in reconciliation talks with the Transitional Federal Government.  Another 75 seats have been set aside for civil society and opposition politicians who are not affiliated with the Alliance.

The expanded Parliament is expected to elect Somalia’s new Head of State, who is in turn expected to take the oath of office later this month.

** Burundi

The World Food Programme (WFP) is helping households in Burundi’s northern province of Kirundo.  Crops there have withered after inadequate rainfall between September and November.

WFP distributed more than 650 metric tons of food there last week.  This is in addition to more than 700 tons of food given out to nearly 200,000 students at schools in six other provinces.  For its part, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) will provide seeds and tools to the most affected households.  These include cassava, which is a lean-season crop.

**Holocaust Commemoration

The Secretary-General on Saturday spoke at the Park East Synagogue in Manhattan, in advance of the International Day of Commemoration Honouring the Victims of the Holocaust.  He told the gathering there, including survivors of the Holocaust, that the United Nations is determined to tell its timeless lessons.

He noted that, two years ago, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution condemning, without reservation, any denial of the Holocaust.  Memory speaks, the Secretary-General said, adding that that is why it must be preserved and passed to future generations.  He said the UN Holocaust Outreach Programme sponsors exhibits, workshops and panel discussions, with the aim of confronting deniers or those who would minimize the importance of the Holocaust.

We have that speech upstairs and on the web.  And tomorrow, we will have several events to mark the official International Day of Commemoration.

** Afghanistan

UNICEF, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) today held a joint press conference in Afghanistan to draw attention to the high rate of maternal mortality in that country -- where Afghan women have a 1 in 8 chance of dying from pregnancy-related complications in their lifetime.

WHO says that 1,600 women die for every 100,000 births in Afghanistan, with excessive bleeding the primary cause of death.  The agencies stressed the importance of increasing the number of skilled midwives, providing better nutrition and allowing for adequate spacing between births, among other measures.  We have a press release with more information on this upstairs.

**United Nations Population Fund

The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) has welcomed Friday’s announcement by United States President Barack Obama that he will work with Congress to restore United States financial support to the agency’s operations.  UNFPA’s Executive Director, Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, said the decision sent a strong message and could not have come at a more critical time.

She noted that, more than halfway to the 2015 target date for the Millennium Development Goals, the goal of addressing maternal and reproductive health has made the least progress and is the most underfunded.  Globally, the rate of death from pregnancy and childbirth declined just 1 per cent between 1990 and 2005.  There is a press release with more information on this upstairs.


On the occasion of the Chinese Lunar New Year, the World Health Organization is urging an end to the tradition of giving cigarettes as gifts in China.  WHO said: “Giving cigarettes is giving harm.”  China’s 350 million smokers make up one third of the world’s smokers.

**United Nations Children’s Fund

Tomorrow morning in Geneva, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is launching its annual Humanitarian Action Report, which is the agency’s annual funding appeal for children and women affected by protracted emergencies.  This year’s Report highlights situations in 36 countries.  And there is a media advisory with contact information from UNICEF upstairs in the Spokesperson’s Office.

That is all I have for you today, anything for me?

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Over the weekend, both the Pakistani Government and the Afghanistan President have protested the killing of civilians by US troops.  Do you have anything on this, any response?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I will have to check for you about the latest reports that you refer to.  I don’t have anything today from the Mission, nor from the Secretary-General.

Question:  Regarding the Lubanga trial, the BBC was reporting this morning that some of the former child soldiers were actually suing him.  Apart from the trial, I believe.  Do you have any information on that?

Deputy Spokesperson:  All I have on this trial is what I read to you, and there is obviously a press release upstairs to which I will refer you to.

Question:  Maybe I missed it, but Mr. Gambari is going to Myanmar, correct? It has been reported that he is going 31 January.  The National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Win Tin said he won’t meet with Mr. Gambari if he is unwilling to discuss the legitimacy of the 2008 Constitution and only the 2010 elections.  What is Mr. Gambari’s mandate, and if you can confirm that he is going?

Deputy Spokesperson:  What I can tell you about the reports you have been seeing is that I can confirm that the Secretary-General has asked Mr. Gambari to return soon and that the Myanmar Government has extended an invitation for him to visit the country.  At this point, however, discussions are ongoing about the details of the visit.

The Secretary-General has expressed his expectation that more progress is necessary on the issues that Mr. Gambari raised with the Government during his last visit, including especially with regard to the need for dialogue between the Government and Aung San Suu Kyi, and he has, therefore, asked Mr. Gambari to return to continue his discussions and engagement with the Myanmar Government, opposition and other stakeholders as an integral part of this process in the implementation of the Secretary-General’s mandate.  That is all I have for you.

Question:  But the idea… Is he willing to discuss the 2008 Constitution, which most of the opponents say is…?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I think I just answered your question.

Question:  There is a troubling report about again the Indian Enron -- Satyam.  It has now emerged that even after they were suspended and after many things were known about them, that various UN agencies -- UNDP and UNICEF and UNHCR -- all gave one day approvals for them to become UN vendors.  Is the Secretary-General or the Secretariat aware of this, and how is it explained by the UN system that a company already with all these charges against it can get approved in one day?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I am not aware of these agencies’ reports as you refer.  I have nothing beyond the guidance which has been provided to you from our Office.  So you can check up with these agencies, and if there is anything more from us, you’ll get it.

Question:  What did Secretary-General Ban say to Susan Rice when he met with her this morning?

Deputy Spokesperson:  As you probably heard, Susan Rice came out at the stakeout this morning, and I certainly can confirm that the subjects that she mentioned and the way forward that she laid out is in line with the readout that I received.  Just to recap, for those of you who may have missed the readout of the Secretary-General’s conversation with President Obama on Friday afternoon:

The Secretary-General received a call early on Friday afternoon from President Barack Obama.  The two leaders discussed a range of issues of common concern and interest.  The Secretary-General underlined the importance of the US-UN partnership and stressed the need for the two to work closely together on major issues like the global economic crisis, climate change, food security and in the resolution of regional crises, particularly those in the Middle East and Africa.

The Secretary-General and the US President discussed ongoing efforts at UN reforms and the Organization’s need for adequate political support and funding.  The Secretary-General was encouraged by the US President’s assurance of strong support as the Organization makes further progress in this direction.  They also looked forward to mutual visits.

The Secretary-General also had a very cordial conversation with United States Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, at which they discussed issues of multilateral interest and importance such as food security, the Darfur peace process, climate change and management reform in the UN.  The Secretary of State emphasized the importance of working together with the UN in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Iraq.  And the two leaders discussed greater cooperation in UN reform and budgetary issues as well as mutual visits.

Based on this readout and Susan Rice’s readout at the stakeout, I think you have some idea of where we are going on this.

Question:  You just said that there was damage assessment going on.  But there has been no update on the investigation, the UN investigation that is supposed to take place in Gaza.

Deputy Spokesperson:  I am going to repeat what the Secretary-General said Friday afternoon.  I think that best encapsulates where we are on Gaza.

The Secretary-General, as you know, said that he protested the attacks on UN facilities, and he demanded a thorough investigation by Israel into every single one of these incidents.  He said he expected to receive a full investigation of those incidents and those responsible would be held accountable for their actions.  And he said that Prime Minister [Ehud] Olmert promised to provide him with the results of their inquiry on an urgent basis and that then he will decide on appropriate other action.

Meanwhile, an investigation into the damage to UNRWA and UNSCO facilities will be undertaken by the UN Secretariat.  The precise format and the identity of the panel members comprising the inquiry have not been determined as yet, but is receiving close consideration.  As to the inquiry into the broader questions relating to the conduct of the parties to the conflict before enduring hostilities, the Secretary-General says he has raised the issue to the Security Council and he has asked its members to give serious consideration to the question and to advise him of their views.

I think that spells out pretty much where we are on this issue.  I think this is as up to date as we are going to get right now on the answers to where we are going on this.

Question:  Are they still figuring out the names of the people that are going to…?

Deputy Spokesperson:  That is right.  Exactly.  The precise format and the identity of the panel members comprising the inquiry has not been determined as yet, but is receiving close consideration, so watch this space.

Question:  Just on that, there is a report out that Martti Ahtisaari has been asked to be a part of it.  Can you…?

Deputy Spokesperson:  This is all I have for you on this.

Question:  It is said that Jane Holl Lute, the head of the Peacebuilding Support Office, has been nominated to be the number two in Homeland Security in the USusus

  Has she informed the UN about it, and what would be her role pending confirmation by the Senate?  Would she continue to serve here, or…?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I think she probably has to get nominated officially first.

Question:  I think it said Friday that…?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I think she needs to be nominated first.

Question:  I wanted to ask one more question.  I guess it’s an openness question.  DESA is the Secretariat of the ECOSOC Committee on NGOs.  There has been a complaint filed last week against an NGO to get it disaccredited from the UN -- Arab commission on human rights.  When I asked for a copy of the complaint -- because it is an open meeting -- I was told they are not giving it.  I want to know what is the position of the Secretariat on public availability of, for example, complaints filed by Member States with DESA, and why that would not be made public.

Deputy Spokesperson:  I don’t know.  I will have to look into it for you.

[The correspondent was later informed that the Committee had chosen not to make the document public.]

On that note, have a good afternoon.  See you tomorrow.

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