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

27 January 2009

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

27 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.

**Guest at Noon

Our guest at the noon briefing today will be Thoraya Obaid, the Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund, and she will be here to brief you on the new United States administration’s intention to restore United States financial support for the agency.

**Secretary-General in Madrid

The Secretary-General delivered the concluding remarks today at the High-Level Meeting on Food Security that was convened in Madrid by Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero.  He told the gathered leaders that, although food prices may have come down for the time being, the number of hungry people is set to rise again, and the prospects for smallholders remain grim.

He said that the coordination promoted by the United Nations to deal with the food crisis last year resulted in an unprecedented effort to support nations and respond to the impact of the food crisis on the world's most vulnerable people.  As food prices rose and brought the number of hungry people close to 1 billion, he noted, we achieved the largest emergency scale-up against hunger and malnutrition in human history.

Now, the Secretary-General said, we will have to work even harder in 2009, this year of recession.  In 2008, for example, we were unable to get the seeds and fertilizers to all the smallholders who needed them in two planting seasons.  We must do better in 2009, he warned.

Following the conclusion of that meeting, the Secretary-General and Prime Minister Zapatero put out a joint press statement, warning that there are nearly 1 billion hungry people in the world today and the number is rising as a result of the economic crisis.  The way forward, they said, is a comprehensive approach that links nutrition, food security, agriculture and trade.

They expressed their delight with the response to this meeting from at least 15 countries, which indicated their intention to commit funds, technical assistance and political support for the effort to eliminate hunger.  The Secretary-General and the Prime Minister agreed that the United Nations system will establish improved mechanisms to ensure that the funds lead to sustainable benefits and measurable results.

We have copies of that press statement and the Secretary-General’s remarks upstairs.

Earlier, the Secretary-General and Prime Minister Zapatero held a bilateral meeting in which they discussed food security and the situation in Gaza.

This evening, the Secretary-General will have an audience with the King of Spain and a working dinner with Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos.

**Holocaust Commemoration

Today, as you know, is the International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust.

To mark the day, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information Kiyo Akasaka chaired an event this morning here at United Nations Headquarters.  At that event, the Deputy Secretary-General delivered a message on behalf of the Secretary-General.  The Secretary-General’s message said that we must continue to examine why the world failed to prevent the Holocaust and other atrocities since.  That way, we will be better armed to defeat anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance.

His message added that we must continue to teach our children the lessons of history’s darkest chapters.  That will help them do a better job than their elders in building a world of peaceful coexistence.

The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, also issued a message to mark the day.  She said this day of remembrance is about the past, but it is also about present and future challenges.  She added that the International Day serves as an annual reminder that, in the future, we must act more decisively at the first signs that a climate conducive to genocide is starting to develop.  We have her full statement upstairs.

Also, there is a new exhibit in the Visitors’ Lobby about the Nazi regime called “Deadly Medicine:  Creating the Master Race”.

** Gaza

The Office of the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process (UNSCO) reported this morning that all crossings between Israel and Gaza were closed today as a result of an Israeli soldier being killed.  That includes the Nahal Oz fuel pipelines and the Karni grain conveyor belt.

Meanwhile, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) reports that it is currently assessing damage in Gaza and preparing a plan for reconstruction.  Among its priorities are rubble removal and activities centred on agriculture and water and sanitation.  Those areas are critical for humanitarian work to continue, UNDP says.  In addition, UNDP has created women’s focal groups so that local women in Gaza can provide input on how the rebuilding should proceed.

UNDP adds that it is concerned about Israeli restrictions hindering the early recovery process.  For example, its team of international early recovery advisers has arrived in Jerusalem but has not yet been given access to Gaza.

UNICEF is providing essential educational equipment and materials to re-establish learning and recreational activities, create safe environments, and help restore a sense of normalcy for children in Gaza.

In northern Gaza, UNICEF tents are serving as temporary learning spaces for girls.

**Security Council

At 3 p.m. this afternoon, the Security Council expects to hold a formal meeting to vote on a resolution extending the mandate of the UN Operation in Côte d’Ivoire.

After that, the Security Council has scheduled a formal meeting, followed by consultations, on the Middle East.  Council members intend to hear briefings on the humanitarian situation in Gaza from the Commissioner-General of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), Karen AbuZayd, and from the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, John Holmes.  You’ll recall that Mr. Holmes last week assessed humanitarian needs in Gaza, along with UN Special Coordinator Robert Serry.

Following those briefings, Karen AbuZayd expects to talk to you at the Security Council stakeout microphone.

** Democratic Republic of the Congo

The UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo says that the joint Congolese-Rwandan military operation against DRC-based Hutu militias continues in the east of the country.  Meanwhile, in Goma, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative, Alan Doss, and the Mission’s Force Commander, Babacar Gaye, are meeting with Congolese authorities to discuss the possible impact of the operation on civilians and on the Mission’s work in general.

Earlier today, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said that, unless they are properly planned and carried out, joint military counter-operations can lead to further gross abuses of civilians’ rights.  Pillay called on the warring parties across eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo to respect human rights and international humanitarian law.  She appealed to the international community to include accountability measures in its efforts to bring about a peaceful settlement of the crisis.  Her statement is available upstairs.

UNICEF, meanwhile, has called for an immediate end to abductions, forced recruitment and extreme violence against children and women in northern Democratic Republic of the Congo.

** Darfur

The United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) reports that the security situation in the area remains tense.

Ground and aerial bombings by the Government continued this morning approximately 9 kilometres from El Fasher, North Darfur, in an attempt to clear the area of armed movements who had advanced towards the outskirts of the city yesterday, our mission reports.  There have been no reports of civilian deaths or casualties.  El Fasher airport has opened, but the movement of personnel remains restricted.

UNAMID also reports that fighting between the Government and the Justice and Equality Movement also continued in Muhajeriya, South Darfur, resulting in approximately 3,000 people gathering around the UNAMID camp seeking shelter and protection.  Three civilians were reportedly injured and are currently receiving treatment at an MSF hospital. 

** Sri Lanka

And just to flag for you for those who may have missed:  yesterday afternoon, following the briefing, we did issue a statement attributable to the Spokesperson on Sri Lanka in which the Secretary-General expressed his deep concern about the safety and well-being of civilians caught in intensified fighting in the Vanni region of Sri Lanka between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Government of Sri Lanka.  He called on both LTTE and the Government of Sri Lanka to accord immediate and absolute priority to ensuring the protection and well-being of civilians, including humanitarian aid workers.

The Government and LTTE must ensure that all people, including the displaced, are treated in accordance with international humanitarian law.  The Secretary-General in that statement also expressed his concern about attacks on members of the media and urges all parties to demonstrate respect for the freedom of the press.

** Somalia

The UN refugee agency is deeply concerned by the Kenyan Government’s forcible return of Somali asylum seekers.  Kenyan authorities, as recently as last week, forced out three Somali nationals who had crossed the north-eastern border in search of a safe haven.  The three had been duly processed by UNHCR, which recommended that their case be handled by Kenyan authorities.  They were among 29 Somali asylum seekers whose car was fired upon by Kenyan border patrol officers after the driver reportedly ignored the officers’ order to stop.  UNHCR says the fate of the other 26 passengers remains unclear.

Noting that similar cases of forcible return of refugees were brought to its attention throughout 2008, UNHCR calls on the Kenya Government to fully respect the principle of non-refoulement enshrined in the 1951 Geneva Convention.

** Haiti

Alain Le Roy, Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, is in Haiti on a field visit.  He met with UN Mission officials both at their Port-au-Prince headquarters and in Ouanaminthe, on the border with the Dominican Republic.  So far in the course of his visit, Mr. Le Roy has received a briefing on judicial and police reforms, human rights and the planned elections.  He was also extensively briefed on the management of the Haitian-Dominican border.

In response to the expressed expectations of Haitian authorities, Le Roy renewed the Mission’s commitment to continue to support the Haitian Government in building a stronger State.

**Sudanese Refugees in Iraq

The UN refugee agency says a group of 42 Sudanese refugees arrived in Romania last night after being evacuated from a makeshift camp in the desert in Iraq.

The refugees are staying in the new Emergency Transit Centre set up by the Romanian Government, UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to provide a temporary haven for refugees pending final resettlement in a third country.  They are joining another group of Sudanese who arrived last December.

A total of 138 Sudanese refugees are now in the Centre, including 40 children.  They will stay there until their applications for resettlement in the United States are processed.

In Iraq, the Sudanese refugees suffered abuse, blackmail, eviction and assault by militias following the 2003 downfall of the Saddam Hussein regime.  A total of 17 Sudanese were killed between December 2004 and February 2005.

Because of this targeting, the refugees tried to flee Iraq but became stranded in a desert camp some 75 kilometres east of the Jordan-Iraq border.  UNHCR says conditions in the tented camp were very harsh, with desert sandstorms, soaring daytime temperatures and freezing weather at night.

**United Nations Children’s Fund

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) today released its annual Humanitarian Action Report, which highlights the plight of women and children in humanitarian emergencies, many of which have been largely forgotten. 

As part of its annual funding appeal, UNICEF is seeking a little more than $1 billion for protracted humanitarian emergencies in 36 countries.  That’s an increase of about 17 per cent over last year, largely because of increased needs in eastern and southern Africa.  You can read more about this upstairs in a press release.

**International Labour Organization

Just to flag for you, the International Labour Office (ILO) will issue its Global Employment Trends report tomorrow morning.  It will be posted on the ILO website at 8 a.m. our time.

Journalists may request an embargoed press release and electronic version of the report directly from ILO.  There is more information on whom to contact in a press release upstairs.

**International Tourism

And there is also a report today by the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) saying that international tourism slowed down abruptly in the second half of 2008, because of a number of factors, including the financial crisis and oil price rises.  This trend is expected to continue well into 2009 and probably beyond.  And there is more information on that as well.

** Afghanistan

I was asked yesterday about an incident that took place over the weekend in eastern Afghanistan, with a dispute over whether or not civilians had been killed in an attack involving United States forces.

A team from the human rights unit of the UN Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) today visited the site of the incident, in Garoosh in the province of Laghman.  Early, but as yet uncorroborated findings point to both civilian and anti-Government elements being among the dead, the Mission informs us.

UNAMA’s findings are still being verified.  Meanwhile, the UN Mission awaits the findings of a joint United States-Afghan investigation into the incident.

And this was for Massoud.  If anybody sees him, please let him know.

**Press Conference Tomorrow

At 2 p.m. tomorrow, the Institute for Global Policy will hold a press conference, in this Room, to launch a global civil society coalition for the responsibility to protect.

That is what I have for you.  I have Thoraya Obaid here as the guest.  I would like to give her the floor.  Why don’t I take two questions, and we can take some more later.

**Questions and Answers

Question:  It might be more than a few.  Is the General Assembly Spokesman going to be here at all today?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Not that I know of.

Question:  I mean you had this event today, the Holocaust Remembrance Day.  I would like to know, why was the General Assembly President not there?  How was the decision made to have the Rwandan Ambassador give a speech in his place?  Was the UN aware of this threat of a walk-out by Jewish representatives there?  What information can you give us?

Deputy Spokesperson:  The only information I have been told by the General Assembly Spokesperson is that the General Assembly President is out of town.  But why don’t we ask him to follow up on these questions, because I don’t speak for the General Assembly.

Question:  While we have a camera here, please, during this briefing.  That is what we need.

Deputy Spokesperson:  If anybody is listening, maybe the request can be passed on to him.

Question:  His calls to protect civilians notwithstanding, why has the Secretary-General not yet explicitly urged a ceasefire in Sri Lanka, as opposed to Gaza, during which he adamantly repeated calls to end the violence?

Deputy Spokesperson:  For right now, the statement that we issued yesterday is all I have on the issue of Sri Lanka.

Question:  Has any Member State yet requested a ceasefire, that you know of?

Deputy Spokesperson:  That you have to check with the Member States.

Question:  Yesterday, you referred to a conversation that President Barack Obama had with the Secretary-General and you said they discussed several issues and they looked forward to mutual visits.  Can you be a little bit more specific on that?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Not at this point.  I have nothing further to announce.

With that, I think I will turn over to Thoraya Obaid.  Afterwards, if there are any more questions and if we can’t get the General Assembly Spokesperson, I’ll be glad to take them.

[After Ms. Obaid’s press conference, the Deputy Spokesperson announced that the General Assembly Spokesperson was not available and that she would let the correspondents know as soon as he was available.]

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