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

2 February 2009

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

2 February 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 today will be Michael Adlerstein, Executive Director of the Capital Master Plan, who will update you on the status of renovation of the United Nations Headquarters.

I have a couple of statements for you.  The first is attributable to the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General on Iraq’s elections.

**Statement on Iraq’s Elections

The Secretary-General congratulates the people of Iraq for strongly exercising their right to vote last weekend in governorate elections, in an atmosphere that was notably and admirably free of violence.  He was deeply impressed by their resolve to participate in a process that should strengthen Iraq’s democracy and further the cause of national reconciliation.  He commends their determination to ensure a transparent and credible process.

The Secretary-General lauds the efforts of the Independent High Electoral Commission for organizing these elections as planned, and commends the professionalism and commitment of the staff involved at each step of the process.  He salutes the massive domestic observation effort facilitated by the Commission, involving more than a half million national observers and political party agents.  The Secretary-General is also pleased to note the significant presence of international monitors, which is a strong demonstration of support to the Iraqi people and the Electoral Commission on this important day. 

He expresses his satisfaction that the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq was able to make helpful contributions to the process, including through its technical assistance.  He reaffirms the United Nations commitment to support and assist the Electoral Commission during the next stage of the process, which includes the adjudication of formal complaints before results can be certified.

**Press Conference Tomorrow

And tomorrow morning, at 11 a.m., we will have Staffan de Mistura, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Iraq, to brief you via video conference on these recent Iraqi elections.

**Statement on UNHCR Workers in Pakistan

Now, turning to Pakistan, there is another statement attributable to the Spokesperson.

The Secretary-General was deeply distressed to learn about the attack on two United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees workers today in Quetta, Pakistan, that took the life of Syed Hashim and resulted in the apparent abduction of John Solecki.  He condemns, in the strongest terms, attacks on United Nations staff who serve the neediest people around the world.  Such acts are aimed not only against United Nations personnel, but also against those they serve selflessly and with dedication.

The Secretary-General expresses his deepest condolences to the family of Mr. Hashim and calls for the immediate and safe release of Mr. Solecki.  

**UNHCR Pakistan

There is also a press release from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.  The two staff members, UNHCR says, were on their way to UNHCR’s office in Quetta about 8 a.m. when their vehicle was stopped by armed men.  The driver, Syed Hashim, who had worked for UNHCR for 18 years, was shot and died later in a Quetta hospital.  John Solecki, the head of the UNHCR sub-office in Quetta for the past two years, was apparently abducted.

Antonio Guterres is quoted as saying that “UNHCR’s mission in more than 110 countries around the world, including in Pakistan, is aimed solely at easing the plight of refugees, displaced people and innocent civilians in a totally impartial and humanitarian manner.  The targeting of those who help the world’s most vulnerable people leaves all of us deeply shocked and saddened.”

As I said, there is a statement from the Secretary-General and an UNHCR press release available upstairs, in the Spokesperson’s Office.

**Secretary-General in Addis Ababa

The Secretary-General today is in Addis Ababa, where he addressed the African Union Summit, pledging the United Nations continuing support for Africa and praising progress in the efforts to form Governments in Somalia and Zimbabwe.  He said that all of us can take pleasure in the progress to a political settlement in Somalia, and he congratulated the newly elected President.  The people of Somalia, he added, must build on their excellent start in Djibouti to achieve a truly national political and social compact.  We issued a statement over the weekend about the election in Somalia.

On Zimbabwe, he urged all sides to build on the hard-won breakthrough which has taken place, so that the international community can partner with Zimbabwe in meeting the desperate humanitarian needs of its people.  He added that he will immediately send a high-level humanitarian mission to Zimbabwe.  Speaking later at a press conference, the Secretary-General said that, at a meeting yesterday with President Robert Mugabe, he urged the President to uphold the human rights and democratic freedoms of all Zimbabweans and promote national reconciliation, including the release of all prisoners arrested over the past few months.

The Secretary-General also told the African Union Summit his concerns about the latest violence in Darfur -– on which we also issued a statement last night.  In his press conference, he noted that dramatic events have unfolded in Muhadjeria, and that he has urged President Omar al-Bashir for maximum restraint and has urged the Justice and Equality Movement to withdraw from the city to protect innocent civilians.  He also spoke about the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he said that the spirit behind the new cooperation in the east should be the basis for building lasting peace.  And he expressed his concern about recent developments in Madagascar and urged all parties in that country to address their differences peacefully and through existing constitutional mechanisms.

We have upstairs copies of his statement to the African Union Summit, his opening remarks to the press conference, and we are expecting the transcript of the press conference shortly.

** Darfur

Meanwhile, from Darfur, the United Nations-African Union Mission there reports that the security situation in South Darfur remains relatively calm and unpredictable due to aerial bombardments and frequent movement of unidentified aircraft over the town of Muhajeria.  UNAMID estimates that about 5,000 people are reported to have concentrated at the UNAMID base for the second time since the fighting began between Government of the Sudan and Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) forces on 15 January of this year.  It was also reported that two persons were injured during an explosion that occurred earlier during the day and were taken to a hospital in that town.

** Somalia

The Secretary-General’s Special Representative, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, has praised the “open and transparent manner” in which the voting in Djibouti was carried out.  And we have a press release with his remarks on that development, as well, upstairs.

** Democratic Republic of the Congo

The United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC) says that it wishes to clarify that it will not participate in any transaction or operation in which Congolese warlord Bosco Ntangada will play a role at any level.  Ntangada, as you know, was indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, including enlisting children under the age of 15 and using them in active hostilities.

Meanwhile, the Mission’s Task Planning and Liaison Team assigned to the Goma headquarters of the Democratic Republic of the Congo/Rwanda joint military operation against Rwandan Hutu rebels is not yet up and running.  The Task Planning and Liaison Team was dispatched last week at the request of the Congolese Government.  Its role is strictly limited to planning and liaison, with a goal of facilitating and coordinating the United Nations humanitarian work in the areas affected by the joint military operation.

** Gaza

Today in Geneva, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes launched a $613 million flash appeal for Gaza.  The United Nations arrived at that amount following various needs assessments over the past two weeks.  The plan incorporates 106 projects by non-governmental organizations, as well as 82 United Nations projects, which will respond to the emergency humanitarian and early recovery needs of some 1.4 million people in Gaza.

Launching the appeal, Holmes said, “We are here today not to debate the rights and wrongs but to highlight the needs arising from the recent events in Gaza and to request urgent funds to allow the UN and partners to restore basic social services such as water, health and education; provide food; support emergency repairs of critical infrastructure; and begin to tackle psychological and protection concerns.”  Holmes stressed that, in order for the aid agencies to meet the formidable challenges ahead, two basic conditions have to be met.  The first is much freer access for humanitarian goods and staff.  In that context, he noted that many humanitarian workers are still being refused regular entry into Gaza.

The second condition is that meeting immediate needs should be kept separate from political considerations.  Holmes said the United Nations will engage all parties in Gaza, including the Palestinian Authority, Israel and those in control on the ground, to try to ensure that there is no political interference in the movement or distribution of humanitarian aid, and no diversion of it.  The United Nations is, for example, exploring ways to strengthen audit and control over the delivery of aid to ensure that it reaches the intended beneficiaries.

We have his full statement upstairs, and we also have a transcript of the press conference he gave today, along with the Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), Karen AbuZayd, and the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Max Gaylard.  But if any of you require additional details here, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says it is happy to arrange interviews with Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator Catherine Bragg.

** Myanmar

The Special Adviser to the Secretary-General, Ibrahim Gambari, arrived in Yangon on Saturday for a four-day working visit in the context of the Secretary-General's good offices mandate.  Since his arrival, Mr. Gambari has met extensively with Government counterparts, members of the opposition and other political parties, as well as other interlocutors.

Mr. Gambari has met with the so-called Government Spokesperson Authoritative Team composed of the Ministers of Information, Foreign Affairs, and Culture, as well as with the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Planning, Health and Agriculture.  He also met with the Minister for Liaison with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.  Today, for the first time, Mr. Gambari met for over an hour jointly with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and members of the Central Executive Committee of the National League for Democracy (NLD), as well as, separately, with representatives of the Shan National League for Democracy (SNLD).

In addition, Mr. Gambari has met with the Tripartite Core Group (TCG), composed of Myanmar, ASEAN [Association of South-East Asian Nations] and the United Nations, on the progress made in the humanitarian, recovery and reconstruction efforts following Cyclone Nargis.

** Sri Lanka

On Sri Lanka, the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator’s spokesman, Gordon Weiss, today expressed concern over a north-eastern hospital that has been shelled numerous times over a 24-hour period, including at midday today.  The shelling resulted in the killing of 11 people altogether, including one nurse today.  Weiss said that it is uncertain where the shellfire came from, but that his office had notified both parties about what has been going on.  Unfortunately, this has not seemed to bring an end to the artillery strikes, he added.

The hospital has around 600 patients, with new people arriving all the time.  Hundreds of those are critically injured and can’t be treated.  The International Committee of the Red Cross is trying to negotiate a new convoy out of the area and into Government-controlled territory, where the patients can be treated properly, according to Weiss.

Meanwhile, the World Food Programme is continuing negotiations with the Government to secure an adequate window for the next humanitarian convoy into the area.  According to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), no convoy has gotten in since last week.

**Security Council

And turning to the Security Council, Japan has assumed the rotating Presidency of the Security Council for the month of February, and Japanese Ambassador Yukio Takasu is holding bilateral meetings with other Council members today to discuss the programme of work for the month ahead.  Ambassador Takasu plans to brief you in this Room at 12:30 tomorrow to discuss the Security Council’s work during February.

** Afghanistan

Kai Eide, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, said today that he was deeply saddened to learn of a bomb attack at a police centre in the province of Uruzgan that has left many dead or wounded.  Eide said the attack shows contempt both for human life and for the community’s wishes for a just Afghanistan.  He said that people across Afghanistan want and need better justice and law enforcement, and efforts to train and professionalize the police are aimed at meeting that demand.


And finally, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) issued two separate reports on opium production today.  The first, covering Afghanistan, says the amount of opium grown there will likely drop this year.  Declines are even expected in the seven most unstable provinces in the south and south-west, where most of the country’s production is concentrated.  The second report covers South-East Asia, which now accounts for just 5 per cent of the world’s illicit opium, down from 50 per cent in 1990.  Thailand and Laos are almost opium-free.  Myanmar saw a slight increase last year and remains the world’s second largest producer of opium.

UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa warns that recent gains are fragile, and sustainable development measures are needed to maintain the progress made so far.

That’s what I have for you.  I mentioned to you that we’ll have Michael Adlerstein here shortly, to brief you on the renovation, and tomorrow at 11 a.m. we’ll have Staffan de Mistura, the Special Representative for Iraq, to brief you via video link on the recent Iraqi elections.

Let’s take a few questions.

**Questions and Answers

Question:   Marie, is the United Nations in touch with the Pakistani Government regarding this kidnapping of the United Nations official and the killing of the United Nations worker?

Deputy Spokesperson:    Well, you just heard the statements that we issued and we are doing our best to, obviously, secure the earliest possible release.

Question:   Since then, there has been no -– any response from the Pakistani Government?

Deputy Spokesperson:    I have nothing beyond what I said on this matter.

Question:   Also, Marie, can you tell us if there is any progress on the Secretary-General’s appointing a probe into… looking into Benazir Bhutto’s assassination?  Can you report any progress on that now?

Deputy Spokesperson:    Now, as soon as I have something, again, you are the first person I would like to tell it to, but I don’t have anything for you today.

Question:   And one other question I wanted to find out from you… I just wanted to find out, on a different subject, on the Israeli threat that it will bomb Gaza again, disproportionately, if there is any attack.  Does the Secretary-General have any response to that?

Deputy Spokesperson:    I refer you to the Secretary-General’s remarks.  I refer you to the remarks he made in Addis Ababa today.

Question:   You said that Mr. Gambari met with Aung San Suu Kyi.  It’s been reported by a number of places that she said to him –- she expressed frustration that not more had been accomplished and said that the Secretary-General should not visit until she and other political prisoners are released.  Can you confirm that readout and, if so, what is Mr. Ban’s thinking about actually visiting Myanmar, in the light of her statement?

Deputy Spokesperson:    This is the first time in almost a year that Aung San Suu Kyi and members of the Central Executive Committee of the NLD party have been able to meet and the first time that Mr. Gambari was able to meet with them together.  They had open, detailed and cordial discussions on the agenda developed with all interlocutors in the course of his visit so far, including the release of political prisoners, the dialogue between the Government and Aung San Suu Kyi, the need for a credible and inclusive political process and ways to address socio-economic issues.

Question:   On this… you mentioned the shelling of this hospital in Sri Lanka.  Does the United Nations know, or is it endeavouring to find out, who shelled the hospital, the Government or the Tamil Tigers?

Deputy Spokesperson:    I think, at this point, the United Nations is doing everything it can to try to stop this and to try to reach the victims in need.

Question:   On Zimbabwe, I think I heard you right when you said that there is going to be a humanitarian mission dispatched to the country.  Can you tell me a little bit more about it, and did it result from conversations directly with President Mugabe in Addis?  And if so, do you know who is going?

Deputy Spokesperson:    Okay, let me start with a bigger picture.  Yes, the Secretary-General met with Zimbabwean President Mugabe on the margins of the African Union Summit yesterday.  The Secretary-General, welcoming the agreement of the parties to form a Government as a first step towards full democracy, urged President Mugabe to take immediate measures to address the humanitarian and economic crisis.  He further urged him to uphold human rights and democratic freedoms of all Zimbabweans and promote national reconciliation.  In this regard, he urged him to release all prisoners arrested over the past few months.  The Secretary-General pledged that the United Nations would work closely with the new Government on the implementation of the humanitarian programmes.  In this light, I think I just mentioned to you, the Secretary-General did say that he would be dispatching a humanitarian mission.  That was agreed upon, I believe, in his discussion with President Mugabe, and the person leading that mission will be Catherine Bragg of OCHA.

Question:   So, just to get it right, this mission is going to do exactly what?

Deputy Spokesperson:    It’s a humanitarian…

Question:   I know what it is, but what’s its [inaudible]

Deputy Spokesperson:    We’ll have to find more about it as soon as the dates and details of that mission have been firmed up.  This is something that just grew out of his conversation, in the past 24 hours.

Question:   [talkover] to assume that they are going to assess the needs of Zimbabwe and what the international community can do, if there is, indeed, a power-sharing Government?

Deputy Spokesperson:    Let’s look at what the Secretary-General said.  I know he just finished a press conference and he took some questions on the mission.  I just don’t have the transcript just yet, so let’s look at what he said about this first, before I can elaborate further.  Thanks.

Question:   What was the reaction of the Secretary-General to the election of President Muammar [Al-] Qadhafi as the new Chairman of the African Union?

Deputy Spokesperson:    I don’t have an immediate reaction on that development, sorry.

Question:   When Mr. Gambari has finished his trip to Myanmar, is there any plan to meet with the Secretary-General in Asia somewhere?

Deputy Spokesperson:    That is the idea.  I believe he will be briefing the Secretary-General towards the latter part of the week.

Question:   Would that lead to a possible visit by the Secretary-General to Myanmar?

Deputy Spokesperson:    Let’s, first of all let Mr. Gambari finish his mission and then brief the Secretary-General on his trip.

Question:   Where would this meeting be, the one later this week, between Mr. Gambari and the Secretary-General?

Deputy Spokesperson:    I am not 100 per cent sure, so I’d rather check and get back to you.

Question:   But not here –- over there somewhere?

Deputy Spokesperson:    No, as you know, the Secretary-General, we announced, will be in Asia later this week, in Pakistan and in India.

Question:   I noticed, when you made a statement regarding the attack on the staff in Pakistan, you said that the driver was killed and the second one was “apparently abducted”.  It was not sure that he was abducted?

Deputy Spokesperson:    I was reading from a UNHCR press release, so if you could just pick up that press release and check for yourself, that would be good.  The Secretary-General’s statement is available, as well.

Question:   One more follow-up on Myanmar.  When will Mr. Gambari be back here in New York?

Deputy Spokesperson:    I actually don’t have a date for that.

Question:   But he will come back at some point and brief the Security Council, right?

Deputy Spokesperson:    We’ve gone through this before.  Let him brief the Secretary-General first and, of course, it is up to the Security Council to request such a briefing.

Question:   First of all, is it possible to know what the United Nations security phase in Pakistan is?

Deputy Spokesperson:    It’s not something that we make public.

Question:   And I also wanted to ask about… It’s been reported that a Permanent 5 Ambassador said that Robert Fowler and presumably his colleagues are, in fact, alive.  Does the United Nations have any information either to that effect, or… There is a quote by Farhan Haq that the Secretary-General has met with the family members of Fowler.  What can… More and more questions are arising, given the United Nations silence about this disappearance.

Deputy Spokesperson:    I have nothing further to add at this point.  As soon as I have some news, I will let you know.

Question:   When will the Secretary-General end this trip?  To Asia, India?

Deputy Spokesperson:    We announced that he will end his trip on Friday.  And we are trying to plan for… What you probably want to know is, we are trying to plan his monthly press conference for you, hopefully, early next week.  I will let you know as soon as I confirm that for you.

Question:   Can you refresh the United Nations policy on abductions?  I mean, I believe you are not allowed to –- that United Nations rules say there will be no money, no ransom, or any direct negotiations if someone steps forward?

Deputy Spokesperson:    I think we say very little about abductions until there is a result.  As you can imagine, it’s a very delicate security issue.

Question:   Is it true the United Nations refuses to pay ransom?

Deputy Spokesperson:    Yes.

Well, I am going to ask you to wait a few minutes, and I am sure we’ll have Michael Adlerstein here, and we’ll try to get him here sooner, if he is not on his way.

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