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

4 February 2009

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

4 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.  I am sorry I am late today.  I was trying to get the latest from the Secretary-General, who is having a busy day today.

**Secretary-General in Afghanistan

As you know, the Secretary-General made a surprise visit to Afghanistan earlier today, to underscore the priority the United Nations is placing on its work in the country.  During that brief trip, he met with President Hamid Karzai and with his Special Representative for Afghanistan, Kai Eide.  In the Secretary-General’s meeting with the President, they discussed the security situation, social and economic development and upcoming elections.

Speaking at a joint press conference with the President afterward, the Secretary-General said, “For the United Nations, Afghanistan remains a key priority in 2009.”  He stressed the need to ensure that the elections scheduled for this August proceed as smoothly as possible.  And, in response to questions, the Secretary-General reiterated his concerns about civilian casualties in Afghanistan.  He stressed the need for close military coordination to ensure that civilian casualties do not occur in the course of military operations.  We have press releases upstairs with more details on his visit to Afghanistan. 

**Secretary-General in Pakistan

The Secretary-General then arrived a few hours later for his first State visit to Pakistan.  He met shortly after arrival with Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani.  He also witnessed the signing between the United Nations Country Team and the Pakistani Government of a comprehensive programme, called the “One Programme Document”, which develops a framework for the United Nations system’s development work in the country.

The Secretary-General then spoke to reporters, telling them about United Nations support for Pakistan as it deals with the threat of terrorism and with serious economic and financial constraints.  He said that he had discussed with the Prime Minister the importance of maintaining and strengthening the rapprochement between India and Pakistan that has taken its own momentum in the last several years.  And, regarding the 2007 assassination of President Benazir Bhutto, he said that, on the basis of extensive consultations with the Pakistani Government and members of the Security Council, he intends to establish very shortly an independent Commission of Inquiry.  I can confirm that a letter from the Secretary-General has been sent to the Security Council President, informing him of his intention to establish a three-member Commission of Inquiry, looking into the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.

And this evening, he is meeting with President Asif Ali Zardari, and that’s happening right now.

** Gaza

The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has condemned in the strongest terms the confiscation of its aid supplies by police personnel in Gaza yesterday afternoon.  The seizure took place after UNRWA staff had earlier refused to hand over the aid supplies to the Hamas-run Ministry of Social Affairs.  The police subsequently broke into the warehouse and seized the aid by force.

The aid, which included more than 3,500 blankets and over 400 food parcels, was to be distributed to 500 families in the area.  UNRWA has demanded that it be returned immediately.  UNRWA has a strict system of monitoring aid delivery and ensuring that its assistance reaches only the intended beneficiaries.  In this case, the agency’s officials were on the ground overseeing the delivery and taking all possible steps to prevent its diversion.  We have more on that upstairs.

**United Nations Development Programme on Gaza

Meanwhile, also on Gaza, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) estimates that more than 14,000 homes, 68 Government buildings and 31 non-governmental organization offices were either totally or partially damaged during the latest conflict.  As a result, some 600,000 tons of concrete rubble will need to be removed.  Once funding is secured, UNDP will clear rubble; demolish and clean up sites of damaged buildings; and identify and remove unexploded ordnance.  This project will generate 200,000 workdays for unemployed Gazans.  We have more on that upstairs in the Spokesperson’s Office.

** Darfur

The African Union-United Nations mission in Muhajeriya today reports that firing continued throughout the day in the area.  In addition, Government of the Sudan forces were allegedly observed conducting patrols around the town, approximately 500 metres from the UNAMID [African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur] camp.  An unidentified aircraft flew over Muhajeriya today and dropped three bombs, approximately one kilometre from the UNAMID camp.  There were also reports of ongoing shooting, which led to the converging of civilian population towards the UNAMID camp.

The humanitarian community in Darfur reports that an influx of internally displaced persons has arrived in North Darfur following the recent fighting in Muhajeria.  So far, the Al Salaam IDP [internally displaced persons] camp has received 520 new arrivals and the Zam Zam camp, also housing the internally displaced persons, received 1,400 persons.  Ninety per cent of the new IDP population consist of women and children.  UNAMID has provided some tents to assist the humanitarian community in North Darfur.

Meanwhile, the Joint Special Representative, Rodolphe Adada, travelled to Chad today, where he is expected to hold consultations with the leader of the rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), Khalil Ibrahim, on the current situation.

** Sudan

The Secretary-General’s report to the Security Council on the Sudan is out as a document today.  With a little over two years of the interim period remaining, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement has reached a critical juncture, it notes.  While progress in its implementation needs to be recognized, daunting challenges still lie ahead.  Key benchmarks, including census results, elections, border demarcation, disarmament, demobilization and reintegration and preparations for referenda and popular consultations now need to be achieved within a tight time frame with very little flexibility for further delays.

The Secretary-General writes that the parties to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement are yet to present a convincing case for unity to the people of Southern Sudan.  The Secretary-General calls upon the parties to use the remaining two years to explore all options available to make unity attractive, as stipulated in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement.

The International Criminal Court’s actions have had a major impact on Sudanese political dynamics and have diverted much attention at a time when outstanding issues related to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement require the parties’ cooperation and renewed commitment, the Secretary-General notes.  He says that, while he is encouraged by the assurances of continued support by the Government, he is also concerned about remarks by some of its officials that the Government may redefine its relationship with UNMIS [United Nations Mission in the Sudan] should an arrest warrant be issued against the President.

The Secretary-General calls upon the Government to fulfil its obligations to ensure the safety of United Nations staff and of nationals of the State Members of the United Nations in the Sudan.  The Security Council is scheduled to take up this report tomorrow.

** Democratic Republic of the Congo

The Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC) says that it has repatriated 335 former Rwandan Hutu fighters and their dependents to Rwanda in the past month alone.  During the same period, the Mission has also transferred 120 Rwandan civilians to the United Nations refugee agency for further consideration as potential refugees in the Congo.  As of today, another 219 Rwandan nationals are awaiting repatriation at United Nations-run facilities in north-eastern Congo.  The Mission says the number of former Rwandan Hutu fighters willing to go back home to Rwanda continues to increase daily.  It adds that its doors remain open to those willing to join the process.

Meanwhile, the Mission welcomes the increasing number of children leaving the ranks of ethnic Mayi Mayi fighters since the start of the accelerated integration of armed groups into the national army.  During the past week, the Mission’s section of child protection separated 195 children from these groups in the province of North Kivu.

** Sri Lanka

On Sri Lanka, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reports that heavy shelling and aerial bombardment of the hospital area in the north-eastern Mullaithivu District continued yesterday.  For its part, the World Food Programme (WFP) is continuing to negotiate for an adequate window that would allow a food convoy into the Vanni region.  WFP has been told that the earliest possible window would be this Friday.  The last batch of food aid to the area in question went in on 29 January.

**Food and Agriculture Organization

A top Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) crop expert, speaking at an international farm congress in New Delhi today, urged the world’s farmers to quickly switch to conservation agriculture, in order to feed a growing world population.  Conservation agriculture does away with regular tilling in favour of permanent soil cover and diversified crop rotation.  Besides preventing environmental damage, this promotes healthy soil, which retains more water and requires less irrigation.

Meanwhile, an FAO team of experts has visited areas of Liberia affected by the caterpillar plague.  The insects are not armyworms, as previously thought, but a different type of moth species.  This has experts cautiously optimistic, since this type of insect makes cocoons above ground, where it is easier to get rid of them.  And we have more about that in an FAO press release upstairs.

**Commission for Social Development

And finally, the Commission for Social Development opened its forty-seventh session this morning, here at United Nations Headquarters.  The President of the Economic and Social Council, Ambassador Sylvie Lucas of Luxembourg, and the Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, Sha Zukang, opened the meeting.

Social integration is the priority theme for the Commission’s 2009-2010 review and policy cycle, which will take up the relationship between poverty eradication, full employment and decent work for all.  The Commission will also address the impact of current global crises on development as an emerging issue.  The Chair of the Commission is Ambassador Kirsti Lintonen of Finland. 

**Press Conference

And at 2 p.m., we’ll have a briefing on this item by Wim Kok, Former Prime Minister of the Netherlands; Ambassador Kirsti Lintonen of Finland; and Bience Gawanas, Commissioner for Social Affairs at the African Union.  And they will discuss social integration -- the theme of this Commission for Social Development session.

This is what I have for you.  Anything for me?

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Can you confirm to us from UNAMID whether the JEM fighters have actually pulled out of the city of Muhajeriya?  The United States Ambassador said that yesterday after the Security Council meeting.

Deputy Spokesperson:  Yes, according to our spokesman there, I don’t think they have been able to independently confirm that, but I will keep you updated on that.  What we have is the situation on the ground, as reported from the UNAMID contingent on the ground, in Muhajeriya today.

Question:  So it’s possible that they are still there.

Deputy Spokesperson:  I just can’t confirm the press reports, and neither can our people on the ground at this moment.

Question:  Médecins Sans Frontières says that MONUC has failed to protect civilians in the Congo from the Lord’s Resistance Army –- do you have any reaction to that?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Yes, we do.  The MSF’s [Médecins Sans Frontières] charge of “inaction” by MONUC to protect civilians in Haut Uele under attack by LRA is totally unfounded.  MONUC says it has provided the maximum possible support to the Democratic Republic of the Congo Government to deal with this situation.  Since early 2007, the Mission has been working with FARDC to establish a presence in this remote area and contain the threat of LRA.  Primary responsibility for the protection of civilians rests with the Congolese Government, which MONUC is mandated to support for this purpose.  MONUC says it has increased its presence in the area by deploying an additional Moroccan infantry company, as well as elements of the Guatemalan Special Forces company to provide for rapid response.

As you know, the Security Council has called on MONUC to give the “highest priority” to addressing the crisis in the Kivus.  The Mission has concentrated its efforts on the Kivus, but continues to carry out actions on three fronts simultaneously -- in the Kivus, in Ituri and in Haut Uele province.

And finally, to date, MONUC has transported Congolese troops to different points in the region to protect the population and deter attacks.  MONUC is sustaining 2,200 of the 3,400 Congolese troops in the area by providing rations, fuel and essential logistical support, such as casualty evacuations, as well as aerial reconnaissance to support protective deployments by the FARDC.  MONUC has also closely supported FARDC troops, including in November in Dungu by conducting combat air patrols.  And I think all of this is available for you upstairs, if you want to pick it up.

Question:  Médecins Sans Frontières specifically said that on 1 November UN peacekeepers stayed inside their base, while the town of Dungu was attacked.  Does your categorical denial say that the UN peacekeepers actually went out and tried to defend civilians.

Deputy Spokesperson:  I don’t have anything specific on that particular allegation that you are referring to, but I think this has a very comprehensive overview on what MONUC has been doing.

Question:  There is also a figure of 900 dead by the LRA since the beginning of this, but the UN seems to have a different number, which is… Does the UN also reject this number by MSF?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I don’t have the precise number of those killed, but that OCHA and other UN officials -- the Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict -- they have been flagging those killed, the casualties that are ongoing there and their concern.  And, of course, they are trying to do whatever they can in humanitarian terms.

Question:  Just a follow-up on this -- the report, that you are saying the UN categorically denies, the report also says that the UN should use its helicopters to remove the wounded from that area, which it does elsewhere around the world, and it has not done there.  Why doesn’t the UN, in fact, remove the casualties from that area?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I don’t have anything specific on the evacuation, but I did mention to you right now that casualty evacuation is part of what MONUC is mandated to do there.

Question:  I just wanted to make sure I understand this diversion of supplies episode in Gaza correctly.  Do I understand correctly there was a supply depot of UNRWA, and there were UNRWA personnel distributing supplies, and some Hamas fighters came there, seized and diverted the supplies and took them elsewhere.  Is that correct?

Deputy Spokesperson:  George, I don’t want to read the update again.  So why don’t you pick it up upstairs and look at it, and we can follow up with UNRWA if there are further questions.

Question:  To follow up on that, in this general area, this raid by Hamas police on the beach facility raises the question, in the appeal for $613 million that Ban Ki-moon declared at Davos and John Holmes repeated in some detail, is there a line-item budget for armed protection of warehouses?  And if not, are they now considering adding armed protection of warehouses in Gaza to the amount needed to run the relief operations in Gaza?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I don’t have the details of the humanitarian appeal launch, so I would suggest that you talk to Catherine Bragg in OCHA.  She can probably give you an interview on the exact status of what the appeal is looking at.

Question:  In view of these serious allegations in Gaza against Hamas, why do you think is Mr. Ging not available for this Q and A -- has he been asked not to talk anymore to correspondents?

Deputy Spokesperson:  No, absolutely not.  The other day, we had a request, and we brought him on immediately the day after.  So if you want him to come again, we’ll put in a request.  I’m sure he will be glad to join us.

Question:  Now, about this investigation, is it true that the Secretary-General is about to order the UN’s own investigation?  Or is he going to wait for the Israeli investigation to end?  Because you never know when it is going to happen…

Deputy Spokesperson:  No, the Secretary-General has himself announced that he will be establishing an independent investigation, and we hope to have that soon.

Question:  (talkover) I know last week he said he will have an investigation -- are we days, weeks, months away from that, at least in announcing the structure of it?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Days, I hope.

Question:  This investigation commission that he is going to establish on Benazir Bhutto’s assassination -- do you have any bios on these three people selected by the Secretary-General?

Deputy Spokesperson:  As far as I know, the Secretary-General has not yet announced the composition of the commission.  He has, as I mentioned to you, he has written to the Security Council with his intention to establish this commission of inquiry, and he announced it himself just a short while ago in Islamabad, but as far as I know, before I came down here, he had not announced the composition as he was about to go and speak with the President.

Question:  That composition will be announced, when he comes back -- is that what it is?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Well, if he announces it there, I’ll, obviously, pass the names on to you.

Question:  (inaudible) about Benazir Bhutto… she was killed, possibly with Western assistance -- we are not sure -- a year ago in December.  It’s been a year and two months, and one has to wonder if there is some caution about whether or not the West, even the United States, might have been involved in it.  Is there some reason why it takes that long to investigate a very prominent citizen, who was the daughter of an assassinated… Prime Minister, I guess, he was… who was trying to bring democracy to Pakistan?

Deputy Spokesperson:  The Secretary-General mentions in his remarks, in his press conference, that this has followed extensive consultations with the Government and the Security Council.  And when the letter comes out, if you can take a look at it, and it’ll explain the background to it.

Question:  You mentioned at the outset that the Secretary-General paid a surprise visit to Afghanistan.  Was he particularly concerned about his personal security?

Deputy Spokesperson:  For security reasons, we could not previously announce the visit. I hope you can understand that.

Question:  In Sri Lanka, it said that the Foreign Minister today said that the UN has apologized for alleging that cluster munitions were used in the attack on the hospital.  Is that true?  What’s the UN’s current understanding of the use of cluster munitions by either side in Sri Lanka?  And also, does Ban Ki-moon join the call by the US, the UK and some others for a ceasefire between the Government and the Tamil Tigers?

Deputy Spokesperson:  You had two questions?  What is your second question?

Question:  Had Ban Ki-moon called for a ceasefire?  What was the meeting he had with a senior adviser of the President… did he convey… what was said about this attack?  I guess, it seemed strange… has he called for a ceasefire or is he letting it run its course?

Deputy Spokesperson:  On your question about the cluster munitions, some of the UN staff on the ground reported today that cluster munitions had been used close to their positions.  These reports have not been confirmed.  The United Nations has received assurances from the Government of Sri Lanka that they do not procure or use cluster munitions.  So that’s all I have for you on that.  The Secretary-General’s position has been outlined in his recent statements that he has made -- I have nothing beyond that.

Question:  Has he called for a ceasefire?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Matthew, I have nothing beyond what we have said loud and clear on this issue in the last few days.

Question:  Poland has announced that it was pulling its peacekeepers out of three missions -- Chad, UNIFIL and Golan Heights -- saying that its priorities are no longer UN peacekeeping.  In Chad, it is the second largest contributor.  What’s the response of the UN to…?  Has Ban Ki-moon spoken to the Polish leadership?  What does he think of them saying that the UN is not their priority?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Well, as you know, the Secretary-General currently is in a meeting with the President of Pakistan.  We are aware of the report, and we are in contact with the Polish Government to clarify their intentions, and we will update you in due course.

Question:  There are reports suggesting that Benjamin Netanyahu believes that Israel has pulled out of Gaza too soon and that if he is elected next week, that they have no choice but to topple the Hamas regime.  Does the Secretary-General have a response to this comment and is he looking at this situation?

Deputy Spokesperson:  The Secretary-General’s comments… his position on Gaza is well known.  I don’t have an immediate reaction to this press report that you are referring to.

Question:  Marie, is there a specific date set for the Secretary-General’s press conference next week?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Yes, we are aiming for 10:30 on Tuesday.

On that note, have a good afternoon.

* *** *

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