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

6 February 2009

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

6 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 Michèle Montas, Spokesperson for the Secretary-General.

Good afternoon, all.

I am sorry Mr. Ging will not be able to be with us today, unfortunately.  We’ll try to reach him early next week to try to keep you updated, but we couldn’t get the connection today.

**Secretary-General in Iraq

The Secretary-General made a previously unannounced, eight-hour visit today to Iraq.  He met upon arrival with President Jalal Talabani.  Following that, he held meetings with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and later with the country’s two Vice Presidents (Adil Abd al-Mahdi and Tariq al-Hashemi).  He also held a meeting with United Nations staff in Iraq.

The Secretary-General and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki held a joint press conference after their meeting, in which the Secretary-General congratulated the people and the Iraqi Government on last Saturday’s provincial elections, and said he was in Iraq to show the support of the international community during this momentous time.  He said the elections mark an important event, these being the first polls to affect the day-to-day lives of Iraqi voters.  The success of the Election Day, he added, augurs well for the transition process and the solidifying of Iraq’s national reconciliation.

The Secretary-General added that, in support of Iraq’s leaders, the United Nations will spare no efforts to meet the expectations of the Iraqi people in this next crucial phase.

**Statement on Colombia

We have a statement attributable to the Spokesperson of the Secretary-General on the release of hostages in Colombia.

The release this week of six hostages held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, is welcome news, which the Secretary-General hopes will lead to further releases.  He commends the governmental and non-governmental efforts that enabled these developments to take place.  The Secretary-General is relieved that among those released is the former Governor of the Department of Meta, Alan Jara, who was kidnapped by the FARC in 2001 when travelling in a United Nations vehicle.   The Secretary-General is pleased to know that they are now enjoying their freedom after so much time in captivity.  He expresses his solidarity with the many people still being held against their will in Colombia.

Kidnapping is an inhumane and unjustifiable crime, as well as a gross violation of international human rights and humanitarian law.  The Secretary-General calls on the FARC and other groups to release all hostages immediately.

** Colombia

High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, in a statement that was just issued, expressed relief and satisfaction at the release this week of the six kidnapped Colombians by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.  The hostages had been held captive for between two and eight years.  The High Commissioner applauded the key role played by various actors –- including the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Government of Brazil and a Colombian senator –- in making the hostages’ release possible.  Pillay stressed that illegal armed groups are required, under international law, to release everyone they have kidnapped immediately and unconditionally, including those they have captured from opposing forces during a conflict.

**Statement on Gaza

We have another statement attributable to the Spokesperson of the Secretary-General on Gaza.

The Secretary-General demands that Hamas immediately release the UNRWA [United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East] consignment of humanitarian goods it seized last night, in the second such incident this week, and to refrain from interference with the provision and distribution of humanitarian assistance in Gaza.  UNRWA has suspended the import of humanitarian goods into Gaza until the aid is returned and guarantees of no future such occurrences are provided.

The Secretary-General reiterates the Security Council’s call, in its resolution 1860, for the unimpeded provision and distribution throughout Gaza of humanitarian assistance, including food, fuel and medical treatment.  All parties must refrain from interfering with, or hampering the provision and distribution of, urgently needed humanitarian assistance to the civilian population in Gaza.

** Gaza

The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East has suspended all imports of aid into the Gaza Strip following the confiscation last night of hundreds of tons of food aid.  The food was taken away by trucks contracted by the Hamas-run Ministry of Social Affairs.  It was seized from the Palestinian side of the Kerem Shalom crossing.  The 10 truckloads were carrying 200 tons of rice and 100 tons of flour.

UNRWA’s suspension of imports will remain in effect until the aid is returned and the Agency is given credible assurances from Hamas officials in Gaza that there will be no repeat of these thefts.  This is the second such incident in three days, as was mentioned in my statement earlier.  We have more information on that upstairs.

Meanwhile, the Office of the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for the Occupied Palestinian Territory reports that, because of the difficulties in obtaining food, 88 per cent of Gazans are now registered to receive food aid from the World Food Programme and from UNRWA.  For its part, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) notes that, because of sustained damage, the Gaza City wastewater treatment plant continues to discharge 60 million litres of raw sewage into the sea every day.

Regarding the United Nations $613 million flash appeal that was recently launched for Gaza, more than $90 million has been pledged or contributed so far.  This represents only 15 per cent of the appeal.

** Israel -Occupied Palestinian Territory

In related news, Radhika Coomaraswamy, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, has wrapped up a mission to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory.  Coomaraswamy told UN Radio that children in Gaza told her “horrific stories” of witnessing their family members being killed.  The experience was “shocking”, she said.  Meanwhile, in Ashkelon, in southern Israel, she saw firsthand how children live under fear of missile attacks, which leads to psycho-social issues.

Coomaraswamy also met with a youth group in the West Bank, who openly expressed their despair and anger -- not only against Israel, but against the international community, who they accused of not acting.  And we’ll have her as a guest next week in one of our briefings.

**Lebanon -Israel

Yesterday, the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was notified by the Israel Defence Forces that 10 Lebanese citizens who were on board the ship ‘Tali’ would be handed over through the UNIFIL position at the Ras Naqoura crossing on the Blue Line.  UNIFIL notified the Lebanese authorities and worked in close coordination with the Lebanese Armed Forces to facilitate the transfer.  In the early hours of this morning, UNIFIL received the 10 civilians and in turn handed them over to the Lebanese authorities.  Whereas this particular case of the ship was not related to UNIFIL’s mandate, the mission provided its good offices to facilitate the return as a humanitarian gesture.

** Sri Lanka

The Secretary-General spoke to Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa by telephone yesterday about the ongoing fighting in northern Sri Lanka and the dire humanitarian situation for the civilian population trapped in the conflict zone.  He conveyed his strong concern about the heavy casualties being inflicted on civilians, including children.  The Secretary-General reiterates the responsibility of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam to allow people to move to wherever they feel safe and the obligation of the Government to conduct its military operations with due regard to the need to safeguard civilian lives.

Meanwhile, the World Food Programme reports that the entire population of the northern Vanni region is facing a food crisis, due to continuous displacement as well as crop failure and recent floods.  Livelihoods have been almost completely lost, exacerbating food insecurity, and people’s coping mechanisms have been exhausted.  WFP notes that the area’s people are completely dependent on humanitarian food aid for survival.

Since September 2008, WFP has sent 11 convoys into the region to keep some 230,000 people alive.  The agency also wanted to get a food convoy into the area yesterday, but was unable to get clearance to do so.  The authorities had previously promised that there would be a four-hour humanitarian window yesterday.  The last United Nations convoy sent in was on 16 January and carried 820 tons of food.  That food would have been enough to feed the intended 230,000 beneficiaries in Sri Lanka for only about one week.

** Darfur

At least 30,000 people have fled from their homes in the Muhajariya and Shearia localities of South Darfur over the past days because of hostilities in the region.  The UN humanitarian chief in the Sudan, Toby Lanzer, said that non-governmental organizations and United Nations agencies are ready to deliver food, medicines and blankets to people right now, and are trying to gain access to the town of Muhajariya and villages between there and Shearia in order to do so.  “As each day passes, people's need for assistance increases, and the humanitarian imperative to reach them becomes more pressing,” he added.

The United Nations-African Union Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) reports that the situation is now calm in the area, with military observers having returned to locations in Muhajariya.  UNAMID still has 190 peacekeepers there, and the military observers conducted their first patrol today after the events around the Muhajariya market area.  Approximately 5,000 people are still gathered around the UNAMID camp, apparently seeking protection.

** Somalia

More than 3 million people in Somalia will remain dependent on humanitarian assistance this year.  That’s according to a food security assessment by the UN Food Security Analysis Unit (FSAU).  The Unit says that, despite widespread insecurity, humanitarian work is proceeding with local implementing partners.  So far this year, the World Food Programme has handed out some 34,000 tons of food to some 3.4 million people every month.  UNICEF, for its part, is helping to create a permanent sustainable water system.  UNICEF and the World Health Organization are helping to protect some 1.5 million children aged five or less against preventable and water-borne diseases.

Meanwhile, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports that only 18 per cent of funds needed for humanitarian work in Somalia has been disbursed.  It says providing consistent aid to Somalia will remain a major challenge, a situation certain to worsen now that the European Commission has pulled out from among the top donors.

** Côte d’Ivoire

The UN mission in Cote d’Ivoire (ONUCI), UNDP and the International Office for Migration (IOM) are carrying out a joint programme to help ease former combatants and members of self-defence forces back into civilian life.  Supported by the Peacebuilding Fund, the programme will offer vocational training and in-kind assistance for projects for some 1,300 individuals.  It will last for six months.  So far, some 10,000 ex-combatants have been disarmed throughout the country, with a further 35,000 combatants and 20,000 members of self-defence groups awaiting their turn.  A total of 9,000 of them will be brought into the national army, police and gendarmerie.

** Zimbabwe

The World Health Organization notes an increase in the number of reported cases of cholera in Zimbabwe.  As of 5 February, nearly 68,000 cases of cholera had been reported since August and, of those, 3,371 people had died.

I can also confirm that a humanitarian mission led by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs will be going to Zimbabwe on 21-25 February.  Three other United Nations agencies (WHO, UNICEF and WFP) will be participating in the mission.

**Central Emergency Response Fund

Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes today allocated $75 million from the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) for chronically neglected emergencies in 14 countries.  The largest single allocation -– of $11 million -– goes to humanitarian actors in Zimbabwe, followed by those working in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Ethiopia and Somalia.  There is more information in a press release from OCHA upstairs.

**Development through Sport

UN-HABITAT and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) yesterday signed an agreement to encourage development through sport for young slum-dwellers world-wide.  There is more on that upstairs.

**Female Genital Cutting

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) today called for more efforts to end female genital cutting, as the world marks the International Day against Female Genital Mutilation.  Some 70 million women alive today have been subjected to this practice.  We have more on that upstairs.

And there is also the “The Week Ahead” upstairs.

**Questions and Answers

Question:  About the universal periodic appeal going on in Geneva now -- a human rights group has criticized [inaudible] for failing to hold Saudi Arabia this morning and other countries accountable for their record.  Does the Secretary-General believe the Human Rights Council organ is an effective watchdog?

Spokesperson:  Well, right now, as you know, the universal review process is going on.  It is supposed to address the human rights situation in every single country, and so we are watching it as it unfolds.  I think the Secretary-General hasseveral times called for balance and fair review of the human rights situation in different countries.  I have nothing more to add, because the Secretary-General will not, of course, give an opinion at this point.

Question:  The Secretary-General’s envoy to Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, has been quoted talking about an incident where civilians were shot at by peacekeepers, is blaming the media for reporting on it, saying that… analogizing them to the media in Rwanda that stoked up genocide, and saying that there should be a moratorium on reporting from Somalia from outside of Somalia for a month.  Human Rights Watch has said he should retract that statement.  Is the Secretariat aware of this?  Does it stand behind Ould-Abdallah’s comments attacking the media for reporting on the death of civilians?  What’s the thinking here?

Spokesperson: I couldn’t comment on this.  I haven’t read the statement –- I hear you say it, I will try to get more on what he said exactly.

Question:  Okay, one more.  Generally, on Sri Lanka:  there are a lot of specific things, but I notice, in the statement, you said they should conduct their military operations in… What’s the difference between Sri Lanka and what’s going on in other cases, in which the Secretary-General calls for a ceasefire?  Does he stand behind the Governments… I guess, an assault on this part of the country and what’s happening?

Spokesperson:  Right now, he is concerned about the civilians, and that’s what he is saying.  And that’s the important thing.

Question:  Right, but I guess -- there is a difference.  In many cases, he will say both sides should have a ceasefire to have people come out or let food in.  Various groups have called for at least a temporary ceasefire.  It is a conscious decision on the Secretary-General’s part not to join the calls for a ceasefire?

Spokesperson:  He has said that there should be respect for civilian lives.  That is what he has been saying over and over again, and the United Nations on the ground has been trying to reach the people locked in certain areas to provide them with assistance.  And they are there now.  In terms of whether he has called for a ceasefire or not, I think he has called for restraint.

Question:  When do you plan to announce the names of the commission on Benazir Bhutto’s assassination?  And secondly, any date fixed for the dispatch of security and technical teams to Islamabad?

Spokesperson:  In terms of the actual investigation commission, as I said, we are waiting for the commission to be complete.  There is a third member that has to be chosen.  It hasn’t been the case yet.  So I cannot really answer your question on when that would be announced.  That would depend on when this third person is chosen.

Question:  And what regards the dispatch of security and technical teams –- any date fixed?

Spokesperson:  I can try to get the information for you.

Question:  The African Union has been [inaudible] sanctions on the junta that overthrew the Government last August, the elected Government.  Does the Secretary-General…?

Spokesperson:  I cannot hear you very well.

Question:  The African Union has imposed sanctions on the military junta that overthrew the elected Government last August.  Does the Secretary-General support this action?  And also, we haven’t heard much recently about the Sahara conflict.  What is the latest on this issue?

Spokesperson:  Well, the latest, as you know, is that we have a new Special Envoy, who is right now consulting with the parties.  That’s all I can say about Western Sahara at this point and, as soon as there is a possibility to start a new round of negotiations, that will be done.  In terms of the first issue, I am not going to comment on a decision taken by the African Union.

Question:  I actually have a question, but I also wanted to follow up on Christopher Ross -– is he planning a tour soon of the region, because there were reports that he is planning to visit Algeria, Morocco some time early next week?

Spokesperson: I don’t have any specifics yet on his schedule and where he is going to go and when.  But, as soon as I have it, you can be sure I will let you know.

Question:  My question actually was about the Gaza investigation commission.  I was wondering what’s delaying the Secretary-General from announcing the names, although he announced his intention a while ago to form this commission.

Spokesperson:  Well, the problem is creating that commission.  It is always a problem to get the agreement of some people you choose.  It’s a situation where he can announce it only when he has the agreement of the people he has chosen.

Question:  Yes, but why is it taking so long to pick out three or four people?

Spokesperson:  It’s not just picking out people –- it’s talking to them, giving them the actual mandate that they are actually supposed to carry out, get their approval.  And it takes time.

Question:  So when do you expect that to happen?

Spokesperson:  I cannot answer that question.

Question:  But we hope very soon?

Spokesperson:  Yes.  I think that is going to be very soon.

Question:  Regarding the Secretary-General’s demands for releasing aid in Gaza and for credible assurances this kind of thing will not happen again -– is there any new discussion, that you are aware of, of what sort of reaction there might be if they don’t meet this demand?  And might they actually suspend aid again if they don’t get…

Spokesperson:  As you know, it is temporarily suspended right now, so they are waiting to see the reaction Hamas will have, and there is no doubt that UNRWA people on the ground are determined to get that assistance back so they can distribute it to the people who should get it.

Question:  And they’ll keep it suspended until they get those assurances?

Spokesperson:  Yes.

Question:  Indefinitely?

Spokesperson:  I didn’t say “indefinitely”, I said,“until they get a response”.

Question:  Is there any effort to do an investigation in terms of… Do you know if the Secretary-General or Mr. Holmes is looking into the situation to try and understand what has gone on?  And is there some grievance behind this…?

Spokesperson:  Grievance from whom?

Question:  From Hamas.  With Hamas.  Because I had read something that there was a complaint about the initial delivery, that there was some Fatah-related group, and they were saying that it wasn’t appropriate to give United Nations material to a Fatah-related group, so is there somebody looking into what is happening?

Spokesperson:  Well, we have people on the ground who are looking into this all the time, every day -- and, of course, there is a constant conversation with the people on the ground, the operational people there.  What we do is give food to needy civilians.  What we do is give assistance to people who need it, regardless of their political affiliation.  This is not the issue.  For us, the issue is people who need help.

Question:  But what I have seen, there was an indication that it was going to a group, and the group had to do with Fatah.  And I thought there was some other indication that somehow UNRWA had made some agreement with Fatah about distributing things.  I wonder if there is any effort to try to understand …

Spokesperson:  Sure, there is an effort to try to understand, of course.  But the situation still remains unacceptable.  Whether you understand it or not is one thing.  Whether it is acceptable or not is another story.  It is unacceptable.

Question:  I am not saying it is acceptable.  I am just wondering if there is a process in place to try to correct, to straighten things out.  Any effort within the Secretariat to reconsider not recognizing Hamas, because that seems in this situation to create a lot of difficulties, even in being able to discuss with them what is happening.  Do you know if there is any consideration within the Secretariat?

Spokesperson:  There are always discussions on the different political aspects of the issue.  However, at this point, the immediate situation is getting help to people whose homes have been destroyed.  This is what the immediate concern is.

Question:  A question also on Gaza and the food aid.  Maybe I am just dumb, but, if the situation is so needy for the people to get food, how can you ask for the food to be given back that’s been given out?

Spokesperson:  No, no, no, no.  We are not asking that the food that was given out be returned.  What we are asking is that the food that was seized by Hamas be returned to UNRWA for distribution to the population who needs it.

Question:  But it’s said that they have given the food out, the food that was seized was distributed.  How can you ask for it back?  And the other side of the question is:  Mr. Ging has told us that it is very difficult to distribute the food, because plastic bags to put the food in have not been allowed in.  Has that situation changed?

Spokesperson:  As far as I know, no.  I mean, the plastic bags that he was mentioning yesterday are still blocked at the border, as far as I know.

Question:  And the part about the food that’s been distributed?

Spokesperson:  I don’t have that information.  I don’t know how much of that food was distributed, if that food was distributed.  So we’ll have to find out what happened.  But it is obvious that it is the second time in recent days that it has happened.

Question:  There are reports that there are these Liberian mercenaries, who have sided with the Government in Ivory Coast, demanding compensation, or they are going to “take unspecified actions”.  And that the two missions of the United Nations in the area are discussing this with concern.  Does the United Nations think that these mercenaries should be paid and, if so, by whom?

Spokesperson:  You just said yourself that the situation is being discussed.  Let’s wait for the discussions to bear fruit.

Question:  Is the discussion just sort of how to contain the mercenaries, or is it the discussion about paying them?

Spokesperson:  I don’t know at this point.  I cannot second-guess the people on the ground, who are discussing this.

Question:  Just one other thing.  There is a report that the Sudan expelled a Canadian journalist that reports, among other things, on the OCHA website.  Heba Aly is her name.  Is the United Nations aware of that?  Do you have any comment on a United Nations-affiliated journalist being expelled from the Sudan?

Spokesperson:  I don’t have that information.  So we’ll try to get more information on that.

Thank you so much.

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