Daily Press Briefing by the Offices of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General and the Spokesperson for the General Assembly President

9 February 2009

Daily Press Briefing by the Offices of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General and the Spokesperson for the General Assembly President

9 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, and Enrique Yeves, Spokesperson for the President of the General Assembly.

Briefing by Spokesperson for the Secretary-General

Good afternoon all.

** Middle East

Joining us as a guest today is Radhika Coomaraswamy, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, who just wrapped up a trip to southern Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory.  Also joining us, by videolink from Gaza, is John Ging, Director of Operations in Gaza for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

UNRWA has today reported that the Hamas authorities in Gaza have returned to UNRWA all of the aid supplies they seized last week.  As a result, UNRWA can now lift its suspension on aid imports.

But the Agency’s food distribution operation to 900,000 refugees continues to be jeopardized by Israel’s refusal to let materials for plastic bags into Gaza.

We have a press release from UNRWA upstairs and I’m sure John Ging will be able to tell you more about these developments, as well.

Meanwhile, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) has released the findings of a survey, which show that the recent fighting has taken a strong economic, social and psychological toll on the lives of Gazans.

Almost two thirds of the households polled said they need assistance, identifying emotional and psychological aid as a top priority, followed by employment, housing, financial support and medical attention.

With regards to children, the survey cited signs of stress, such as bedwetting, nightmares, aggressive behaviour and anxiety.

We have a press release from UNDP in my office, and I’m sure Ms. Coomaraswamy will be able to brief you more on the effects of the recent fighting on children.

We have also upstairs information from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which is working to restore quality educational services, strengthen the safety and protection of journalists and enhance press freedom in Gaza.

**Security Council

The Secretary-General will meet with the members of the Security Council at 3:30 this afternoon, in closed consultations, to brief them about his recently concluded travels.  Over the past two weeks, you’ll recall, he attended the African Union Summit in Addis Ababa and visited UN missions in Afghanistan and in Iraq, among other stops.

Earlier this morning, the Security Council held an open meeting on Sierra Leone.  The Secretary-General’s Executive Representative there, Michael von der Schulenberg, presented the first report on the UN Integrated Peacebuilding Office in that country, saying that Sierra Leone has made great strides in recent years.  He said that peacebuilding in Sierra Leone will need sustained political and financial support from the international community.

** Sri Lanka

The United Nations in Sri Lanka condemns today’s suicide attack on a registration centre for displaced people fleeing the conflict zone.

The attack killed and wounded many civilians, including children, who had already been forced from their homes by fighting.

Reiterating that civilians must be distinguished from combatants and protected from the fighting, the United Nations calls once again on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, known as the LTTE, to separate its forces from civilians under its control.

Meanwhile, the number of people leaving the conflict zone, where the United Nations has reported that no safe place exists, continued to rise over the weekend.  The number stands at 15,000, which means that a great majority of those in the area have remained there.  The number of deaths and injuries also remains high.

The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says six new transit sites for those who have left have been set up in Vavuniya in the last three days, while the UN is assessing three more proposed temporary sites.

The United Nations is providing both shelter and non-food items to those displaced persons who have fled the fighting, but is unable to get more aid into the conflict zone.

** Madagascar

Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs Haile Menkerios is in Madagascar today, where he met today in the capital with President Marc Ravalomanana and Mayor Andry Rajoelina.

Both parties deplored the loss of lives and agreed to put an end to the violence.  They declared that they are committed to start a UN-facilitated dialogue and to resolve their differences peacefully.

Menkerios is consulting with all stakeholders and exploring how best the UN could support this dialogue process and contribute to national reconciliation.

Yesterday, we issued a statement responding to Saturday’s tragic events, in which at least 25 people were reportedly killed and dozens injured.

The Secretary-General deplored the violence and lack of restraint on all sides that led to this tragedy, and he urged the Malagasy authorities to urgently initiate a fair process by which those responsible will be brought to justice.

He also called upon all concerned parties to resolve their differences through peaceful and democratic means and through the exercise of responsible leadership.

** Darfur

The United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) reports that earlier today a UNAMID MI-8 helicopter was fired at by unknown assailants, approximately 70 kilometres south-west of El Fasher, while on a food supply mission.

No casualties were recorded, and the aircraft returned to El Fasher safely.

A technical inspection conducted after landing showed that the aircraft windscreen was severely damaged.  UNAMID is currently investigating the incident.

Meanwhile, UNAMID also reports today that widespread displacement is ongoing following recent fighting in Muhajariya, South Darfur.

Figures have yet to be verified pending sustained access, but significant numbers of people have arrived at villages and camps in North and South Darfur.

UNAMID Force Commander General Martin Luther Agwai today paid a one-day visit to Muhajariya to assess the situation following the clashes between Government of Sudan forces and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).

Aid agencies there have found people in urgent need of food, medicine and water.  The agencies are concerned that as many as 89,000 beneficiaries in Muhajariya and surrounding areas have not been reached with food rations.

**South Sudan

Humanitarian agencies continue to respond to the increasing number of displaced people as a result of Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) attacks in the Western and Central Equatoria states of South Sudan.

The attacks resulted in death, damage of property and displacement of thousands of people in the area, according to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

The number of displaced people has surpassed 40,000, and humanitarian agencies are trying to meet their needs, OCHA says.

** Democratic Republic of the Congo

Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes continues his mission to the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Today Holmes visited the towns of Dungu and Doruma in the Haut Uele province.  That region has been the theatre of repeated deadly attacks by the Lord’s Resistance Army on civilians.  Several hundreds have been killed in those raids, and the Ugandan rebels also abducted hundreds of children to fill their ranks.

While there, Holmes discussed local conditions with internally displaced people.  He met with some victims of the LRA attacks.  He surveyed the humanitarian response to the crisis, including issues of access and protection of civilians.  Before leaving the region, Holmes renewed his condemnation of atrocities committed by the LRA.  He also called on regional authorities and the UN Mission (MONUC) to keep up their efforts to prioritize the protection of civilians across eastern Congo.  Holmes is now en route to Kinshasa, where he intends to meet Government officials, foreign diplomats and the UN country team.  His mission ends tomorrow.

We have upstairs a press release from OCHA on the first few days of Holmes’ visit, which started last Friday.

** Afghanistan

Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Alain Le Roy is continuing a visit to Afghanistan, where today he told the press that the United Nations is working to ensure that the country’s elections take place on time, with fairness and transparency.

Le Roy noted the achievements Afghanistan has been making in health, education, demining and the strengthening of the armed forces and police.  The United Nations, he said, will be in Afghanistan for the long term to help these achievements to be sustained in the future.

** Pakistan -- Swat Valley

The United Nations, as part of the broader humanitarian response, has begun providing assistance to as many as 2,000 families displaced due to the ongoing military operation in the Swat Valley of Pakistan.

The assistance to the migrating people -- provided by the World Food Programme (WFP), UNICEF, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the World Health Organization (WHO) -- includes food supplies, shelter materials, clothing, kitchen utensils and water and sanitation facilities.

Twelve trucks loaded with food and non-food assistance that left Peshawar on Saturday morning safely reached the outskirts of the Swat Valley during the weekend.

Thousands of families have been migrating from Swat, where the military is engaged in an operation against militants.  With fighting having intensified in recent weeks, it is estimated that 50 per cent of the total 1.8 million people in the area have been severely affected.

** Pakistan

We have a press release upstairs from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), expressing its concerns over the fate of its representative in Quetta, Pakistan, John Solecki.  The United Nations is seeking further information on a group called Balochistan Liberation United Front, which claimed through the local media on Saturday that it was holding Solecki.

UNHCR says that the unknown circumstances behind the abduction hamper the delivery of vital humanitarian aid in the volatile western region of Pakistan, where UN workers are now required to take extra security precautions.

**Stakeout on Sierra Leone

The Security Council President and the Executive Representative for the Secretary-General for the United Nations Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Sierra Leone (UNIPSIL), Michael von der Schulenberg, are expected to speak to the press at the Security Council stakeout momentarily, if any of you want to get there.

** Fiji

We have upstairs a press release on the dispatch of a joint technical team by the United Nations and the Commonwealth to Fiji, from today until 14 February.  This follows a decision by both organizations to accept the request to mediate a political dialogue.  The technical team, in consultation with the interim Government and stakeholders, will develop the modalities for the United Nations and the Commonwealth to jointly mediate an inclusive, independent and time-bound political dialogue process.

While in Suva, Fiji, the joint technical team will consult with a broad range of national stakeholders, as well as with regional and international actors.

** Caribbean Community

In remarks to the opening of this morning’s fifth general meeting of the UN and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the Secretary-General said that the Caribbean region possesses abundant natural assets, as well as strong democratic roots in many countries.  But this stands in stark contrast to some of the region’s ills.  Foremost among them are trafficking in illicit drugs and small arms, and the use of the region’s countries as transit points.  With this trade comes violent crime.

The Secretary-General emphasized that renewed cooperation between CARICOM and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime will be an important part of efforts to address the problem.  He added that the UN is committed to supporting CARICOM in strengthening human rights institutions and carrying out the provisions of the Charter for Civil Society.

** Haiti

The UN Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) says it is crucially important that all efforts be made to ensure that the upcoming election can proceed in a transparent and inclusive way.  It recalls that it has an electoral assistance mandate, including providing logistical and security backing to the Haitian authorities.  The Mission welcomes the progress made so far, saying that it is satisfied with the approval by the Provisional Electoral Council of 33 parties to contest the poll.  But, noting the publication this past Friday of a list of certified Senate candidates, the Mission stresses that the widest participation possible is the best way to ensure the credibility of the vote and the acceptance of results by all.

In that spirit, the Mission calls on all parties to work together in an atmosphere of peace, openness and tolerance.  We have more in a press release upstairs.

**Endangered Languages

The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is planning to launch an atlas of world languages that are in danger of disappearing.  The event will take place in Paris next week.

The atlas is published for the first time as an interactive, digital tool with updated information on over 2,500 languages.  It will be available free of charge worldwide.  We have more upstairs.

**Press Conferences Tomorrow

At 9:30 a.m. tomorrow here in Room 226, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) will launch its annual report, Attacks on the Press.  Speakers will be Joel Simon, CPJ Executive Director; Paul Steiger, CPJ Board Chairman; and journalist Carl Bernstein.  This press conference is sponsored by UNESCO.

At 10:30 a.m., also in this Room, the Secretary-General will hold a press conference to brief you on his recent travels.

I will take your questions briefly and then we will try to see whether we can have Enrique brief you and then we will have, of course, our guests on the situation in Gaza.

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Michèle, do you have any information on the investigation the Israelis are carrying out with regard to UNRWA and to the attack on the UNRWA schools?

Spokesperson:  May I ask you to reserve your questions on Gaza for our two guests?  You should be able to ask them later.  We are trying to go fast.

Question:  But this was supposed to be a report to the Secretary-General from the Israelis.

Spokesperson:  Yes, well, they are still expecting that report.  They have asked the Israeli authorities to provide a report and they are still expecting that report.  But there is still an investigation, as you know, that is going to be carried out on our side on what happened to the UNRWA schools and the UNRWA building.

Question:  Any timeline?  When is it going to happen?

Spokesperson:  I don’t have that information yet.

Question:  Still very soon, the announcement of the investigation?

Spokesperson:  Yes, yes.  Mr. Abbadi?

Question:  Michèle, thank you.  How long will the press conference with the Secretary-General last?

Spokesperson:  Forty-five minutes.  Yes, Masood?

Question:  About the situation in Swat and the north-west of Pakistan -- on the outskirts of Swat.  Do you have any idea, Michèle, as to how many people have fled Swat and how many people is the United Nations taking care of right now?

Spokesperson:  You have that information upstairs, as I said earlier. I read a note on it and you have information upstairs, the details.

Question:  There are reports of this video of UN Envoy Robert Fowler surfacing and it was sent to the Canadian Government.  I’m wondering whether, number one, if it was also sent to the UN since he was a UN Envoy, and, two, if the UN has any response or comment on or acknowledges the authenticity and who’s behind the abduction of Mr. Fowler?

Spokesperson:  I can only say that we are aware of the reports, and we do not have any further comments on that.

Question:  I just want to know the difference between the UNHCR gentleman that was abducted in Quetta that you’ve called on –- you note the name of the group that took him -- and everything seems to be moving much faster.  I’m just sort of… How can you explain the difference in public response and transparency in the two cases?

Spokesperson:  It’s not a question of transparency.  It’s a question of security for the lives of people.  In one case, it works one way, in another case, it works a different way.  It’s a case-by-case basis.

So, yes, we’ll have our guests come up.  Please.

Briefing by the Spokesperson for the General Assembly President

Okay, I thought it would be good to update you on some of the work of the General Assembly and where we stand, especially in the area of the democratization of the United Nations, which is one of the main priorities of the President of the General Assembly.  And we are moving on three different fronts.  One, as you know, is Security Council reform.  Another is the financial crisis and the restructuring of the international financial institutions.  And the third is the revitalization of the General Assembly itself. 

Let me give you a little update on each one. 

On Security Council reform, as you know, the President of the General Assembly got a mandate from the previous session on the very last day to address the issue of the reform of the Security Council within a timetable.  And the timetable was that the Open-Ended [Working] Group was going to discuss among themselves the different possibilities, modalities and negotiations up to the end of February. 

The President of the General Assembly, in order to facilitate and try to accelerate this process, named the Ambassador from Afghanistan, Ambassador [Zahir] Tanin, as one of his vice presidents to try to lead such a process.  That first part is basically now over.  The President of the General Assembly has announced that after six meetings –- at least six meetings of the Open-Ended Group -- he is now calling for the 19th of February to start the intergovernmental negotiations.  He announced that to the member countries already a couple of weeks ago. 

At the first meeting, the President will be presenting the work plan and providing some clarity on the themes and modalities on how to move.  That’s with Security Council reform.  I know it is a very interesting issue for most of you, so I have asked Ambassador Tanin to brief us in detail on the different aspects.  And we are going to have a briefing this Friday with Ambassador Tanin on them.  I can answer some questions, but I think it will be much better for him to address those issues for you. 

Now, on the financial crisis and the restructuring of the financial institutions, as you know, when we had the first signs of the financial crisis, the President of the General Assembly, Miguel D’Escoto, called a group of experts to give an assessment.  They were coordinated by Joseph Stieglitz from the United States, and they created a commission of 18 experts to review and to evaluate the situation.  At the same time, in Doha, last December, the President of the General Assembly got a mandate to call for a meeting at the highest level possible of Member States to discuss the financial crisis and its impact on development. 

I’m going to give you a little bit -- because we have not been informing you on where we are on this –- a little bit of the calendar that will be going ahead until we have this high-level meeting.  As you know, the first meeting of the Commission of Experts took place on the 5th and 6th of January here in New York.  Now, during February, they split into working groups and they have been working on several areas. 

Now, we expect, the 9th and 10th of March, we will have a second plenary meeting of the Commission of Experts.  By the 20th of March, we expect to release a preliminary report of the Commission that will be given to the member countries to discuss in an Interactive Thematic Dialogue on the 25th and 27th of March.  Right after that, the Commission of Experts will have another meeting [28 March] with the feedback they have from the different countries.  Based on that, we will have, on 6 April, a revised Preliminary Report of the Commission. 

We expect then on 13 April to start the intergovernmental negotiations.  That will be the base for the conference at the highest level which should be taking place, most likely, in the first week of June.  And the President of the General Assembly has today informed the Member States on the proposed modalities to be discussed in an informal meeting of all members.  That informal meeting is now being called for this Thursday, 12 February.  They are not going to discuss the substance there, but what are the modalities.  And what are the modalities?  The modalities are a few practical elements, including the dates of the meeting.  Already, there has been coordination with other efforts like the G-20 [Group of 20] Summit that is going to be taking place in London.  The President has been in close contact with the organizers, with the British authorities and some other delegations, in order that both initiatives try to coordinate as much as possible. 

This is basically what I have for you.  Again on Thursday, then, we will have one of the senior experts of the Cabinet of the President of the General Assembly briefing you on the different details, on the calendars and what’s behind it, on this second major effort, which will be having its climax on the first week of June, most likely.  Dates are still to be confirmed. 

And on the third area, which is the revitalization of the General Assembly, as such, President D’Escoto would like to move a little bit further once we have some more results on the other two.  And this is basically what I have for you for now.  Let’s go in order.  Mr. Abbadi?

**Questions and Answers

Question:  You indicated that, on the 19th of February, the intergovernmental negotiating group will start its work.  And you also said the President of the General Assembly will submit some kind of modalities to that group.  What kind of modalities does he have in mind?

Spokesperson:  It is my understanding that, during the open-ended negotiations, the member countries have agreed to what are the main issues they want to discuss or they want to negotiate.  And they have an idea on how -- what would be the best way forward in order to negotiate.  Again, this is an issue on which I would prefer to have Ambassador Tanin give you a more detailed explanation because he’s been participating in all the meetings, and he has been leading those negotiations.  So we can wait until Friday for more details, if that’s okay.  Edie?

Question:  Enrique, I’m just checking.  Did you say that the high-level meeting is now envisioned for the first week of July?

Spokesperson:  June. 

Question:  June?

Spokesperson:  June.  Either at the end of May or the beginning of June.  That’s the idea, but, again, this is something that needs to be approved by the member countries.  But that’s the most likely scenario right now.  The first week of June.

Question:  Just as a follow-up, does that envision inviting all Heads of State and Government -- world leaders -- here.  Or would it be at a lower level?

Spokesperson:  That’s correct.  That’s the idea:  to have the meeting at the highest level possible.  Heads of State, if possible.  And the President of the General Assembly will start -– also, let me announce, he’s going to be travelling to several capitals in a couple of weeks to inform some of the Heads of State in different countries about this important initiative.  Masood?

Question:  Did you make a [reference] in your remarks from the President of the General Assembly on this meeting in Italy, in Rome, that took place last week?

Spokesperson:  This was not a meeting by the President of the General Assembly or a meeting of the General Assembly, as such.  It was a meeting organized by the Italian authorities -- by the Government of Italy -- trying to facilitate the process.  Ambassador Tanin was there as an observer, and he can give you more information on Friday on what was discussed there. 

Question:  You mentioned a meeting of the Commission of Experts –- a plenary -– on the 9th to 10th of March.  Would Joseph Stieglitz be chairing that meeting?

Spokesperson:  Yes.  The Commission of Experts is, as you know, chaired by Dr. Stieglitz, and they were supposed to have in their work plan four meetings.  They already had one in January.  Then the second is 9 and 10 March.  The third is the 20th of March, right after the thematic dialogue with the member countries.  And the last one should be 6 April.

Question:  They will all be at Headquarters?

Spokesperson:  Not all of them.  We are now trying to see –- some of them might take place at our headquarters in Geneva and at another capital.  But we are trying to see whether there is enough in the budget for that. 

Question:  The one on the 9th to 10th of March will be here?

Spokesperson:  We don’t know yet.  Masood?

Question:  Any update on the threat to the life of the President of the General Assembly?

Spokesperson:  No, we have not heard anything from the authorities.  Mr. Abbadi?

Question:  Where is the President of the General Assembly now?  Is he travelling?  Also, would he be interested in giving us a briefing here at some point?

Spokesperson:  He’s not travelling.  He’s back.  We were in Doha last week.  He participated in our fundraising campaign for the children of Gaza at the invitation of the Sheikha of Qatar.  He’s back now working hard with all these pressing issues.  If you are interested in having a briefing with the President of the General Assembly, as you know, he’s more than happy to answer your questions and to brief you.  I can talk to him.  Matthew?

Question:  Does the General Assembly plan to get a briefing from Ibrahim Gambari about Myanmar upon his return in the same way that they did before?  And then also… go ahead…

Spokesperson:  I’m not sure this is scheduled yet.  But I can check that for you.  I have not heard anything about it. 

Question:  There’s some… United Nations and other sources are talking about a climate change mini-summit to be convened by the Secretary-General in late March.  Is that something that the General Assembly President would want to be involved in?  What does he think is the role of the General Assembly in convening countries around climate change?

Spokesperson:  The Secretary-General and the President of the General Assembly are very well coordinated on all of the activities that are planned for the General Assembly, and this is one of the activities they have been discussing.  What are the best options and the best dates, etcetera, etcetera.  So for the summit as such, I think, for that meeting in particular, it would be better for Michèle to reply.  But they have been meeting during… I mean periodically to see what are the best dates for all the different meetings and the support both of them can give in their respective mandates to the work of the Organization. 

Question:  But is the idea to do it before this G-20 meeting in London?  I just want to make sure we’re talking about the same climate summit.

Spokesperson:  I am not sure we’re talking about the same.  Because, do we have…?

Spokesperson for the Secretary-General:  This is not set yet.

Spokesperson:  I don’t think we have a decision yet.

Okay.  Thank you very much.

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