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

19 February 2009

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

19 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.

**Security Council

Speaking in an open meeting of the Security Council, the Secretary-General today lauded the remarkable progress made over the past year in Timor-Leste.  “We begin 2009 with a clear horizon,” he told the Council, in which the country can finally devote its undivided attention to the essential task of building the strong and durable foundations that are crucial for long-term stability and prosperity.

The Secretary-General pledged the full support of the United Nations system in helping the Timorese people realize their hopes for security, stability and well-being.  We have his statement upstairs.

** Sri Lanka

United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes arrived in Colombo this morning at the start of a three-day visit to Sri Lanka.

Holmes met with various senior officials, including the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights, the Secretary of Defence and the Minister of Resettlement.  He also met with the United Nations country team in Sri Lanka.

Holmes held constructive meetings with the Government officials, in which he stressed the need for civilians caught in the conflict zone in northern Sri Lanka to be protected from harm, underscoring his concern about reportedly heavy civilian casualties.  He also stressed that civilians must be allowed to leave the affected area.  In this regard, Holmes reiterated his call on the need for all parties to respect international humanitarian law.

In a joint press conference with the Minister of Foreign Affairs following his meetings, Holmes called upon the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to allow civilians to leave the conflict area, and to cease the forcible recruitment of civilians, including minors.  He further reiterated the need for all parties to do everything possible to prevent civilian casualties.

Tomorrow Holmes is scheduled to visit the vicinity of Vavuniya, where he will meet people displaced from the conflict zone.


Today in Belgrade, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Kosovo, Lamberto Zannier, met with Serbian leaders and officials, including President Boris Tadić and Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremić.  They exchanged views on issues of concern and the way forward.

Zannier briefed the officials on the deployment of the European Union’s mission in Kosovo, known as EULEX, as well as on the reconfiguration of the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK).  He said he expected the European Union to play an increasingly important role in helping to resolve practical issues.

Earlier this month, Zannier held similar consultations with the authorities in Pristina.  We have more on that upstairs.

** Gaza

On Gaza, the office of the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for the Occupied Palestinian Territory reports that the Nahal Oz fuel pipelines and the Kerem Shalom crossing between Israel and Gaza are open today, and the Erez crossing is open for international staff.  But the Karni and Sufa crossings remain closed, as does the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt.

In related news, Karen AbuZayd, the Commissioner-General of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) met today in Gaza with John Kerry, the Chairman of the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  Two US Congressmen, Brian Baird and Keith Ellison, also visited Gaza today.

The US representatives visited UNRWA’s Headquarters and toured areas of Gaza damaged in the fighting.  They also were briefed on UNRWA’s work, the humanitarian situation in Gaza, and the difficulties caused by the lack of full access through the crossings.

** Pakistan

In Islamabad today, the United Nations and Pakistan’s Ministry of Health and Population Welfare signed a joint initiative to address the needs for improving health and population issues in the country.

Fourteen UN agencies operating in Pakistan have combined their strength to plan, develop and implement the Joint Programme on Health & Population.

The programme has an estimated budget of around $384.7 million.


Addressing the International Fund for Agricultural Development’s annual Governing Council meeting in Rome, IFAD’s outgoing President, Lennart Bage, called on world leaders to do more to address the fact that long-term food supply is not keeping up with rising demand.

With access to the right seeds, fertilizer and irrigation and financing, most of the world’s 500 million smallholder farms could double or triple their yields.  In Africa and Asia, such farms cultivate 80 per cent of the total farmland.

In other news, IFAD’s Governing Council has chosen Kanayo F. Nwanze of Nigeria as the agency’s next President.  Mr. Nwanze has 30 years of experience in agriculture, rural development and research and is currently the agency’s Vice-President.  Mr. Nwanze takes up his post on 1 April.  There is more information on both of these upstairs.

**Climate Change

Also upstairs, we have several items on climate change.

A three-day conference on maritime transport, hosted by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), has wrapped up in Geneva with a call for the industry to do more to limit its carbon dioxide emissions.  Maritime transport accounts for as much as 4 per cent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions; that number could triple by 2050.  Experts are urging changes in vessel designs, engines, propulsion systems, and energy use.

At a meeting in Beijing, organized in part by the World Meteorological Organization, international experts focused on ways to cope with the increasing frequency and severity of droughts and extreme temperatures around the world.  Several experts cited as an example the recent heat wave, drought and wildfires in Australia.

And the city of Copenhagen today became the 100th participant in the Climate Neutral Network.  The Network, led by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), was launched one year ago to promote global action towards low-carbon economies and societies.

**Endangered Languages

One more item:  According to a new atlas by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), more than 200 languages have recently become extinct.

Among them are Manx from the Isle of Man, Aasax from Tanzania, and Eyak from Alaska.  The atlas establishes that India, the United States, Brazil, Indonesia, and Mexico, countries that have great linguistic diversity, are also those which have the greatest number of endangered languages.

But the situation is not all bad.  For example, Papua New Guinea has the greatest linguistic diversity on the planet, with more than 800 languages, but relatively few of those languages are endangered.

In connection with the new atlas, UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura today said the death of a language leads to the disappearance of many forms of invaluable cultural heritage.

**Press Conferences

Following this briefing, at 1 p.m. today, Ambassador Melvyn Levitsky, member of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), will present the main findings of the 2008 INCB Report.

Tomorrow at 1:15 p.m. here in this room, there will be a press conference to commemorate the first World Day of Social Justice.  Speakers will include Mary Robinson, Founder and President of Realizing Rights:  The Ethical Globalization Initiative; Member of The Elders and former President of Ireland, Thomas Pogge, Leitner, Professor of Philosophy and International Affairs at Yale University and author of “World Poverty and Human Rights”; and Eric Falt, Director of the Outreach Division of the UN’s Department of Public Information.

And this is all I have for you today.  Yes, Masood?

Questions and Answers

Question:  Michèle, about four or five days ago I think, there was a meeting held in Geneva of lawyers, justices and experts who deemed that, in the US-led war on terror by the Bush Administration, human rights suffered the most, in its statement.  Does the Secretary-General agree with that particular position that human rights worldwide have suffered, because of the anti-terror policies adopted by the Bush Administration?

Spokesperson:  I don’t have anything on that for you today.

Question:  Will you have something later on?

Spokesperson:  I don’t know.

Question:  Okay.  The other thing I wanted to ask you is since Israel has tied this one release of one prisoner to any ceasefire agreement, what about 12,000 Palestinians who have been held in Israeli jails?  Do you have any update?

Spokesperson:  As you know, that situation is still being discussed as part of a possible agreement on a possible lasting ceasefire.

Question:  Also, the release of Palestinian prisoners by the Israeli…

Spokesperson:  Yes, this is being discussed.

Question:  It’s being discussed?

Spokesperson:  Of course.  Yes, Mr. Abbadi?

Question:  Thank you, Michèle.  Michèle, this morning according to some media sources, Ambassador Fowler and his colleagues have been kidnapped by Al-Qaida Maghreb and they cite some announcement by that group to this effect.  Does the Secretary-General have any reaction to this new development?

Spokesperson:  None, Mr. Abbadi.  As I said earlier, we will not comment publicly on this situation because of the safety of the hostages.  So we’re not commenting further.  Yes, Matthew?

Question:  Two questions.  One is there has been a call by some human rights groups for the UN Mission in Sudan, UNMIS to not transfer two of the Lord’s Resistance Army indictees of the ICC to Uganda.  They said that they had information that UNMIS is considering transferring them and this would violate the UN’s agreement with the ICC and otherwise.  Does UNMIS know the whereabouts of these two individuals and is it considering transferring them?  Would it consider transferring two indictees to a country that would not extradite them to The Hague?

Spokesperson:  We asked UNMIS that question this morning and, according to them, contrary to the media reports to which the letter referred, UNMIS is not and has not been preparing to help the return to Uganda of Okot Odhiambo and Dominic Ongwen.

UNMIS has no specific information about the whereabouts of either one of them beyond a general understanding that the two individuals are not inside the territory of the Sudan.  That’s all they know.

UNMIS has not facilitated and will not facilitate the return of the two men to Uganda.  So that’s what I got from them today.

Question:  I understand that John Holmes is in Sri Lanka so I’ll just wait to hear what he says when he comes back.  But, there are reports that a summit of a council of NGOs in Mullaitivu district says that it has written a letter to Ban Ki-moon citing among things, 1,400 civilian casualties since 27 January.  As of local…  They call themselves a coalition of NGOs on the ground in that district.  Has that letter been received and what…  I understand the UN’s job is not counting bodies, but given that it works with local authorities, what, if any, are the authorities in the conflict zone in Sri Lanka that it would look to for this type of information?

Spokesperson:  As you said yourself, Mr. Holmes is there on the ground.  Let’s wait for him to come back.  As far as whether we have received that letter, I am not aware of the letter.

[The Spokesperson later added that the Secretary-General had not received a letter recently from non-governmental organizations in Sri Lanka.]

Question:  While he is there I understand he is supposed to meet with the President but he is meeting with the senior adviser of the President who met with the Secretary-General some weeks ago.  Who on the other side of this conflict is he meeting with?

Spokesperson:  I don’t know.  What I gave you earlier, you were not here yet, is all I have really in terms of his meetings, and we will get more, of course, additional information later today.

Question:  The Secretary-General is making, I think, his second or third trip to Africa next week.  He has not been to Nigeria.  Nigeria is the largest country in terms of population in Africa and he is going to Africa for the third time and he is not going to Nigeria.  Is there any particular issue why he is blacking out Nigeria in his [inaudible] countries?

Spokesperson:  He is not blacking out Nigeria.  There are a number of other countries he has not been to and in this specific case he was formally invited by the President of South Africa when he met him in Addis, and the same for President Kikwete, who invited him to Tanzania.  So in those two cases, those were formal invitations that were sent to him and that he accepted.

Question:  So does that mean that the Nigerian President has not yet invited him?

Spokesperson:  I don’t know.  But as far as I know no formal invitation has been sent.

Question:  May we have a readout of yesterday’s meeting between the Secretary-General and Mr. Obasanjo?

Spokesperson:  No, you wouldn’t because it is an internal meeting between Ambassador Obasanjo and the Secretary-General.  So we would not have a readout on that.

Question:  It was a private meeting?

Spokesperson:  Yes, sure.

Question:  It wasn’t about the Congo?

Spokesperson:  It was about his own mandate in the region.

Question:  So if it’s about his mandate, which is a public thing, why are we not going to have…?

Spokesperson:  Because he works for the UN, so he is talking to the Secretary-General of the UN.  It’s not a public meeting.  But, of course, if we can get him to come and talk to you, we’ll be glad to ask.

Question:  About tomorrow’s meeting, Mr. Gambari is going to brief the Security Council.  What can we expect from that?  Is there going to be any statement, any reports, any details you have on that?

Spokesperson:  I think he is meeting with the Security Council first and then he is going to meet with the Friends of Myanmar and I don’t think he will talk to the press before he speaks to the two groups.

Question:  And one more thing about Darfur.  Apparently Goodwill Ambassador George Clooney was there recently and there are reports that his UN security detail was pulled back because of fear that he might say something about the ICC.  And apparently he was left on his own without any UN security.  Can you confirm that he was there and…?

Spokesperson:  Well, he was there, but we are still trying to ascertain the facts.  What we know is that Mr. Clooney travelled to Chad in his own capacity, not in his role as a UN Messenger of Peace.  And, MINURCAT itself does not have armed military police.  It relies on Chadian police and EUFOR for armed escorts.  So MINURCAT, the UN, could not provide the type of security details that you are talking about.  It would EUFOR.  EUFOR has been advised of the presence of Mr. Clooney and indicated that it would be prepared to provide Mr. Clooney with emergency support, if required, within the area of its operations.  So this is what I got from DPKO this morning.

And I also got from WFP that they were contacted in January by the “Not On Our Watch” Foundation, which has acted as a donor to WFP’s flight service in Sudan.  They requested WFP to assist with their planned trip to eastern Chad.  The Foundation brought with them George Clooney and journalists.  WFP has provided flights to eastern Chad and at times, other logistical assistance needed to visit WFP project sites.  The Foundation team is also in contact with other NGOs and has travel plans with them.

So this all I have in terms of information.  First, the security aspect of it and the logistical aspect.  They got support from WFP; they were on a WFP plane that took them there.  And they got facilities from WFP.  But in terms of the security matter, we are still trying to ascertain what was said and whether there was a problem for EUFOR in providing security.  As far as I understand from the answer I got this morning, EUFOR would provide security in case it was needed.

Question:  Well, but as a Goodwill Ambassador of the UN, shouldn’t the UN provide security?

Spokesperson:  But he was not there as a Goodwill Ambassador.  When he travels as a Goodwill Ambassador for the UN ‑- of course, then it does not depend on MINURCAT, since MINURCAT does not have the manpower, does not have the military police ‑- he will travel with other UN security.  But in this case, it was not the case.

Question:  Well, it seems kind of suspicious, because apparently it was done for reasons related to the ICC.  This is kind of an issue that...

Spokesperson:  I am not aware of that.  I am not aware that there was anything of that sort.

Question:  To follow up on that because, I mean, I understand you are trying to get to the bottom of it, but the Times columnist Nicholas Kristof writes “The UN called me on Wednesday to say that effective immediately it was pulling Mr. Clooney’s security escort.”  So he is definitely reporting that he had a security escort and that the UN called…

Spokesperson:  That’s what I said; I am trying to ascertain the facts.  I don’t know who called Nick.  I don’t know who in the UN called or what security he had before, but all I can ascertain is that they were not MINURCAT security.  That’s all I could ascertain this morning.  I will try to find out what security he had and what UN official called Nick Kristof.  I don’t know.

Question:  I want to ask a non-related MINURCAT question.  Last week there was a Security Council meeting about MINURCAT and it emerged I think, that the Chadian Government of Idriss Déby was trying to charge the UN, DPKO for the airstrip that was built by EUFOR.  Is that something that you can either confirm now or look into and confirm that the Government of Chad tried to charge for the airstrip and the UN refused to pay, and ultimately, Chad stopped asking for it, and also that Chad was charging landing fees that led to fewer MINURCAT landings than had been planned?

Spokesperson:  I will try to get the information for you, I don’t have it.  Yes, Pat?

Question:  Is there a published list of guidelines for celebrity ambassadors where they are well informed about, I suppose…

Spokesperson: Sure there is, of course.  Yes, Masood?

Question:  Michèle, I am going to ask again so that it doesn’t go…  Why is this Benazir [Bhutto] Inquiry Commission stalled?  Why is it not starting?  I am just asking the question because you were…

Spokesperson:  It is not stalled.  I am just saying this over and over again; you ask me every single day that I am here and I have the same answer.  As you know, the head of the Commission was named and has still not assigned the other people who are members of the Commission.  What difficulties there are, I don’t know at this point.  But this is where the problem lies.  The Commission cannot start working as long as they don’t have full staffing.

Question:  So it is your understanding it is going to be only three members or four members of the Commission?  How many members of the Commission?

Spokesperson:  I was told there would be three and they might be accompanied by a military expert.

Question:  Okay.  So three are there and as I understand one is the Indonesian, one is the Chilean Ambassador and the other one is a Norwegian diplomat…

Spokesperson:  They have not been confirmed.  Only the head of the Commission has been confirmed.

Question:  I see.  So that is taking a long time?  I mean, what I am saying is why is it taking such a long time?  So you will let us know?

Spokesperson:  Yes, of course.  And you are going to ask me the same question tomorrow.  And I will be answering you the same way.

Question:  God willing.  (laughter).

Spokesperson:  Yes, Pat?

Question:  I am also following [inaudible] Bhutto [inaudible] writing about the whole situation, so I am also keenly interested in whenever it comes out.  Could you tell me the name of the chair because I don’t have…

Spokesperson:  You have all that information upstairs, Pat.  I have been saying this over and over again.  You have all the information you need upstairs.  Mr. Abbadi?

Question:  Michèle, I understand that Ambassador Christopher Ross will be travelling to the Maghreb region soon.  Do we have a precise calendar of his travel?

Spokesperson:  Yes, I have it for you.  On 18 February, he is supposed to be in Rabat.  On 21 February, he goes to Tindouf.  On 22 February, he departs Tindouf for Algiers and, on 25 February, he departs Algiers for Madrid.

Question:  Okay.  Has the Office of UNESCO made copies available of the map on languages to your office or the…?

Spokesperson:  You can go on the UNESCO site and they have quite an extensive press release on that.  I don’t know about the maps.  I didn’t check it myself.

Question:  But you don’t have any available copies, hard copies of the maps?

Spokesperson:  You can come to my office and I am sure someone will be glad to print it for you.

* *** *

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