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

20 February 2009

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

20 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

The Security Council this morning held consultations on Myanmar.  Council members received a briefing from the Secretary-General’s Special Adviser, Ibrahim Gambari, on his recent trip to Myanmar as well as to other key countries.

Gambari spoke to reporters after those consultations, saying that he had told the Council that his programme on his latest visit was more balanced than on his previous one.  He said that, so far, he has not seen tangible outcomes from his visit.  He noted that all his interlocutors, including the Government of Myanmar and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, appreciated the Secretary-General’s continued good offices role.

** Sri Lanka

Over in Sri Lanka, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes travelled to Vavuniya in northern Sri Lanka on the second day of his visit to that country.  He was accompanied by Basil Rajapakse, Senior Adviser to the President of Sri Lanka.  In Vavuniya, Holmes met local authorities, visited two sites for internally displaced persons and met with humanitarian agencies working on the ground.  Meanwhile, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy, said the protection of civilians, especially children, must be the first priority in the ongoing conflict in Sri Lanka, and both sides must act accordingly.

Reiterating that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) must release civilians to safety, especially the children, Coomaraswamy urged the Government to be more circumspect with regard to artillery fire and aerial bombardment to avoid civilian casualties.

She stressed that the international community has a duty to work with the Sri Lankan Government to ensure that the treatment of internally displaced children meets international standards.  And we have the full statement upstairs.

**Human Rights Council

In Geneva this morning, the Human Rights Council opened its tenth special session.  The focus of today’s special session is the impact of the global economic and financial crises on human rights.

High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said that the economic and financial crises are having a disproportionate impact on the livelihoods of the most vulnerable and marginalized groups.

She also stressed that States are not relieved of their human rights obligations in times of crisis.  In fact, States must ensure that domestic policy adjustments, particularly those in fiscal spending, are not taken at the expense of the poor, through cutbacks in basic services and social protection mechanisms.  We have her full statement upstairs.

The Human Rights Council expects to adopt a resolution on today’s topic [on Monday], before closing its special session, and of course we will keep you informed.

** Durban Review Conference

As you know, the Durban Review Conference, which is a follow-up to the 2001 World Conference against Racism, will be held this April in Geneva.  In the meantime, negotiations are continuing on the Review Conference’s outcome document.

The latest round of informal consultations by the working group that is negotiating that outcome document wrapped up yesterday in Geneva.  The working group’s meetings were held under the chairmanship of the Russian Federation.  And for the first time, the United States and Australia actively participated in the discussions.

So far, 35 paragraphs out of a total of 250 have been fully agreed upon and adopted by the working group.  Further sessions of the informal consultations will take place next week in Geneva.  There is more information in today’s Geneva press briefing notes, which we have upstairs.


The International Court of Justice says that Belgium instituted proceedings yesterday against Senegal at the Court, concerning what Belgium described as a dispute between those two countries regarding Senegal’s compliance with the obligation to prosecute, or otherwise extradite, the former President of Chad, Hissène Habré.  Belgium, the Court says, has requested provisional measures, citing its concerns that Habré could “leave Senegal and avoid any prosecution”.  We have more information in an International Court of Justice press release upstairs.

** Pakistan

A press release issued today in Islamabad reiterated our appeal to those holding John Solecki, the UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) representative in Quetta, to release him immediately without harm.  We are aware of the message received Wednesday evening through the media and we take it seriously.  We are again grateful for the support of the leaders of Baluchistan for the safe release of John, and acknowledge the concerns of the Baluchistan community.

The United Nations is working on appropriate ways to address the concerns, including sharing information with the relevant authorities, such as the newly established Federal Ministry of Human Rights.  You may recall that the United Nations signed an agreement earlier this year with the Ministry of Human Rights, in support of strengthening the promotion of human rights throughout Pakistan.  The full press release is upstairs.


On Haiti, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Haiti, Hédi Annabi, yesterday addressed a ministerial conference in the Dominican Republic dealing with drug trafficking, transnational organized crime and terrorism.  He warned that those cross-border threats can have a devastating impact on a State such as Haiti, which is still emerging towards stability.

Annabi stressed the main elements in the current multifaceted strategy to stabilize Haiti, including the provision of operational support for Haiti’s security, institution-building and socio-economic development.  He emphasized that using such a strategy to make Haiti more stable can feed back into security in the broader region by helping Haiti avoid becoming a base for such threats.  We have his statement upstairs.

** Nepal

In Nepal today, the Office of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights in Nepal and Nepal’s National Human Rights Commission signed guidelines for cooperation, recognizing that the strengthening of human rights in Nepal benefits greatly from the complementary relationship between the two organizations.

Key areas of collaboration will include the promotion of human rights through the dissemination of information and educational materials, and the organization of joint trainings for law-enforcement officials and representatives of Government and civil society.

** Zimbabwe

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports today that the latest number of suspected cholera cases in Zimbabwe has surpassed 80,000, including 3,759 deaths.  All 10 provinces of the country are affected.

High numbers of cases have also been reported in neighbouring countries, especially South Africa.  But the relative strength of the health-care system there has enabled the case fatality rate to remain below 1 per cent.

Other countries where cholera has been reported include Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia, but it has to be noted that cholera is endemic in these countries, according to WHO.

The World Health Organization, together with its partners, has set up a cholera command and control centre in the capital, Harare.  The role of the centre is to coordinate the response to the cholera outbreak and provide technical coordination for partners in the areas of epidemiological and laboratory surveillance, case management, social mobilization, logistics and infection control of water and sanitation in treatment centres.

**United Nations Environment Programme

The UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Governing Council wrapped up today in Nairobi, with more than 140 countries unanimously agreeing to launch negotiations on an international treaty covering mercury pollution.

While the treaty is being finalized, Governments agreed to step up action on a voluntary global mercury partnership.  Such a partnership would pursue several measures, including boosting storage capacity for stockpiled mercury and reducing mercury in thermometers and other products.

Also at this week’s session, environment ministers backed a decision requesting UNEP to spearhead an environmental assessment mission to Gaza to assess the impacts of recent hostilities.  In addition, they agreed to establish a special group of ministers to improve the way the world’s environmental architecture is run, and also decided to hold an international meeting on biodiversity loss later this year.

** Indonesia

UNICEF reports that it has opened its 200th school in Indonesia’s Aceh-Nias region since the 2004 tsunami.  The school has 22 classrooms and will house more than a thousand students.  UNICEF and its partners are planning to open nearly 150 more such schools in Indonesia by September.  There’s more information in a press release upstairs.

**UNCTAD Appointment

The Secretary-General, in consultation with the Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), has decided to appoint Mr. Petko Draganov of Bulgaria as Deputy Secretary-General of UNCTAD.  Mr. Draganov is expected to assume his functions in May 2009.  He will replace the late Dirk J. Bruinsma.

Mr. Draganov is currently serving a second term as the Permanent Representative of Bulgaria to the United Nations and other international organizations in Geneva.  And we have his bio upstairs.

**Social Justice

Today is the first World Day of Social Justice.  In his message, the Secretary-General stresses that global stability and prosperity depends on equal opportunities for people.

He adds that justice is still an elusive dream for many people who suffer from extreme poverty, hunger, discrimination and the denial of human rights.  The global financial crisis threatens to make the situation even worse.  He calls for a renewed commitment to the principles of social justice and the vigorous pursuit of strategies and policies that will achieve it.

**Press Conferences

At 12:45 p.m. on Monday there will be a press conference on the occasion of the UN Economic and Social Council’s special meeting to discuss and explore collaborative opportunities in advancing progress in maternal and girls’ health, and neglected tropical diseases.  This meeting involves more than 400 participants from the corporate, philanthropic, academic and global health partnerships communities.

Speakers at the briefing will include Marianne Barner, Head of IKEA Social Initiative; Bernard Pecoul, Executive Director of the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative; Sophie Delaunay, Executive Director of Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders; Kari Stoever, Managing Director of the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases; and Nikhil Seth, Director of the Office for ECOSOC Support and Coordination, UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

And at 1:15 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; 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 that’s for 1:15 here in this room this afternoon.

**The Week Ahead at the United Nations

We of course have The Week Ahead upstairs.

From Monday until Wednesday, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, John Holmes is on his first official visit to Colombia to assess the humanitarian situation there.

On Wednesday, next Wednesday, the Secretary-General is in Johannesburg and Pretoria, South Africa.  He is scheduled to meet with President Motlanthe and the Ministers for Finance and Environment.  Of course, we will tell you more about his itinerary in the next few days.

On Thursday, the Secretary-General will be in Tanzania, where he is scheduled to hold discussions with President Kikwete and address the diplomatic and academic community in Dar es Salaam.

And also on Thursday, the Security Council is scheduled to adopt a resolution on the UN Mission in Timor-Leste, then hold a debate on the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq.

And on Friday. the Secretary-General is scheduled to inaugurate the “One UN Office” in Zanzibar.  He is also due to fly over the receding ice cap of Mount Kilimanjaro on his way to Arusha to visit the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.  That’s next Friday.

And of course, as you know, The Week Ahead at the United Nations is produced by Alex Cerniglia.  And today is the last day for Alex in my office.  I think we’ll all miss his professionalism and his sense of humour.  Thank you all.  Yes, Edie?

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Michèle, also thanks to Alex from all of us.  On Myanmar, does the Secretary-General have any comment on the announced release of 6,000 prisoners, and does he have any plans to visit the country as a result of Mr. Gambari’s recent trip?

Spokesperson:  At this point I cannot really confirm any trip.  At this point the decision has not been taken yet and I think Mr. Gambari has answered most of your other questions about his recent trip.  Mr. Gambari was informed today that the Government of Myanmar has granted amnesty to more than 6,000 prisoners.  We have his reactions.  I don’t know whether he got a chance to give you his reaction while he was out there.  It still remains unclear whether and how many political prisoners this deal may include, and Mr. Gambari said this is a positive step and we encourage the Government of Myanmar to release all political prisoners, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.  And as you know, this is also the position of the Secretary-General, who has been asking for the release of political prisoners.  Yes, Matthew?

Question:  Just a couple of questions about Sri Lanka.  First, there is a breaking news story where it is claimed that there is an airplane bombing at Colombo, presumably by the Tamil Tigers. I don’t know if it’s something that either Holmes, being there, or the UN can either confirm or knows what’s going on.  Also, Human Rights Watch has come out with a study based on a visit to the conflict area saying 2,000 civilian casualties, 5,000 injured, and I wonder if the UN now is in a position to either comment on that.  Does it have its own numbers?  Does it dispute those numbers?

Spokesperson:  Well, Mr. Holmes is there now, and as I said, he is better able than anybody to answer that question.  He is going to come here this weekend, and then he is going to fly again to Colombia.  But we’ll try to get him to come and talk to you between those trips or between other trips.  He is taking quite a few these days.  I already gave the information I had on Sri Lanka earlier.  You were not here.  So you can have the notes upstairs.

Question:  I also wanted to ask, there is a report of a big protest of Tamils in front of the UN in Geneva.  Is it true that the staff was let out in the afternoon and how many people in the UN’s estimate were in front of the UN?  What’s the response to that protest?

Spokesperson:  Actually our office in Geneva reported that about 6,000 people were present at the Palais des Nations.  The UN office had been told beforehand that it was going to take place, and indeed they have let our staff go earlier today.

Question:  So to a degree, the protesters seem to be saying that the UN should be doing more or should be less aligned with the Government and more concerned with the civilians in north-east Sri Lanka.  Is there a response to that?

Spokesperson:  No, there is no response to that.  It’s a demonstration, it’s a democratic system and people are allowed to protest.  Yes, Masood?

Question:  Michèle, is there any update that you have on the opening of Gaza crossings by the Israelis or are they still sticking to their guns that they will not open them until (inaudible)?

Spokesperson:  Yesterday, Masood, if you were with us here, and I gave a full reading of which crossings were open and which were not, and I have nothing more to add.

Question:  So the opening of all the crossings is out of the picture?

Spokesperson:  I told you which ones were open and which ones were closed yesterday.  And as far as we know, this is the same situation today.  We don’t have anything more to add.

Question:  Nothing, no negotiations, no nothing as yet?

Spokesperson:  Well, you know, discussions are going on about the crossings all the time.

Question:  I’m just going to ask you these questions again about…

Spokesperson:  Please don’t! (laughter)  I cannot add anything more to what I said yesterday about the investigation on the assassination of Ms. Bhutto.  I have nothing more to add, and if you ask me the question tomorrow, I will say exactly the same thing.

Question:  Tomorrow you won’t be here.

Spokesperson:  I won’t be here, and you won’t either.  On Monday I will have the same answer for you and I will change my answer once I have a real answer to give you.

Question:  Why is taking such a long time…?

Spokesperson:  You have already asked me exactly that question.

Question:  Michèle, there was a request by Iran recently to set up an investigation committee regarding the disappearance of four Iranian diplomats 20 years ago when Israel occupied Lebanon.  What is the response of the Secretary-General to that request?

Spokesperson:  I don’t have the request; I mean the request was not addressed to the UN.

Question:  It was addressed to the Secretary-General himself.

Spokesperson: As far as I know, we have not received this, but I will try to find out whether… You’re talking about a recent letter?

Question:  Yes, recently, yes.  Two days ago.

Spokesperson:  I will try to find out for you what was received, if it was received.

Question:  And I’d like please just an answer if the Secretary-General is really setting up such a committee.

[The Spokesperson later confirmed that the letter was received.  She noted that, in a report issued last year, the Secretary-General had said that the United Nations was willing to help resolve the issue.]

Spokesperson:  First I have to ascertain whether he has received it or not. Yes, George?

Question:  A couple of items.  Firstly, following up on Matthew’s comments.  Air attacks on some of the Sri Lankan troops, do I understand correctly in some fashion the Tamil Tigers now have an air force of sorts?

Spokesperson:  I have no idea.  Why are you asking me?

Question:  Okay.  Second, I am just curious why this document being negotiated in preparation for the Durban Review Conference is titled “outcome document”.  It seems to me, I mean we the writers, it seems to me an outcome document is something that should be produced after the conclusion of the conference.  Why is this advance document being called an outcome document?

Spokesperson:  Well, in every single international conference that you have, there is an outcome document, which is negotiated all throughout the year, months before the actual meeting takes place.  This is true of every UN conference.  And the final document is in a draft form, but a draft form that has been approved by a negotiating committee.

Question:  And it may be further negotiated during the actual conference?

Spokesperson:  Definitely, yes.

Question:  Okay. In other words, it’s a draft document?

Spokesperson:  Of course.

Question:  …and it’s only a full outcome document after the conference is concluded and the negotiations therein are conducted?

Spokesperson:  Yes.  This is the usual practice.

Question:  Michèle, has the Secretary-General reviewed the latest IAEA report on Iran and does he have a reaction to it and is he planning any steps to maybe facilitate the situation?  It seems that we’re still on the same…

Spokesperson:  Well, there are two reports; there is one report on Iran, one report on Syria.  They have been submitted by IAEA to its own [Board of Governors] We will not have any comments as long as they haven’t met on it.

Question:  (inaudible) one, there was a meeting yesterday of the Staff Union in which a resolution was passed citing a vote of no confidence in the management of the Department of Safety and Security and also asking for an independent external review of promotion and placement practices in it.  Is the Secretariat aware of that and what is its response to the issues that have been raised?

Spokesperson:  The Secretary-General has certainly been informed; I don’t have his response yet.  As you know, this is also being discussed in the Department of Management.

Question:  Is there any reason why the current Under-Secretary-General or acting Under-Secretary-General David Veness still… he announced his resignation some, I don’t know, seven months ago?  It seems that it’s time to ask, is there a process for selecting…?

Spokesperson:  There is a process.  It takes a long time.

Question:  Okay.  And also, you mentioned a new Deputy at UNCTAD.  Is Ms Jan Beagle still an Assistant Secretary-General and if so, there was some controversy about that post being used in a sort of chessboard way to keep… is she is still an ASG, I guess that’s my question?

Spokesperson:  She is.

Question:  In what…?

Spokesperson:  I will get her full title for you.

Question:  Okay, great, thank you.

Spokesperson:  Thank you all so much.

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