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

24 February 2009

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

24 February 2009
Spokesperson's Noon Briefing
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York


The following is a near-verbatim transcript of today’s noon briefing by Marie Okabe, Deputy Spokesperson for the Secretary-General.

Good afternoon.

**Guest Today

Our guest today is Carlos Castresana, head of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala.  The CICIG, as the Commission is known, is a criminal investigative body established under an agreement between the United Nations and Guatemala to help fight clandestine structures that are contributing to lawlessness and impunity in the Central American country.  He heads an international team of investigators and prosecutors working to identify and map these clandestine groups and work with Guatemalan law enforcement authorities to pursue successful prosecutions within the national justice system. 

He will discuss CICIG's achievements since it became operational early last year, as well as some of the obstacles the Commission continues to face in carrying out its mandate successfully. 

**Statement on Sudan

I will start with a statement attributable to the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General on Darfur.

The Secretary-General welcomes the commitment of the Government of the Sudan and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) to release prisoners as part of the “Agreement of goodwill and confidence-building for the settlement of the problem in Darfur”, which was signed in Doha, Qatar, on 17 February, and welcomes the role of the Emir of Qatar in this regard.  This represents a concrete step in the ongoing efforts to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the Darfur conflict.  In this context, the Secretary-General calls upon the parties to act in good faith to further implement this agreement and urges the Government of the Sudan and JEM to work with the African Union-United Nations Joint Chief Mediator and the Government of Qatar towards a cessation of hostilities and a final comprehensive peace accord.

** Sudan

Meanwhile, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for the Sudan, Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, today expressed his deep concern about the security situation in Malakal area, where armed confrontations erupted this morning.

Special Representative Qazi called on all parties to cease the fighting immediately, to act responsibly to resolve their differences, and to take full account of their duty to protect and ensure the safety and security of the civilian population.

The United Nations Mission in the Sudan is actively engaged through the existing mechanisms to implement this comprehensive peace agreement to bring about a quick and durable settlement of the confrontation in Malakal and to prevent any recurrence of such incidents.

**Secretary-General in South Africa

The Secretary-General, as you know, has arrived in South Africa for an official visit.  He met with Foreign Minister Zuma this evening to discuss regional developments.  Tomorrow, he will meet with President Motlanthe and with former President Nelson Mandela as well as with United Nations staff in the country.

** Zimbabwe

Turning to Zimbabwe, Catherine Bragg, who is the Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator and United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, arrived in Harare over the weekend.

The humanitarian assessment mission comes at a time when Zimbabwe is experiencing the worst cholera outbreak since the mid-1990s, an outbreak that has now led to over 83,000 cases of the disease and more than 3,800 deaths.

Today, she visited a food distribution centre and a food warehouse.  At the district visited, 60,000 people out of a total population of 83,000 people are receiving food aid for the next two months until harvest comes in.  The harvest in the area is expected to be poor due to a combination of factors, including drought and shortage of seeds and agricultural inputs.

The mission, which included participants from the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF and the World Food Programme (WFP), also visited a cholera treatment centre outside Harare.

Meanwhile, in Geneva, WHO today noted that there were more than 364 cholera treatment centres around the country in Zimbabwe.  The tendency now was to decentralize the main command centre in Harare treating cholera and to create small command centres across the country to ensure the ability to reach people in distant villages. 

More than 61 per cent of the deaths were still taking place outside treatment centres and in local communities, which meant that many people still did not have access to treatment centres.  And you can read more about that in the briefing notes from Geneva, which we have upstairs.

** Democratic Republic of the Congo

The United Nations refugee agency says it remains extremely concerned about the increased violence against civilians in North Kivu in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Since 13 February, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) has carried out numerous attacks in three areas in North Kivu, sparking a new wave of displacement.

Local authorities have informed UNHCR [Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] that some 3,000 people have been internally displaced in a village, some 20 kilometres south of Masisi, following a recent FDLR attack.  Some of these internally displaced people are staying in churches and schools and others have taken shelter at several UNHCR-assisted sites around the town of Masisi.

There are also growing fears of reprisal attacks by FDLR against civilians suspected of collaborating with the joint Democratic Republic of the Congo-Rwanda military operation against the rebel group that began in late January, according to the refugee agency.

The humanitarian situation in North Kivu is already dramatic, according to UNHCR, with some 850,000 internally displaced people.  Of them, some 250,000 were forced to flee just since last August, and many of them have already been displaced multiple times.

** Colombia

Turning to Colombia, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes is currently in Colombia.  Today, he travelled to the western region of Chocó to meet Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities.

Following meetings in the Colombian capital yesterday, Holmes said it was clear that there is a serious humanitarian situation in Colombia.  In that regard, he noted the problems of millions of internally displaced persons and continuing violence in many areas.

We have more on that upstairs.  And John Holmes will be able to tell you more about his visit to Colombia, as well as his recent mission to Sri Lanka, on Friday, when he joins us as the guest at the noon briefing.

** Gaza

On Gaza, the office of the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for the Occupied Palestinian Territory reports that, last week, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) began cash distribution to Gazans who have lost their homes or need to repair their damaged houses.

To date, UNDP has distributed more than $7 million to 3,800 families.  But it adds that major repair of damaged houses cannot be done until construction materials are permitted into Gaza.  Israeli authorities have not allowed such materials to enter since last November.


The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has called on Governments to transcend political differences and work together to eliminate racism and xenophobia.

Her call is contained in a new report issued to Member States in advance of the Durban Review Conference, which will be held in Geneva in April.

Pillay appealed to Governments not to allow any single issue –- such as Israel’s policies in the Occupied Palestinian Territory -– to dominate the discussions.  She also proposed holding a series of expert workshops in order to help Governments find common ground on the issue of the defamation of religions.  We have more information on that upstairs.


And just to recap, yesterday, Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Alain Le Roy spoke to the 2009 annual substantive session of the Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations, and he told them that UN peacekeeping is at a critical crossroads.  On the one hand, he said, it has become a flagship of the United Nations, but, on the other, UN peacekeeping is today stretched to the limits.

Le Roy said that United Nations peacekeeping operations are often unable to find the resources they need, and they must grapple with increasingly complex, robust mandates in difficult, often hostile environments.  He warned that some challenges emanate from sheer overstretch.

At the same time, Le Roy said, there seems to be a growing consensus on the need to take stock of the current situation and address the challenges that United Nations peacekeeping faces at the current juncture.  And there are copies of his remarks upstairs in a press release out on the racks.

**International Labour Organization

More than 100 senior representatives of Governments, workers’ and employers’ organizations gather today at the International Labour Organization (ILO) headquarters in Geneva to discuss the impact of the economic crisis on millions of people employed in the financial sector worldwide.

According to ILO’s new report, there has been a rapid rise in financial services job cuts over recent months.  To help the sector cope with the crisis, the report puts forward a number of measures.  For example, the reward system for executives and bank managers needs to be adapted to prevent excessive risk-taking.  And there is more on that upstairs.

**United Nations Population Fund

And finally, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) today says that this year’s United Nations Population Award has gone to an Egyptian doctor, who specializes in obstetrics and gynaecology, and a Nicaraguan non-governmental organization, which works to improve living conditions in that country through social and community development, gender equality and environmental protection.  And we have more on that award upstairs.

And our guest here today, as I mentioned, is the head of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala.  Is he here already?  Not yet?  Okay, I’ll take a few questions until he arrives.  Edie.

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Marie, does the Secretary-General have any comment on North Korea’s announcement today that it’s preparing to shoot a satellite into orbit which has raised concerns in South Korea and the United States that it might be a test for a long range missile?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I have seen these same news reports that you have and we’re monitoring the situation very closely.  I have nothing proactive on that.  Yes, George.

Question:  Marie, you mentioned you have some papers upstairs regarding this report from Judge Pillay.  May I assume that includes the whole report as it was distributed to the membership, Member States?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I’m sure that it’s either on our counter or on their website.  Mr. Abbadi.

Question:  Thank you, Marie.  (Inaudible)…the Secretary-General in South Africa, does he plan to talk to the officials about the reforms of the Security Council and possible permanent status for South Africa?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I don’t have a readout yet of his meetings, so let’s ask Michèle, who is travelling with him, if there is any readout that we can provide you once his meetings are done there.  Matthew.

Question:  Two questions, Sri Lanka and Helen Clark.  On Sri Lanka, after the Secretary-General’s statement yesterday calling for cessation of hostilities, the Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka has been quoted saying that the Secretary-General has never asked for a ceasefire and, quote:  “I view this is in line with the stand taken by Sri Lanka where the President has called on the LTTE to lay down arms and surrender”.  Is what the Secretary-General said yesterday, what did it mean?  Is Sri Lanka’s characterization of it as not a call for a ceasefire and its continued military offensive including attacks on civilians, is that consistent with what he said yesterday?

Deputy Spokesperson:  You heard what he said, you asked him the question…

Question:  I know.

Deputy Spokesperson: …you heard his answer.  I have nothing beyond that.

Question:  But then, has the Secretary-General…

Deputy Spokesperson:  I have nothing beyond that.

Question:  …conveyed his call to…because as the Foreign Minister of the country, which it appeared he called the ceasefire about, said that that’s not what it meant and he’s never asked for it.  So, I think I am just asking for clarification of what he meant and what, where it was communicated.

Deputy Spokesperson:  Well, then listen to his remarks.  You can listen to them again and they’re on the website.

Question:  Is he concerned that the fighting is continuing?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Of course he is concerned that civilians are getting caught up in the fighting, and I will suggest that you refer to his remarks again.

Question:  And I also wanted to ask you; it’s been reported that Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand, is in New York being interviewed for, they have called it a shortlist for the UNDP top position.  It’s reported that 10 people are being interviewed; a panel will make three and then Mr. Ban will make the decision.  Is that accurate, and who is on the panel?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I have nothing on the selection specifics.  As we mentioned to you earlier on the selection process, you have heard from us that, as soon as we have an announcement, we will give it to you.

Question:  There is just one thing I wanted to ask about that.  Since the previous Secretary-General did actually make the shortlist for this position public and I know that the Secretary-General has said he is going to be at least as transparent, if not more, what is the rationale for not releasing a shortlist and…?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Matthew, we’ve had this discussion; if you want to have it later some more, that’s fine.  But you’ve heard…(interrupted)

Question:  Do you acknowledge that it’s less transparent than it was?

Deputy Spokesperson:  No.  No, I don’t acknowledge that it is less transparent.  As we have told you several times already, the Secretary-General has reached out to Member States, he’s put an ad in the Economist, they’re going about this in a very transparent manner and, as soon as we have something to announce for you, we will.  For the sake of the privacy of the individuals, we are not making that list public.  Thank you and I think our guest is already here.  So I will turn over to him.  Thank you very much.

[The Spokesperson had said at a prior noon briefing that the Secretary-General would consult on his choice with the Executive Board of the UN Development Programme (UNDP) before forwarding the name of his nominee to the General Assembly.  The process is a careful and transparent effort to identify the strongest candidates and to allow for a rapid but also deliberate determination of who should take charge of one of the key appointments in the developmental field within the United Nations system.]

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