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

13 March 2009

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

13 March 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 Farhan Haq, Associate Spokesperson for the Secretary-General.

Good afternoon.

** Sri Lanka –- UNHCR

The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, today expressed growing alarm at the increasing number of civilians reported killed and injured in the conflict in northern Sri Lanka, and at the apparent ruthless disregard being shown for their safety.

She said, “Certain actions being undertaken by the Sri Lankan military and by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) may constitute violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.”  She described the situation as “absolutely desperate”.  The Human Rights Office said a range of credible sources have indicated that more than 2,800 civilians may have been killed and more than 7,000 injured since 20 January, many of them inside the no-fire zones.  The casualties are believed to include hundreds of children killed.

Pillay said the brutal and inhuman treatment of civilians by LTTE is utterly reprehensible, and should be examined to see if it constitutes war crimes.

The High Commissioner called on both the Sri Lankan Government and LTTE to immediately suspend hostilities in order to allow the evacuation of the entire civilian population by land or sea.  She also urged the Sri Lankan Government to grant full access to United Nations and other independent agencies to allow an accurate assessment of the human rights and humanitarian conditions in the conflict zone.  And we have a press release with more details upstairs.

** Darfur

On Darfur, the United Nations is continuing to press for the reversal of the decision of the Sudanese Government to expel 13 non-governmental organizations.  At the same time, the United Nations is focusing on mitigating immediate risks that could create a crisis, such as in areas of water or food.  The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said that the results of the ongoing joint United Nations-Sudanese Government assessment mission to Darfur would be made public next week after it completes its work on Wednesday, 18 March. 

The World Food Programme (WFP) said that the planned distribution of two months’ rations to the 1.1 million people who were in the area that had been served by the expelled WFP partner non-governmental organizations would begin in the coming days, probably from Sunday onwards.

UNICEF, which is concerned by the impact on the quality and distribution of water, said it was working with the Government and its other United Nations partners to face the immediate needs.  The immediate responses were designed to ensure that the most urgent needs of the affected populations could be met, potentially, for up to three months. 

The World Health Organization expressed concern over the fact that many of the non-governmental organizations had been doing important work of surveillance and detection, on a daily and weekly basis, of outbreaks of diseases, water-borne and vector-borne, malnutrition and reproductive health issues.  The fact that they were no longer operating in this complex emergency area made it difficult to know what the diseases circulating or appearing in that region were.

WHO is also very much concerned about the meningitis outbreak in the Kalma camp in southern Darfur.  They are aware of 54 cases, including four deaths.  WHO was now in discussion with the Government of the Sudan to find an alternative to start an immunization campaign.  Meningitis was very dangerous, especially in crowded areas.  If they did not immunize people rapidly, more cases would arise in this camp, it warned.

** Madagascar

The Secretary-General has been following with concern the escalating tensions in Madagascar.

In a statement we issued Thursday afternoon, he reiterated that the only solution to the current crisis is the resumption of dialogue, and he called on both parties to fulfil their commitment to resolve their differences within the framework of an inclusive national conference.

While there is concern over divisions within the armed forces, the Secretary-General welcomes the decision by the armed forces to continue to respect constitutional order.

The United Nations Senior Adviser, Tiébilé Dramé, remains engaged to help facilitate the talks and provide full United Nations support to the much-needed national reconciliation process.

** Somalia

The Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, says that planning is under way for the next meeting of Somalia’s national reconciliation process.  Somali Government and opposition officials will very soon be discussing political cooperation and justice, among other issues.  A meeting of the parties’ joint security committee is also expected to take place.

Ould-Abdallah says he is encouraged by this and other steps towards peace and stability in Somalia.  He noted that a number of lawmakers, who had earlier fled violence in Mogadishu, have now returned and resumed work.  The international community, Ould-Abdallah said, must now do its part to fully support the new Somali Government.

And for your planning purposes, Mr. Ould-Abdallah is in New York to brief the Security Council and will hold a press conference in this Room next Friday at 1:30 p.m.

** Côte d'Ivoire

On Côte d’Ivoire, the United Nations Mission in that country says that the electoral identification process, which was begun in September, appears to be slowing down with its goals still out of reach.  Some 860 of the 10,000 registration sites across the country have not yet opened.  Additionally, a lack of work materials at some sites is slowing down the effort while recurrent labour strikes by electoral workers have disrupted operations in some regions.

The Mission calls on all parties to redouble their recruitment efforts and to find solutions to the various problems now facing the initiative.

** Afghanistan

In his latest report on Afghanistan, the Secretary-General says that the Government and people of that country face a critical test in 2009 as it prepares to hold credible elections over the coming months.  He says that preparations for the 20 August elections will likely take place during a period of intensified fighting, and he said that the elections must be held in as secure an environment as possible, where the freedoms of expression, media and assembly that democracy requires are guaranteed as much as possible.

He said that, while there are reasons to believe that security in Afghanistan may worsen, there are also some reasons for optimism, adding that a judicious deployment of additional international troops to provide security for the Afghan people would be a welcome development.  The report also notes some progress in strengthening Afghanistan’s own security services and in lowering poppy production.

The report also details the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan’s work over the past year, and the Secretary-General recommends that its mandate be extended for a further 12 months.

Also today, the United Nations refugee agency and the Government of Pakistan signed a letter of intent to allow registered Afghans to extend their stay in Pakistan until the end of 2012.  And we have details in UNHCR’s [Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] briefing notes.

**System-Wide Coherence

The Secretary-General this morning spoke at the informal consultations of the General Assembly on United Nations system-wide coherence, and he told them that stronger coherence is essential.  The United Nations, he said, needs to be more efficient and more effective.

In that regard, he said that advancing gender equality and empowering women is one of his top priorities.  At the moment, however, the United Nations gender architecture lacks a recognized driver, and the Secretary-General pointed to several options to consolidate the United Nations work on gender.

On strengthening the governance of operational activities for development, he said we need to focus on five areas:  transparency, policy coherence, coordination, funding and accountability.  The Secretary-General added that strengthening the funding system should be underpinned by a number of objectives, including a strong commitment to core resources; predictability, stability and adequacy of voluntary funding flows; a simplification of the funding architecture; and more equitable burden-sharing.  And we have his speech upstairs.

**Deputy Secretary-General in Tanzania

Yesterday, Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro wrapped up a visit to Tanzania by giving a press conference.  And we have the transcript available upstairs.

The Deputy Secretary-General said that she had discussed with President Jakaya Kikwete the importance to keep pushing to attain the Millennium Development Goals, even at this time of a global financial crisis.  She added that, with the United Nations Delivering as One initiative in progress in the country, Tanzania had a unique opportunity to attain the Goals.

She added that she had discussed the killings of people with albinism with the President, who assured the United Nations that the Government was determined to stop the killings.


On AIDS, UNAIDS Chief Michel Sidibé spoke to the press in Geneva today to outline his vision for the work of his agency.  He said that his number one priority for UNAIDS is to help countries achieve universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support.

He also noted that, in this global economic crisis, economic adjustments should be made with a human face in mind.  In that regard, he said that resources for AIDS responses are investments, not expenditures.  He also stressed that a mother should not have to choose between continuing HIV treatment and feeding her children.

Sidibé added that investing in the fight against AIDS now will help avert nearly 3 million new HIV infections and more than 1 million deaths over the next two years.

** Arctic -– Climate Change

On the Arctic, at a meeting hosted by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Monaco, participants have concluded that, to confront climate change in the Arctic, it is necessary to draw on the knowledge of indigenous people and to acknowledge the value of maintaining their traditional cultures.

Participants also noted that the rapidly changing climate in the Arctic is putting pressure on hundreds of thousands of indigenous people, while science, development and conservation efforts are often driven by interests outside the Arctic.  And we have more upstairs.

**Week Ahead at the United Nations

We also have available upstairs the Week Ahead.  A couple of points from the coming week that I want to highlight to you.

At midnight on Sunday night, 15 March, the United Nations Mission in the Central African Republic and Chad (MINURCAT) will take over the military and security responsibilities of the European Union Force (EUFOR).  And that event will be marked by a ceremony in Abéché, which will be attended by the Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, Alain Le Roy.

On the coming Tuesday, the Greek Cypriot leader and Turkish Cypriot leader will meet under United Nations auspices in Nicosia.

At 11 a.m. in Room S226 on Tuesday, the General Assembly President, Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, will brief the press on his recent trips to Syria, Finland, China, Bahrain, Switzerland and Iran as well as on current General Assembly issues.

And that night, at 7 p.m., in the Economic and Social Council Chamber, the United Nations Department of Public Information and the Sci Fi Network are hosting a special event in connection with the release of the final episode of Battlestar Galactica

And on Thursday, 19 March, the Security Council mission to Haiti will brief on its trip.  That mission comes back to New York this weekend.

And that’s all I have for you.  Yes, Masood.

**Questions and Answers

Question:  I just wanted to find out whether the Secretary-General has any response to -– maybe you have said it in the beginning of your briefing -– about the situation in Pakistan, where hundreds of political activists have been arrested and the Government is clamping down on the opposition, which is… Has the Secretary-General noted that situation and does he have any response?

Associate Spokesperson:  On that, the Secretary-General is concerned about the current political and security situation in Pakistan.  Pakistan’s leaders, whether in power or in the opposition, have the responsibility first and foremost to ensure the safety and security of the Pakistani people.  Any action that they undertake should bear this in mind.  The Secretary-General calls upon Pakistan’s leaders to solve all their differences through an honest dialogue, to be able to deal with the multitude of challenges the country and the region face.

Question:  I have another question.  In his press conference yesterday, the Secretary-General said that, along with the surge, that he welcomes the American surge into Afghanistan.  He also said that there should be a political surge.  Is this a change from saying that?  I mean, I can imagine when the Secretary-General said about the international forces being there, but the American force, which is considered to be a force of intervention in any Arab country, does he welcome that?  Because that was an international force, or is it a change in United Nations policy?

Associate Spokesperson:  No.  He’s been calling, for some time, as has his Special Adviser, Kai Eide, for a political surge and the Secretary-General, after his trip to Washington, said he appreciated the fact that the United States Administration also seems to be working along the same lines.  So I’d simply refer you to both the comments that he made yesterday about this, where he talked about this quite extensively at his press conference, but also to the report that’s out on the counter today; his latest report on Afghanistan, which does mention both his welcoming of potential offers on the military side as well as his continuing political efforts.

Question:  Yes, Farhan, I wanted to ask you whether there is any update on the Board of Inquiry concerning the damage which Israel caused the United Nations during its recent attack in Gaza, and when shall we expect the report to be made public?

Associate Spokesperson:  Well, the report is still being worked on, so, at this stage, I don’t have anything to say about that.  At this stage, we still hope that, within about a month of starting its work, the Board of Inquiry will report back to the Secretary-General.  He will then review the report and decide at that point what further steps to take.

Question:  (inaudible) … Cyprus?  The mission…

Associate Spokesperson:  This is one of their regular meetings.  This will take place on Tuesday, 17 March, and they plan to discuss matters concerning the European Union.  And so that’s in the Week Ahead.  Yes.

Question:  In the statement you read on gender issues, there was a term that you read, something about the driver, an adequate driver, a recognizable driver.  Can I ask you what you understand that to mean and what sort of thing would be the driver that’s missing to focus women’s issues?

Associate Spokesperson:  The Secretary-General today delivered remarks to an informal meeting of the General Assembly concerning system-wide coherence and he actually spelled out the idea of having a driving body within the United Nations system to focus on gender work.  And he presented a number of options.  One would entail strengthening the architecture that we currently have.  But another option is to consolidate the work of all the gender bodies, and there are further details in that speech, which is available upstairs.

Question:  (inaudible)…that they have one agency or whatever that would deal with children and women that kind of thing?  Is that…?

Associate Spokesperson:  One leading body.

Question:  Okay, thank you.

Associate Spokesperson:  Yes.

Question:  Just to follow up on an answer by the Secretary-General yesterday on his contacts with the Sudanese President.  He said that he would like to ask the opinion of his legal advisers first.  But what about contacts with other senior Sudanese Government officials?  Have they taken place in recent days other than President Barshir, maybe the Vice-President, anybody there?

Associate Spokesperson:  I don’t have any contacts with other leaders to share for you right now.  His statement simply represents what he believes the state of play is, but we don’t have any particular contacts to disclose in that regard.

Question:  But I mean, like his sort of unwillingness to speak to President Bashir like includes other Sudanese Government officials as well?

Associate Spokesperson:  For operational purposes, we, of course, are always in touch with our Sudanese counterparts.  But you’re asking about this issue and I am not aware of any discussions on this.  Yes.

Question:  In reference to Gaza, has the Secretary-General spoken to the Israeli authorities to open the crossings?  I mean, I know that he has been speaking on and off with the Israeli authorities, asking them to open the crossings so that aid could come through.  Has he done that lately?

Associate Spokesperson:  He’s been constantly in touch with a range of officials on the need to open the crossing points, as have our officials on the ground.  And our officials on the ground are currently the main driver in terms of pressing this issue forward on a regular basis.

Question:  Have there been any developments on that front?

Associate Spokesperson:  I think yesterday or the day before we gave you an update on the situation on the crossing points.  There is more aid that has been flowing through the crossing points, but it’s still not enough by our estimates.  And so we do want improved access.  But yes, there has been an improvement over the situation simply over the past week or so.

Question:  In view of President Bashir cutting off 13 of the non-governmental organizations that were supposed to be supplying aid to these people, is there any supplemental, any substitute aid that’s being distributed in this… (inaudible)?

Associate Spokesperson:  Yes.  The United Nations humanitarian system is trying as much as it can to step up its own aid.  But the point that the Secretary-General made in his press conference yesterday, and in our daily updates that we’ve been providing, including something that we just read a few minutes ago, is that we’re not capable of filling the gap of the expulsion of the non-governmental organizations.  We’re doing what we can, but what’s needed is for this expulsion order to be reversed.  And so we’re pressing on that point as well.  Yes.

Question:  Thanks, Farhan.  I have a question again about the Sudan.  I’ve seen a memo from a non-governmental organization that’s active in Darfur to some of its staff, instructing them on how to cooperate with the International Criminal Court.  I’ve asked OCHA if they were aware of any, you know, cooperation between the International Criminal Court and non-governmental organizations that were working with them in the humanitarian activities in Darfur.  And I haven’t gotten any response.  I know what the, sort of, standard line on this is.  But I’m just wondering how… Is there any awareness of this kind of thing?  And has there been any attempt to ascertain whether there has been any cooperation between non-governmental organizations, who are supposed to do purely humanitarian work, and the International Criminal Court?

Associate Spokesperson:  It is not for OCHA or any other United Nations entity to comment in any way on questions relating to any aspect of the relationship between non-governmental organizations and the International Criminal Court.  Non-governmental organizations are entirely free to decide independently of the United Nations whether and, if so, in what way to cooperate with the International Criminal Court.

Question:  Okay.  So then OCHA, which has a pretty strict code of conduct on maintaining strict neutrality, could be working, in theory, with political organizations, or organizations that are engaged in political activities in Darfur, if they leave it up to the non-governmental organizations, then?

Associate Spokesperson:  Again, the United Nations does not comment on questions concerning the relationship between non-governmental organizations, who are independent of us, and the International Criminal Court.

Question:  Can I just follow up?  So if these International Criminal Court organizations that you’re dealing with are carrying activities that are contrary to the hosting country’s laws, you still wouldn’t mind cooperating with them?  Is this what you’re trying to tell us?

Associate Spokesperson:  We’re not necessarily even aware of this issue.  This is an issue, in other words, between the non-governmental organizations, who operate independently of us, and the International Criminal Court, which also operates independently of us.  So it’s not necessarily something on which we deal, one way or the other.

Question:  What about the United Nations organizations themselves?  You know, did they provide any support, help and information to the International Criminal Court?

Associate Spokesperson:  As far as that goes, by resolution 58/318 of 13 September 2004, the General Assembly approved by consensus the “Relationship Agreement between the United Nations and the International Criminal Court”, which subsequently entered into force upon its signature by the Secretary-General and the President of the Court.  The Relationship Agreement is a public document and so you can see it that way.  The Secretariat and its units, including OCHA, are bound by this Agreement.  The Relationship Agreement provides for cooperation between the United Nations and the International Criminal Court, subject to the principle that, for the United Nations, cooperation can only occur with due regard to the responsibilities and competence under the Charter and subject to its rules.  Due to confidentiality imperatives, we cannot comment on specific instances of cooperation.

Question:  [Inaudible] but you don’t want to comment on the instances of cooperation? 

Associate Spokesperson:  I have nothing beyond what I’ve just said on that.

Question:  If I could follow up?  You just said that you weren’t aware of any cooperation that the… that there wasn’t any awareness of any specific examples of cooperation.

Associate Spokesperson:  On the United Nations side?

Question:  Yes.  You just said a few moments ago… [cut off]

Associate Spokesperson:  No, no.

Question:  …of cooperation between non-governmental organizations and…

Associate Spokesperson:  Like I said, non-governmental organizations are independent of us and the International Criminal Court doesn’t report to us.

Question:  But the United Nations used the non-governmental organizations to help distribute food and other aid.

Associate Spokesperson:  Sure.  That’s in line with our humanitarian mandate.

Question:  Right.  But they’re not entirely independent in Darfur is what I’m trying to get at.  They’re part of a network overseen by the United Nations.  Am I correct?

Associate Spokesperson:  We operate a network that brings together the work of humanitarian agencies.  But their operations, you know, the work that they do -- you know, these are independent bodies.  They govern themselves.  We do not govern them.

Question:  Right.  But you work with them.

Associate Spokesperson:  Yes.

Question:  Okay, so, are you aware that any of the… that some… that the Sudanese are saying that some of the information gathered by the International Criminal Court, on the basis of which the indictments were issued on President Bashir, were also sent to them?  I mean, they were based… they were on the basis of some non-governmental organization reports.

Associate Spokesperson:  I don’t have any information on that.  And with that… Oh, one more.

Question:  What makes the Secretary-General so confident that other leaders of the international community will be so willing to endorse the climate discussion in Copenhagen later this year? 

Associate Spokesperson:  Well, he’s confident about that because he believes that the awareness in the world is growing about the severity of the challenge we face.  As he pointed out in comments to the press yesterday, this is a threat to our very existence.  The appreciation and awareness of the impact of climate change is growing in the world, and so he believes that, when Member States come to Copenhagen, they will be ready to deal with this matter very seriously.  And he certainly hopes they will follow through.

And with that, I wish you a happy weekend.

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