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

25 March 2009

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

25 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 Michèle Montas, Spokesperson for the Secretary-General.

Good afternoon all.

**Secretary-General Appointment -- Political Affairs

The Secretary-General has appointed Oscar Fernandez-Taranco of Argentina as Assistant Secretary-General in the Department of Political Affairs.  He will take ups his functions in May this year.

In this position, Mr. Fernandez-Taranco will be responsible, inter alia, for overseeing the divisions dealing with the Americas, Asia and the Pacific, Europe, and the Middle East and West Asia, as well as the Decolonization Unit and the Division for Palestinian Rights.  He has worked in the UN system for over 25 years, both at Headquarters and the field, most recently serving as UN Resident Coordinator in Tanzania leading the UN reform initiative of “Delivering as One”.

Mr. Fernandez-Taranco replaces Angela Kane who became Under-Secretary-General for Management in May last year.  We have more information in his bio upstairs.

**Secretary-General Appointment -- Afghanistan

The Secretary-General has appointed Peter W. Galbraith of the United States as his Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan.  Mr. Galbraith will be responsible for political issues, including continuing electoral and parliamentary matters, as well as issues related to peace and stability, security sector reform, and human rights.

Mr. Galbraith replaces Christopher Alexander of Canada, who will be completing his assignment at the end of this month.  The Secretary-General is grateful to Mr. Alexander for his dedicated service in Afghanistan over the past three years, during which he made a valuable contribution to UNAMA’s efforts to foster peace and stability in Afghanistan.

Mr. Galbraith is currently a Senior Diplomatic Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, and founder of the Windham Resources Group LLC, a firm that specializes in international negotiations and strategies.  We have more on Mr. Galbraith in his bio upstairs.

**Slave Trade

A few minutes ago, the Secretary-General spoke at an event on the North Lawn marking the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.  He said that that the inauguration this year of Barack Obama as President of the United States marks a milestone in a 400 year struggle of the descendants of African slaves for justice, assimilation and respect.  He said that, although slavery was abolished, the people of African descent around the world must still fight daily against entrenched prejudice that keeps them disproportionately in poverty.  “It is essential that we speak out loud and clear against such abuses,” he said.  We have copies of his remarks upstairs.

The theme of this year’s observance asks the world to beat the drum to proclaim our shared humanity.  “Break the Silence, Beat the Drum” is also a call to seek harmony in mutual respect, to rejoice in our diversity, and work together for our common goals.  These ideals were also celebrated yesterday evening at the opening of an exhibition of African drums and related artefacts here at UN Headquarters, which was attended by the Secretary-General.  Copies of his remarks at that event are also available upstairs.

And following today’s briefing, at 1 p.m., Under-Secretary-General for Public Information Kiyo Akasaka, Emmy Award-winning musician Peter Buffett and pop star Akon will be joined by other speakers, such as Gilberto Gil, the former Brazilian Minister of Culture and musician, to brief on the UN’s commemoration of the International Day.  We have more information available upstairs and in this room.

**Security Council on Middle East

The Security Council is holding an open debate on the Middle East, which began with a briefing by Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs B. Lynn Pascoe.  Pascoe told the Council that, two months since unilateral ceasefires were declared in Gaza, we face a worrying situation of impasse and uncertainty.

Despite international engagement and support, very little concrete progress has been made on key issues outlined in Security Council resolution 1860 (2009).

He warned that the intolerable situation at Gaza’s crossings remains the key impediment to bringing help -- and hope -- to the people of Gaza.  The United Nations, Pascoe said, reiterates its call on Israel to abide by its obligations under international humanitarian law and to open the crossings for emergency supplies and reconstruction materials, without which there will be no way to rebuild Gaza.

He said that the United Nations continues to be concerned that, despite Egyptian efforts, no ceasefire regime is in place.  And he stressed that we need to have both Israeli and Palestinian Governments that are clearly committed to the two-State solution.

As for the Board of Inquiry looking into the incidents at UN premises in Gaza, Pascoe said that the Board will submit its report to the Secretary-General when he returns to New York in early April.

**Security Council on Bosnia and Herzegovina

Still on the Security Council, earlier today, the Security Council approved a resolution that welcomes the designation of Valentin Inzko as the High Representative dealing with Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Inzko will replace Miroslav Lajčák, and the Security Council also paid tribute to the former High Representative’s efforts.

** Sudan

Two internally displaced persons died today after a fire broke out at the Abu Zar camp near the West Darfur state capital of El Geneina, according to the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID).

A joint team of UNAMID military and police personnel that was dispatched to the camp to investigate the fire’s cause was informed by residents that two armed men in military uniform and two others in civilian clothes were seen entering the camp, starting a fire sometime after midnight, and then fleeing.

One woman died at the scene and a 22-year-old man died later after being taken to hospital.  Three other seriously injured displaced persons are receiving medical treatment at El Geneina hospital.  The blaze spread relatively quickly because of strong winds at the camp, and as many as 1,500 residents were affected by the fire.

Senior UNAMID military and police officials expressed their deep concern to the displaced persons at Abu Zar following the incident.  In general, however, the Mission reports that the security situation in Darfur remained relatively calm.

** Sri Lanka -- Humanitarian Update

On Sri Lanka, over in the Vanni region, conditions for the internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the no-fire zone continue to remain insecure and precarious, with shelling still reported and limited access to food, safe water, sanitation facilities and medical assistance.

On 22 March, the International Red Cross delivered to the no-fire zone a two-week supply of medicines aboard a ship, and preparations are under way by the World Food Programme (WFP) to send 1,000 metric tons of food to the area by the end of the week.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam continue to forcibly recruit civilians and prevent people from leaving the Vanni region.

Meantime, the first phase of registration of the current displaced persons caseload in Vavuniya camps is ongoing and is expected to be completed by the end of April.  Since January 1 up to 23 March, 44,756 persons crossed from conflict areas, and are accommodated in IDP camps, mostly located in Vavuniya, as well as Mannar and Jaffna.  A total of 3,701 shelters are to be constructed at various camps for displaced persons in Vavuniya district by humanitarian agencies, while UNICEF is setting up a temporary medical facility for an IDP settlement in that area.

** Lebanon

On the Tribunal on Lebanon, recently, the Judges, the Prosecutor and the Registrar of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon were sworn in.  Judge Antonio Cassese of Italy was appointed President of the Tribunal, and the Rules of Procedure and Evidence, as well as those governing detention and the directive on assignment of defence counsel have been adopted.

The Secretary-General has appointed, in consultation with the President, François Roux of France as the Head of the Defence Office.  He has subsequently been sworn in.

President Cassese and Daniel Fransen of Belgium, the Pre-Trial Judge, will soon take up their duties on a full-time basis.  The other Judges of the Trial and Appeals Chambers will take office on a date to be determined by the Secretary-General, in consultation with the President.  Their names will be announced once all security measures are in place.

**Detained Staff

Today is the International Day of Solidarity with Detained and Missing Staff Members.  This day draws attention to the risks faced by United Nations staff and peacekeepers, and their colleagues in the non-governmental community and the press.

Let us all redouble our efforts to ensure that all United Nations staff and associated personnel have the protection they need to carry out their vital work for humankind, said the Secretary-General in a message to mark this day.  At least 19 UN staff members are still under arrest, detained or missing, and the Secretary-General called for their immediate release.

The Secretary-General also made remarks at a United Nations Correspondents Association (UNCA) event this morning.  He said that anyone serving the United Nations, supporting it as a partner or reporting on its work is a potential victim, as recent high-profile hostage cases in Niger and Pakistan attest.

In Niger, though Soumana Mounkaila was released last Friday, Robert Fowler and Louis Guay are still missing.  In Pakistan, John Solecki is still in captivity, he added.

Concerning John Solecki, UNHCR’s Islamabad Office issued a press release today, urging the group holding him to get in touch with them directly to discuss his immediate release.  The entire responsibility for John’s well-being rests with the group holding him, it adds.  We have more on this upstairs.

**Secretary-General Press Encounter Today

And the Secretary-General will be at the Security Council stakeout at approximately 3:30 this afternoon to hold a joint press encounter with UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, following their meeting at 3 p.m.

**Press Conferences Tomorrow

And our guest at the noon briefing tomorrow will be Marc Scheuer, Director of the Secretariat of the UN Alliance of Civilizations.  He will brief on the upcoming Second Forum of the Alliance, to be held in Istanbul from 6 to 7 April.

Following that, at 1:20 p.m. tomorrow, economist Joseph Stiglitz, Chairman of the Commission of Experts of the President of the General Assembly on reforms of the international monetary and financial system, will be here to present the recommendations of the Commission.

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

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Thank you Michèle.  Regarding the appointment of Mr. Galbraith, Ambassador Galbraith, did the Secretary-General, in the light of the reports that we have read before about his time in Croatia, had consultation with Ambassador Kai Eide on his number two?

Spokesperson:  Well, Kai Eide was certainly consulted.  We are certainly aware of these concerns.  We consulted extensively on this appointment and we felt that Mr. Galbraith was our best choice for this post, because of his previous experience for the United Nations, notably in East Timor.

Question:  And also, as you know, the Afghans didn’t like the consideration in the very beginning before even Mr. Kai Eide of Sir Paddy Ashdown, who was the High Representative in Bosnia.  Did they voice any concerns, the Afghans, this time, regarding this appointment that you are aware of?

Spokesperson:  Not that I know of.

Question:  Okay.  Thank you.

Spokesperson:  Yes, James?

Question:  I have to ask you, Michèle, last week, the UN, the Spokesperson took the unusual step of putting out a statement quoting one of my stories predicting or reporting the imminent appointment of Mr. Galbraith as factually inaccurate.  Do you retract that statement now?

Spokesperson:  Well, I don’t think it concerned the fact that it was factually inaccurate.

Question:  You said in the statement that the story was factually inaccurate, and I asked what the factual inaccuracy was…

Spokesperson:  The inaccuracy from what I gather was concerning the way the relationship between Kai Eide and the American administration was described.  That had nothing to do with your saying that Mr. Galbraith was to be appointed.  Well, the fact that he was not appointed at the time you mentioned it either.

Question:  But I reported that he was going to be appointed.  You accept that was accurate now?

Spokesperson:  Yes, it is accurate.

Question:  Okay.  So what was inaccurate about that piece, as far as you are concerned?

Spokesperson:  Particularly, I said, the relationship between the American administration and Kai Eide himself.  The Secretary-General was in Washington, he met with President Obama and he had very strong praise for Kai Eide’s work in Afghanistan and for the UN role in Afghanistan.  So that part of it was inaccurate to the extent that it did not reflect what the real relationship was.

Question:  Well, as you’re aware, there were some quotes in there supporting that characterization of the relationship, including a quote from an American official calling, saying that Mr. Holbrooke considered Mr. Kai Eide “ineffective and useless”.  Are you challenging the veracity of those quotes?

Spokesperson:  No, I am not challenging the veracity of those quotes.  Those quotes belong to whoever said them.  What I’m saying is that this does not reflect the reality.

Question:  Well, maybe there are some facts the Secretary-General was not aware of then.

Spokesperson:  Which facts?

Question:  Well, maybe the relationship isn’t as good as it’s portrayed when people talk to him about it.

Spokesperson:  Well, the Secretary-General just spoke directly to President Obama about it, and…

Question:  Does President Obama know who Kai Eide is?

Spokesperson:  He certainly does.  He met him.

Question:  He met him?

Spokesperson:  Yes.

[The Spokesperson later clarified that Mr. Eide had met key officials in the Obama Administration, including the Vice-President, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense and National Security Adviser.]

Question:  Thank you Michèle.  It has been now a quarter of a century since our colleague Alec Collett disappeared near Beirut.  What has been done in recent years to find out about his traces?

Spokesperson:  Well, you know all those cases are followed.  We never give up on any of those cases.  As you know, all those cases are followed by DSS, the Department of Safety and Security, and we don’t give up on any of our colleagues who have disappeared, have been detained or are missing.

Question:  My information is that the Afghan Government actually protested yesterday to the Secretary-General about the appointment of Mr. Galbraith and said that they didn’t want an American because they already had Americans they can talk to if they need to.  They can talk to Mr. Holbrooke, they can talk to the American Ambassador in Afghanistan.  Why is the Secretary-General choosing an American, given that the Americans are engaged in a war in Afghanistan?  The question is, why has the Secretary-General thought it was appropriate to appoint an American…?

Spokesperson:  Because he felt that he was the best candidate for the post.

Question:  Is there no problem with the fact that he’s aligning himself so closely with the Americans?

Spokesperson: Well, you know, he is going to be there to serve as a United Nations Deputy Special Representative.  Whatever your nationality, when you serve as an international public servant, you are a staff of the United Nations.  And as this, you don’t reflect your own nationality and you don’t speak on behalf of your own Government.

Question:  I had asked before it was confirmed that he was getting the post, Mr. Galbraith, it says in his bio that he was the United States Ambassador to Croatia in 92 to 98.  He was asked by the United States Congress in 96 if he had violated the UN arms embargo and sanctions on Croatia by helping Iranian weapons get in.  His answer was that he didn’t violate it because Chapter VI of the UN Charter is not binding.  Is that Ban Ki-moon’s position on Chapter VI?

Spokesperson:  I’m not judging on what happened that time.  What I’m saying is that all those concerns were certainly analysed when the decision was taken to appoint Mr. Galbraith.

Question:  Did they ask him… For example, has he been asked whether, now that he is a UN, you said an international civil servant…?

Spokesperson:  I don’t have the details of his last interview.  What I am saying is that what was of importance to the UN is the role he has played for the UN before.

Question:  And also on appointments, it’s been widely reported that Helen Clark of New Zealand is going to be named the new Administrator [of UNDP].  It was even said today, all the papers in the Pacific said this.  When is the appointment expected?

Spokesperson:  The appointment has not been finalized yet.  We expect to have it tomorrow.

Question:  Michèle, with the Board of Inquiry saying that they’re going to turn in their findings in early April, has there been any communication with the Israeli Government about them actually communicating with the Board of Inquiry in terms of what they’re going to find in the investigation…?

Spokesperson:  I cannot answer that question at this point.  We don’t have the report of Mr. Ian Martin yet.  So I don’t know whether how much they consulted and how much they talked to the Israeli authorities.  I don’t have that information yet.

Question:  But they made promises that they were going to investigate…

Spokesperson:  So we’re going to have to wait and find out what they said.

Question:  But there is no communication between the Board of Inquiry, from your knowledge, and the Israeli Government that they’re going to be turning in their findings?

Spokesperson:  Separately, of course.  Those two things are…

Question:  I know they’re separate.  I understand that.  What I am asking is that the Board of Inquiry is coming up with their investigation, the Israeli Government promised that they were going to also do a separate investigation.  They know now, yes or no, that the Board of Inquiry is coming up with their findings in early April.  When are we going to get their findings?

Spokesperson:  Well, as far as I know, the Board of Inquiry, as you know, has not turned in its conclusions to the Secretary-General yet, and it hasn’t been communicated to the Israeli Government in any way.  So at this point I cannot answer this question.  Yes?

Question:  Thank you.  It’s about tomorrow, the report of Mr. Stiglitz.  How much is that going to impact the Secretary-General’s, the Secretariat’s action towards this financial crisis?  Was this something totally independent from the Secretariat?

Spokesperson:  As you know, as soon as that report is in, the report from Mr. Stiglitz is going to be the subject of discussions and consultations within the General Assembly.  Of course it will be a positive input into anything the Secretariat does, of course.  But the questions concerning, for instance the Secretary-General’s participation and the G-20, I don’t think that this report will be actually putting anything into the actual participation of the UN at the G-20.

Question:  I just want to find out on Kai Eide, is he going to be in town today or is he…?

Spokesperson:  I expect him to call either today or tomorrow.

Question:  Okay.  I noticed that, when there was the roll-over of UNAMA, the Secretary-General put out a statement, which, I think, several times mentioned Kai Eide and praised him, which is an unusual thing for a Secretary-General to put out a statement on a roll-over.  Is the Secretary-General concerned that Kai Eide will now leave his post since he didn’t seem to want Mr. Galbraith as his Deputy?

Spokesperson:  Well, I don’t know whether you can say that he didn’t want Mr. Galbraith as his Deputy.  Mr. Eide and Mr. Galbraith are friends, and they have been friends for years.

Question:  Has the Secretary-General been in direct contact with Mr. Holbrooke?

Spokesperson:  Yes, he has.

Question:  How many times?

Spokesperson:  I don’t know.  I don’t know what the exact number of times they have been in contact.

Question:  Michèle, can you tell me, was Mr. Galbraith at any point being considered for this post to be a member of the inquiry commission of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination?

Spokesperson:  Well, I don’t know.  I can ask whether that was the case.  But, at any rate, he has been now given a post, assigned to a post in Afghanistan.

Question:  My follow-up question on this is, now that you kept on saying why keep on asking this question, has the Secretary-General now finalized who are going to be on the other board, members of this inquiry or fact-finding commission?

Spokesperson:  I don’t have that information yet.  I told you that, as soon as I have it, I will give it to you.  You will be the first person to know.

Question:  But it’s taking a very long time, you know.

Spokesperson:  It’s taking a long time, but it’s not just a matter for… As you know, those are constant consultation between the Pakistan Government and the UN.  So it’s not just a decision by the UN.

Question:  But the delay is only because the United Nations…

Spokesperson:  There are several factors to the delay and I am not at liberty to discuss them right now.

Question:  Oh, I see, okay.  But the financial part is not the concern?

Spokesperson:  No.  The financial part, as you know, there was a deposit made on the fund.  So we have the necessary funding at this point.

Question:  Has there been another deposit made on that fund at all?

Spokesperson:  Not that I know of.  The one I announced recently, that’s the one that has started, it was the seed money for the fund.

Question:  Okay.  I just want to find out about this Gaza and the internal inquiry to be held by the Secretary-General, by the Israelis on Gaza itself.  That will satisfy the United Nations?

Spokesperson:  We don’t know.  I have said over and over again, we don’t have that report.  I don’t know whether it will be satisfactory or not, we don’t have it.

Question:  Apparently it’s not ready yet?

Spokesperson:  As far as I know, it is not.

Question:  But any report by Israel itself will satisfy the United Nations?

Spokesperson:  I don’t know.  I cannot answer as long as I haven’t seen… none of us have seen the report yet.  It is not out.  It is not done.

Question:  And the United Nations will continue to prepare its own report…?

Spokesperson:  As I said, the report that we’re preparing has to do, our Board of Inquiry has to do with incidents that provoked death or damages to UN facilities.

Question:  Just a couple of Sri Lanka questions.  There was a statement by the Foreign Secretary of Sri Lanka that the country has received no criticism from the UN of how it’s conducting its conflict in the north.  He says that Ms. [Navi] Pillay, the Human Rights Commissioner, “is not the UN”, and apparently implies that, in the discussions between the President and the Secretary-General, there’s been no criticism whatsoever of any action of the Government.  I wanted to know, is that consistent with your understanding of those calls?

Spokesperson:  As far as I know, a number of issues were raised.  Humanitarian issues were also raised.

Question:  And also, the Foreign Ministry of Sri Lanka has put out a statement condemning the OCHA document that says there were 2,683 deaths, saying it’s entirely unverified and asking the UN to retract it.  Is the UN considering retracting its own document that’s that specific on numbers?

Spokesperson:  As far as I know, OCHA is standing by its numbers.

Question:  Okay.  Neil Buhne was quoted as saying that he is not standing by it.  He’s been quoted in Sri Lanka saying that he doesn’t stand by the number.  Maybe he’s been misquoted.  The Resident Coordinator, Neil Buhne, has been quoted as saying that he doesn’t stand by the number.

Spokesperson:  So he is saying that it’s just an evaluation?  That’s what I said earlier…

[The Spokesperson later said that the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs is not in a position to verify numbers put out by local groups on deaths.]

Question:  He’s saying it was a report for donor countries, not meant for public distribution, whatever that means.

Spokesperson:  Okay.  I can verify what those numbers meant.

Question:  That would be great.  Then just one factual thing is that the Voice of America has in a report said that the Government of Sri Lanka makes it such that international employees of NGOs as well as independent journalists are prohibited from travelling to the north.  So I know in your report you’d said how the Red Cross and WFP are delivering this aid.  Is it your understanding that, as in Darfur currently, that international staff of NGOs can’t go to that region?

Spokesperson:  I can ask the people there for you.  We can ask for more information.

[The Spokesperson later said that only national United Nations and non-governmental organization staff were in the conflict zone.]

Question:  Okay, that’d be great.  I’d appreciate it.

Spokesperson:  Thank you very much.  I think we have to leave the room for the next…  Yes?

Question:  A very quick question, Michèle.  Human Rights Watch just issued a report basically saying that Israel has repeatedly used white phosphorous over densely populated areas in Gaza during its military campaign, and consider that to be war crimes.  I was wondering if there is any reaction from the United Nations about the use of white phosphorous, particularly this very detailed report by Human Rights Watch.

Spokesperson:  As you know, the issue of white phosphorous came up several times in this room while you were discussing with John Ging, as you know, who is on the ground.  So we can only stand by that.  In terms of independent investigation from our side on the use of white phosphorous, we don’t have that.

Question:  (Inaudible) the fact that Human Rights Watch is describing this as a war crime…

Spokesperson:  I think it’s something for Human Rights Watch to assert, yes, not for us.  Right now, as I said, we don’t have the necessary information.

Question:  So will this impact, this issue of white phosphorous, the Board of Inquiry, because part of the phosphorous, according to the report, was used against the United Nations school?

Spokesperson:  Yes, it will of course be examined.  I assume it will be.

Question:  Thank you very much.

Spokesperson:  Thank you.

* *** *

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