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

21 April 2009

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

21 April 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.

** Durban Review Conference

Member States at the Durban Review Conference adopted an outcome document by consensus about two hours ago. Speaking to reporters in Geneva just moments ago, High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said today’s adoption is great news and represents the culmination of lengthy deliberations.

We expect a statement attributable to the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General on this subject shortly.

[The Secretary-General is heartened that today all Member States present in the Durban Review Conference adopted its outcome document by consensus.  In doing so, the international community has reinvigorated its commitment to the implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDPA) thereby giving hope to the millions of victims of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance around the world.

The fight against racism is a continuous process.  He, therefore, hopes that those Member States who did not participate will rejoin the international community soon in the fight against the scourges of racism and racial discrimination.]

Pillay in Geneva said that the outcome document contains several valuable elements. For example: it reinvigorates political commitment to the implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action; it highlights the increased suffering since 2001 of many different groups of racism victims; it identifies best practices in the fight against racism; it reaffirms the positive role of freedom of expression, while also deploring derogatory stigmatization of people based on their religion; and it launches a process that will examine how incitement to hatred has been used in various parts of the world.

Pillay also noted that, contrary to some media reports, today’s document does not include any reference to the defamation of religions.  The High Commissioner stressed that Durban is a process, not an event, and not an end in itself. In that regard, she called upon the international community –- including those who decided to stay away from the Review Conference -– to continue the fight against racism.

** Sri Lanka

The United Nations is gearing up efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to the tens of thousands of people who had fled the fighting in the north of Sri Lanka. Humanitarian agencies are preparing to receive a growing number of displaced.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says, with regard to financing for their operations, of the $155 million asked for, it has only received $48 million, or only 30 per cent. Some $10 million of that amount has been financed by the United Nations through its Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF).

Although food assistance is relatively well funded at nearly 60 per cent, requirements are likely to increase.  In addition, other sectors are not well financed at all: shelter stood at 18 per cent; water and sanitation at 16 per cent; and health at 15 per cent.

The World Food Programme (WFP) said that, given population movements, it was hard to be precise, but about 30,000 to 40,000 had reportedly fled the no-fire zone and would be arriving in camps for the displaced in Vavuniya over the next few days. The Government had requested that WFP extend food assistance for the incoming internally displaced persons. At the moment, WFP said it has enough food to feed 100,000 people for the next two weeks and more food was being sent from Colombo.

Meanwhile, the United Nations refugee agency remains deeply concerned about the plight of the civilian population still trapped inside that conflict zone in that north-eastern coastal pocket, where the situation was reported to be dire.  Yesterday, the Government informed UNHCR that an estimated 35,000 or possibly slightly more, people had already fled areas where the military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were engaged in heavy fighting.  Of the anticipated 40,000 most recently displaced, so far UNHCR has confirmed reports that some 5,500 people had reached sites in Vavuniya, while another 2,000 new arrivals were recorded in Jaffna yesterday.  UNHCR is still ascertaining the total number of the newly displaced in the two districts.

UNHCR is providing emergency shelter support and non-food aid to the new arrivals, and UNHCR staff are also present at the screening point or crossing point on a daily basis, but does not have direct access to the displaced.  And let me remind you that we had a statement by the Secretary-General on this subject yesterday as well.

** Somalia

The Secretary-General is scheduled to be in Brussels on Thursday to co-chair the International Conference in support of the Somalia Security Institutions and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). According to the UN Political Office for Somalia (UNPOS), if the Conference were to meet its goals of raising some $260 million, the Somali transitional Government would have the means to fund the establishment of a national security force of 6,000 members and a 10,000-strong police force. As to the African Union peacekeeping mission, which is now at 4,300 troops, it is hoped that new funds will allow it to improve its logistical means and infrastructure in addition to providing the necessary training and monitoring of the planned Somali security and police forces.

The Conference is being convened by the Secretary-General and hosted by the European Commission. The African Union, the League of Arab States and the Organization of Islamic States will also attend.  There is more information in a fact sheet prepared by the Department of Public Information on this Conference on Thursday in Brussels.

**Secretary-General in Malta

The Secretary-General, meanwhile, travelled from Geneva to Malta, where he met today with the country’s Prime Minister and President. They discussed Malta's contribution to a number of global issues affecting the small island nation, including climate change, ways to use the resources of oceans, and immigration, with Malta on the path of hundreds of refugees fleeing the Horn of Africa by boat. They also discussed the Middle East and the Alliance of Civilizations.

This evening the Secretary-General is scheduled to speak at the unveiling of a Climate Change Monument at the International Maritime Law Institute, and he is to draw attention to Malta’s contributions on climate change.

Tomorrow the Secretary-General is to address the country’s Parliament. He will also receive an honorary degree from the University of Malta in recognition of his contribution in raising awareness on climate change.

** Darfur

The Secretary-General’s latest 60-day report to the Security Council on the deployment of the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur is out as a document today. The report is scheduled to be discussed by Security Council members next Monday.

In the report, the Secretary-General describes as an extremely negative development the Sudanese Government’s decision to expel or dissolve 16 humanitarian and human rights NGOs, and cautions that the removal of such a large amount of humanitarian capacity puts well over one million people at life-threatening risk.

He notes that the rainy season starting next month is likely to make the situation significantly worse, and urges the Government to reconsider its decision.  The Secretary-General also expresses his extreme concern about the impact of this action on the work of UNAMID, complicating its ability to perform its protection mandate.

The overall security situation in Darfur remains a fundamental preoccupation, the Secretary-General says, and he cites continued armed clashes between the Government and armed movements, recurrent tribal fighting and the build-up of forces along the Chad-Sudan border. As a result of the insecurity, UNAMID has been unable to visit locations to assess the impact of bombardments on the civilian population.

The Secretary-General also reiterates his appeal to Member States to provide Mission-critical capabilities, in particular military helicopter assets. He also calls on all parties to work together with the Joint Chief Mediator, Djibril Bassole; and continue their engagement in the political process.

**Chad/Central African Republic

The Secretary-General’s report on Chad and the Central African Republic is also out.  That report says that the recently-authorized UN peacekeeping force there stands at 2,000 troops. That number represents less than 50 per cent of the UN Mission (MINURCAT)’s requested 5,200 troops. Even so, he expects that the force will reach its strength by the end of this year. Meanwhile, there remain serious difficulties in generating equipment for the force, with pledges received for only 6 out of the requested 18 military helicopters. 

The Secretary-General also renews his appeal to Chad and Sudan to improve their relations. Such progress, he says, will go a long way in easing the security and humanitarian situation in Darfur and eastern Chad, which are closely interlinked.

**Security Council

And today, here at UN Headquarters, B. Lynn Pascoe, the Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, informed the Security Council about the increased efforts by the United Nations to employ mediation as a central part of its [peacemaking,] peacekeeping and peacebuilding work. In particular, he said, his Department has established a Mediation Support Unit which has been further complemented by a standby team of mediation experts that can deploy around the world on short notice.

In the past year, Pascoe said, his Department has provided mediation support to more than 20 peace processes, with the Mediation Support Unit exerting a multiplier effect on those efforts. He noted the contributions made by UN mediators in peace efforts from Somalia to Cyprus to Iraq. He added that most of the funding at present for the work of the mediators comes from the generosity of donors.

The Security Council’s open debate on mediation is expected to continue into the afternoon, with some 41 speakers inscribed at the moment.

Mr. Pascoe also briefed the Security Council yesterday in consultations on the developments that have occurred recently in Fiji.  You received that read-out yesterday afternoon.

** Cyprus

Greek Cypriot leader Dimitris Christofias and Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat met under UN auspices in Nicosia today.

Speaking to the press after that meeting, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Cyprus, Tayé-Brook Zerihoun, noted that the leaders started with a tête-à-tête which lasted for a little over an hour. The rest of their discussion centred on the economic aspects of a solution to the Cyprus problem.

The leaders will meet again on 5 May.

** Gaza

The Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), Achim Steiner, today visited the Gaza Strip. HeAnd announced that his agency will deploy a team of experts to Gaza by the second week of May to assess the impact of the recent conflict on the environmental infrastructure of the region.

The forthcoming environmental assessment will include the work of experts in water and waste water management, asbestos and hazardous wastes monitoring, and coastal and marine issues.  There is more on that in a press release upstairs.

** Guatemala

The Secretary-General has responded positively to a request by the Government of Guatemala to extend for an additional two years the presence of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).  This decision was communicated to Guatemala’s Foreign Minister in writing last week, completing an exchange of letters.  The additional two years would begin on 4 September, when the Commission’s current two-year term comes to a close.  

The Commission was established under an agreement between the United Nations and the Government of Guatemala, with an aim to help Guatemala identify and dismantle clandestine criminal networks linked to organized crime and paralysis in the country’s justice system.  The Commission is headed by Carlos Castresana of Spain.

In agreeing to extend this Commission, the Secretary-General stressed the importance of giving continuity to the efforts already under way by the Commission, in support of Guatemalan national efforts to fight impunity.

** Democratic Republic of the Congo

We have a note on the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy. During her visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in a press conference in Kinshasa, she said that the recent political developments in the country had opened new opportunities for the release of child soldiers.

There is more information on that. She will be our guest on Thursday here at the noon briefing, where she can tell you more in person.

** Pakistan

The UNHCR says it has begun to register thousands of people who fled fighting in Pakistan's rugged north in recent months and sought shelter in Islamabad and other urban centres.


The Statistical Yearbook for Asia and the Pacific 2008 was released today by the United Nations in Bangkok.  It says that since the year 2000, the Asia-Pacific region’s annual population growth has fallen to 1.1 per cent -- the lowest rate among the world's developing regions. It also states that, with fewer children being born and people living longer, the population of the region is steadily growing older.

This year's report finds that death rates in Asia and the Pacific have continued to fall, but birth rates have come down even more rapidly as families are having fewer children. Across the region, the number of children born per woman fell to 2.4 for the period 2000-2005, down from 2.9 per woman for the previous five years.

** China

Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes is in China, where he arrived yesterday for a three-day mission.  He is to meet with the Chinese Red Cross and a number of Government officials, including the Foreign Minister, the Trade Minister, as well as the Minister charged with managing catastrophe relief. 

**World Digital Library

UNESCO says that it and 32 partner institutions will officially launch today the World Digital Library -- a website that features unique cultural materials from libraries and archives from around the world.  You can get more information on that upstairs.

**Department of Peacekeeping Operations

The Department of Peacekeeping Operations wants us to announce also that Alain Le Roy, Under-Secretary-General of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, will be in Washington, D.C., tomorrow for a series of high-level meetings with officials from the United States Administration.

His schedule there on Thursday includes meetings with representatives from the State and Defence Departments, as well as the National Security Council and key institutions from the NGO and policy studies sectors.  Mr. Le Roy will be back at UN Headquarters on Friday.

**Press Conferences

Tomorrow at 10.30 a.m. there will be a press conference by the International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch on the situation in Sri Lanka.

And at 12.30 p.m. Evo Morales, President of Bolivia, and Paul Oquist from the General Assembly President’s office, will be here to brief on a General Assembly plenary meeting to be held tomorrow morning to consider a draft resolution on International Mother Earth Day.

That is what I have for you. Anything you have for me?

**Questions and Answers

Question:  There is a letter on the racks from the envoy of the League of Arab States to the UN that relates to a territorial dispute in the Persian Gulf between Iran and the United Arab Emirates about these three islands.  The letter requests the Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, to follow up on this matter and to report to the Security Council.  I got two questions.  Will the Secretary-General be providing a report? Does the Secretary-General agree with the Arab League that the dispute should be settled by the ICJ?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I’d have to look into that. It is the first time that I am aware of the letter, so I will get back to you on that as soon as I have got some guidance on it.

[The correspondent was later informed that the Secretary-General’s principled position on the United Arab Emirates-Iran dispute is that it should be resolved peacefully, whether through negotiations or through the International Court of Justice.  The Secretary-General is willing to provide good offices if both parties agree, she added.]

Question:  Is there any movement on the Gaza Board of Inquiry into the damage on UN facilities?  We were told two weeks.  Now two weeks have passed.

Deputy Spokesperson:  As Mr. Pascoe mentioned to the Security Council yesterday, the report is still being finalized and I don’t have anything further than what he told the Council.

Question: … the Secretary-General did not report the slaughtering of UN staff and civilians who sought refuge under the UN flag?  It just seems to get shifted and…

Deputy Spokesperson:  As you know, this is not a report that the Secretary-General is writing himself.  He is waiting to hear from them.  He has heard from them orally, and he is obviously anxiously awaiting their full report. I have nothing beyond what Mr. Pascoe told the Council yesterday on this matter.

Question:  In delaying this report so much, is that not disturbing to the people, the victims, who are still waiting for justice?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Well, you have to ask the victims how they feel about it. You know how the Secretary-General feels about the situation in Gaza.

Question:  ... he expressed a concern about that.  It is now six weeks later than the report was scheduled. And still there is dragging about this.

Deputy Spokesperson:  I have nothing beyond what the Secretary-General has said and what Mr. Pascoe told the Council about this yesterday.

Question:  Over 70,000 people are threatened with deportation in East Jerusalem. Does the Secretary-General see that as ethnic cleansing?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I have not seen those reports.  I will have to look into that.

Correspondent:  I mean, this is every day in the news. People are threatened, and verdicts have been issued from courts, and demolitions have been going on.  This is an ongoing issue.  It is not something new.

Deputy Spokesperson:  I have nothing on the reports that you are mentioning as of today.

[Later it was announced that the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Robert Serry, will visit East Jerusalem on Wednesday, 22 April, to get a first-hand assessment of the situation surrounding the threatened evictions.]

Question:  I have several questions, in part because the noon briefing was cancelled yesterday.  First, on Sri Lanka -- on the Secretary-General’s statement yesterday, where he says he deplores the continued use of heavy weapons in the vicinity of civilians and the use of force by the LTTE -– who, is he saying, is using the heavy weapons?  And if he is saying it is the Government, why doesn’t he put it in the statement?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I think the Secretary-General’s statement was very clear and very strong yesterday.  And as I mentioned to you in a note that I was reading to you while you came in and were setting up shop, the highest priority for the United Nations right now is access to the victims, which is precisely why the Secretary-General has done what he can and is doing what he can in order to get the assistance and access to the people who are in desperate need of urgent humanitarian assistance.

And to your comment on the cancellation of the noon briefing yesterday; the reason for that was that, at precisely the same time that the noon briefing was scheduled, the Secretary-General was having an important press conference together with the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, on a subject that was at the top of the news.  Even though we could not get yesterday a two-way Q and A session -– which we hope to do in the future –- because of the importance that item took yesterday morning, we decided to try to get it to reporters here in real time.  So that is the explanation for that.

Question:  Just on that, it would have been helpful to take questions after his press conference.

Deputy Spokesperson:  We took your questions.  I took your questions in our Office and we responded to your questions like we normally do, okay?

Question:  Fine. On this access in Sri Lanka, can you explain how...  It has been said from this podium that the UN staff members who have been detained in the IDP camps, that the UN – although they had not announced it publicly – had repeatedly complained and tried to get them released.  The Sri Lanka Government had said the first they heard from the UN had been 15 April, two days after it was raised here.  Can you explain the discrepancy, or does the UN say Sri Lanka is mis-speaking as the UN’s complains?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I don’t know exactly about the timeline that you are speaking of, so I am going to have to refer to OCHA to provide answers to that.  All I can tell you right now is that today our imperative is for UN staff to be allowed to have access to these victims.

Question:  Is Mr. Nambiar back at Headquarters and has that been communicated to the Security Council?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Mr. Nambiar, the Chief of Staff, is back at UN Headquarters.

Question:  And has it been... Because just now the President of the Council has said we are waiting for Mr. Nambiar in terms of scheduling a briefing on his trip to Sri Lanka. Has it...

Deputy Spokesperson:  I just spoke to Security Council Affairs.  My understanding is the President of the Security Council is working on details on that matter, so I have nothing beyond that.

Question:  I am just a little bit confused.  Today there was a report in the New York Times that said that the United Nations had said that 4,500 Sri Lankan civilians had died since the beginning of the year. We have been repeatedly told that the UN does not count bodies, so I am just wondering... I am just a bit confused about that.

Deputy Spokesperson:  I checked on that for you again.  Because we do not have access to the zone that has been reported on, we do not have a firsthand account of the number of deaths, even the number of people who are fleeing the zone...  today we mentioned to you that some agencies are reporting between 30,000 and 40,000, the UNHCR is accessing the groups who are coming out in two areas and they are going to have to count them and see how many have actually come out. As you can imagine, it is probably quite a chaotic emergency situation on the ground and the agencies are really doing what they can to access those who obviously can benefit from UN assistance.

Question:  You have any guesses where that number 4,500 has come from?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Again, normally, casualty figures have to come from local authorities on the ground.

One last question.

Question:  There is one question I asked yesterday, so I will ask it again, and there is something new today. What I asked yesterday was what is the UN’s response to more than 100 Sudanese killed in South Sudan and a report that UNMIS had been recommended to do further patrols in Jonglei State and did not done so.

Deputy Spokesperson:  My understanding was that Yves had gotten back to you on that, but if he has not, I will ask him to send you the answer on that.

[The correspondent was told that the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) is currently assessing security and humanitarian needs in the wake of last weekend's violence. In the five weeks since the violence of 5-13 March, which rocked Pibor County in Jonglei State, UNMIS has conducted enhanced patrolling activities in various locations in the State, engaged in pre-emptive deployment of UNMIS troops in order to better protect civilians in Bor County, and worked closely with the Jonglei State Government to support its efforts to stabilize the security situation on the ground.]

Question:  There is a UN staff member, José Antonio Ortega of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), who has been arrested in Halifax, Canada, for procuring child pornography.  Does the UN have knowledge of this, and what will the UN do about this?

Deputy Spokesperson:  The only thing I have on that story that you refer to is that Mr. Ortega is a staff member of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs.  Mr. Ortega was on a personal trip and left on Thursday, 9 April, for Canada.  He was expected to be back in the office on 13 April but did not show up. His office could not get in touch with him.  We were still trying to find out about his status until late last week, when news of the court case was announced in the Canadian press. The matter is taken very seriously by the United Nations and it has already been referred to UN Security and the Office of Human Resources Management for action.  That is all I have for today.

Question:  In terms of seriousness, there is a report that the Head of Operations of the UN Centre in Nairobi, Alexander Barabanov, who was found by Kenya to have an illegal weapon, is still serving the UN.  A series of letters has been sent to Angela Kane and OLA trying to get authority to discontinue his service to the UN, due to the illegal gun. Is he still in service, and if so, why?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I don’t have any information on that. I have to look into that for you.

On that note, have a good afternoon and see you tomorrow.

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