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

28 April 2009

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

28 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 Michèle Montas, Spokesperson for the Secretary-General.

Good afternoon, all.

**Swine Flu

The World Health Organization (WHO) just wrapped up a telephone press conference moments ago on the swine flu.  The agency confirmed that there has been an increase in lab-confirmed cases, from 73 yesterday to 79 today.  Forty of those cases are from five States across the United States, 26 cases have been confirmed across four States in Mexico, and Canada has reported 6 cases in two provinces.  There have also been 2 cases in Spain, 2 in the United Kingdom and 3 in New Zealand.  The 79 lab-confirmed cases -– and I underline this, lab-confirmed cases -- include seven deaths in Mexico.

WHO also said it is starting to focus on the anticipated needs that developing countries may have if they are affected by the swine flu virus.  The agency noted that poorer countries are usually hit the hardest by such health developments.

Last night, WHO’s Emergency Committee met for a second time to discuss the global response to swine flu.  After the meeting, WHO Director-General Margaret Chan decided to raise the influenza pandemic alert level from phase 3 to phase 4.  In other words, the likelihood of a pandemic has increased, but, at the same time, a pandemic is not inevitable.

Given the widespread presence of the virus, the Director-General considered that containment of the outbreak is not feasible.  Rather, the current focus should be on mitigation measures, she said.  The Director-General also recommended not to close borders and not to restrict international travel.

For its part, WHO is working to facilitate the process needed to develop a vaccine effective against the swine flu virus.  In a press conference last night, a WHO official noted that developing such a vaccine would take around four to six months.  In addition, several more months would be needed to produce a suitably large amount of the vaccine.

Meanwhile, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that it is sending experts to Mexico, along with staff from the World Organization for Animal Health, to help the Mexican Government assess the situation in the pig production sector.

** Sri Lanka

The United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, John Holmes, today said that Sri Lanka faces huge challenges in meeting an unfolding humanitarian crisis.

Speaking after touring camps for people who fled fighting in the country’s north, the Emergency Relief Coordinator said that Sri Lanka is trying to cope with a “twin humanitarian crisis”.  As tens of thousands of people are still trapped on a small patch of territory in the north, with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) refusing to let them leave, the fighting continues.  The second crisis, Holmes said, is the swollen camps that are filling up with 200,000 people who fled the fighting, many in very poor condition, with more likely on the way soon.

In his meeting earlier today with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Holmes reiterated concerns over the level of civilian casualties, and the urgent need to assist the tens of thousands of civilians still trapped in the conflict zone, particularly with food aid and medical supplies.  Holmes was on a three-day special mission to Sri Lanka, but was not able to get Government authorization for the United Nations to have access to the conflict zone where civilians were being held.

“Given the fact that LTTE has refused to let these people go, I hope that we will be given more humanitarian access to the zone,” said Holmes.  “We believe that there are critical levels of hunger, and large numbers of people needing medical treatment.”  Holmes added that he welcomed the Government's announcement about the scaling down of combat operations and no further use of heavy weapons, because that should reduce civilian casualties.  However, he said that the key was implementation in full of what had been announced, in light of past experience.

**Security Council

The Security Council began its work today with an open meeting on Côte d’Ivoire.  The Secretary-General’s Special Representative there, Choi Young-jin, told the Council that the momentum for an earlier election in that country appears to have weakened and any new electoral timeline is now predicated on the progress of the reunification process.

The UN peacekeeping mission in the country (UNOCI) has been assisting as best as it can to move the reunification process forward, Choi said.  Yet deadlines and target dates have repeatedly been missed and the prospect for either early elections or reunification cannot be described as encouraging.  We have his remarks upstairs.

The Council then went into consultations, also on Côte d’Ivoire.  Ambassador Claude Heller of Mexico briefed Council members on the work of the sanctions committee dealing with Côte d’Ivoire, which he chairs.  The Security Council President will later host the monthly luncheon of the Secretary-General and Council members.

** Gaza Strip

Turning now to Gaza, UNICEF reports that, more than three months after the cessation of hostilities, the Israeli blockade and intra-Palestinian tensions are hampering recovery efforts.  The agency adds that children in Gaza are continuing to suffer, both physically and psychologically.

Together with its partners, UNICEF is ramping up psychosocial support to children and young people, providing mine-risk education in schools and communities, supporting remedial education and organizing vaccination campaigns.  Also, to improve maternal, newborn and child health, UNICEF is focusing on improving the skills of health-care providers and caregivers, particularly in relation to managing severe malnutrition, breastfeeding and early detection of childhood illnesses.  We have more on that in my Office upstairs.

** Nepal

Out on the racks today is the Secretary-General’s report to the Security Council on Nepal’s request for United Nations assistance in support of its peace process.

In the report, the Secretary-General said recent developments, namely progress on major components of the peace process related to the drafting of the Constitution and discussions on the future of the two armies, give some cause for optimism.

Pointing out that, at the end of the previous mandate in January, the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) reduced its staff to a minimal level, the Secretary-General said the Nepali parties have repeatedly indicated the continued need of UNMIN arms monitors until the issue of the integration and rehabilitation of Maoist army personnel is resolved.

The Secretary-General reiterated that the international community remains committed to support the process on which Nepal has embarked for the consolidation of peace and improvement of the lives of its people.


Funding from the United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) for humanitarian work of the World Health Organization has passed the $100 million barrier.  This, according to the agency, underscores WHO's critical role in providing life-saving health interventions before, during and after emergencies.

WHO says that people from Nicaragua and the Sudan to Myanmar have benefited from the life-saving humanitarian health interventions that the Fund has enabled the organization to provide in emergencies.  The Central Emergency Response Fund is an emergency humanitarian fund established by the United Nations to enable more timely and reliable humanitarian assistance to those affected by natural disasters and armed conflicts.  We have more in a press release upstairs.

Also, the Central Emergency Response Fund’s Advisory Group will open its first meeting of 2009 today in New York.  In the course of the next two days, the Advisory Group will elect a new Chair and Vice-Chairs, and provide a briefing on the use and management of the Fund from John Holmes, the United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator and Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, who will be back this afternoon from his trip to Sri Lanka.

The CERF Advisory Group’s role is to provide periodic policy guidance and expert advice on the use and impact of the Fund.

**Law of the Sea

The first instalment of the Secretary-General’s comprehensive report to the General Assembly on oceans and the Law of the Sea is out as a document today.  The report aims to facilitate discussions among Member States on issues that have arisen in the implementation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.  It also narrates the process leading to the establishment of a consultative process on matters ranging from piracy and armed robbery against ships to the production of nautical charts and international standards for seafarers and fishers.  

**Aral Sea

The Secretary-General has sent a message to the Summit of the Member States of the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea, which is taking place in Almaty, Kazakhstan.  In it, he says that he is heartened that, despite the serious global economic and financial crisis, the decision makers of the Central Asian region have agreed, at the highest level, to discuss ecological issues of common concern, including those of the Aral Sea Basin.

The Secretary-General says that the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea is ideally positioned to facilitate the development of mutually beneficial and durable solutions among Central Asian countries.  And he adds that any discussion of the Aral Sea must recognize the growing threat of climate change.  The full statement is upstairs.

The Special Representative for the Secretary-General for Central Asia and Head of the UN Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy for the region, Miroslav Jenca, attended that Summit in Almaty, Kazakhstan, of the five Central Asian Presidents under the auspices of the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea.

In attending the Summit, Mr. Jenca strongly welcomed the commitment of the five leaders to discuss the challenge of addressing the Aral Sea crisis.  The United Nations considers the willingness by the leaders to search for mutually agreeable solutions to be critical.  The UN Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia (UNRCCA) stands ready to assist the five countries of the region on this issue.

**Safety at Work

In a statement to mark the World Day for Safety and Health at Work, the Director-General of the International Labour Organization (ILO), Juan Somavia, voiced concern over the potential impact of the global economic and jobs crisis on safety in the workplace.

He called for vigilance to ensure that strategies for adjustment and economic recovery do not follow a low road which devalues human life and safety in the workplace.  The Director-General said that unsafe work was a “human tragedy” involving millions of workers each year.  He added that occupational safety and health was a human right and an integral part of a people-centred agenda for development.

**IAEA -– Cancer

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) today issued a challenge to medical equipment manufacturers, calling for the development of cancer therapy equipment that is robust, portable, easy to use and more affordable.

Werner Burkart, IAEA Deputy Director General for the Department of Nuclear Sciences and Applications, said that making radiotherapy accessible is a key component in any comprehensive cancer-control programme.  What is needed, he said, is the development of sturdier and lighter equipment that can be used not only in hospitals in large urban centres, but also in resource-poor settings in the field.

**Press Conferences Tomorrow

Just looking ahead, at 1 p.m. tomorrow, Carlos Lopes, Executive Director of the UN Institute for Training and Research, and William Lacy Swing, Director-General of the International Organization for Migration, will be here to discuss the Migration and Development Seminar Series.

This two-day seminar, which opened this morning in Conference Room 8, is organized in partnership with the UN Population Fund and the MacArthur Foundation.  It discusses the role and inclusion of diasporas in formal peacebuilding processes.  We have more information on this upstairs.

And at 3 p.m. tomorrow, John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, will brief on his recent mission to Sri Lanka.  That’s 3 o’clock tomorrow.  And that’s all I have for you today.

**Questions and Answers

Question:  I wanted to ask about the Board of Inquiry for Gaza.  The Secretary-General has had the report for five days now.  I was wondering, can you give us any information about the contents of the report or his plans on what he’s going to do with it?

Spokesperson:  He’s planning to […] well, right now, the report is with OLA, the [Office] of Legal Affairs.  He’s planning next week to send the report to the Security Council.

Question:  Next week?  What day?

Spokesperson:  I don’t have the exact day.  He’s going to discuss this with the Security Council at the lunch today.

Question:  When are we going to have some highlights about it?

Spokesperson:  As soon as the Security Council has seen it, then I will be free to give you some highlights on it.  Okay?

Question:  Can you confirm whether the UN has barred Fiji soldiers from peacekeeping missions and, if so, how that will affect peacekeeping missions in the Sudan and Iraq?

Spokesperson:  As we have said, it’s going to be on a case-by-case basis.  As I’d said before, there were no new contingents that were being taken on board.  However, the contingents that served before are still serving in some missions.  You mentioned Iraq; as you know, they constitute the immediate protection ring of the UN personnel there and they will keep on doing it.

Question:  A follow-up on that.  Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had been quoted as saying that there’s some new decision by the UN not to recruit any further Fijian peacekeepers.

Spokesperson:  I’m not aware of this.  I think this is something you should ask the Australians.

Question:  In terms of asking the UN, since the argument by Australia and New Zealand is that the money paid by the UN to Fiji for the peacekeepers buttressed the unelected regime’s power, can we get a number from DPKO [Department of Peacekeeping Operations] on how much Fiji has been paid, either so far this year or in 2008?

Spokesperson:  You should address that question to DPKO.  Please address the question to DPKO.

Question:  Can I ask a Sri Lanka question, if you don’t mind?

Spokesperson:  Sure.

Question:  First, I wanted to know if the UN has any response to the Government’s barring and denial of a visa to the Swedish Foreign Minister.  There was a three-country team there.  Does the UN think that was a useful move?

Spokesperson:  We don’t have any reaction at this point on this.

Question:  And Mr. Holmes had announced a $10 million CERF grant to Sri Lanka.  Given the issues that have arisen about the camps and detention and lack of freedom of movement, [are] there any kind of conditions on that money?  And was there any development on the 13 UN staff members still held in the camps?

Spokesperson:  We have no new development on the 13 staff members.  They are still there.  I can also add that Mr. Holmes stressed yesterday -- when he spoke publicly -– he stressed with Government officials the need for a humanitarian pause to conduct an assessment of the conflict and to bring in emergency supplies, including food and medical supplies.  And he also asked for access to the screening points and the need for the release of those 13 UN staff members, and approximately 207 members of non-governmental organizations who are also trapped in the area.  But you can ask further questions.  In terms of the Fund itself, you can ask Mr. Holmes tomorrow, since you’ll get a chance to talk to him tomorrow afternoon.

Question:  Maybe I didn’t understand correctly, but when Mr. [Vijay] Nambiar [the Secretary-General’s envoy to Sri Lanka] returned, it seemed like the Secretary-General put out a statement that there had been a commitment by the Government to allow a humanitarian team into the conflict zone.  Since it hasn’t happened yet -– and there’s some confusion about what was actually committed to -– I just want to ask again if it’s at all possible to have some opportunity with Mr. Nambiar that he speak to the press and say what took place over there.  Since he was the envoy.

Spokesperson:  I think what Mr. Nambiar has said was reflected in the statements we put out.  He had received the agreement of the Government.  So I don’t have any further comments on that.  In terms of what had actually happened since Mr. Holmes met with the President, you can ask your question to Mr. Holmes. 

Question:  But Mr. Nambiar -– since Mr. [Ibrahim] Gambari [and other] various envoys that the Secretary-General sends, they almost always brief the press.  And you always say, “We’ll make the request”, and then they’re possible.  Is there some reason -– can Mr. Nambiar brief or can he give some statement of why he’s not doing it?

Spokesperson:  He doesn’t have to do it, you know.  Everything he said was reflected in the statements we put out.

Question:  Yesterday, the Secretary-General said that one of the main questions regarding the swine flu, that he is encouraging the World Bank and IMF to provide financial resources to developing countries [inaudible].  Is he providing guidelines or giving them suggestions on how to structure these loans?  Because it seems to me that, if it’s financial resources we’re talking about -- and it’s not for right now, it’s for later -- we’d be talking about vaccines.  Is he…?

Spokesperson:  I don’t have any specifics on that.  As you know, the people in charge -– WHO is in charge, truly in charge, of this whole issue.  And the whole UN system is just taking the lead from WHO.  What the Secretary-General said about the funding is it’s something that he is going to certainly ask for.  In terms of what are the parameters of those funds, how those funds will be used, is something we don’t have the details of yet.

Question:  Just because that was one of the major things he mentioned yesterday, some of the developing countries have mentioned their concern that it might be -- if it’s a pharmaceutical company that owns the drug that determines who can combat the swine flu -- it might be a payday loan situation where they’re forced to buy at rates they can’t afford.

Spokesperson:  At this point, as we mentioned, in the case of the developing countries –- and WHO mentioned that this morning –- what we can say is that we’ll do the most we can for them to have access at a lower rate of any medicine that can be developed.

As you know, this is a new virus.  To the extent that this strain of the virus did not -- that transmission from human to human is something relatively new.  And as I said earlier, it’s going to take four to six months to actually create, make a vaccine.  So, I think it’s going to take time.

Question:  Michèle, has the Secretary-General made any calls in the last 24 hours related to the swine flu?

Spokesperson:  He spoke to Dr. [Margaret] Chan; he was briefed by Dr. Chan on Sunday and he has been talking to WHO officials on a regular basis.

Question:  It’s a follow-up on the Board of Inquiry report.  You said that the Secretary-General is going to submit it as a report to the Security Council next week.  Is that going to be a document of the Security Council that we will all have access to? 

Spokesperson:  I don’t know at this point.  I cannot tell you at this point.  I don’t know.  He’s planning to do it.  I don’t know what form this will take.  Whether it will be a closed meeting, whether it will be an open meeting, I don’t know.  I cannot really tell you how it’s going to be done. 

Question:  So at present, we don’t know next week whether or not we as the press are going to have access to any of the information in that report?

Spokesperson:  I cannot confirm that.  No, I don’t know at this point.

Question:  Do you have any update on the decision of the prosecutor, Daniel Bellemare, in the case of the assassination of Rafik Hariri?

Spokesperson:  No, I don’t have anything new on that.

Question:  Just on the Gaza report, why didn’t Ban Ki-moon want to say any word about this report?

Spokesperson:  Well, because the Secretary-General came back on Friday.  He got the report on Saturday, okay?

Question:  But he already read it?

Spokesperson:  He hasn’t read the whole report.  He has read so far the recommendations and the conclusions.  That’s what he has read so far.  The whole report has been received by this Office and he is in the process of reading the report.  So this explains that.  He got it this past weekend.

Question:  Following the rejection by Israel to cooperate with the commission appointed by the Human Rights Council, where does this commission stand on this?

Spokesperson:  That I don’t know.  In terms of the commission that the Human Rights Council under Judge [Richard] Goldstone has set up, I don’t know yet what the work will be and how it will be led.  We’ll try to get some information from Geneva for you.  But we don’t have it at this point.

Question:  But we never heard anything after the rejection?

Spokesperson:  No.

Question:  There are reports that various UN agencies have shut down their operations in southern Bangladesh due to threats by militants.  Is that -– I know you don’t speak on -– but is it a fact that the UN has pulled its staff out of that area and closed its operations?

Spokesperson:  I’m not aware of it, but I can check for you.

Question:  Okay.  And the other one is, there are also these reports of cross-border action between Myanmar and Thailand.  Of a Myanmar attack on the Karen National Union that injured or seriously injured two Thai soldiers.  Since it’s a cross-border incident, is it something that either DPA [Department of Political Affairs] and Mr. Gambari or is the UN tracking that?  What’s the response to it?

Spokesperson:  No, we don’t react at every cross-border problem that exists.  We don’t have anything to say about that.

Question:  But given that it’s a Government offensive against a long-standing rebel group, this Karen National Union, is it something that like Gambari -– what’s the status, I guess, of his good offices mandate in Myanmar?

Spokesperson:  His good offices mandate did not include this type of situation.  We don’t have anything to say about this.

Question:  I appreciate it.

Spokesperson:  Yes.

Thank you all so much.  Tomorrow Enrique will brief for the General Assembly.

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