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

29 May 2009

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

29 May 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.

I see we have a lot of guests in the back.  Welcome to the United Nations.

**Secretary-General -- Peacekeepers Day

As you know, today is International Day of UN Peacekeepers.

This is a day set aside to pay tribute to all the men and women who have served and continue to serve in UN peacekeeping.  It also honours the memory of those who have lost their lives in the cause of peace.

The theme this year is “Women in Peacekeeping:  The Power to Empower”, and the Secretary-General in his message for the Day, said that peacekeepers who died in the line of duty did not die in vain but left an important legacy.

He noted specifically that the 10 women ‑‑ who were among the 132 peacekeepers who died, last year ‑‑ remind us that female personnel are playing an increasingly important role in peacekeeping.

The Secretary-General stressed the imperative to draw on the unique and powerful contribution women can make.  He added:  “Often, they can better communicate with local women, generating a greater sense of security while serving as an example of women’s empowerment.”

The Secretary-General further noted that there are still far too few women peacekeepers and he called on Member States to contribute more female personnel to the United Nations.

And to share more on today’s celebration of the International Day of UN Peacekeeping, we will be having as our guests in the next few minutes, both Alain Le Roy, the Under-Secretary-General of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, (DPKO), and Susana Malcorra, the Under-Secretary-General for the Department of Field Support.

They should be down here at 12:30 p.m. and I will give them the floor as soon as they come in.

**Secretary-General Statement on Iran

I have a statement attributable to the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General on Iran.

The Secretary-General condemns yesterday’s bomb attack in a mosque in the Iranian city of Zahedan, which reportedly killed at least 20 people and wounded many others.  He extends his heartfelt condolences to the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the families of the victims of this despicable act.

** Gaza Fact-Finding Mission

The fact-finding mission established by the Human Rights Council last month, following its special session on the Gaza conflict, will travel to the region over the weekend.

The mission will be in Gaza as of the 1st of June and will remain there for about one week.  The mission, which is headed by Justice Richard Goldstone, will enter Gaza from Egypt via the Rafah crossing point.  Other field visits are being planned.

The mission plans to meet with all concerned parties, including non-governmental organizations, civil society groups, UN agencies, victims and witnesses of alleged violations, and other persons who may provide information with regard to the facts under investigation.  There is more on that in a press release that was just issued on the subject.


And after 12 years of stalemate, the Conference on Disarmament this morning in Geneva adopted by consensus document, which contains the draft programme of work for the Conference of 2009.

Today’s decision which reinforces multilateralism saved the world’s sole multilateral for disarmament negotiations.  We have a press release on that upstairs and are expecting a statement later this afternoon as well.

** Pakistan -- Humanitarian Update

On Pakistan, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, (OCHA), says that we are currently witnessing one of the largest and fastest displacements of civilians the world has seen in the last 15 years.

According to OCHA people remaining in the area of conflict face serious risks from the ongoing fighting.  OCHA is also stressing the urgent need for extra resources to support the needy displaced civilians.  And you heard John Holmes yesterday afternoon on this subject after he launched the latest appeal to the donors in New York.

Still on the events in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province, the World Health Organization (WHO) says the displaced persons continue to face major health risks.  These risks include, potential outbreaks of communicable disease, due to inadequate shelter, physical and mental stress, as well as inadequate water, sanitation and hygienic conditions.  WHO is warning that morbidity and mortality rates could increase unless proper and urgent humanitarian assistance is provided.

Meanwhile, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, has, in partnership with UN-Habitat, stepped up assistance to the displaced persons who are living local host families.  Many local families are now seeing their household sizes double or triple overnight as they struggle to provide refuge to the displaced.

A first batch of 5,000 tents is already being distributed to the most vulnerable in two districts.  And UN-Habitat is providing hygiene kits to the host families.  You can read more about the humanitarian efforts in the UNHCR website and their briefing notes from Geneva.

** Sri Lanka

And in Sri Lanka, the emergency response over the last days, weeks and months has involved 15 ministries, more than 30 national and international non-government organization partners and 12 United Nations agencies.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says, since the arrival of the last internally displaced persons, efforts have been undertaken to improve basic conditions in the camp.  Priorities include decongestion of the overcrowded camps, constructing more latrines and improving the water supply so that international standards are met.  The need for speedy family reunification, improved freedom of movement and civil administration of the camps are also priority areas of concern.

The UN’s overriding emphasis will be to support Government efforts to provide basic assistance needs for the 290,000 IDPs from the Vanni, and work with them to support these families to go back to their homes as soon as possible.  Over the past several weeks, 22,800 tents and emergency shelters have been provided.  Another 15,000 tents and more shelters are needed to provide adequate living space for the internally displaced.

Water and sanitation continue to be a huge challenge.  Nearly 3,200 latrines have been constructed ‑‑ just over half of what is needed.  For water, 4,400 cubic metres is currently being provided representing about 75 per cent of the overall drinking and bathing needs.

Particular attention has been paid to the protection needs of children.  Sixty‑three child-friendly spaces for over 20,000 children have been established.  Teams are also supporting programme for former child soldiers ‑‑ many of whom were forcibly recruited.

Some 40,000 children have access to education and have been provided with education materials, covering approximately 40 per cent of what is needed.  There is more information from OCHA on the efforts under way.

**Security Council

The Security Council as you know, here is meeting right now and is expected to adopt two texts.

The first is a resolution on Cyprus.  According to the text, the Security Council will extend the mandate of the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus until 15 December 2009.  It will also welcome progress made so far in the full-fledged negotiations between the Cyprus leaders.

And second, the Security Council is expected to adopt a presidential statement on Côte d’Ivoire.  By that text, the Council will welcome the agreement on a time frame leading to the first round of presidential elections on 29 November of this year.  The Council will also reiterate its full support for having a credible electoral process in Côte d’Ivoire.

And on the first resolution, we’ve just been informed that the vote for that was 14 for and 1 against, Turkey, with an explanation of vote.

** Côte d’Ivoire

On Côte d’Ivoire, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative there, met yesterday with the country’s Prime Minister.

According to the UN Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI), the meeting followed recent advances made in the peace process.  These include the setting of a date for the presidential elections, the transfer of powers from the Forces Nouvelles zone commanders earlier this week, and the official publication of the process of certification of the Ivorian elections.

** Sierra Leone

Available today is the Secretary-General’s latest report on the UN Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Sierra Leone.  In it, the Secretary-General notes the recent outbreak of political violence in Sierra Leone.  But, he lauds the country for not giving in to what could have been a vicious cycle of attacks and counter-attacks.

In that regard, the leaders and ordinary citizens of Sierra Leone have not only offered hope for their own future, but have set an example for other countries in the subregion, he says.

At the same time, the Secretary-General says he is concerned that the global financial crisis could affect international support for Sierra Leone.  In that context, he calls on all Member States to continue their assistance to Sierra Leone’s peacebuilding efforts.

**Democratic Republic of Congo

And on the DRC, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is allocating $10.2 million from its Central Emergency Response Fund to assist some 200,000 people in the north-eastern part of that country.  OCHA says the money will help address lingering humanitarian consequences for civilians in the wake of attacks by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

A little more than half of the funds should enable the World Food Programme (WFP) to improve food security for an estimated 160,000 people over the next three months.  UNICEF, UNHCR and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) will also receive some of the money to further their respective assistance programmes in the region.  This is the second Emergency Fund allocation to deal with the humanitarian aftermath of LRA attacks on Congolese civilians this year.

**Climate Change

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) says that the fight against climate change in Africa has reached a major milestone today.

Over 30 African environment ministers adopted the Nairobi Declaration ‑‑ which according to UNEP will provide a platform to make a strong case for increased support for the continent, at the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, in December.

Meanwhile, starting Monday, 3,000 representatives from Governments, business, environmental organizations and research institutions will participate in a new round of talks on climate change, in Bonn.  These discussions will focus on the texts to be negotiated to form an international response to climate change, to be agreed in Copenhagen.


The World Health Organization (WHO) today urged Governments to require that all tobacco packages include picture warnings ‑‑ so that people can see the sickness and suffering caused by tobacco use.

WHO says that, even among people who believe tobacco is harmful; few understand its specific health risks.  For example, a survey held this year in China showed that only 37 per cent of smokers knew that smoking causes coronary heart disease.  And only 17 per cent knew that it causes stroke.

WHO’s call to action comes on the eve of World No Tobacco Day, which will be observed this Sunday.

**Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP)

And the United Nations is bridging the digital divide in Afghanistan by training its decision makers in the use of information and communications technology.  The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) reports that this training programme called “training the trainers” will take place from 31 May to 3 June.

**United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization

Just one more item.  The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and Chile have launched a joint training project to develop tourism strategies that respect the universal value of Eastern Island’s Rapa Nui National Park.  The park was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1995.  This project will allow the community to have a leading role in enhancing and promoting their own heritage.  And there is a press release on this upstairs.

**Press Conferences Today

And as I mentioned, our guests today, Mr. Le Roy, and Susana Malcorra, are already here and I will turn over to them in a second.

And this afternoon there will be two more briefings.  They’re both on Somalia.  At 1:30 p.m. there will be a press conference by the Foreign Minister of Somalia, Mohamed Abdullahi Omaar, and at 2:30 p.m., there will be briefing by the UN Special Representative for Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, and that will be in 226.  So ‑‑ 1:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. on Somalia.

**The Week Ahead at the United Nations

And finally, what we have available for you upstairs is The Week Ahead at the United Nations that will help your planning coverage next week.

We already mentioned the fact-finding mission established by the Human Rights Council on the Gaza that will be travelling to the region over the weekend.

And on 1 June, that’s Monday, Turkey will assume the rotating presidency of the Security Council for the month of June.

On 2 June, in Geneva, the Human Rights Council will hold its eleventh session, until 18 June.  And on 3 June, Matthew, you were asking about this; the guest at the noon briefing will be Michael Adlerstein, Assistant Secretary-General and Executive Director of the Capital Master Plan (CMP), who will provide an update on that.

And I think I’ll leave it at that.  You can pick up this document upstairs.  I’ll take two questions before I turn over. Okay?

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Yes, there are reports out today that more than 1,000 civilians were being killed daily by Government shelling in Sri Lanka at the end of that conflict.  That would put the total number of civilians killed at well over 20,000.  Given that these estimates are so much higher than the official estimates, I am wondering if the Secretary-General has any response to that, if he is talking to the Sri Lankan Government about that.  Is he concerned about the allegations that the United Nations is holding back these figures to protect the Sri Lankan Government?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Okay, on that, first of all, the media reports of the latest figures that you’re speaking to, I did check with OCHA and they do not know where these specific figures are coming from.  But, as for your concern about the number of casualties on the ground, just to reiterate, at the height of the fighting, indicative casualty figures were provided to some Member States in the course of an internal, non-public briefing to underscore the humanitarian community’s increasing concern about the fate of civilians trapped in an ever-shrinking space in northern Sri Lanka, where the conflict was raging and resulting in the injury and deaths of civilians, including women and children.  And John Holmes has addressed that issue for you.

On a number of occasions, the UN has publicly and repeatedly said that the number of people killed has been unacceptably high and it has shared those estimates with the Government, and as well as those others concerned.  And those are the figures that you had previously seen.  The point that I am trying to make is that the United Nations has not been shy about the scale of human suffering and civilian casualties.  It has been ringing the alarm bells for a long time.  So the focus on the release of new figures is a bit of a distraction, when over and over again we have been saying that those figures had been unacceptably high.

And, as you know, the Secretary-General was the first world leader to go to Sri Lanka following the end of the active conflict.  He was there with a very strong message on one; to get humanitarian assistance to those who needed it on the ground desperately.  And this is what we have been working on; this is why we had an OCHA update today on progress made since the Secretary-General went there and made that appeal.  During that time, he has both publicly and privately been very strong and forcibly raising the issue of accountability with the leaders there.  And thirdly, he has been in negotiation on the ground and pressing for, and winning commitments from the Government on the medium-term goals, which is the rapid return of the people who have been displaced.  And, most importantly, he has been working on ‑‑ and has got that message out loud and clear to all of you, I think ‑‑ the need for political reconciliation and he is willing to do what it takes to get that going.

Question:  A follow-up?

Question:  A follow-up here, too!  There are these allegations out there that the UN is holding up these numbers.  The sources cited in these reports are UN sources.  Is that a concern for the Secretary-General?  And is it over at this point?  He’s said what he’s going to say and it’s over or does the effort continue to try to…?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I just mentioned to you that the … objectives, three objectives that he went on the ground to start, and he’s continued to press them on all fronts.  He is one of many parties on the planet who can make all this happen and for his part I think he has been very loud and clear.  He’s been reaching out; he’s been talking to the Government and our humanitarian workers are on the ground valiantly trying to get aid to these people who desperately need it.

Question:  [inaudible] follow up on that.  The documents you referred to that went to Member States, there was one on 7 March that said that there were 2,600 people, civilians, killed.  Then there was one at the end of April saying 7,000.  I think what these reports are saying is that in May there were a thousand dead.  Did the UN, has the UN, whether it’s [inaudible] informal or for Member States, created an estimate since the 7,000 figure that was leaked and became publicly available.  And, if so, does it jive with the 20,000 figure?  And the other thing; I just want to be sure that you’ve answered, the Secretary-General was expected by many Member States to brief the Security Council on his trip to Sri Lanka.  It’s my understanding that the Turkish ambassador is going to meet with him, and ask if he wants to.  So, I want to know from you, is it something that he wants to do?  And will he push to make, particularly in light of these new numbers, to brief the Security Council, rather than only the General Assembly, about his wider trip?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I don’t have anything to announce at this point, but the Secretary-General will be addressing, briefing Member States on his recent visit to Sri Lanka, as well as his other stops on his recent 14-day mission.  As for your first question about the civilian casualties, again for specifics I’d refer you to OCHA, because they’re the ones who can give you exactly what figures were released on what day.  But, I think the overall message I made pretty clearly in my initial response to you.  Yes, Michael?

Question:  Does he want to brief the Council?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I said I had nothing to announce at this time.  Yes, Michael.

Question:  Marie, a question, does the Secretary-General have a response today to the acknowledgement yesterday by Maxwell Gaylard that the best way for the Palestinians to help to alleviate their suffering is to dig tunnels themselves to Egypt, since the international community at this point has been unable to help them?  Does the Secretary-General have a response to that, given that his efforts and the international community’s efforts to provide aid and relief, does he have anything to add…?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I am not sure he has anything to add.  That was a briefing by somebody, who, if I recall correctly, was saying that his job was to realize on a day-to-day basis that the aid to the people in need in Gaza get it.  The Secretary-General, as you know, has been carrying that message strongly, you know, throughout his tenure here and is doing, on his part, what he can to get that going.  But, I think we have to let the people on the ground, who are working the day-to-day operations, to comment on the specifics of how that’s going to be carried out.

Question:  But, doesn’t he find that shocking that after all the effort put in by both himself and others, that this remains their best option or only option to…?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I think the Secretary-General has repeatedly told you, told Member States, told all the parties about this desperate situation on the ground and the need to help these people.  Okay, with that, I think I will now turn over to Mr. Le Roy and Susana Malcorra.

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