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

12 August 2009

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

12 August 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.

**Secretary-General Statement on Geneva Conventions

I have a statement attributable to the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General on the sixtieth anniversary of the Geneva Conventions.

On the sixtieth anniversary of the adoption of the four Geneva Conventions, the Secretary-General reaffirms their enduring significance and relevance for the protection of human life and dignity in situations of armed conflict.

The Secretary-General urges all Member States to take the necessary steps to ensure respect for the fundamental principles therein.


Turning to Sudan, a “humanitarian perfect storm” is brewing in Southern Sudan, putting no less than 40 per cent of the local population at risk.  That’s according to Lise Grande, the UN Deputy Humanitarian Coordinator in that region.  Grande said earlier today in Khartoum that three factors have led her and her team to this conclusion.  They include a spiralling inter-tribal conflict, a massive food shortage and a lingering budget crisis.

She said that 200 people have died in inter-tribal violence since January.  The violence has also displaced more than 250,000.  Southern Sudan also faces an acute food shortage brought about by a combination of delayed seasonal rains and widespread insecurity and high food prices due to a 40 per cent drop in Government revenues.  This situation has left 1.2 million people dependent on food assistance from the World Food Programme (WFP) and is made worse by a lack of funding for humanitarian work.  So far this year, only $59 million of the required $412 million has been disbursed.

Meanwhile, in Darfur, the UN-African Union mission (UNAMID) says that 200 peacekeepers from Tanzania joined its ranks earlier today.  The newly arrived troops are part of an advance party tasked with setting up a camp for an even larger contingent of Tanzanians expected to join the mission in September.  The mission also notes that it now has some 14,180 troops, which represents more than 70 per cent of its authorized strength.

** Cambodia

On Cambodia, the United Nations and Cambodia have signed an agreement to establish an Independent Counsellor at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), the UN-backed institution mandated to try perpetrators of the crimes committed under the Khmer Rouge regime.

The UN Office of Legal Affairs (OLA) says that the designation of an Independent Counsellor builds on the existing structure of national and international ethics monitors and the joint sessions among both parties of late 2008 and early 2009.  OLA, the Office of Legal Affairs, says it represents a further step to strengthen the human resources management in the administration of the tribunal, including anti-corruption measures to ensure the requirements of due process, including the full protection of whistle-blowing staff members.  We have the full text of the agreement upstairs.

** Bonn Talks

In Bonn, Germany, a week-long informal negotiating session towards a new global response to climate change -- ahead of the Copenhagen Conference next December -- entered its third day.  Yvo de Boer, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) said that Governments have made a good start in their effort to narrow down the number of options currently contained in the 200 pages of the main negotiating text.

He added that progress was made particularly in the areas of providing technology and finance to help developing countries reduce their emissions and adapt to the inevitable effects of climate change.  He also said that Governments were looking at how midterm emission reduction pledges could be translated into legally binding targets as a key component of the Copenhagen deal.  De Boer stressed that the technical work of the negotiations now had to be connected to the political momentum received at the G-8 Summit and the Major Economies Forum meeting last month, so that Copenhagen can produce a strong, workable agreed outcome.  The Bonn Talks will continue until Friday.

** Western Sahara

Yesterday evening, in [Duernstein] Austria, the Personal Envoy of the Secretary-General, Christopher Ross, gave a statement to the press at the end of two days of informal talks between the parties to the Western Sahara conflict.

Ross said that the discussions took place in an atmosphere of serious engagement, frankness and mutual respect.  He added that the parties, Morocco and the Frente Polisario, reiterated their commitment to continue their negotiations as soon as possible, and that he would fix the date and place of the next meeting in consultation with them.  The Special Envoy added that delegations from the neighbouring States, Algeria and Mauritania, were also present at the opening and closing sessions and were consulted separately during the discussions.

** Democratic Republic of the Congo

The [United Nations Organization] Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC) says that the Secretary-General’s Special Representative, Alan Doss, was accompanying United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her just-completed visit to the country.  The Mission says Doss provided briefings to Clinton on various aspects of the UN’s work in that country, both on the military and civilian fronts.  Doss also discussed the challenges now facing the Mission.

The Special Representative was also among a group of officials who accompanied the US Secretary of State to the Goma-based HEAL Africa clinic for victims of sexual violence.  The Commander of the Force, General Babacar Gaye, also provided briefings on military manoeuvres.

** Somalia

The Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Somalia, meanwhile, has welcomed the release of the four aid workers and their two pilots from captivity in Somalia.  Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah expressed great satisfaction over the release of the six, who had been working in Somalia for the international non-governmental organization Action Against Hunger.

Ould-Abdallah stressed, however, that we should not forget the number of Somalis and foreign nationals that are still being held hostage in unacceptable conditions.  Such hostage-taking “should be vehemently condemned by Somalis and the international community”.  He has also welcomed today’s convening of the Joint Security Committee held in Mogadishu as part of continuing efforts towards reforming and improving security in Somalia.  And you can read more about that upstairs.

** Venezuela

The Director-General of the UN Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) today voiced deep concern over press freedom in Venezuela.  Venezuela recently revoked the licences of 34 broadcasters, and a total of 240 radio stations and 45 TV stations may get their licences taken away soon.  There is a press release on that from UNESCO upstairs.

**United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Relief

The UN International Strategy for Disaster Relief (UNISDR) reports that more landslides are expected due to the rainfall intensity from climate change.  It says it is possible to reduce their impact by alerting people living in landslide-prone areas through monitoring and warning systems that will measure rainfall and soil conditions.  There is more on that upstairs.


Today is International Youth Day.  And there is a message from the Secretary-General on that occasion.


And I have two other notes for you.  The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) says that it is increasingly concerned with a pattern of unfounded Israeli press reports.  The most recent cites an anonymous Israeli defence official, claiming that Hamas had hijacked, at gunpoint, three UNRWA ambulances.  The allegation is without foundation and UNRWA has provided photographic evidence of the ambulances in question at the agency’s Gaza headquarters.  UNRWA has further offered to return the ambulances to an Israeli crossing point for inspection and verification if there is any lingering doubt on the issue.

UNRWA has protested this and other similarly inaccurate reports to the Israeli authorities, and expects that those anonymous officials involved in recent briefings to the press will be more accurate in the future.  UNRWA says that it is playing a vital humanitarian role in Gaza and that false reporting about it is a most unhelpful distraction from the humanitarian plight of Gaza’s 1.5 million Palestinians who are living in unbearable conditions.

UNRWA echoes the Quartet's call for the immediate reopening of Gaza's crossing points to allow the rebuilding of the more than 50,000 homes, damaged and destroyed by the Israeli military operation earlier this year.  And I am sure there is a press release on this upstairs from UNRWA.

**Secretary-General in Republic of Korea

And just a brief update on the Secretary-General, who is currently on Jeju Island in the Republic of Korea.  This morning in Seoul, he visited ailing former Korean President Kim Dae-jung at his hospital.  The Secretary-General also travelled to the city of Yeosu, on the Republic of Korea’s southern coast.  Expo 2012 will be held there, and the Secretary-General was able to visit the international exposition site.  Tomorrow the Secretary-General is scheduled to deliver the keynote speech at the Jeju Peace Forum.

**Security Council

And as for the Security Council, some people were just asking me, as of today nothing has been scheduled in terms of consultations or meetings.  As you know, yesterday afternoon the Security Council did meet and held consultations on Myanmar.

And that’s what I have for you.  Anything for me?  Let’s start in the back.  Louis.

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Thanks, Marie.  Two things.  The Iranian Nobel Prize winner, Ms. [Shirin] Ebadi, has asked Ban Ki-moon to come to Iran and to speak with people who were, who claim that they were subjected to human rights abuses.  She previously asked him to send an envoy, but now she’s stepping it up and saying that he should go there.  And then also, I was going to ask, now that the Iranian press has released part of the letter that the Secretary-General sent to President [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, if you could now release the full text so that we can all now see what the letter was like and there will be clarity as to, you know, how one should characterize it?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Let me start with your first question first.  On the issue of sending the envoy is a question -- the request for the envoy to Iran -- that was a question that the Secretary-General did address at his last press conference on 29 July.  So I’d refer you to his remarks there.  I have nothing…

Question:  [inaudible]

Deputy Spokesperson:  I know, but that was… the question about the envoy, he answered that question on 29 July at his press conference.  [Regarding] the press reports, I am familiar with, and we discussed this yesterday, that Shirin Ebadi out of Seoul that you just mentioned, as I mentioned to you yesterday, the Secretary-General was in Korea but they did not, they were not, their paths did not cross, and as far as I know, they did not speak while they were there.  So I have nothing further on that as of now.  

And your other question about the letter, as I said also yesterday, a letter did go out to President Ahmadinejad.  As the Spokesperson Michèle has been asked a number of times, yesterday I did confirm to those who asked that a letter did go out, as is customary at the time of the inauguration of a Head of State.  But it is not accurate to refer to this as a congratulatory letter.  Is that what you’re asking?  He did take advantage of the occasion of the inauguration to express the hope that Iran and the United Nations continue to work closely in addressing regional and global issues. 

As for -- you had a, it was a multifaceted question -- oh yes, as for releasing the letter, we generally do not, as you know the Secretary-General does, as I mentioned, send out on a customary basis all letters to all Member States’ Heads of State upon inauguration, and we do not release those letters.  Masood.

Question:  There was an update yesterday on your website on Pakistani IDPs (internally displaced persons).  And it said in that report that what they’re seeing as the fighting again escalates, more IDPs are coming.  Is there any update now on more IDPs, as has been stated in that report?  Is there an update?  And it also said that there were only 44 per cent, I mean, the fund was only about 44 per cent.  Is there any update on that?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I have nothing new from today, but we can certainly check with OCHA (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) or you can check with the spokesperson in OCHA to see if there is anything more, but I have not seen anything from either UNHCR (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) or OCHA today updating.  I’m going to start to go from the back to the front, so Khaled.

Question:  One follow-up on the Iran question, please?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Sure.

Question:  I mean, you mentioned that you cannot describe it as a congratulation letter.  So, I mean, what exactly is it?  Can you read for us the first paragraph, I mean, if he is not congratulating him at all, how would describe it?

Deputy Spokesperson:  No, it is not a congratulatory letter, the word congratulations does not appear in the letter.  As I said, the Secretary-General has to work with all 192 Member States of the United Nations, and it is customary to send out a letter on inauguration of a Head of State.  And in this case he did send out a letter, taking advantage of this occasion to again emphasize the, you know, his hope that Iran and the UN can cooperate on a number of issues … global and regional issues on the planet today.

Question:  Could I follow up on that follow-up?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Sure.

Question:  You said again that it didn’t include the word “congratulations” in it, but obviously there are many synonyms for that.  And so I just want to make sure that when you say it’s not a congratulatory letter that we’re not just saying that it doesn’t include the word “congratulations” in it.  That means that it cannot be construed in any way as congratulatory?

Deputy Spokesperson:  That’s correct.

Question:  Okay.

Deputy Spokesperson:  Yes?

Question:  [inaudible] Iran.

Deputy Spokesperson:  Okay.

Question:  You keep saying that… you just said that the letter expresses the hope that the UN and Iran will continue to work closely together.  I mean, Iran is in breach of four mandatory Chapter VII Security Council resolutions to stop its [inaudible] programme.  How can you possibly say that the UN is closely working with Iran?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I think he is expressing the hope that the UN and Iran can work together, and…

Question:  You said “will continue to work closely together…”  Does he consider Iran is working closely with the UN when it’s in breach of four Chapter VII Security Council resolutions?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Really, James, I have nothing beyond what I told you on this.  Iran is a Member State of the United Nations and the UN does, and the Secretary-General, does have to work with Iran, as with the 191 other Member States.

Question:  Does the Secretary-General recognize that Iran is in breach of four mandatory Chapter VII Security Council resolutions?

Deputy Spokesperson:  The Secretary-General’s views on Iran have been made public, and for this particular occasion, I have nothing beyond this.  Yes.

Question:  Just a quick follow-up on Iran, and then I want to ask you a question on Russia.  I believe the impetus for Shirin Ebadi to step up her calls for no longer an envoy but for the Secretary-General himself to go to the region, I was at the press conference, and the Secretary-General’s language, with all due respect, was very vague.  Saying that he is going to “continue to monitor the situation” is not enough, and that’s part of the reason that Ms. Ebadi has stepped up her call to have him come to the region.  So if you could please, from the Spokesman’s Office, get us a reply to the Secretary-General’s opinion about he himself visiting the region and when he intends to do so, that would be greatly appreciated. 

The second part is on Vladimir Putin’s visit to Abkhazia recently and the Georgian Foreign Ministry labelling his visit as a visit to an occupied territory.  He intends to put in about, nearly 500 million into that area to secure it.  Is the UN involved, because it seems that there is now going to be further conflict between the two countries?  How will the UN be involved and is there a statement or reaction to Vladimir Putin’s [inaudible]?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I am not aware of any involvement.  As far as I know there is no statement being planned, but if there is anything further to say on that, I’ll come back to you after the briefing.  Who else hasn’t had a question?  Yes, the gentleman in the green, and then to the left.

Question:  If you could give us some updates on the elections in Afghanistan.  Recently, the former United States envoy to the UN, Zalmay Khalilzad, in his recent article he has said that this election will further destabilize the country.  So if you could give us more about what UNAMA (United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan) is doing and how the legitimacy of the candidates and the election…?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Well, first of all, yes, on that, the Special Representative for Afghanistan (Kai Eide) held a press conference on this issue of elections just a couple days ago.  So I’d like to refer you to that.  It was a fairly extensive press conference in which he addressed many issues regarding the security situation and UNAMA’s concerns and UNAMA’s reaction to the realties on the ground.  There was also a report put out, again flagging some of the security concerns for the election… As for UNAMA’s role, I am sure that was addressed in that press conference, but my understanding is that UNAMA’s role is one of support, it’s playing a supporting role to the Afghan Government’s efforts and for these upcoming elections.  Yes.

Question:  Lately there has been violence against religious minorities in Pakistan, and to draw the attention of the UN, today members of religious minorities from Pakistan are staging demonstrations against the killings of fellow Christians.  What has been the reaction of the UN against the killings of religious minorities in Pakistan in the name of blasphemy, especially on that law, blasphemy?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I have not seen any reports today of any recent violence on the ground, so let me look into that.  Let me follow up with you with the Political and Humanitarian offices to see if there is anything more we can get for you.  Edie and then Matthew and then back to James.

Question:  Marie, does the Secretary-General have any plans to talk to Than Shwe or any of the other leaders in Myanmar to convey his feelings about the results of the trial of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Not that I am aware of.  His statement yesterday was, I am sure, it was heard loud and clearly around the world, including to the leaders there.  But I can check with his Special Envoy’s office to see if there any contact being made from the Envoy.  Matthew.

Question:  In Sudan, Lubna Hussein has now been barred from travel.  One, does the UN have any comment on it?  And two, what’s her status currently with the United Nations?  They say that she’s quit, therefore renounced her immunity.  What’s the UN’s…?

Deputy Spokesperson:  You know… let me find out more about it.  I don’t have any further guidance on her today, so let me find out from the Peacekeeping Department and our Mission.

Question:  Could you also, I mean, separate, related DPKO (Department of Peacekeeping Operations) questions, it has to do with MONUC (United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Can you ask them whether -- that’s a quote:  “a family or non-family post”, i.e. whether staff members can bring family members to the country or not?  I mean, I know at one point, at least as recently as I know, it was a non-family post, but I just want to make sure from you, whether there has been some change.

Deputy Spokesperson:  Well, the UN, without getting into too much detail, just to give you an idea of how duty stations work even in a given country, different locations in a given country may have different security levels.  So, you know, while it may be a non-family duty station in one part of the country, you know, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the whole country is under the same security status.  I just want to…

Question:  [inaudible]

Deputy Spokesperson:  Okay.  That’s why I need to let you know that.  Yes.

Question:  Just a couple of questions on Alan Doss.  Do we clarify who lifted, what the status of Baroncini’s immunity is?  Did somebody actually formally lift his immunity?  And if so, who was that?  And so, on a related question, whether the UN is going to be willing to present witnesses in this case?

Deputy Spokesperson:  You’re still talking about the biting incident, and again I have to repeat what I said two days ago, which is the matter is now before a New York court, so we cannot comment on the circumstances of the incident so as not to prejudice the case, and all queries should be addressed to the New York County District Attorney’s office.

Question:  I’m not asking about the circumstances of the case, I was asking about how is it that a person arrested in the UN office, on international territory, a UN person who has functional immunity, is in a New York court?

Deputy Spokesperson:  He did not have immunity because he was not a staff member.

Question:  So contractual employees don’t have immunity, is that it?

Deputy Spokesperson:  Yes, that’s what I’m told.

Question:  So you see, that’s as simple as that.  Just another question, the HEAL Africa clinic for victims of sexual violence that Alan Doss went to with Hillary Clinton, where is it?

Deputy Spokesperson:  In the east, I believe it was in the Kivus.  Yes, can somebody ask who hasn’t had another question?  Yes.

Question:  I think the Secretary-General expressed his will to visit the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Pyongyang, if necessary, as he did here at the press conference.  Is he only prepared for a discussion going on…?

Deputy Spokesperson:  You know, the remarks that you read were made, yes, I understand when he had an impromptu press encounter in Seoul, and just as you said, his remarks there echoed exactly what he said when he was last asked about the subject.  So nothing further to add on that.  Last question, Matthew.

Question:  There was this, the… Sri Lanka has arrested, either in Malaysia or in Thailand, it’s unclear, an opposition leader Mr. (Patmen?), also known as KP.  [inaudible] may extraordinary rendition, i.e., he was arrested, there was no extradition trial and now he is back in the country.  Has the UN said, some people say he’s been tortured but, does the UN have anything to say about that?

Deputy Spokesperson:  I don’t think we’ve received ay reports on that, but we’ll look into that for you.  With that, have a good afternoon, and see you Friday.

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