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

17 August 2010

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

17 August 2010
Spokesperson's Noon Briefing
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

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

The following is a near-verbatim transcript of today’s noon briefing by Farhan Haq, Acting Deputy Spokesperson for the Secretary-General.

Good afternoon.

** Iraq

The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) strongly condemns today’s terrorist attack on an Iraqi army recruitment centre in Baghdad, which claimed the lives of dozens of military recruits and left over a hundred injured.  The UN Mission extends its condolences to the families of the victims and to the people and the Government of Iraq, and wishes a speedy recovery to those who were wounded.

The Mission expresses concern at the continued acts of violence targeting the Iraqi people, including those perpetrated during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan.  UNAMI reiterates that agreement on the formation of the Government will greatly contribute to strengthening Iraq’s ability to protect its citizens and respond effectively to those who aim at perpetuating instability and insecurity in the country and reversing its path towards peace and prosperity.

**Security Council

The Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs, Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, briefed the Security Council on the Middle East this morning, telling Council members that we are nearing a turning point in the efforts to promote direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

The parties are currently holding internal discussions with a view to deciding on whether they will enter into direct talks, he said.  He added that we urge them to be forthcoming in their deliberations and are hopeful that leaders on both sides will seize this opportunity and engage in a path of decisive progress towards a sustainable, mutually acceptable two-State solution, within a realistic time frame.  To support them in taking this step, the United Nations remains in close contact with Quartet partners to promote the start of meaningful direct negotiations as soon as possible.

Fernandez-Taranco added that, for these negotiations to succeed, it is crucial to maintain an enabling climate on the ground.  Parties should adhere to their Road Map commitments and obligations under international law.

Meanwhile, he said, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) warned yesterday that it is running an $84 million deficit that could soon force it to shut schools and clinics in the Gaza Strip.  He called on the international community to help UNRWA fulfil its important mission in health, education and social services in Gaza and elsewhere in the region. His briefing notes are in our Office, and the consultations on the Middle East have just concluded.

** Darfur

The UN-African Union mission in Darfur (UNAMID) has welcomed the release earlier today of its two police advisers who were abducted on Saturday in Nyala, South Darfur.  The Jordanian peacekeepers underwent a medical examination.  They appeared to be unharmed and in good health. 

The mission says that the two were released following meetings between its senior staff and a joint task force it had set up with the Sudanese Government to resolve this matter.

Also, further to the statement we issued yesterday afternoon, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says that an inter-agency assessment team visited the Kalma camp for internally displaced persons yesterday.  The team reported that camp residents confirmed improvements in the overall security situation and thanked UN peacekeepers for increased patrols and other efforts to protect civilians.

Yesterday, a humanitarian team delivered urgently needed medicines and enough fuel to operate water pumps and meet current needs for water in the camp.  Today, however, humanitarian access was again denied, affecting plans to further assess additional humanitarian needs and determine the required assistance.

** Pakistan

Turning to Pakistan, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says the latest situation report for Pakistan shows that 15.4 million people have been affected, with close to 900,000 houses damaged or destroyed.  Flood waters continue to swell in the provinces of Sindh and Balochistan, which will likely result in additional assistance needs in both provinces.

The World Food Programme (WFP) has distributed one-month rations to more than 840,000 people, and it expects that by the end of the day, 1 million people will have been reached with a one-month food ration.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says the latest data concerning the health situation indicates that the leading causes of illness in affected communities are skin diseases, acute watery diarrhoea and respiratory tract infections.

Regarding the Pakistan Emergency Response Plan, which was launched last week, OCHA says it’s now 35 per cent funded, with $161 million received, out of $459 million requested.  And we have much more detail on this available online and in the briefing notes from Geneva, which are available at the Spokesperson’s Office.

** Haiti

On Haiti, the Associate Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Rebeca Grynspan, is representing the UN at the Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission (IHRC) meeting taking place in Port-au-Prince today.  As you know, President René Préval of Haiti invited the UN to take part in the Commission as a full voting member.

This is the second board meeting of the Commission.  It will be presented with a set of priorities through a total of 29 projects, enabling it to focus and vote on initiatives that are aligned with and advance both the immediate and the long-term responses of the Haitian Government to the needs of the Haitian people.

**World Humanitarian Day

Last, the second World Humanitarian Day and the seventh anniversary of the attack against the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad will be observed this Thursday, at 10:30 a.m., in the General Assembly Building public lobby.

The Secretary-General will lay a wreath in front of the memorial plaque located outside the Meditation Room, in remembrance of the 22 people killed in the truck bomb attack of 19 August 2003.  The wreath-laying ceremony shall be followed by a moment of silence.  And Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes will make remarks at a separate event that day.  And we have more details in a press release.

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Farhan, as you have indicated, the situation in Pakistan continues to be alarming.  The Secretary-General recognized that it’s a major disaster, like he has never seen before, and that the situation requires immediate assistance as well as long-term reconstruction.  The Ambassador of Pakistan in London said that they would need between $10 billion and $15 billion, and so far, only one third has come out of that pledged amount.  I don’t know if you included the $900 million given by UNDP recently.  But, in any case, does the Secretary-General intend to appoint some high-level representative, like he has done for Haiti, to deal with this grave situation?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  As far as high-level representatives go, there is a high-level representative who has been dealing with the needs in Pakistan, namely [UN Special Envoy for Assistance to Pakistan] Jean-Maurice Ripert.  Mr. Ripert, in fact, visited just before the Secretary-General’s visit, and the report that he gave back to the Secretary-General helped persuade the Secretary-General on the urgent need for him to travel there.  In fact, Mr. Ripert was accompanying the Secretary-General during his visit to Pakistan over the weekend, so he is the person on the ground who has been the point man for a lot of these efforts.

Question:  Farhan, I might have missed this yesterday.  Apologies if so, but could you give us a little bit more information about Thursday’s General Assembly meeting; for instance who called it, how common is it for the Secretary-General to address the Assembly after visiting a natural disaster?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  He has done this in the past.  And, as you know, sometimes, when the Secretary-General has made visits either after natural disasters or after certain attacks — such as the one that took place against our offices in Afghanistan — he did go to brief the General Assembly immediately upon his return.  In this case, the Secretary-General believes that Thursday’s meeting is valuable, not simply to report back on his visit, but, more to the point, he wants to make sure that he can encourage nations to provide the necessary financial support and other sorts of humanitarian support that Pakistan needs at this time.  He believes it’s crucial that this come to Pakistan immediately, given our concerns not just about housing and shelter for those who have lost their homes, but, in particular, the need for clean water, food and medicines to deal with any potential outbreaks of diseases that will happen in the aftermath of this type of flooding.

Question:  Who asked for the session to be called? 

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  Well, the Secretary-General had asked the General Assembly President about this, but obviously all General Assembly meetings are called for by the presidency of the General Assembly.

Question:  So it was not at the instigation of the Secretary-General in this case? 

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  But in this case the Secretary-General felt that this was urgently needed.

Question:  Can you confirm any other major players attending Thursday? 

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  It’s not for me to confirm who different Member States will have represent them at this meeting.  It’s clear that a number of Member States, including Pakistan and the United States, intend to be represented at a fairly high level at Thursday’s events.  But of course, it’s for the respective Governments to announce who is coming.

Question:  As far as that disaster and the help is concerned, it is being reported that the United Nations and other agencies are finding it very difficult to reach the survivors to help them.  Has the United Nations assessed the situation as to what are the difficulties which are not being explained?  I know there’s a flood going on and everything else, but the difficulties are being talked about for the first time that you still can’t, access is not there at all.  How are you going to overcome that?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  That’s certainly a problem and what we’re trying to do, as soon as access is restored to places, we’re trying to assess the situation there and assess the needs.  But you’re right, a lot of areas have been rendered inaccessible due to the washing out of roads, for example.  We’ve tried to deliver aid by air, as we just pointed out the various airlifts of food provided by WFP.  But, as soon as areas open up for humanitarian access, we’re certainly trying to determine what the needs are and make the necessary assessments.

Question:  Would you say that you’ll be needing a lot more aerial help — helicopters and so forth — in order to get to the people? 

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  At this stage, we have been relying on aerial assets.  We haven’t requested additional aerial assets at this point, but we’ll see what the needs are as we better determine what the needs are.

Question:  Who are the countries coming forth to help? 

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  There are a number of countries, but we’ve had air assets provided also from our own facilities, including, by the way, from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).

Question:  Farhan, on Afghanistan, is the UN considering a Taliban proposal for a joint commission to investigate civilian deaths?  If so, can you provide more detail on the proposal and what the UN’s role might be in the investigation?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  At this stage, all I can tell you is that we are aware of the proposal, but we don’t have any detailed comment to make on it, at this point.

Question:  Will there be a response? 

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  I can’t say precisely.  We would need to look into the matter, but I don’t have any detailed comment to make just at this point.

Question:  Following up on Tom’s question on Thursday, is the Secretary-General expecting that countries are going to come to this meeting and actually make additional pledges, or is it just mainly to promote the idea of giving more money?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  It’s the latter; it’s really designed to promote the idea of giving more money.  It’s not a pledging conference; it’s not a pledging meeting.  At the same time, of course, other countries are welcome to attend this meeting and to speak out.  They’re welcome to provide information on what their respective Governments are willing to provide.  So that’s up to them, but this is not strictly an occasion for them to make pledges.

Question:  Is there a time for it yet?  Is it going to start in the afternoon?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  The time is up to the General Assembly President.  It may be in the afternoon, but ultimately, it’ll be for the General Assembly presidency to determine the time.

Question:  Just a couple of questions on Sudan.  One was that, yesterday, you guys put out one statement and then another.  The first one said that “the Secretary-General appreciates the restoration today of humanitarian access to Kalma camp”.  And then later you put out one saying: “The Secretary-General appreciates the restoration today of some humanitarian access to Kalma camp”.  So I’m trying to ask, what is the distinction?  What’s the access that’s still being denied?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  You missed it because you weren’t in the room, but we did provide details about our access.  Basically, yesterday, a humanitarian team managed to gain access to the camp to deliver urgently needed medicines and fuel to operate submersible pumps, which should meet the current needs for water in the camp.  However, today, humanitarian access was again denied, affecting plans to further assess additional humanitarian needs and determine the required assistance.  So in other words, we did have access yesterday.  We were able to get food and fuel in.  We don’t have that access today and, to repeat what the Secretary-General’s point was, in part, what he said yesterday was that he called upon the Government of Sudan to take all possible measures to ensure that humanitarian access to all Sudanese remains open and that humanitarian space is protected.

Question:  So are you saying that yesterday when you put the first statement out that there was full access and that that somehow changed in the hours…?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  No, Matthew, the two statements were released within 20 minutes of each other.  I think what happened is that someone wanted specifically to make that point of wording.  It’s not that something magical happened in those 20 minutes.

Question:  And is that someone from within the UN Secretariat or from one of the missions?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  Of course, it was from the Secretariat.

Question:  I just wanted to know, besides what we’re hearing — that United States Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Pakistan’s Foreign Minister are coming — is there any other dignitary at that level expected to arrive? 

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  The different Governments will make the call about who is representing them.  I’m not aware of the full list of people who might participate, but obviously they are welcome to engage at a high level if they wish to do so.

Question:  Will you have such a list available as of tomorrow or the day after?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  I imagine the General Assembly will provide that list and we will try and get that from them.

Question:  On Pakistan again.  Obviously this is a major disaster and clearly the international community is not responding as fast as it should.  Has the United Nations determined the cause of this slow response?  

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  We don’t necessarily know what the causes are.  Obviously, Governments are sovereign entities.  It’s their choice when and how to respond to international crises.  At the same time, what we’re trying to underscore is the urgency of this particular crisis.  It’s something that the Secretary-General saw very vividly for himself — the number of homes destroyed, livelihoods destroyed.  And, more worrying, the prospect that diseases like cholera could take hold if we do not have the ability to respond with the requisite speed.  So certainly he is trying to get nations to act more urgently, regardless of what their own particular financial constraints are.  This is a crucial matter at this point.

Question:  Still on Sudan and this matter of the UNHCR [Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] and FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization] individuals in West Darfur.  I wasn’t here because I was at the [Security] Council, but what people are saying is that they have been told to leave.  They’ve been told that their security is not guaranteed; that it’s a sort of form of “PNG” or persona non grata by another name by the Government of Sudan.  What’s the status of those five individuals, or the three UN individuals and two Red Cross?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  No people have been formally made persona non grata.  There’s been no formal request for anyone to leave.

Question:  Were they told that their security is not guaranteed?  If so, who told them that? 

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  Like I said yesterday, this is something we’re assessing.  I don’t have anything beyond what I told you yesterday on this.  But certainly no one’s been formally asked to leave.

Question:  Also, what’s known about the Jordanian peacekeepers who were released?  Who held them during that period of time?  Sort of similar to the pilot question, once people are released, it would seem that the UN would then be free to say who had them.  Who had them?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  I don’t have any detail on that.  We do have a press release concerning the safe release of the two UNAMID personnel who were abducted on Saturday, but there’s no information just yet on who their captors had been.

Question:  I came in late, so apologies if you’ve covered this already.  The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) investigation into the exchange of fire on 3 August between Israel and Lebanon, do we have any more details on that?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  There’s no details about further results, because the investigation is not yet complete.  Once it’s completed, the results will be shared by the respective parties.  The Force Commander of UNIFIL did speak with his counterparts in terms of the Israel Defense Forces and the Lebanese Armed Forces just yesterday.  He talked to them about the 3 August incident, but in terms of any further findings, that would have to wait for the completion of UNIFIL’s investigation.

Question:  Could you give us an idea of what we can expect in addition to what Mr. [Alain] Le Roy [Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations] told the press in his press conference?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  I don’t know.  I’d have to wait for when the investigation is completed. 

Question:  Just a follow-up.  I’ve heard actually that DPKO [Department of Peacekeeping Operations] has been asked to and will be briefing the [Security] Council this Thursday at 11 a.m. on just this very matter.  So I wonder if that’s something that you’re aware of.  Have they in fact completed it, but are just not releasing the results until that time? 

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  I do know that once the investigation is complete, we do intend, among other things, to brief the Security Council.  As for when that will be scheduled, that’s a matter for the Security Council President to declare.

Question:  Can I ask you something about the LRA [Lord’s Resistance Army]? Yesterday — and thanks a lot, you’ve given me a written response about this MONUSCO [United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo] and the LRA and the difficulty of chasing them down — one of the points was that somehow nine Indian helicopters have been withdrawn and this makes it more difficult for MONUSCO.  I spoke to an Indian diplomat who said that DPKO and MONUSCO were aware for months that this contract was not being renewed, that India was not going to continue, and they have other helicopters there, but they were being taken out.  So their question to DPKO and to MONUSCO, was why wasn’t some alternative plan made?  It seemed like a funny excuse… I guess what I’m wondering is, can you confirm that DPKO knew for months that those contracts were going to be withdrawn?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  Well, there was quite a lot in that note we sent, so it doesn’t boil down to just that.  But certainly, the problem of shifting around air assets so that we can do the needed patrols is always an issue.  It’s not specific to the Indian helicopters, per se.  It’s about making sure that whatever air assets we have can be deployed to the right circumstances.  And as you know, we have other demands on the air assets in the DRC beyond LRA activity.

Question:  Well, I guess the question I was left with was — and I’ve also spoken to the Permanent Representative of Uganda, who doesn’t seem very satisfied with MONUSCO’s action on the LRA — how important is the LRA with reports that it’s building a base in Bawele province?  What is the UN doing?  Can it actually even patrol that area or is it leaving the area? 

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  Well, we’ve specified to you what we are doing and we’re doing as much as we can with the assets that we have available.  That’s what we intend to do; it’s just that our mandated tasks in the DRC also included a huge number of tasks throughout the Democratic Republic of the Congo itself.  So our assets have to focus on a number of different priorities, not simply the LRA.  But certainly we are trying, with whatever assets we have to bear, we’re trying to do what we can to deal with the issue of the LRA.

Question:  In terms of the discussions in the General Assembly this Thursday, what does the Secretary-General expect to come out of the Assembly — a resolution, a statement by the President calling on the international community to come to the aid of Pakistan?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  What he wants is simply to build awareness and build a sense of urgency around this so that Member States will provide more money and more assets more quickly in order to deal with the humanitarian crisis in Pakistan.

Question:  Well, how would they do that?  Would they issue a resolution or a statement of the President or some other…?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  Well, it’s up to the Member States themselves to decide how to do that.  But obviously, the easiest way to do that is for Member States themselves to provide directly the sort of resources or the sort of funding that’s needed, including, of course, by contributing to the $459 million appeal that was launched last week.  And with that, I wish you all a good afternoon.

Question:  Wait.  I just want to ask you a quick question.  Again, I was at the Security Council and that’s why I wasn’t here on time.  Earlier, there’d been this switch within the Department of Political Affairs where Horst Heitmann, previously the main liaison between the Secretariat and the Security Council, left on 16 August and was transferred to the Middle East Division.  You sent an answer about a month ago saying that the post would be circulated and advertised.  Has that happened?  When will it be… it’s been filled now on a temporary basis, it seems, but when will that actually be…?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  As with every post in the UN, there’s a standard procedure, which involves advertising the post, going through the process of weeding out candidates, interviews and so forth.  And until that permanent selection is made, there would need to be someone doing the job temporarily. 

Question:  But why didn’t that start… given the importance of the job in terms of… and also all the issues that have arisen between the Secretariat and the Security Council about access to consultations and stuff, why didn’t this process begin before Heitmann was removed?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  It began as quickly as possible.  There has been a series of different moves that have happened.  For example, Haile Menkerios went from the Department of Political Affairs to the United Nations Mission in the Sudan (UNMIS) to fill a vacancy there.  That vacancy then required his position to be filled, which was filled by Tayé-Brook Zerihoun, who had been the head of the Mission in Cyprus [United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP)].  That in turn created a vacancy, which was filled by Lisa M. Buttenheim, who was the Director of the Middle East and West Asia Division in DPA [Department of Political Affairs].  At that point, her position needed to be filled, which is now being filled, through a lateral move, by Horst Heitmann.  All these are the standard procedures.

Question:  Thanks a lot.  Just two questions on that.  One is that some have said, regarding Mr. Menkerios, is that the agreement is that he returns to his post after a year in South Sudan.  Are you aware of that?  Can you confirm that?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  I’m aware of that.  Of course, we’ll have to see what the situation entails, but there is an informal understanding that he would return to his position in the Department of Political Affairs.

Question:  And does Mr. [Edmund] Mulet have the same understanding with his positing in MINUSTAH [United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti]?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  I’m not aware of what Mr. Mulet’s understanding is.  It’s possible.

Question:  And one other… This is the final one I’ll ask just because you said all these moves…  If the replacement is a highly respected UN retiree, what are the rules about a retiree returning to serve the UN?  What type of contract is that and what are the provisions? 

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  This is a temporary replacement and so it’s a temporary contract.  Temporary contracts are a standard feature of the system, and certainly people can come back to work for temporary contracts.  That’s certainly happened in the past.  Okay?  Thanks.

* *** *

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