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

21 December 2010

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

21 December 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, everyone.

**Security Council on C ôte d’Ivoire

The Security Council, in a formal meeting yesterday, adopted a resolution urging all the Ivorian parties and stakeholders to respect the will of the people and the outcome of the election in view of the recognition by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union of Alassane Ouattara as President-elect of Côte d’Ivoire and representative of the freely expressed voice of the Ivorian people as proclaimed by the Independent Electoral Commission.  The Security Council resolution also renewed the mandate of the UN Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI) until 30 June 2011.

In a separate statement to the press, the Security Council President said that Council members remain deeply concerned about the continued violence in Côte d’Ivoire, and they condemned in the strongest terms acts of violence against UNOCI.  Security Council members urged all Ivorians to exercise maximum restraint, remain calm, resist provocative actions, refrain from violence and work together to restore sustainable peace.

** C ôte d’Ivoire — Refugees

And the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, says that it has been beefing up its contingency arrangements for Côte d’Ivoire over the last few days.  The agency currently stands ready to cope with the needs of up to 30,000 refugees.  UNHCR also says that, as of today, the number of Ivorians having fled westwards into Liberia and Guinea stands at around 6,200 — 6,000 of these in the Nimba county area of eastern Liberia and the rest in Guinea.  And there is more in the UNHCR briefing notes.

**Secretary-General on Youth

The Secretary-General spoke at an informal meeting organized by the Security Council President just now, in which Council members took questions received from young people around the world.  The Secretary-General said that there is one common denominator to the questions that the young people have: sustainable development.  With sustainable development, you won’t have war over resources.  And we have his prepared remarks available in our office.

** Sudan

The UN refugee agency says that some 55,000 Southern Sudanese who had been living in the northern part of the country have returned home ahead of the January referenda.  But the new arrivals are straining a fragile humanitarian situation in South Sudan.  South Sudan is already dealing with more than 215,000 internally displaced people uprooted by ethnic clashes and rebel attacks, among other security problems.

UNHCR says it has begun distributing aid to some 35,000 returnees in and around Abyei.  The agency has also mobilized resources to deal with a likely increase in humanitarian needs, including in surrounding countries.

** Belarus

On Belarus, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has expressed her deep concern over the violence against, and the detention of, opposition candidates and their supporters following presidential elections held over the weekend in Belarus.

She condemned calls to violence by some radical opposition elements, but stressed that authorities must fully respect and ensure their political opponents’ rights to peacefully demonstrate and to freedom of speech.

The High Commissioner called for the immediate release of opposition candidates and their supporters who were not involved in any violence and called on the Government of Belarus to ensure that human rights defenders, journalists and civil society groups are free from any harassment.  And we have the full statement in my office.

And that is it from me.  Questions?  Yes?

**Questions and Answers

Question:  What is the latest on the situation regarding the suspicious odour that called for evacuation of the Security Council and General Assembly?  Has the area been cleared yet?  What agencies of the New York government have been called and what determination has been made as to the source of this noxious fume?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  As far as that goes, yes, we did have to evacuate parts of the General Assembly Building earlier today because of an unidentified odour.  And we did call in the host country authorities, who came on the scene.  Those include the Fire Department of New York and experts in dealing with hazardous materials.  They found that there was a problem possibly caused by high tides in the East River that had created a problem with sewage in the area.  The gases released that were causing the smell were deemed not to be harmful.  Several meetings, as you are aware, have been relocated to the North Lawn Building today, and those meetings will continue.  But otherwise, tours can be resumed at the building, and the normal meetings will occur in the General Assembly Building in the normal venues, as of tomorrow.

Question:  A follow-up, please?  Is there any truth to the idea that the high tides were related to the lunar eclipse of last night?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  I don’t want to speculate what caused the high tides; I am not an expert on the patterns of the moon.  Yeah?

Question:  The foul smell did not go towards North Lawn Building?  Was that safe from this?  This has only affected the General Assembly and this part, is it?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  No, no.  The tides created a problem with sewage system inside the building, and that was a problem around the General Assembly Building area, with the water system and the pipes around the General Assembly area.  The other parts of the building are not affected.  As you can see, this place smells like a rose.

Question:  So the water sort of backs up the system, thus the sewage can’t flow into the river?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  I am not an expert on sewage.  I just know that the problem with the tide and the backing up of sewage created a problem for the pipes in the GA Building, not throughout the complex.  Yes?

Question:  So, Farhan, are you saying this is not an unusual event, that we would smell odours within the building, and then it is safe to say that really the nature of this problem is not of any threatening nature of such extreme that they need to keep the building on standby for evacuation again?  And what does tomorrow look like?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  This is not a hazard.  There were gases released from the sewage, but they are not harmful.  At this stage, the problem is, as you may have noticed, a problem of odour.  But the Facilities Management Division is working to clear that out and hopefully that problem will also be rectified.  Like I said, we do expect meetings to be held in the General Assembly Building, as per normal, as of tomorrow.

Question:  Oh, so not 3 p.m. today?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  No, for this afternoon, the meetings that were scheduled for the General Assembly Building are still going to be taking place; those meetings will still be taking place in the North Lawn Building this afternoon, while the Facilities Management Division clean up the area.  Mr. Abbadi?

Question:  Thank you, Farhan.  On Côte d'Ivoire, still, Alassane Ouattara, the President-elect, has called on his supporters to go en masse and to act to preserve his power.  The situation seems to be getting alarming by the minute.  What precautions, what preventive measures, have been taken to protect the UN staff?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  The UN is doing what it needs to do to protect its own staff.  But we’re also protecting other areas, as you know, including the Golf Hotel, where President-elect Ouattara and others are staying.  Beyond that, in terms of what you started out talking about, I would again just draw your attention to the press statement by the Security Council, in which they urged all Ivorians to exercise maximum restraint, remain calm, resist provocative actions, refrain from violence and work together to restore sustainable peace.  And the Secretary-General has also made that call for calm amongst all parties several times in recent days.  Matthew?

Question:  Sure, yeah.  I have two questions, on Darfur and the Secretary-General, but just one more on this odour.  Is there anything that is being done under the multi-billion dollar Capital Master Plan (CMP) that would make this type of entry by sewage less likely?  And also, can you speak to… there was previously… was a leak of methane gas as part of the CMP when they were digging.  Is that… is that…?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  This is not related to that.  This is not about that.

Question:  And what does the CMP…? Does the CMP see…?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  This was not a hazardous gas.

Question:  Okay.  Neither was that… there was also called methane, I mean it was called… it came out of the ground, they said it was garbage-related, but I just wondered, is this something… does the CMP have any comment on this not happening after all this money is spent in the future?  Or is this just endemic to this location on the river?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  This was an exceptional circumstance.  I don’t know whether this has anything to do, or is in any way related to the Capital Master Plan.  Certainly the Capital Master Plan is designed to have a building that is well constructed and secure, but it is not directly related to this particular incident.

Question:  I guess I am just saying… That’s why I’d sort hoped [inaudible] or somebody…

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  They are not necessarily similar things.  This has to do with the tides in the East River, and it’s not about…

Question:  Has this ever happened before?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  I don’t know.  This building has been around for 60 years; I have no idea whether there have been other unusual high tides.

Question:  Okay, but I want to ask on Darfur… Radio Dabanga has two recent reports that I’d like to know whether the UN can confirm.  One is that three refugees were abducted by Sudanese Government authorities from the Gereidacamp because they were… they have the names of them… they published the names of Saddam Yacouba Issa and two others because they were resisting forced return, which has been called voluntary return.  I wanted to know, is this something that UNAMID [African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur]… one, have they gone to confirm it, and two, what safeguards are in place that, as these IDP [internally displaced persons] camps are limited in size, that people’s return to Darfur is actually voluntary?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  And your other question on Sudan was what?

Question:  There is also… Radio Dabanga has reported on the case of a rape in Hassa Hissa camp by individuals in military uniforms.  And I just wonder, is this a news source that UNAMID monitors and do they… are they denying that these things are taking place or is it just in a parallel universe to their reporting?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  No, no; UNAMID checks up on all the various reports that it receives about displacements and rapes.  There have been other reports, including one that UNAMID has been following up on concerning the destruction last night of a camp for internally displaced persons at Sheiria.  And we are following up on that, and I do expect that we may have a statement later today concerning Darfur.  Yes?

Question:  I want to know why Secretary-General is so reluctant to appoint any special envoy to… for North Korea, as has been sought by Russia and China and other countries.

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  Like I said, this is a matter that has been under discussion in the Security Council.  As you know, they had discussions on this as recently as Sunday, and we wait to see whether there is any unified outcome as a result of that.  That’s fairly standard.  When the Council is seized of a subject, we wait to see exactly what decision they come to.

Question:  Every time… This particular question crops up every time, there is Christmas around, every holiday season this North Korean question comes up, and the same question is asked: “Why doesn’t the Secretary-General appoint a special envoy?”

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  You don’t ask this every Christmas.

Question:  And then again, it dies… that’s the only reason why now people are saying that you need an envoy…

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  First of all, we’ve made clear our willingness to do all that we can to help the situation there.  And indeed, like I said yesterday, B. Lynn Pascoe did go earlier this year to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and is working to ensure better communications there with them.  But in terms of the question of an envoy, that’s something that the Security Council is considering, and we’ll see what they have to say about it.

Question:  Going back to one of the things you said earlier, you said that the public tours had been resumed?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  Are being resumed.  I don’t know whether it has happened yet, but it should be happening fairly soon.

Question:  Well, will those tours go into the area that had been evacuated, the lobby of the General Assembly Hall or the area outside?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  I believe that the General Assembly Building, some parts of that continue to have the Facilities Management Division people do the necessary clean-up.  And so that is still going on.

Question:  I just wanted, now that this area is also closing, the Middle East talks all are but just totally doomed, and what have you…  Does the Secretary-General have any ideas how to move these talks or is it just if United States is resigned to the fact that Israel is not going to move so it’s going to die? Is there something that the Quartet can do other than just…

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  Well, the working-level people in the Quartet have been discussing with each other the situation on the ground.  And as the Secretary-General made clear to you just last week, he does look forward to meeting with the other Quartet members in the coming weeks to discuss what the next steps are.  And so we are looking forward to that.  Yes, Jonathan?

Question:  I just had a question about IIMSAM and its relationship with the United Nations, Farhan.  Can you explain exactly what that relationship is and tell me a little bit about what the Secretary-General’s relationship is with the organization, and how the UN views this organization in terms of eradicating malnutrition?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  As far as that goes, and I hate to sound somewhat bureaucratic, but the organization you are referring to is the Intergovernmental Institution for the Use of Micro-algae Spirulina against Malnutrition, or IIMSAM for short.  That group was granted observer status as a non-governmental organization by ECOSOC [Economic and Social Council] decision 2003/212 of 5 March 2003. In accordance with that decision, IIMSAM’s representatives have the right to attend ECOSOC meetings on subjects that are relevant to its work on a continuing basis until ECOSOC decides otherwise.

Question:  And the Secretary-General’s relationship with the organization?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  There is no particular relationship.  Like I said, this is a decision tht was taken by the Economic and Social Council, ECOSOC.

Question:  And the UN’s position going forward with this organization?  Does it believe that what they are doing is the right way to approach the problem?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  This status that is granted by ECOSOC doesn’t confer any particular opinion about what their views are.  We don’t have any opinions on the views held by this organization.  They simply have observer status that was granted by a decision of ECOSOC.

Question:  So, in short, their legitimacy is not in question; they are a real organization doing stuff on behalf of ECOSOC or linked to ECOSOC?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  The granting of observer status to non-governmental organizations is for the Member States of ECOSOC to decide upon.  And that’s all I have on that.

Question:  One follow-up on that? Can you, whether now or, I guess, a little bit later today, there was some, I believe there was a change in status of the passes granted to this Spirulina crowd, and I just wonder, since that wasn’t a GA, nothing changed.  Can you, I guess, check with DSS [Department of Safety and Security], whoever is in charge of passes to the building, there was a time where it was said that they had diplomatic passes, but I don’t want… if it’s possible to find out in terms of… what you said is basically everything has been up to the GA and ECOSOC, but is it possible to know whether DSS and the Secretariat at one point within the last two or three years changed the pass status of this organization?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  As far as I am aware, no grounds passes have been issued to representatives of IIMSAM as no person has been able to confirm that they are the authorized representatives of the organization.

Question:  There was a gentleman, he called himself Ambassador Maradona – he was a relative of the soccer player Maradona — who presented himself as the Spirulina or IIMSAM representative.  Are you saying he never had a pass to this building?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  All I am saying is that what I have been told is that no grounds passes have been issues to representatives of IIMSAM.

Question:  Is that the past or currently?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  I can’t possibly say anything other than what I have; that’s what I have to tell you on that.

Question:  Hi.  Back to the sewage situation, I am trying to understand how this happens; the tides in the East River come up, they enter the system, the sewage came inside the basement…?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  Yeah, and so the spillage of that apparently affected the waters or some of the materials in the sewer system in the building.  And so that released some form of a gas that was determined to be non-harmful.

Question:  Is there sewage in the basement, do you know?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson: There is a sewage system in the basement, and that was affected.  It is not that there is…

Correspondent:  I am just trying to picture what had happened.

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  I do know that it affected the sewage system in -- the sewage system that is in the basement of that particular building and that’s what created the gaseous smell.  Yeah?

Question:  So that’s being mopped up or something?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  That’s being cleaned up, yeah.  I don’t know whether it is mopping or what you have, but the workers for the Facilities Management Division are working to clean it up.  Yes?

Question:  Farhan, as I said, the situation in Côte d'Ivoire is extremely tense.  There is also a similar situation in Gaza.  People have died and Hamas is threatening to retaliate in the next few days.  Would the Secretary-General be around here during the interlude between the two holidays, or will he be taking vacation somewhere at a distance?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  The Secretary-General is actually still expecting to be at work over the course of the next week.  He is not taking any time off right now, no.  Yes?

Question:  Farhan, since the situation is so tense in Côte d'Ivoire, would one of the chiefs of peacekeeping perhaps be available to speak to us? I don’t know what will happen, obviously, but it is quiet tenuous.

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  We’ll check.  As you know, you had one of the peacekeeping heads, Susana Malcorra, talking to you just yesterday, Alain Le Roy a few days before that, and we’ve also been providing transcripts of Choi Young-jin, and sometimes we’ve set up video briefings by Choi Young-jin.  So we’ve been periodically keeping you informed and we’ll keep trying to do that as circumstances allow.  Yes?

Question:  On Côte d'Ivoire and then one other thing.  But just on Côte d'Ivoire, what is the state of the UN’s knowledge of the use of non-Ivorian fighters or mercenaries by the Laurent Gbagbo supporters in Côte d'Ivoire?  What is UNOCI, or ONUCI, doing to confirm and act on that?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  Yes, we’d certainly be looking into that.  But we’re aware of these reports of involvement by mercenaries, but we are not in a position to confirm.

Question:  Because Mr. Le Roy seemed to indicate differently yesterday, and I am just wondering, is that no longer the case?  He seemed to say that. That’s one of the reasons to decide why could hear either hear from Mr. Le Roy or somebody that’s particularly on this issue of mercenaries in Côte d'Ivoire.

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  Yeah, yeah, we have no official confirmation as of right now on that.

[The Acting Deputy Spokesperson later referred to press remarks made by the Secretary-General in which he confirmed that mercenaries are operating in Côte d'Ivoire.]

Question:  And the other thing I wanted to ask you is, earlier this month the Secretary-General gave a speech saying that he was going to put himself on the line to fight discrimination against homosexuals.  There is a vote coming up in the General Assembly to put in language about gay, lesbian — LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] — to the execution resolution.  I just wonder, I know, generally he doesn’t opine about things that are pending, but given his statement that he would put himself on the line, does he encourage Member States to put this protection for gays and lesbians into the resolution?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  Well, you pretty much answered your own question.  We do not tell Member States how to vote or what to vote for as they consider their resolutions.  At the same time, what I would do is I would refer all of you to the statement that the Secretary-General made on Human Rights Day just two weeks ago, in which he talked very clearly about the need to decriminalize homosexuality, and to remove any sort of discrimination that is based on sexual orientation or gender identity.  And that opinion still stands.

Question:  And does he have any position on the use of UN funds to this Durban Review day in September that’s given rise to some controversy?  I understand there is a vote, but there is separately the question of the use of DGACM [Department of General Assembly Affairs and Conference Management] and DPI [Department of Public Information] funds for this conference.  What’s his view?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  I don’t have any particular comment on that.  The Durban Review Conference is a meeting that has been agreed to by Member States, and so…

Question:  Farhan, if you can get an answer though in the coming days to Matthew’s question on that, that would be very helpful.

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  Yes, but as you know, it’s a decision by Member States to hold different meetings and what we simply try to do is allocate funds to facilitate those meetings.

Question:  Right, but you can describe the Secretary-General’s position on that and to understand that the mechanism of that…?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  It doesn’t need to be the Secretary-General’s position.  Once we have a mandate to hold certain meetings, we try logistically to make those meetings, to create the ability to have those meetings held.  And that’s what those different services are for.

Question:  What does he think should be discussed at that meeting?  Is he aware of the controversy around previous Durban events, and does he have any guidance for the upcoming event?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  He is aware of that and we have no comment on that for now.

Question:  Farhan, I have just one last question on North Korea/South Korea.  When the Security Council was meeting in the emergency session, they were discussing these various drafts, and one of the things that came up was a call upon the Secretary-General to dispatch a special envoy to the region to try to quiet things down.  Does the Secretary-General, even though that presidential statement didn’t happen, does the Secretary-General intend to do something along these lines?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  As I told your colleagues, at this stage, as long as the Security Council is considering the matter, we will wait to see what it is that they intend to say once they’ve come to a unified position.

Question:  So the Secretary-General, independently, is not considering such a thing, regardless of…?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  The Secretary-General already sent Mr. Pascoe earlier this year.  He is willing to take whatever steps are necessary to help the situation, but for right now, what we want to do is see what the Security Council has to say on this.

Thanks very much.

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