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

19 February 2013

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

19 February 2013
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 Martin Nesirky, Spokesperson for the Secretary-General.

Good afternoon.  Welcome to the briefing.

** Syria

Valerie Amos, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, spoke at a humanitarian forum on Syria taking place in Geneva today, and she said that the violence in the country is causing widespread destruction and having a devastating impact on the lives of ordinary Syrians.

She said that, with an estimated 70,000 people having been killed since the beginning of the crisis, people do not feel safe or secure.  The number of people in need has quadrupled since June last year.  Ms. Amos said that humanitarian workers are crossing conflict lines, and negotiating with armed groups on the ground, to reach more people in need.  But, she added that we are not reaching enough of those who require our help.

** Afghanistan

Civilian casualties in Afghanistan’s armed conflict decreased for the first time in six years, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said today in its annual report on the protection of civilians in armed conflict.

The report says that there was a 12 per cent drop in civilian deaths last year, compared with 2011.  The report says that the reduction in civilian casualties in 2012 was the result, among other things, of fewer civilian deaths and injuries from ground engagement among parties to the conflict, as well as a decline in suicide attacks and reduced numbers of aerial operations.

At the same time, however, the UN Mission says that there were increasing threats to civilians last year linked to the presence and re-emergence of armed groups, particularly in the north and northeast regions of Afghanistan.

Ján Kubiš, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, said that the decrease in civilian casualties documented in the report is very welcome; yet the human cost of the conflict remains unacceptable.  We have a press release with more details.

** Somalia

UN Political Office for Somalia (UNPOS) has condemned the terror attacks that have occurred in Somalia during the first half of February, including the killing of a leading Somali Islamic scholar, Sheikh Abdiqadir Nur Farah, in Garowe.  The assassination of Dr. Nur Farah came shortly after a suicide attack in the central town of Galkayo and attacks in other regions of south-central Somalia.

The Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Somalia, Augustine Mahiga, has extended his condolences to the bereaved families and wished the injured a quick recovery.  He called on the people of Somalia to strengthen their resolve to resist terrorism by working with the authorities to bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice.

** Mali

An action plan for Mali’s cultural heritage and manuscripts was adopted yesterday at an international experts’ meeting organized in Paris by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and France.  At the opening of the meeting, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova reiterated the Organization’s commitment to work for cultural preservation in Mali.

The Action Plan has three priorities:  to rehabilitate cultural heritage damaged during the conflict with the active participation of local communities; to take measures to protect the ancient manuscripts kept in the region; and to provide training.

Separately, the Operations Director of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, John Ging, will visit Bamako, Timbuktu and Mopti from tomorrow until Saturday to see first-hand the humanitarian situation following the latest fighting and to review the humanitarian response.

**United Nations Environment Programme

The melting of sea ice and the resulting rush for resources require effective measures to avoid damage in the Arctic, according to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Year Book for this year.  It says that a reduction in Arctic summer ice cover has become more intense in recent years, culminating in a record low last year.  It also highlights risks from chemicals and the recent spike in illegal wildlife trade.  More information can be found on the agency’s website.

** Liberia

The Government of Liberia and the United Nations appealed for nearly $37 million today to meet the pressing humanitarian needs of Liberia’s most vulnerable communities this year.  Liberia continues to face significant humanitarian challenges.  Nearly half of Liberia’s population lives in extreme poverty surviving on less than $1 a day.  More than 64,000 Ivorian refugees remain in Liberia since post-election violence in Côte d’Ivoire forced them to flee, and 25,000 former Liberian refugees who returned home last year continue to need essential humanitarian assistance.

**Press Conference

Tomorrow at 9 a.m., there will be a press conference here by the President of the Plurinational State of Bolivia, Evo Morales Ayma, to mark the Global Launch of the International Year of Quinoa.

That’s what I have.  Questions, please?  Yes, Edie?

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Martin, does the Secretary-General support the… there was a call by Navi Pillay, now there’s been another one, for referring Syria to the International Criminal Court?

Spokesperson:  I think what you’ve seen is the Secretary-General spoke in the Security Council just last week, during the open meeting on the protection of civilians, and he said there that he welcomed the debate that had been initiated following the call by some Member States for a referral to the International Criminal Court.  Okay?  Yes?  Other questions, yes?

Question:  Thank you, Martin.  As you know, some representatives of island developing States believe that the global warming and rising sea levels might lead to, potentially, to disappearance of some of these islands; and they consider the question to be an international security issue.  What is the thinking of the Secretary-General along these lines?

Spokesperson:  Well, the Secretary-General has consistently raised his concerns and used his visibility and his position to help to put the spotlight on the plight of those people living in extremely vulnerable locations, such as islands in the Pacific, but elsewhere, too; in the Indian Ocean, elsewhere, too.  So, he clearly has spoken out about the need to address these topics and he has also met frequently with representatives from small island developing States precisely to underscore his solidarity, but also to help to raise the profile of this topic, which, of course, is not somehow a technical matter, but it’s an existential question for the countries concerned.  Yes, Nizar?

Question:  Martin, what about this fight with the due process, which is applied in Bahrain regarding the detainees and the prisoners… of the imprisonment of the protesters?

Spokesperson:  Due process is absolutely essential.  You will have seen the Secretary-General has spoken out on this on numerous occasions.  He’s also welcomed the intended dialogue between the different groups in Bahrain, but accountability for transgressions that there have been is absolutely crucial, including due process.

Question:  How about the recent sentences regarding what’s… what has been accused by the Government as the terrorist cell?  These people who have been interrogated in prisons; was due process applied there?

Spokesperson:  I don’t have anything for you on that, Nizar.  Yes, Hank?

Question:  Good morning, Martin.  Thank you.  On your… your comments on due process, would the Secretary-General’s opinions on that extend to the situation of thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails?  There is a [United Press International] report that says 550 of them are to be released as the visit of President Barack Obama approaches.  Is that to be celebrated, assuming that it does happen, or does it just shine a light on the fact that so many more are being kept in those jails, without due process?

Spokesperson:  Well, two things, Hank.  One is that the Deputy Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, James Rawley, met in Ramallah today with protesters who were expressing their solidarity with Palestinians on hunger strike in Israeli jails, and he said that the UN is following this question of the hunger strike closely.  And he added that the Secretary-General and the United Nations are dealing with Israeli officials on all levels to resolve this question.  And I would anticipate that we would have something further to say on this in the coming hours.

Question:  Was that both things or…?

Spokesperson: Pardon?

Question:  You said there were a couple things.  Was that all?  I apologize.

Spokesperson:  The second part was that I anticipate there’ll be something later.  Yes?

[The Secretary-General is deeply concerned over the rapidly deteriorating condition of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli custody who are on hunger strike, in particular the critical health condition of one Palestinian detainee, Samer Issawi.  The Secretary-General received a letter from Palestinian President [Mahmoud] Abbas, as well as from the Secretary-General of the League of Arab States on this subject.  He has also expressed his concerns to Israeli Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu in their recent telephone conversation.  Of particular concern are the detainees held in administrative detention without charges.  Those detained should be charged and face trial with judicial guarantees in accordance with international standards, or be promptly released.

The Secretary-General urges for a solution to be reached without delay in order to resolvethe prisoners' plight and preserve calm.  He recalls the importance of full adherence by all sides to the 14 May 2012 agreement in this regard, including the implementation of prisoners’ family visiting rights.  International human rights obligations towards all Palestinian detainees and prisoners under Israeli custody must be fully respected.

The United Nations is closely following the situation on the ground.  Deputy Special Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator James W. Rawley met last week in Ramallah with the Palestinian Minister of Prisoner and Detainee Affairs and with representatives of the families of the detainees today.  The United Nations will remain engaged with relevant authorities on both the Palestinian and Israeli sides and hopes for an early resolution of this important issue.]

Question:  Two more other questions, but just to follow up on that.  I think it was a week ago that… that I believe that… that Permanent Observer [Riyad] Mansour of the Pal… Palestine said that he delivered a letter to the Secretariat about the hunger striker, Samer Issawi.  Is…  Was that letter received and what’s been done since?

Spokesperson:  A letter was received and, as I mentioned, I anticipate a statement a little bit later on this question in general; and not specifically this one in isolation, but this topic in general.

Question:  And I wanted to ask you, just now, or you know, in the Committee of 34 on peacekeeping, Ameerah Haq said that in 2012 there were 60 allegations of sexual abuse or harassment by UN peacekeepers.  She said that the percentage of these that are allegations of egregious conduct are high.  I assume that she has… like, what’s happened on the 60?  Is there somewhere we can get, hopefully today, like, on the 60 allegations, how many people were repatriated; if possible, to what countries, just some… something more on what happened on these 60 cases in 2012?

Spokesperson:  Regular reports are compiled and there are statistics, including of the kind that Ms. Haq has mentioned.  Let me speak with my colleagues in DPKO [Department of Peacekeeping Operations] to see what’s available from our peacekeeping operations team.  Yes, Nizar?

Question:  Martin, there are more reports coming from northern Syria, speaking about thousands of factories being looted systematically, dismantled… the machinery is dismantled, bulky machinery, and is transported into Turkey, where they are sold.  Does the Secretary… does the United Nations… is it doing anything regarding… to stop this looting of the Syrian economy and are there any contacts with Turkey to prevent such things from happening?

Spokesperson:  Well, Nizar, I think you’ve just heard me refer to Ms. Amos’ comments in Geneva earlier today, where she spoke about the utter devastation facing the people of Syria, and that includes many factories, and not just in the north of Syria.  I don’t have anything specific on the reports that you’re referring to.

Question:  But, this is a huge… I mean, Aleppo, in particular, has been a very big industrial centre.

Spokesperson:  As I say, Nizar, I do understand, and as I also said, we’ve repeatedly spoken out about the destruction that’s been taking place, as the result of a military conflict and as a result of action by both Government forces and rebel forces.  The destruction results not only in economic difficulties of the kind that you’ve referred to — meaning the destruction of infrastructure, factories, roads and so on — but also, and crucially, for the people whose livelihoods depended on all of that.  And they’re the people that we’re concerned about at the moment.

Question:  Here, I’m talking about the involvement of Turkey, which is allowing thousands of tons of machinery to be transported and sold on Turkish territory.

Spokesperson:  As I say, Nizar, I don’t have anything specific for you on that particular point; I just don’t.  Okay?  Yes, Mr. Abbadi?

Question:  Thank you, Martin.  What are the next steps that the Joint Special Representative, Mr. Lakhdar Brahimi, contemplates taking in the next few weeks?

Spokesperson:  Well, I shall ask for a further update on Mr. Brahimi’s movements.  To my knowledge, he has been in Cairo for the last few days, and he’s been having meetings with representatives of the League of Arab States.  If I have anything further, I’ll let you know.  Okay?  I’m coming over this way.  Yes, please?  Yes?

Question: Last week, Mr. Ban Ki-moon said Iran could use UN talks as a cover to build bomb.  Do you…

Spokesperson:  Let me stop you right there.  He did not say that.

Question:  So you…

Spokesperson:  He did not say that.

Question:  You deny what Washington Post reported?

Spokesperson:  No, the way that you have paraphrased…

Correspondent:  This is the exact quotation.

Spokesperson:  Actually, it’s not the exact quotation from what the Secretary-General said, but let me simply say that the Secretary-General has repeatedly said that he believes that the way to solve this difficulty is through negotiations, through dialogue.  Such talks are going to be taking place later this month in Kazakhstan in the format of the P5+1.  That’s the first point.  And the second is that he has repeatedly said that it’s for Iran to prove to the satisfaction of the international community that their nuclear programme is for exclusively peaceful purposes, and so far, they have failed to do that.  And so the onus is upon Iran.  And it was in that context that the Secretary-General was speaking with the Washington Post.

Question:  But, does the Secretary-General link the Iranian peaceful nuclear programme to the North Korean nuclear programme, so it… it seems that, you know, that he thinks that something’s happening, like, is there… has he received any evidence in this regard, because making this linkage is really, like, significant?

Spokesperson:  I would not over-interpret this.  As I said on Friday already, the Secretary-General is simply pointing out the need for there to be accelerated progress in the talks.  And another round of talks is to take place, as I just mentioned and as you’re aware.  And to reiterate that it’s for Iran to prove to the satisfaction of the international community that the programme that they have is for peaceful purposes.  Yes?

Question:  Two questions on Sudan.  One is that there are reports of a pretty big clash, either in Abyei or near… or quite near Abyei between Misseriya and some people say it’s Nuer tribesmen and some people say it’s the South Sudan army, and I wonder, especially since there is that AFISMA [sic] unit… excuse me, I’m always mixing these guys up… anyway, the… the…

Spokesperson:  That’s okay; I know who you’re referring to.

Question:  Yeah, you know who I’m referring to.  I’m just wondering, do you have anything from them on this clash or does it take place outside of their area? 

Spokesperson:  We’ve asked.  We’ve asked.

Question:  And the other one is, there’s a kind of a more systematic move by the Sudanese Government composed of defence and intelligence officials, who will review even existing international NGOs that… that… that are operating… aid groups, in Sudan, and since there was a lot of UN pushback when people were thrown out of Darfur before, is the UN aware of this or are they… they… do they… are they opposing this in any way?  What do they say about this new attempt to… to put defence officials above humanitarian groups?

Spokesperson:  I’ll have to check with you on that, Matthew, I don’t have anything.  Okay, thanks very much indeed.  Have a good afternoon. Thank you.

[The Spokesperson later added that the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has read reports in the media about the announcement of the revocation of licenses of an unspecified number of local humanitarian groups by the Humanitarian Aid Commission.  OCHA is seeking clarification with the Humanitarian Aid Commission on organizations affected by this announcement to ascertain any potential impact on the provision of humanitarian assistance to people in need.]

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