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

21 March 2013

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

21 March 2013
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 Martin Nesirky, Spokesperson for the Secretary-General.

Good afternoon.  Welcome to the briefing.


As he announced to you this morning, the Secretary-General has decided to establish a United Nations investigation on the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria.  His senior advisers are working on the modalities in close consultation with the relevant bodies, including the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the World Health Organization (WHO).  These include detailed issues such as overall mandate, mission composition and operational conditions, including safety and security.

The Secretary-General hopes that the mission would contribute to ensuring the safety and security of chemical weapons stockpiles in Syria.  The investigation mission is to look into the specific incident brought to the Secretary-General’s attention by the Syrian Government.  He is also aware that there are other allegations of similar cases involving the reported use of chemical weapons.

In discharging its mandate of an investigation mission, full cooperation from all parties will be essential, including unfettered access.  The full transcript of the Secretary-General’s remarks is available in my office.

**Security Council

Martin Kobler, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Iraq, briefed the Security Council this morning in an open meeting, saying that Iraqis face a complex set of interrelated problems, among them the very real potential for a spill-over of violence from Syria.  He added that, since late December, tens of thousands of demonstrators in Iraq’s western provinces have taken to the streets to voice their grievances, which are focused on human rights and access to basic services.

Mr. Kobler said that acts of terrorism from November of last year to the end of February this year have claimed the lives of almost 1,300 civilians, with more than 3,000 Iraqis having been wounded.  He has condemned these acts in the strongest possible terms and has called on all of Iraq’s leaders and religious authorities to rise as one to stop the bleeding.  We have his remarks in my office, and Mr. Kobler will speak to reporters at the stakeout shortly, I understand.

This afternoon, Hilde Johnson, the Special Representative for South Sudan, will also brief the Security Council.  And she will also brief reporters at the stakeout once she has finished speaking with Council members.


Last night, the Secretary-General spoke by telephone with Xi Jinping, the President of the People’s Republic of China.

The Secretary-General congratulated the President on his recent election and expressed his gratitude for China’s strong support for the United Nations.  The Secretary-General said he was confident that cooperation between China and the United Nations would continue to grow because China’s path of peaceful development had many common elements with his own agenda on durable peace, conflict prevention, sustainable development and human rights for all.  He noted in particular common efforts to support Africa’s peace and development efforts.

The Secretary-General said in his telephone conversation he was very concerned about mounting tensions on the Korean peninsula.  He commended China’s constructive role in the Security Council in dealing with matters relating to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.  He said he counted on China’s continued leadership on this matter.

**Western Sahara

The Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy for Western Sahara, Christopher Ross, said today in Rabat, in Morocco, that the situation in the Sahel region and its vicinity makes a solution more urgent than ever regarding the question of Western Sahara.

In his remarks to the press, Mr. Ross said that he has started a new tour dedicated to searching for a solution to the Western Sahara question, in line with successive Security Council resolutions.  He said that he had in-depth meetings with the Prime Minister of Morocco, the Foreign Minister and the two Parliament speakers on the best way of moving the negotiation process forward.  He said that he will meet with the Minister of Interior and other officials.

During his trip to North Africa, which started yesterday, Mr. Ross will also visit Western Sahara and hold consultations with the neighbouring States, Algeria and Mauritania.  Mr. Ross said he will present a report of his trip to the Security Council on 22 April.

**Disaster Risk Reduction

The Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction, Margareta Wahlström, participated this week in the First Arab Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction.  The Conference in Jordan was attended by more than 200 representatives from the 22-member League of Arab States, donors, United Nations agencies, academia and civil society organizations who discussed their priorities for the post-2015 framework for disaster risk reduction.  Ms. Wahlström also met with Government officials.  While in Aqaba, she presented the city with a certificate of its status as a role model in the Making Cities Resilient campaign.

**Press Conferences

Following this briefing, at 12:30 p.m., there will be a press conference here by the Deputy Secretary-General and other speakers, to launch a call to action on sanitation, a day in advance of World Water Day.

And then tomorrow at 1:30 p.m., there will be another press conference linked to World Water Day.  The United Nations University, along with UN-Water, will announce a new proposal to define water security — a term that has major implications in international affairs.

Questions, please?  Yes, Edie?

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Martin, the Secretary-General’s comments this morning were unclear about the scope of this investigation, though they seem to indicate that it was going to be broader than just the Syrian allegation by his mentioning other allegations and his desire to ensure that Syrian chemical weapon stockpiles are secure.  Could you confirm that it is going to be broader than just the Syrian allegations?

Spokesperson:  Well, first of all, just to roll right back to the beginning, I think you’ll recall that it was just about this time yesterday that we heard from the Syrian Permanent Representative at the Security Council stakeout, where he announced this request.  Yesterday afternoon, we then received the written request.  This morning at 9 a.m., or shortly thereafter, as you know, the Secretary-General announced the establishment of an investigation on the alleged use of chemical weapons.  He, in doing so, is fully aware of other allegations beyond those reported by the Syrian Government.  I can confirm the Secretary-General has received a letter from the French and United Kingdom Permanent Representatives, calling for an investigation into three allegations of use in chemical weapons in Syria.  The Secretary-General will review this suggestion as the mandate for the United Nations investigation is developed.

The Secretary-General made clear that the United Nations investigation will not be easy, and cannot happen overnight.  He is fully aware that it is important for the investigation team to be on the ground sooner rather than later, and that is why he emphasized that this work will begin as soon as it is practically possible.  And also, as you pointed out, the Secretary-General did say “it’s my hope that the mission would contribute to ensuring the safety and security of chemical weapon stockpiles in Syria”.  And he further said the international community needs full assurance that chemical weapons stockpiles are verifiably safeguarded.  Yes, Miki?  And then Benny after Miki.  Yes?

Question: Okay, in the letter from the UK and the French, you said three allegations.  Can you tell me where… of the locations of the three allegations?  And also, this mandate is going to be authorized by who, by which body?  I’d like to clarify that.

Spokesperson: There, just to answer the first question, I think you could ask the French and UK missions what their letter said.  The second part of the question, there is an established mechanism.  You can find details of that mechanism on the website of the Office for Disarmament Affairs.  But, as the Secretary-General pointed out in his remarks this morning, he has a mandate to consider conducting an investigation on alleged use of chemical, biological and toxin weapons, pursuant to General Assembly resolution 42/37c from 1987, and that resolution was reaffirmed by Security Council resolution 620 (1988).  So there is an established mechanism, the details of which you can find on the website of the Office for Disarmament Affairs.  It sets it out in quite some detail.

Question:  Does that include…?

Spokesperson:  Yes, Benny?

Question:  Two questions; first of all, to follow up on that, does that include countries that are not signatories to the Chemical Convention?  And secondly, do you have assurances from the Syrian Government, satisfactory assurances, of access to anywhere you want to go, or is it just very narrow for that one Aleppo incident?

Spokesperson:  On the first question, the mandate says the Secretary-General is to carry out investigations in response to reports that may be brought to his attention by any Member State, okay?  And what was the other question, sorry?

Correspondent:  Access.

Spokesperson:  Access, yes; well, I would simply reiterate what the Secretary-General said about the importance of unfettered access.

Question:  Yeah, but I mean, do you… do you have any assurances?  Any… any communications…?

Spokesperson:  Well, just to repeat what I said… we received the written request yesterday afternoon… think you are well aware that, by UN standards, this is moving pretty fast, and I would anticipate that we will have a bit more to say in due course, okay.  Yes, Neil?

Question:  Good morning.  [inaudible] is there a precedent for… for this, and also, on the… presumably even though the Syrians negotiate… I mean, the Syrians requested it, actual access has to be negotiated, so it’s also… I mean it’s going to be up to them what you investigate?

Spokesperson:  Well, we’ve said, or the Secretary-General has said, that unfettered access will be very important.  And he has also made it clear that there is a lot of work to be done on this, that it’s not going to happen overnight, and that it is obviously a difficult mission.  Remind me again what you said at the beginning?  I beg your pardon.

Question:  I said, evidently the…

Spokesperson:  The precedents… precedents.

Correspondent:  Exactly.

Spokesperson:  You asked about, yes?

Correspondent:  Yes.

Spokesperson:  There are two from 1992 — again, details of that you would find on the website I mentioned.  One Azerbaijan and the other Mozambique.  Yes, Ali?  And then Masood.

Question:  Yeah, thank you, Martin.  Can you give us… I know that the Secretary-General has said that he is going to send this mission as soon as possible; is there a time frame for when this mission possibly goes to Syria?  The second question, whether the mission is going to coordinate its work with the office of Lakhdar Brahimi in Syria?

Spokesperson:  Well, obviously Mr. Brahimi is well aware of this.  He will also have heard what the Secretary-General said about the close cooperation with the OPCW, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is not a UN body, but works very closely with the United Nations, and there is an established procedure for that cooperation, and of course, with the World Health Organization.  Both of those bodies have the technical expertise that is required.  And this is what drives the need for this investigation to start as soon as possible, as soon as practically possible, precisely because there are technical reasons for needing to be on the ground sooner rather than later.  Okay, Masood and then Lou.  Yes?

Question:  Yes, I just want to ask you, is there… you just said that it can’t be done overnight, but is there going to be a timeline as to how this…?  I mean, because of the urgency of the situation, there has to be a timeline.

Spokesperson:  It feels like I am in an echo chamber here, that’s what Ali just asked me.

Question:  Yeah.  And… and the other thing that I am… it has to be done, but I am just saying, how comprehensive will it be?  Will it include the… the… all the chemical weapons which were attacked in the past or it is just going to focus just on this particular case?

Spokesperson:  I answered that as well already, Masood, I am sorry.  Yes?

Question:  Martin, just one thing I want to clarify, this issue that’s been bandied about here.  If the investigation was to be broadened to include the other two attacks referred to in the French and British letter, it would, I understand, require the consent of the Syrian Government, right?

Spokesperson:  I don’t want to get into hypotheticals except to go beyond what I have already said…

Correspondent:  It is not a hypothetical, it’s a simple… the French and the British missions have made a request, a specific request, that three incidents be investigated.  The Syrian letter refers to one incident…

Spokesperson:  Well…

Question:  …that one… let me… if I could just finish?

Spokesperson:  Yeah, yeah, Lou, please do, please do.

Question:  That one will be investigated, but the other two that the French and British are asking about, in order for them to be investigated, the Government of Syria would have to consent to it, correct?

Spokesperson:  Two things, two things.  First of all, the way you first shaped your question was hypothetical; that’s your problem, not mine.  You’ve since changed that, since the…

Correspondent:  No, Martin, I didn’t change.

Spokesperson:  Well, the first word you used was “if”.  That frames the question as hypothetical.  You’ve since reframed it, you’ve since reframed it.  So let’s get to the real point here.  There, as we said, there was a request from the Syrian Government to look into a specific incident.  The investigation will look at the specific incident brought to his attention, the Secretary-General’s attention, by the Syrian Government, and that the Secretary-General is fully aware of other allegations beyond those reported by the Syrian Government, including, as you just mentioned, in the letter from the French and UK Missions that calls for an investigation into three allegations of use.  And, as I said, that’s what I can say at the moment.  The Secretary-General will review this suggestion as the mandate for the UN investigation is developed.  So put another way, this is something that is being worked on… is… that suggestion will be reviewed as the mandate for the UN investigation is developed.  I know you are asking about Syria’s approval, meaning the Syrian authorities, we’ll have to get to that.  I don’t have an answer for you at this point, okay?  I hope that helps.  Yes, please?

Question:  Thank you.  Trish Shoe from I-cast News.  I am wondering if that is going to be including testing for nuclear, because the Syrian rebels had seized a research centre, it was reported.  And also, if they will be testing for depleted uranium and these kinds of substances, or if it will just be, you know, certain substances?

Spokesperson:  The mandate refers to alleged uses of chemical, biological and toxin weapons.  I think… Benny, did you have your hand up?  I’m sorry.  Or, Ali did?  I beg your pardon, yes?

Correspondent:  Ali; pass.

Spokesperson:  Pass?  Okay.  Looking for other questions, yes, Hank?

Question:  Good morning, Martin, thank you.  With full regard to the early stages of this, I wondered if… if the mandate has any sort of geographical parameters?  In other words, can the investigation look into, you know, there have been reports over the last couple of years of weapons of many different kinds trickling in from Libya, through Lebanon.  Do the investigations necessarily all have to take place inside Syria?

Spokesperson:  Well, again, the Secretary-General has made clear that there is a lot to be worked out, looking at the overall mandate and operational conditions.  But let’s just remind ourselves that this request that came yesterday, and to which we are responding today, is from the Syrian Government relating to an alleged incident inside Syria.  Yes, Benny?

Question:  A follow-up on that.  In manning this commission, what is it investigating?

Spokesperson:  Investigation.

Question:  In manning this investigation…

Spokesperson:  Staffing, maybe?

Question:  What?

Spokesperson:  Staffing?

Question:  Whatever, staffing.  That’s right.  Woman-ning; will there be any sensitivity to… will you be sensitive towards who the Syrians are likely to admit in, because obviously, the Syrians have expressed animosity towards some countries?  Is that going to be the nationality?  Is that going to be important in staffing?

Spokesperson:  Well, the Secretary-General has said that full cooperation from all parties will be essential, and that that includes unfettered access.  And he said that he would reiterate that point in his communication with the Syrian authorities.  And just to make it clear, that his communication with the Syrian authorities will happen quite soon.

Question:  So it’s up to him to… to staff, not up to Syria?  Is that what you are saying?

Spokesperson:  The Secretary-General has a mandate from the General Assembly — and it was further reaffirmed by the Security Council — to carry out an investigation.  Yes, Neil?

Question:  Who is going to negotiate this with the Syrians, Mr. Brahimi?

Spokesperson:  No.

Question:  Who?

Spokesperson:  The relevant people within the United Nations system who deal with disarmament affairs.  Yes, other questions?  Yes, I beg your pardon, yes?

Question:  Staying on this topic, Martin…

Spokesperson:  Yes?

Question:  How does the UN feel about… think about being able to conduct this investigation in the middle of a war zone?  Does it worry that it is going to have a difficult time being able to do this effectively?

Spokesperson:  Well, the Secretary-General made it clear that this is a country that is going through extreme chaos, with terrible consequences for the Syrian people.  And let’s… When we talk about the technicalities and the politics of this, let’s not forget what’s really at the bottom here, and that is the suffering of the Syrian people.  Anything that we can do to try to alleviate that suffering and to throw a spotlight on incidents that may have happened that have increased that suffering, we must carry out the mandate that we have to do that kind of investigation.  The Secretary-General made very clear it is a difficult mission, and he referred to, amongst other things, the operational conditions, which would include safety and security.  It’s a risky undertaking, no question.  Yes, Ali, and then Edie.

Question:  Would this mission need [inaudible] with regional countries?  I mean at least to get access into Syria, because maybe the airport is not safe, at least, I don’t know whether [inaudible]?

Spokesperson:  Look, there are lots of details to work out.  There are lots of details to work out, but unfettered access is going to be important.  I think we’ll make this the last question because I am very conscious I am keeping one of my bosses waiting.  I’d be in trouble.

Question:  On a totally different issue, does the Secretary-General have any comment on the appearance of the United Nations at UNCA later today by a Cuban blogger?

Spokesperson:  Yes.  I will come back to you on that.  I do have something on that — I am trying to find it here, just one second.  Here we are; I knew I had it.  The event being organized today has not been scheduled by the United Nations Secretariat, but rather by the UN Correspondents Association (UNCA), which is an independent entity.  The United Nations as a principle does not interfere with UNCA’s events.  The meeting in question is not being… it is not being held in a UN Secretariat auditorium, and again, I would want to stress, the United Nations has neither organized nor participated in any way in this event.

Question:  Can you e-mail that to us?

Question:  Can I follow up?

Spokesperson:  Pardon?

Question:  Yeah, just a quick question.  [inaudible] when and UNCA always has… well, you know, we often had these briefings in this room and this was part of the deal during the period where we were in the swing space, and why was it… why was an exception made that suddenly we were not allowed to have this event in [inaudible]?

Spokesperson:  I don’t believe it’s an exception.  Simply to say that…

Correspondent:  It is.

Spokesperson:  You organize…

Correspondent:  [inaudible].

Spokesperson:  Pardon?

Correspondent:  It certainly is an exception.

Spokesperson:  Now I am being interrupted.  I have said that the United Nations has not organized and is not participating in any way in this event.  That’s what I have.  Here comes the Deputy Secretary-General.

Question:  [inaudible]

Spokesperson:  Pardon me?

Question:  [inaudible] pressure you to change venue?

Spokesperson:  There are established procedures; I have just referred to this.  Thanks very much.  Have a good afternoon.  Welcome to the Deputy Secretary-General.

[Press conference by the Deputy Secretary-General is issued separately.]

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