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

30 April 2013

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

30 April 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.

** Syria — Palestine Refugees

Palestine refugees in Syria are being killed, injured and displaced in greater numbers than ever before, as the armed conflict continues to overwhelm refugee camps across the country.  The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, UNRWA, estimates that approximately 235,000  Palestine refugees have been displaced inside Syria.  The Agency is particularly concerned about news that was confirmed today on the displacement of some 6,000 Palestinians from Ein El Tal on 26 April; that’s a Palestine refugee camp some 12 kilometres from Aleppo.

The Relief and Works Agency responded quickly to the need of the displaced refugees and arranged to provide food and cash assistance to the displaced, many of whom are still seeking temporary accommodation in Aleppo city.  The Agency has received reports that significant numbers of the displaced refugees may be trapped without adequate shelter in rural areas around Aleppo, where intense armed conflict continues to rage.  The Relief and Works Agency is urgently appealing to all sides to halt the human suffering caused by the conflict in Syria, and to resolve their differences through dialogue and political negotiations.

** Syria — Measles

Also on Syria, the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, and partners are stepping up vaccination campaigns in the country, as well as in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey, amid measles outbreaks in the regions.  In Turkey alone, there have been some 3,000 to 4,000 measles cases reported across the country, including 300 among Syrian refugees.

UNICEF has said that nearly half of the displaced and refugee populations are children, the vast majority of whom are now living in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions where diseases could spread rapidly.  More information can be found on this online.

** Central African Republic

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said today it has advised Governments worldwide against forcible returns to the Central African Republic, where the security and humanitarian situation is worsening.

The UN agency said humanitarian and asylum principles should be upheld until conditions in the Central African Republic allow for safe and dignified returns.  The violence of recent months has seen some 173,000 people displaced internally, and almost 50,000 people made refugees, fleeing to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Chad and Cameroon.

Also, as you may have seen, the Security Council issued a press statement on the Central African Republic last night, expressing strong concern about the worsening humanitarian and security situation.

** Libya

The UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) is closely following the recent developments in the country, including the siege of Ministries and other State institutions in the capital, Tripoli.  The Mission said that it recognizes the basic right of all Libyans to express their demands by peaceful means, but the UN Mission urges all Libyans to adhere to constructive dialogue to resolve their differences, in accordance with the principles of democracy.

** Iraq

The UN Mission in Iraq urged the national Communication and Media Commission today to reconsider its decision to suspend the licenses of several TV stations in Iraq.  The Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Iraq, Martin Kobler, said that press freedom is a fundamental pillar of democracy, one that the United Nations takes very seriously.  He urged the Commission to fully respect its commitment to press freedom and also urged all media to exercise integrity and professional ethics in their daily work.

The Director of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Office in Iraq, Louise Haxthausen, requested the Iraqi authorities to revise the decision carefully and quickly.  We have a press release with more details on that.

** Somalia

Last night, we issued a statement on Somalia, in which the Secretary-General condemned the killing of the country’s Deputy State Attorney on 26 April in the capital, Mogadishu.

The Secretary-General is deeply concerned that recent attacks in Mogadishu appear to target the judicial officials and the legal system as a whole.  He remains confident that such criminal acts will not undermine efforts to strengthen the rule of law in the country.  And the full statement is available online.

**Security Council

The Security Council is wrapping up its work for April in a private meeting that was held this morning.  It also held a private meeting concerning the situation of Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries.  Tomorrow, Togo will replace Rwanda in the rotating presidency of the Security Council.

Questions, please?  Yes, Nizar?

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Yeah, regarding the situation in Libya, are you considering evacuating the staff there, because I heard that yesterday, an aeroplane was shot while trying to land in Tripoli International Airport?  Also, I mean, the security of the staff, I heard that the UN staff and other diplomats have been advised to stay away from the centre of the city; can you describe… I mean, how serious is the situation in Libya is, from the danger point of view?

Spokesperson:  Well, I’ve just given some details about the concerns that the Mission has.  The Mission continues to operate.  I am not going to go into any security arrangements there may or may not be in place.  If I have anything further on that, I’d certainly let you know.  But, it is evident from what I just read out and in the full statement that you get find, that there is clear concern about what is happening and has been happening in the past few days, with regard to those protests that have seen a number of ministries and other buildings surrounded in the centre of Tripoli.  Yes, Jonathan?

Question:  Martin, a short time ago, the Syrian Ambassador said that… he says that the Secretary-General is being manipulated or influenced by western Governments vis-à-vis the Syria conflict and the chemical weapons investigation.  Can you explain what is going on, really, and what sort of complications the Secretary-General is facing as he tries to go through with this?

Spokesperson:  Well, the Secretary-General established this mission to investigate allegations of the use of chemical weapons, and he did that already at the end of March.  And since then, there have been letters between the Office for Disarmament Affairs in UN Headquarters and the Syrian authorities to try to work out the details of how the mission can get on to the ground to carry out the work that evidently needs to be done inside Syria to be able to investigate these allegations.  To date, we do not yet have what we need, mutually speaking, between the Syrian authorities and the Office for Disarmament Affairs for that mission to be able to go into Syria.  As the Secretary-General said yesterday, as we have said repeatedly, that team is ready to deploy very quickly.

I can tell you that the Syrian Government’s efforts to expedite the deployment of the mission to investigate Syria’s allegations of the use of chemical weapons in Khan al-Assal and Syria's confirmation of its support and cooperation in respect of that initial deployment are welcome.  However, such cooperation should also be extended to Homs, the site of the other allegation.  And just to note that yesterday we received a letter from the Government of Syria, which reiterated their position regarding the investigation of the incident at Khan al-Assal only.  One thing I would note is that the allegations about the use of chemical weapons at Khan al-Assal are common to the Syrian request for an investigation, and also to the request from the French and the British authorities.  That’s where we are, I think.

Question:  A follow-up on that?

Spokesperson:  Sylviane, and then I am coming to you, Matthew.  Okay?

Question:  As a follow-up, the Syria Ambassador spoke about the allegation of alarming news from Saraqib.  Saraqib is next to Idlib.  He was accusing terrorist group of doing this, terrorism, biological terrorism.  Do you have anything to say about if the team will look at this particular area of Syria, looking at the weapon of mass destruction?

Spokesperson:  The team is established to look into allegations that have been set out in requests from Member States, to date, from three Member States, from the Syrian Arab Republic, from France and the United Kingdom.  So, it works on the requested investigations into allegations which have been set out by those three Member States.  We are obviously aware of media reports that are coming out in the recent hours, but as I say, the investigation is focused on the allegations that were set out in the requests made by the three Member States I mentioned.  Yes, Matthew?

Question:  Sure, Martin.  Thanks a lot.  The Syrian Ambassador was… he… he… he laid out a pretty specific timeframe and he said that… that there was a letter of 3 April by Angela Kane, there was meeting on the afternoon of the fourth, and he said it was to be picked up on the fifth in the morning for an all-day session, and that something, according to him, changed between those two sessions.  He said that Angela Kane came on Friday; there was no technical meeting, in fact she said, here is a new letter, the Secretary-General has received new information.  He called this going back on the agreement.  So, what I wanted to know is… I mean, I am sure you have heard some of what he said, he seemed to be alleging that some time between 4 April and 5 April — he said it — the Secretary-General either received calls or made calls and changed his position.  So, I am wondering, if it is… just entirely, you know, factually, is it possible to know, did the Secretary-General speak with, you know, P3 — UK, France or US — in that timeframe and what… what would you say to the very kind of specific timeline laid out by the Syrian Ambassador?

Spokesperson:  In the letters of the twenty-first and twenty-eighth of March from the Secretary-General and Ms. Kane, as well as letters of the third and fifth of April, the UN consistently conveyed the message that the Secretary-General had received additional allegations of the use of chemical weapons within Syria, and that in this connection, further information would be presented to him, and that the Secretary-General concluded that the mission should also investigate the facts related to the reported incident on the twenty-third of December of last year in Homs and not only the incident in Khan al-Assal.

Question:  And did he make that decision between the afternoon, New York time, or… of [4 April] and [5 April]?  You seem to really… he said the… the Secretary-General was in The Hague, it seems like he was in Madrid, and I guess you’re… you know, you were there.  Was the decision made at that time, because he is… he said his understanding in the meeting with Angela Kane was that… or as of [4 April], a mission would have left to do this, the first or the… the one that they requested, and then everything changed the next day.  Did… did some… is that dramatic description true or not?

Spokesperson:  I have just told you that the United Nations consistently conveyed information to the Syrian authorities; I have just said that.  I am not going to repeat it.  Yes?

Question:  Good afternoon, Martin, thank you.  Ambassador [Bashar] Ja'afari said that there was just an elemental… element of… of distrust when there… when three of the four allegations of chemical weapon usage come from the UK, France and Qatar — three nations that are actively working to topple the Syrian Government.  Has the SG, when he considers their request for an investigation in Syria, given any credence to this conflict of interest, to the fact that these requests are more than likely politically motivated, one?  And two, other than to refer to Dr. [Åke] Sellström’s good reputation, how does the SG assure the Syrian Government that they will get a fair and an unbiased investigation?

Spokesperson:  Well, first of all, Hank, I take exception to that last part.  The Secretary-General spelled out very clearly his confidence in the entire team led by Dr. Sellström, in its professionalism, in its integrity and in its ability to do the job.  It needs to be able to do that job, not just by analysing information that is provided to it from outside while it is outside of Syria, but it needs to be able to go in so that those experts in the team can carry out full investigation at the sites, on site.  So, there is no question that they can do the job; they need to be able to do the job.  You remind me on the second, the first part of your question?

Question:  Well, in order for them to get there, the Syrians would have to grant access, and again, when three of the four…

Spokesperson:  Right.  Okay, right.  Okay.  Well, first of all, we don’t have a formal request from Qatar to carry out an investigation.  There are requests, formal requests, from the Syrian Arab Republic, from France and the United Kingdom.  There have been other letters supporting, calling for, in general terms, for a thorough investigation.  But, specific requests into specific allegations from three Member States of the United Nations.  And that’s the important point; they are all Member States of the United Nations.  The Secretary-General does not pick and choose.  The Secretary-General is obviously duty-bound to investigate and to take seriously all allegations about the alleged use of chemical weapons.  Other questions?  Yes, Nizar?  And then Joseph.

Question:  Yeah, for confidence to be established in this commission which is going to investigate, the memories of Iraq are still alive.  And one of the things that Mr. Ja’afari raised is that why would the United Nations conceal the document of Iraq for 60 years, before they are relea… relea… yeah, the United Nations has… he said that all the documents related to investigation with the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq are concealed for 60 years; no one can access them for 60 years.  How can we have trust in the future investigation if the previous one proved to be somehow… how… found partial?

Spokesperson:  The mandates of the Secretary-General’s mechanism for investigating the alleged use of chemical weapons provides for the Secretary-General to report on the conclusion to the Member States of the United Nations; in other words, the General Assembly.  That’s 193 Member States.  Evelyn, I’m… Joseph, then Evelyn, yes?

Question:  Yeah, I just want to go back to one of the letters that actually the Syrian Ambassador quoted from.  This is the 3 April letter from Ms. Kane to him.  He showed… he held up the letter and he said that it actually stated that there was a commitment to fully investigate the specific incident the Syrian Government alleged and that they would continue to, he said, quote, “assess” the other allegations raised by France and the United Kingdom.  So, one question I have, because there is a little bit of a discrepancy from how you characterize a consistent position on… of going to investigate everything at the same time, you sort of…

Spokesperson:  No, no, that’s not… that’s not what I said, okay.  But, carry on.  That’s not what I said, but carry on.

Question:  Okay.  Okay.  Well, I guess the simple question is whether it will be possible, since he read from the letter, he showed the letter, he didn’t say that he’d publicly distribute it, whether it would be possible to make that letter available to the press.  So that’s the first question.

Spokesperson:  Right.  Well, I’ll answer the first question first.  I may not be a diplomat, but I am an international civil servant, and diplomatic correspondence is not divulged unless there is a mutual understanding that that will happen.  So, that’s the answer to the first question.  What’s your second question?

Question:  Well, I guess it’s all related to it.  He said that within 24 hours of receiving 18 scientific, technical questions from the UN Secretariat, the Syrian Government responded very specifically with, he said, blood samples, footage, medical reports, testimonies of people who were suffocated, et cetera.  And without characterizing the detailed contents, I think my question is, to date, has the Secretary-General or the Secretariat received information within those categories, detailed categories from the British and/or the French on the allegations that they have made?

Spokesperson:  Well, what we have said is that after the initial requests were received from those three countries, we in turn requested additional information on the allegations.  And, indeed, the Syrian authorities did provide additional information.  And we have received additional information from other sources, too, and we continue to look for more information.  That’s why the head of mission, Åke Sellström, has been here at Headquarters in New York, and he is seeking information from other relevant capitals to help with that investigation.

Just one point, with regard to this alleged incident in Khan al-Assal, which, as I say, is common to the requests received by the Secretary-General from the Syrian authorities, and also to the request received from the French and British authorities, the Secretary-General has made clear that the investigation will look into the allegations in the order received.  And so, the incident in Khan al-Assal, which is, as I say, common to those requests from those three countries, is the first one.  But, the Secretary-General believes that there should not, he cannot engage in a partial investigation.  There needs to be access to locations of all the allegations.

Question:  Well, why not accept their… having the Syrian Government’s agreement to allow the team to at least investigate that first one; deploy the team within 24 hours until the Secretary-General has confidence, and then move to the next step?

Spokesperson:  Well, as we’ve said, this needs to be done certainly, without delay.  And it needs to be done without conditions and without exceptions.  Yes, Mr. Abbadi?

Question:  Thank you, Martin.  The situation in Syria now has lasted two years, and I have a question of general nature.  Some look at the situation as a civil war conflict.  Others think it is a rebellion, an insurrection against the rule of President [Bashar al-] Assad.  How would the Secretary-General characterize the situation in the country?

Spokesperson:  An extremely bloody conflict that has gone on far too long, Mr. Abbadi.  And it needs to end and it needs to end soon through a political settlement, political dialogue, and not through further bloodshed.  Yes, Hank, and Matthew?

Question:  Thank you again, Martin.  With the best terms that you can muster, if you can, would you… are you able to…?

Spokesperson:  Of course, it is always difficult, Hank, it’s always difficult.

Question:  I understand.  Can you compare the amount and the specificity of the evidence of, or information provided by the Syrian Government with that provided by the English and French Governments, as it pertains to the request for an investigation?  Ambassador Ja’afari said that the British and French have not provided any information to the Security Council; I wondered how the two bodies of information compare in the eyes of the SG.

Spokesperson:  As I have said, and as the Secretary-General has said, all of the allegations need to be looked into.  And we need to have information on those allegations to be able to carry out a full investigation.  And that includes on-site activities, as well as looking at material that is provided on the outside.  I am not going to characterize specific information from specific sources, except to say that Dr. Sellström and his team continue to seek further information from any sources to be able to look into these allegations as thoroughly as it is possible to do.  Yes?

Question:  Sure.  I have a question on UNIDO [United Nations Industrial Development Organization], but I just want… I wanted to ask one follow-up to what… to what Joe was asking.  And it has to do with this 3 April letter of… of Angela Kane.  I mean, it seems to have been put out… I… I… I just want to ask, it seems that she said:  “I wish to confirm that the mission will look at the specific incident” — meaning Khan al-Assal — and then says… remember that… that “the Secretary-General continues to assess the reports”.  So that, my que… what I am trying to ask is, between this 3 April letter and 5 April, when another letter was sent, that he said… that the Syrian Ambassador said basically ended the possibility of a very fast entry to… to look at this first incident, it… did the Secretary-General receive new information that took it from the status of assessing it to saying, we have to do this?  Something did… what changed, I guess?  He’s… he also said that maybe it was just political pressure, but if there was some new information that came in, is it possible to say what that is, between these two letters?

Spokesperson:  No, it’s not, Matthew, I have already answered that question.  Right.

Question:  On UNIDO, do you have… I… I am sure you have seen the… the reports, I know it’s… it’s sort of part of the UN family, but various European countries, most recently France, have said that they are going to stop funding and are withdrawing from UNIDO.  So, I just wanted to know, isn’t this of concern to the Secretary-General?  Is there some attempt in the UN system to kind of… I mean, what does it mean when… when… when… when major funders step away that way and what’s going to be done?

Spokesperson:  Well, I will look into that in a little bit more detail, Matthew.  We are obviously aware of the funding challenges that UN agencies and funds and programmes face in what is, after all, an extremely tight budgetary environment for the organizations concerned, and for the Member States that fund them.  So, if I have anything more specific on UNIDO, I will let you know.  But, I don’t at the moment.  Yes, Evelyn?

Question:  To switch slightly, do you have anything more on the Palestinians?  Who is torturing them and why?  And are they engaged in… in Syria’s battle?  You were talking about Palestinians in Syria.

Spokesperson:  Yes, but I don’t think that that’s… well, I am talking about the fate of Palestine refugees inside Syria who have been displaced because of the violence, and UNRWA, the Relief and Works Agency, is obviously doing extremely hard and dangerous work inside Syria and works, obviously, with Palestine refugees outside of Syria to try to help them.  Many thousands have been displaced, and as we have heard, they have alarming information that some of those who have been displaced are still trying to find refuge around Aleppo city in the countryside.  That’s, obviously, something that we are extremely concerned about.  If I get an update from UNRWA, then, obviously, I would share that with you.  Last question, Matthew?

Question:  Okay, sure.  It has to do again… it has to do with these… the rapes in Minova, but it is a different question; actually, quite different.  There is… it is reported in the French publication La Croix, which seems to say that in the course of… of… of investigating or looking into the rapes, that MONUSCO [United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo] staff encouraged doctors to give files of patients without their consent and then brought them a judiciary letter, then… and basically doctors are quoted saying that they gave records that they shouldn’t have given, that… that were covered by privacy, and I wanted to know, although obviously investigations, you know, is… is… is important and the battalions still haven’t been named, what’s the UN’s response to that?  It seems like… it seems pretty serious that you have two competing goods, but are they aware of this allegation that they violated patient privacy and what do they say about it?  Do they intend to do it in the future?  Is it… have they learned anything from it?

Spokesperson:  Let’s check with MONUSCO.

Correspondent:  Okay.

Spokesperson:  Thanks, have a good afternoon.

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