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

30 August 2013

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

30 August 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, everyone.  Welcome to the briefing.

** Syria

So I have a few items for you and then I’m happy to take questions.  But first of all, I wanted to give you a little bit of an overview of the meeting that’s taking place right now between the Secretary-General and the members, the permanent members of the Security Council.  As you are aware, the Secretary-General cut short his visit to Europe to return to New York last night and that was precisely with the aim of reaching out to Member States and he started that today, just a short while ago with the permanent members of the Security Council.  And he gave an overview of the work that has been done by Dr. Sellström and other members of the chemical weapons inspection team, which as you know, arrived in Damascus on 18 August. And the Secretary-General walked through the work that the mission has been doing since then, including, of course, what it has been doing specifically in response to the incident on 21 August in al-Ghouta.

So, and then today, today, the mission visited a military Government hospital in Damascus as a part of its evaluation of information provided by Syria.  You will recall that Syria had sent a letter recently to the Secretary-General that contained further allegations, so today, the mission visited a Government military hospital in Damascus as part of its evaluation of information provided by Syria on that.  Of course, the Secretary-General has also been explaining to the permanent five that in the course of its activities, the team was able to visit field hospitals and there they were able to interview victims and doctors, and collect biomedical samples, and of course they were also able to visit various affected areas where they interviewed witnesses and collected environmental samples.

So really, an important point here, that now, the team has completed its collection of samples and evidence relating to the 21 August incident and they are now packing up and they will be leaving Damascus and leaving Syria tomorrow.  And they will be returning to The Hague, which, as you know, is the headquarters of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.  And beyond that, the samples that have been collected will be taken to be analysed in designated laboratories and the intention is, of course, to expedite the analysis of that sampling that’s been taken.  But, we have to be very clear here, that before the mission can draw any conclusions about this incident, the evaluation of all available information, including the laboratory analysis of all samples, must be completed.

And so the Secretary-General has been in close contact with the team; indeed he spoke to Dr. Sellström just shortly before meeting the permanent members of the Security Council.  Dr. Sellström’s team is doing its utmost to expedite the process of analysis, but, while keeping this in mind, they also have to keep in mind something else, which is the need for rigorous attention to maintaining the integrity of the process, in other words, the scientific side of this process.  As soon as the analysis of the samples is completed, then a report will be given to the Secretary-General, and the Secretary-General will share that report’s results with all Member States, and of course with the Security Council.

And another point to stress is that the mission will proceed to complete its fact-finding activities of all pending, credible allegations.  And when it’s completed its investigation of all allegations, the mission will submit its final report.  And as I’ve just said, the team will return to investigate the initial three incidents.  And the Secretary-General has also been making clear that he takes very seriously his responsibility as Secretary-General to make sure that the United Nations is doing everything it can to uphold the universal prohibition of the use of chemical weapons, and I think that’s where we are.

I can also tell you that the Secretary-General will meet tomorrow here in New York with Angela Kane, who as you know is the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs.  She’s on her way back to New York right now.  Dr. Sellström, however, will be remaining in Europe to oversee the analysis, of course.  That does not mean that he cannot be in touch with the Secretary-General to brief him on the progress.  As I just told you, he spoke to the Secretary-General just a short while ago.  So that’s on Syria.

Let me just update you on a couple of other things, and then I will be able to take any questions you might have.

** Democratic Republic of the Congo

On the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) said today that the Congolese Armed Forces are pursuing their operations to clear the Kibati Heights, north of Goma, supported by UN peacekeepers.  The UN Mission also said that M23, under pressure from the Congolese Armed Forces, has vacated Kibati Village and part of Kibati Heights, but they continue to shell civilian areas.

[The Spokesperson later added that the United Nations Mission has said that the M23 continues to also shell United Nations positions.]

As you may have seen in a statement we issued in the small hours of this morning, the Secretary-General condemned the indiscriminate shelling by the M23 that caused deaths, injuries and damage among the civilian population in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo and in the immediate border area in Rwanda, as well as among United Nations peacekeepers.

The Secretary-General encouraged all parties concerned to pursue a comprehensive political process aimed at addressing the root causes of the conflict.  He called on all regional actors concerned to exercise utmost restraint and refrain from any acts or statements that could lead to a further deterioration of the situation.

**Trip Announcement

And then simply to announce that, on Tuesday, the Secretary-General will depart New York for Saint Petersburg, in Russia, to attend the G-20 Summit.  

On Wednesday, he will give a lecture on the theme of “United Nations: Youth and Education”.  That will be at Saint Petersburg State University.

On Thursday, the Secretary-General will participate in the G-20 Summit.  And he sent a letter already to G-20 leaders, and he said that their continued commitment to support strong, sustainable and inclusive growth will be critical for making sustainable development a reality for all.  And also, while in Saint Petersburg, I think you would imagine, the Secretary-General also intends to have a range of bilateral meetings with several world leaders and he will return to New York on 7 September.

So, questions, please?  Yes, Pam?

**Questions and Answers

Correspondent:  Thank you, Martin, and welcome back.

Spokesperson:  Thank you.  Yes, indeed, microphone, sorry.

Question:  In Vienna, the Secretary-General talked about the UN Charter and said that the UN Charter requires Security Council authorization for any use of force; do you expect the Secretary-General to be encouraging or at least urging restraint on the United States on any possible strike without a Security Council resolution?

Spokesperson:  Well, I would simply reiterate, the Secretary-General has underscored, and did so again just now in the meeting with the Permanent members of the Security Council, underscored the importance of the UN Charter.  Yes?  Yes, Masood?

Correspondent:  Yes, sir.

Spokesperson:  You’re poised, you’re poised.

Question:  Yes, sir, you just made a point saying that after this process is over, those inspectors will return back and complete their work.  Am I right in understanding that?

Spokesperson:  You’re right.

Question:  Absolutely.  So is there a timeline on that?  And when do we expect that work to be finished and so that a final report is given to the Secretary-General that he can present to the members of the Security Council and the Member States?

Spokesperson:  We do not have a timeline on that yet.  The focus is, of course, on completing the analysis of the incident, the 21st of August.  Everybody concerned, including the Syrian authorities, agreed that this should be a priority, that there should be the focus on this, but I have just made clear that the team will be returning to continue its work on those other incidents to be able to complete a final report.  Yes, Matthew?  And then I was coming to you.

Correspondent:  Sure.

Question:  Just a follow-up [inaudible].

Spokesperson:  Please, with the microphone, yeah.

Question:  Sorry, sir.  Just a follow-up.  What I was asking you, can… while the Secretary-General was there, because the inspectors are still… the work is still going on, did he ask the members of the Security Council to give the inspectors some time before they rush to judgment?

Spokesperson:  I would not go beyond what I have already said, which is simply that the team is packing up today, having completed that additional visit that I mentioned, to the military hospital.  They will be leaving tomorrow with the intention of taking the samples to the designated laboratories so that the testing can begin.  We are not, obviously, giving a timeline on that, simply to say that they are doing this as swiftly as possible.  There are constraints, scientific constraints, on how long it takes, the testing of these samples.  So the intention is to expedite this and then to be able to complete the report on the 21st of August incident and report to the Security Council and other Member States.  Matthew?

Question:  Sure, thanks a lot.  The… the Turkish Foreign Minister has come out and said that his country has, they believe, proof that the Assad Government does it, and it looks like the… the US is gonna make a similar announcement later today.  So I wanted to know, does the Secretary-General… does he think it’s… what is… does he have an comment on Member States coming out with their own evidence, as they call it, in… prior to the UN report coming out?  And also, just factually, there were some reports that some of this… the… the inspection team already left the country and is in Lebanon.  Can you say if that is true or not?  Have you seen those reports, do they fall…?

Spokesperson:  Yes.  The people who left today were interpreters and translators.  The experts, the technical experts from the World Health Organization and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, remain in Damascus and will be leaving tomorrow.  With regard to the first part of your question, the Secretary-General has said all along, and the Secretary-General’s mechanism provides for the possibility for Member States to put forward evidence that they may have, information that they may have, and we would continue to encourage Member States to do precisely that.

Question:  But so, for example, has Turkey… Turkey says they have an intelligence report that proves that Assad did it.  Have they provided any information to the team to your knowledge?

Spokesperson:  As I say, the Secretary-General has consistently encouraged Member States to provide any information they may have.  Yes, please?  Sorry, I will be coming to you.  Yes, please?  Yes?  Microphone, please, yeah.

Question:  You mentioned Moon would get briefed after… I mean, inspectors, or after you got the results from the laboratory.  Do you… do you have the…?

Spokesperson:  Just say again, who would be briefed?

Question:  Moon, the Secretary-General.  And… and so do you have an idea of the timeline and who specifically would be briefing the Secretary-General and where would that occur?

Spokesperson:  I have tried to spell out quite clearly here that there is a timeline.  And just to dispel some myths that there seem to be at the moment; there will be no preliminary findings, there will be a report.  The report, as I have just said, will be compiled and finalized based on the analysis of the samples and other evidence.  And only at that point… only at that point will it be possible to provide the outcome of that investigation.  What Ms. Kane will do tomorrow when she meets with the Secretary-General here in New York is to brief him on the work of the mission and the way ahead.  And as I have mentioned, the Secretary-General and experts from the Office for Disarmament Affairs remain in very close contact with Dr. Sellström and his team, and that will remain the case after they leave Syria and head to the laboratories for that analysis to take place.  And again, we are not providing a specific timeline on when the analysis will be completed, simply to say that it is being expedited, it’s being done, it will be done as fast as possible within the scientific constraints that there obviously are to ensure the integrity of the process.  Yes?

Question:  Thank you, Martin.  For purposes of clarity, can you please spell out again what is the purpose of the first report and what aspects of the… in the final report are going to be included that are not going to be included in the first report, meaning whether it’s still the main purpose only to confirm that the chemical weapons were used, not where and how and who did it?

Spokesperson:  Well, I think you’re mixing up a number of things, and plainly, I haven’t explained myself clearly enough.  The team has been investigating, in the last few days, the 21st of August incident, and they will be compiling a report on that incident first, based on the analysis of the samples and the other evidence that they have compiled while in Damascus.  What I’ve also said is that the mission will continue its work.  The team will continue its work with the aim of compiling a final report on all the allegations.  So it would include that point — the findings of the 21st of August and all of the other allegations.  So that would be one final report.  The international community, faced with the horrific images everybody saw on their TV screens and in other ways, was insistent that there should be a priority investigation into that incident to find out what happened there.  The investigation, as with the investigation into the other allegations, is, as we have repeatedly said, to establish whether chemical weapons were used, not by whom.

Correspondent:  Okay, that’s it.

Spokesperson:  I think that’s enough.

Question:  Not by whom, definitely?

Spokesperson:  Definitely.

Question:  Other aspects are not by whom?

Spokesperson:  Please switch on… yeah.

Question:  So the other aspects of the final report will not include the aspects of by whom?

Spokesperson:  We’ve said that repeatedly.  Sangwon?

Question:  So what exactly did this overview to the P5 say?  I mean, what was the content…?

Spokesperson:  I spent the first five minutes of the briefing telling you…

Question:  So, right now, at this moment, the Secretary-General cannot tell the P5 that chemical weapons have been used, there’s no conclusion at all?

Spokesperson:  Again, I think I’ve said that quite clearly here, and I will repeat it, that this is not an electoral process where you have exit polls and preliminary results – this is a scientific process.  The only result that counts is the result of the analysis in laboratories and the analysis of the evidence that’s been collected through witness statements and so on.  The report will give the conclusions.  There are no preliminary findings, no preliminary reports.  A report will be issued once the analysis has been done on those samples.  We’re not giving a timeline on that, but we’re saying that it will be done as quickly as possible. You don’t look convinced.  Right.  George?

Question:  Thank you, Martin.  Several questions on this.   Firstly, does Dr. Sellström’s team include physicians or other medical personnel?  Second, you several times mentioned they’re going to return to investigate, I think you said the three episodes or incidents.  To where are they returning?  Back to Syria, or what does that phrase refer to?  And finally…

Spokesperson:  Let me answer that right away.  Return to somewhere they’ve come from would tend to suggest Syria, yes.

Question:  Okay, thank you.  And, finally, when this report is released to the membership of the P5 and the… ultimately the Security Council and all the Members of the General Assembly, will it be released to the press as well?

Spokesperson:  I think if all of them have it, you’ll have it, too.  Yes, Maggie, you had a question I think?

Correspondent:  [inaudible] forgotten it.

Spokesperson:  You’ve forgotten it by now, in which case, right in front of you, please?

Question:  Okay, Martin, you said the mission visited the military hospital in terms of… to investigate the Government allegations, and these…

Spokesperson:  Stop, stop.  I didn’t say investigate, I said to collect information, and based on the information they’re collecting, they will then be able to decide the merits of the allegations and whether an investigation would be carried out.  That’s an important distinction.

Question:  So, it will not be in the first report?

Spokesperson:  No.  Oleg?

Question:  Thanks, Martin.  Will the team return to Syria, will it be the same team that has been there?

Spokesperson:  The team will return to Syria at some point, we’re not saying when.  Yes?  Use the microphone, please.

Question:  No, I mean, will it be the same team?

Spokesperson:  Well, I don’t know exactly who will be in the team at this point, but as you know, this was a team of about a dozen people and that also partly answers George’s question — the composition was technical experts from, under the aegis of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and then, on top of that, World Health Organization (WHO), so medical specialists.  And I would suggest that the team that would go back in would have a similar composition.  I don’t know at this point who precisely that would be, but the idea is there is a team that can investigate and the idea is that the team will return.  Yes?

Question:  Thank you, Martin.  Is there any possibility or expectation that the Secretary-General or High Representative for Disarmament or Dr. Sellström will make a briefing to the Security Council during the weekend?

Spokesperson:  I don’t know at this point.  I think you would need to ask the Security Council.  The Secretary-General is certainly ready and prepared to brief the Council should they wish him to do so.  Yes, Nick?

Question:  Martin, can I ask you if any Member States have put any pressure on the Secretary-General to get that UN weapons inspections team out of there earlier?

Spokesperson:  I would simply say that the Secretary-General has made clear to his interlocutors that for the integrity of this process, for his mechanism to investigate allegations of the use of chemical weapons, the team needed to be there for the allotted time, and that is why they are still there today, and that is why they are leaving tomorrow.

Question:  There have been reports that they are leaving a day early.  You’d deny that, you’d say they’d been there 14 days?

Spokesperson:  They are leaving within the allotted time frame that we set out specifically for this priority investigation into the 21st of August incident, and I think there’s also an important point here — there are all kinds of media reports suggesting that the departure of the team could precipitate something.  We have to remember, there are in excess of 1,000 UN personnel in Syria, still.  So a hundred times the size of the investigation team, working as they have been for many years and certainly on the humanitarian side in the last couple of years, intensively on helping the Syrian people.  There’s a very large number of people. 

Question:  How many…?

Spokesperson:  In excess of a thousand, international and national.  Yes?

Question:  Following that question, so if we have 1,000 people there, if there were to be an attack, how they’re going to guarantee the security for the thousand members of the UN there right now in Syria, if the United States or any other country carries an attack?

Spokesperson:  Well, let’s also recall there are millions of Syrians in Syria and the national staff, by definition, are also Syrian.  And the key point here is that the United Nations always puts an extremely high priority, of course, top priority, on the safety and security of its staff.  Yes, please?

Question:  Hi, Martin.  I wonder if you could give us a few details on the visit to the military hospital today.  Do you know if they took — I’m sorry if you answered this question before, but I don’t think you did — did they take biological samples from the soldiers, any soldiers, and did they take testimony from those soldiers?

Spokesperson:  I understand that they spoke to a number of patients and also did take some biomedical samples.  Microphone, please.

Question:  Were those patients soldiers?

Spokesperson:  I think that that would breach medical privacy, regulations; simply, people who were in the hospital.

Question:  Okay.  I know you said you didn’t want to… you’re not giving a timeline on when the report might come out.  Can you give us a sense of whether it will be weeks or many days?

Spokesperson:  No.

Correspondent:  Okay.

Spokesperson:  Right.  Yes?

Question:  Thank you.  I’m just wondering about the… what you’d said about the horrific photos that were released to the public and not making judgments based on photos that we necessarily can’t verify.  And, I’m curious, there was supposedly sarin gas released in Bahrain during the Arab Spring there; there’s been white phosphorous in Falluja; there’s been napalm in Iraq that’s been used…

Spokesperson:  So what’s your question?  What’s your question?

Question:  …and depleted uranium all over.  How can you guarantee this whole investigation is not a politicized targeting of Syria because [inaudible] seems to have been under the gun for quite a while in the international community, that it’s not a politicized event?

Spokesperson:  I think this is precisely the point.  It’s a very good point that you make, that this is a scientific investigation that is taking place, involving experts in their respective fields, and involving, when it comes to the testing of the samples, laboratories that are specifically designated under the framework of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and, in addition, the provisions of the Secretary-General’s mechanism — and I would encourage you to look at them, they’re online — are very specific about how you guarantee the chain of custody.  Yes?  Iftikhar, yes?

Question:  Martin, thank you.  Have the laboratories where the samples will be sent been identified?  And are those… are some of the labs in the United States?

Spokesperson:  The laboratories are in Europe and none of the laboratories is in a P5 country.  Yes, Sangwon?

Question:  Just to clarify, so the inspectors, they will…?

Spokesperson:  I’m not doing very well today, am I?

Question:  I think it’s my fault.  The inspectors will return to Syria for the three sites that were agreed upon, Khan al-Asal and the other two, when the report on the Ghouta incident is complete?

Spokesperson:  Right.  They need… first of all, the focus is on completing the report on the 21st of August incident, but the team have given a very clear undertaking that they intend to return to deal with all pending allegations.

Question:  One more question?

Spokesperson:  Yes.

Question:  Has the Syrian Government been very cooperative… you said the translators and interpreters started leaving today, and so has the UN gotten cooperation from the Government, not seeing any problems in their passage out of Syria?

Spokesperson:  Well, I think the facts speak for themselves.  Yes?

Question:  Thanks, Martin.  I wanted to… first I know you’d said if the Security Council as a whole wanted to meet the Secretary-General, he would, and was this meeting with the P5 at their request or his, and what would you say…?

Spokesperson:  His.

Question:  Okay.  And what would you say to those who say the elected 10 are kind of being left out of the process; they weren’t shown the UK draft?  I mean, I understand they’re the ones with the veto, but does the Secretary-General… what would you say to those who say it’s a distinction that just builds the power more than…?

Spokesperson:  I would say the following, Matthew, that the Security Council presidency was informed and fully understands the way that this is working, that the Secretary-General has been briefing the permanent five and is available, and indeed would like to brief the Security Council as a whole, but of course it is the prerogative of the Security Council to invite the Secretary-General to brief them.  And beyond that… I mean, the whole reason that the Secretary-General broke off his visit to Austria was to be able to return to engage with Member States and not just with five of them.

Question:  Great, thanks.  I wanted to also… while you were away, this phrase startled me, was said from this platform; you may be behind the phrase.  So I wanted to… again and I understand this idea of an evidence-based narrative… like, I just wondered, can you say, many people say it’s not going to say obviously who did it, and you’re saying that it’s a scientific thing, it’s a lab test, which might imply a one-page report, just yes or no?   But what is an evidence-based narrative?  How does it relate to… is it a chronological accounting of how the missiles got there?  What can you say about the phrase?

Spokesperson:  Well, first of all, I have also mentioned, not simply lab test results, which are, of course, hugely important, but also the interviews that have been conducted with witnesses, survivors.  So that forms an awfully important part of the story as well — what people experienced and what people saw.  So then you build a picture and I think that’s simply what that expression means.  And, just to reiterate, it is not about determining responsibility, it’s about determining whether chemical weapons were used.  Yes?  I think we’re running out of time here.  Yes?

Question:  Whether that would… what Matthew just asked, whether that would include the origin of the weapons, if it is a little more explanatory than one page?

Spokesperson:  Look, I’m not going to prejudge the size of the report, the content of the report.  These are scientific experts, specialists, who are working within clearly defined guidelines, which are there available for you to read online.  I’m going to the back of the room, and that’s the last question.  Yes, please, but just let me take the question in the back.

Question:  Secretary Kerry is having a press conference right now and he basically just said that they have proof and declassified some of the information that they have to be able to provide it to the American people and explain why they have proof of that.  Has the Secretary been briefed on what the proof that they have?  He explains that they have information about a team being in the areas that were attacked three days before the attack went through, and then also he is talking about instructions they have found about this supposed attack coming from the Government of Assad to the areas only where the rebels are.  Does the Secretary have any details of that details that is being given to the media by Secretary Kerry?

Spokesperson:  Not to my knowledge, no.  Congo question and that’s it.

Question:  Thanks a lot.  I appreciate it.  The press statement that was put out yesterday and read today by the Security Council said that they recalled that intentionally directed attacks at personnel engaged in peacekeeping, you know, are crimes, as long as… quote, as long as they are entitled to protection given to civilians or civilian objects under international law of armed conflict. And it’s a new construction for them.  But I wanted to know, what’s the Secretariat’s understanding of whether any part of MONUSCO, including the Intervention Brigade, is in fact a party to an armed conflict, and how this relates… I’m asking you because it’s a press statement, is it a party and are they combatants?

Spokesperson:  I’ve seen that language, too, Matthew.  I don’t have anything for you on that.  If I do get something, I will certainly let you know.

Question:  Last question?

Spokesperson:  I’ve already said last question, Masood, thank you very much.  Have a good afternoon. 

* *** *

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