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

31 August 2013

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

31 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.

So, good afternoon.  A tie on a Saturday!  Thanks very much for coming in.

** Syria

I’ve just come from a meeting between the Secretary-General and Angela Kane, who is the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs.  The Secretary-General met with Ms. Kane, who just returned from Damascus, and Ms. Kane briefed the Secretary-General on her trip and on the current status of the investigation.  Ms. Kane reported that the mission was able to conduct a wide range of fact-finding activities pertaining to the 21st of August incident in the Ghouta area.  She thanked the Syrian Government and opposition for their cooperation during this mission.  The mission will be in a position to transmit its conclusions to the Secretary-General as soon as it has received the results of the laboratory analysis of its samples.

The Secretary-General looks forward to receiving the mission’s findings as soon as possible so he can promptly present the results to Member States and to the Security Council.  The Secretary-General expressed his sincere appreciation to Dr. Sellström and his team, including the security personnel and interpreters, for their exceptional bravery and professionalism.  He also praised the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the World Health Organization (WHO) for their extraordinary cooperation.  And finally, he thanked Ms. Kane herself for her effective coordination between the mission and the Government of Syria, despite the extraordinary and difficult circumstances.

Just a couple of other points, simply to say that the Secretary-General did speak very briefly, just this morning, with Dr. Sellström right after the chemical weapons team had arrived in the Netherlands.  This was simply to say thank you to the team.  And the Secretary-General will be briefed in more detail by Dr. Sellström tomorrow.  And that is being done by telephone; he will not be here in person.  That’s what I have for you — today.

And tomorrow, just to update you on one other aspect, the team, which is now in the Netherlands, will be spending the day collating the samples and other evidence which they have prior to the testing in the laboratories in Europe.

So that’s what I have at the moment, and I am happy to take questions that you may have.  Yes, Talal?  Please use the microphone.

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Oh, sorry.  Thank you very much, Martin, for briefing us on a Saturday, I understand, thank you.  Sir, yesterday, the Secretary of State, John Kerry, has said it very clearly that there is nothing that the inspectors can tell them that they don’t know already.  And he also explained that the mandate of the inspectors does not include finding who used the chemical weapon, only if it was used or not.  And the Administration has already concluded that the weapons… chemical weapons had been used.  My question is: why doesn’t the United Nations and the Secretary-General step up to the plate and expand the mandate of the inspectors to include finding out who is the culprit that used chemical weapons, because when I asked this question to the Secretary-General, he said he will give the evidence to the international community and they will decide?  We know very well that the division within the Security Council will lead everybody to incriminate the other side.  And we will be no nearer to finding out who used this.  We need an independent, fair, impartial, detached body like the UN to determine who are the culprits who used the chemical weapons, and I think…

Spokesperson:  Well, Talal, that’s a very long question, but simply to say thank you for your vote of confidence in the United Nations.  And that is precisely the point here, that – and let me say it very clearly as well, and forcefully – that the United Nations mission is uniquely capable of establishing, in an impartial and credible manner, the facts of any use of chemical weapons based directly on evidence collected from the ground.  With regard to the other part of your question, the mandate is the mandate.  The team and the Secretary-General will abide by that mandate to be able, to the expectations of the international community, come up with, as I have just said, in an impartial and credible manner, evidence collected from the ground and then analysed.  And those findings will be made, as I have just said just a little while ago, available to Member States as soon as that analysis is completed.

Question:  If I may just follow up, I understand this is the mandate, but what my question is, why doesn’t the United Nations Secretary-General take the brave step of stepping to the plate and expanding the mandate?  Expanding the mandate to determine who did this, because we all know there is no accountability which the Secretary-General has repeated many…

Spokesperson:  Talal, Talal, you seem…

Question:  …many times.

Spokesperson:  Talal, you seem to misunderstand where the mandate derives from.  It’s the Secretary-General’s mechanism, as defined — and you can read all the details about it online — derives from a General Assembly resolution that was then subsequently endorsed by a Security Council resolution.  Therefore, I think you can see where difficulties might arise with changing the mandate.  The mandate is robust and provides for the United Nations to be able to provide, in an impartial and credible manner, a picture of what happened.  And let us be also very clear that the Secretary-General, and the team, has stepped up to the plate already.  And let us not forget that these are scientists, and technical and medical experts, who braved sniper fire to go to collect samples and to interview witnesses and survivors.  I think I would say that is the definition of stepping up to the plate.  Yes, Nizar?  And then I am coming to Pam.

Question:  Martin, of course, we haven’t learnt yet who snipe… who shot at the team when they were attempting to…

Spokesperson:  Well, frankly, Nizar, it doesn’t matter…

Correspondent:  It is important.

Spokesperson:  …who is shooting.  When you are under sniper fire, going to do a job, it does not matter who is shooting, and we frankly don’t care who is shooting.  It is outrageous that they were shot at.  What is your question?

Question:  Another thing, what… what happened to the investigation of Khan al-Asal, which was the original or the first reported on and this is where everything was initiated, based on, did they…?

Spokesperson:  I am glad you asked that, Nizar, I am glad you asked that, because, as I said yesterday - and I am very happy to repeat it again – the team has given a very clear undertaking to the Syrian authorities that it will return.  The team will return to conduct the investigation into all the pending allegations, including Khan al-Asal.  As I have just said, the team left Syria this morning so that they could take the samples safely to the laboratories where they will be analysed, and of course beyond the samples, there is an entire body of evidence, witness statements, interviews with doctors, as well as survivors.  All of that needs to be collated, in some cases translated, and then analysed.  So they have work to do, but they have given an undertaking that they will be returning to complete their investigation into the pending allegations – all of them.

Question:  Well, well, a follow-up on that.  Given that the time lapse since then, and given that the opposition now has… have controlled Khan al-Asal for some time now, shouldn’t they have tampered with the… wouldn’t you expect that they have tampered with the evidence?

Spokesperson:  Well, listen, this is an argument that is being put forward also with regard to Ghouta, and the team has been able to collect samples from the sites — both biomedical samples and environmental samples.  And they are satisfied that they have material that they can now analyse.  And there are also many other ways to help to investigate the pending allegations, and as we have said before, already, the work had begun on analysing and collecting information that it was possible to collect at a distance without being on the spot.  I am going to… Nizar, I am going to go to someone else, okay?  Please, blue tie, yes, you?

Question:  Did the Secretary-General try to convince the United States not to strike any time soon before the report of the inspectors come out?

Spokesperson:  What we have said, and the Secretary-General has said publicly, is that the team needed time to do its job, it needs time to be able to analyse the information and the samples that it has collected.  And the Secretary-General has also said repeatedly that there is no alternative to a political solution to this crisis, overall crisis, in Syria.  A military solution is not an option.  Yes?

Question:  Speaking about time, is there any sort of time frame being given, maybe an earliest date or even a latest date?  Just, is there any time frame being given for these results to be analysed in the laboratories?

Spokesperson:  We are not giving a timeline, simply to say that, and I can help you here, the mission, as I just said, left Syria and arrived in the Netherlands today, in The Hague.  And it will then begin its evaluation of all of the available material, all of the available information regarding the Ghouta incident, including the analysis in two designated laboratories of all the samples.  But before the mission can draw any conclusions on this incident, the laboratory process must be completed.  And the Secretary-General has requested for the laboratory phase of the investigation to be expedited as much as feasible.  And as he put it himself this morning when speaking with Ms. Kane, whatever can be done to speed up the process is being done, but we are not giving a timeline.  Yes, Pam?

Question:  Martin, you mentioned yesterday that the Secretary-General, in the P5 meeting, which includes the United States and France, underscored, I think was your word, the importance of the Charter, which of course prohibits use of military force.  Is the Secretary-General reaching out to the US and France, who have indicated the possibility of a military strike, to encourage restraint or to discourage a strike?  And also, what are you doing for the 1,000 UN staff in… in Syria to protect them?

Spokesperson:  Well, I am glad you asked that last question, and I will deal with that first.  I mean, I have seen all kinds of reporting suggesting that the departure of the chemical weapons team somehow opens a window for military action of some kind.  Frankly, that is grotesque, and it is also an affront to the more than 1,000 staff, UN staff, who are on the ground in Syria delivering humanitarian aid and who will continue to deliver critical aid.  Of course, it would be only prudent to look at the composition of the team, that 1,000-plus, to see who is most critical to the work that is being done.  But I can assure you that the humanitarian work that has been going on in extremely difficult circumstances, working with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and others, to provide aid to millions of displaced people, not to mention those in the neighbouring countries who are refugees, that work will continue.

Question:  All right, thank you.  And on the first part?

Spokesperson:  On the first part, I would simply just say what I said yesterday, which is that the Secretary-General has underscored the importance of the UN Charter.

Question:  But has he made any… just as a follow-up, has he made any separate conversation, has he had any separate conversations with [inaudible]?

Spokesperson:  I am just going to stick with what I have said.  Yes?

Question:  Thank you, Martin.  Oh, where is this thing?  Okay, I’ve got it.

Spokesperson:  Helpful colleagues.

Question:  Yes, very.  Can you give some examples of which humanitarian, UN humanitarian, bodies have a lot of staff in Syria?  And secondly, I am getting very… this… you said the Secretary-General would be briefed tomorrow by the team?

Spokesperson:  No, by Dr. Sellström.

Question:  By Dr. Sellström.  Is he briefing somebody else after that?

Spokesperson:  Meaning what?

Question:  Like P5, like you, like me, like…?

Spokesperson:  We will certainly endeavour to provide a readout of that briefing.  And with regard to the first part of your question on which humanitarian agencies under the UN umbrella are operating there, of course, WFP, UNICEF and others, and I will endeavour to provide a more detailed list.  Obviously, we are not going to get into staff numbers and so on of each individual agency, but simply to say that critical staff who provide critical assistance will continue to do so.

Question:  Are they international or local, or both?

Spokesperson:  They are UN staff.  Yes?

Question:  Just to… you said repeatedly there is no timeline for these reports.  This is the… regarding the chemical analysis and everything what is going on.  What about the interviews?  Do you have any idea when the interviews are going to be translated and available?  Or it is going to go altogether within the report?

Spokesperson:  The latter.  Of course, everything needs to be compiled into a report.  As we said yesterday, there will be this report on the 21st of August incident.  It hinges on the analysis of the samples and on the evidence, the witness statements that have been collected.  Yes, they need to be translated, and yes, they need to be compiled, but all of that is being put together and will be put together in that report on the 21st of August incident, in that one report.

Question:  And just as a short follow-up, does the Secretary-General, after this report will be submitted to him and he’s seen, do you expect that from the information of the whereabouts of the… of the… and origin of the chemical weapons, more clarity will be put in who did that, and does he show that curiosity when he talks to Mr. Sellström, etcetera?

Spokesperson:  The aim of the game here, the mandate is very clear, and that is to ascertain whether chemical weapons were used, and not by whom.  And that remains the mandate.  I am going right to the back of the room, and then Marcelle.  But first of all, right at the back of the room?

Question:  Thank you.  Martin…

Spokesperson:  What are you watching on the TV this time?

Correspondent:  Nothing, there is nothing going on yet. 1:15 p.m., probably.

Spokesperson:  Okay.

Question:  Martin, can you tell us if President Obama will meet in person with Secretary-General after he gets more details tomorrow from Dr. Sellström?  And the other part, will he be meeting with the Security Council, maybe on Monday or Tuesday, after they establish the new President of the Security Council?  Do we know if there might be a meeting in person with him?

Spokesperson:  That I do not know at this stage whether there will be a meeting of the full Security Council.  That I do not yet know.  I can tell you that the Secretary-General has been in touch both with the outgoing President of the Council, in other words the Permanent Representative of Argentina, and with the incoming, the Permanent Representative of Australia.  That’s what I have at the moment.  And as regards the first part of your question, I do not anticipate any meeting as you have just described.  I would point out that the Secretary-General is going to be attending the G-20 Summit in Saint Petersburg.  We announced that yesterday.  And of course that provides a good venue for meeting all kinds of world leaders, but at this point, we do not know exactly, precisely, which leaders he would be meeting with.  Marcelle?

Question:  Thank you, Martin.  Can you tell us if the Secretary-General has spoken with President Obama today, and if so, what did he say to him?  And secondly…

Spokesperson:  No, he has not.

Question:  He hasn’t spoken with him today?

Spokesperson:  No, he has not.

Question:  Okay.  Can you tell us, what is the Secretary-General’s position on whether a military strike would be legal, legitimate or helpful?

Spokesperson:  I would simply say what I just said a little earlier, that the Secretary-General has underscored the importance of the UN Charter.  Okay.  Yes, please?

Question:  Yes, I am wondering about the report that came out today from the veteran AP reporter in the Middle East, in Ghouta, who had said… who interviewed many of the rebels and has said that the rebels had been behind the chemical attack.  And I am wondering, as far as the mandate goes, expanding it to who is responsible?  He claimed that the rebels told him that the Saudis had…

Spokesperson:  Well, I have answered that question, I have answered that question, with respect.  Yes, Maggie?

Question:  Martin, our eagle-eyed cameraman down in the lobby didn’t see the SG or Ms. Kane come in today as of about 10 after 12.  So did they meet at the UN or did they sneak into the garage or did they meet at his residence or…?  And how long was the meeting?

Spokesperson:  I will simply say they met, and they met for just over an hour.

Question:  Not in the garage?

Spokesperson:  But not in the garage, no.  Please?  And not in my apartment either, no.

Question:  Thank you, Martin.  My question is, during their meeting today, has Ms. Kane described any of her view on the possible attack by United States or France?

Spokesperson:  The focus was on the mission that has just been completed in Syria, and the work that needs to now be undertaken to analyse all of the material, the evidence that has been collected during what was obviously an extremely arduous undertaking for the technical, scientific experts and for the support team around them, including Ms. Kane, but including interpreters, drivers, translators, security personnel.  This was an… if you look at it, if you look at the time frame, this was done in an extraordinarily swift fashion, extremely professional, with a limited number of hours to be able to get what they needed.  They believe they have got samples that they can work with, and that’s what they intend to do now.

Question:  Martin, I…

Spokesperson:  Yes?

Question:  I know, I knew the focus…

Spokesperson:  Pardon?

Question:  I knew the focus of today’s meeting, but is there any reference from Ms. Kane about possible attack, military attack?

Spokesperson:  I would just stick with what I have said.  Yes?

Question:  Martin, once the report of the inspectors will come out and the strike, if it will happen, what will be the nature of the mission of the inspectors when they will go back again to Syria?

Spokesperson:  I am not going to speculate on hypothetical questions at this point.  I will simply repeat that we have given an undertaking, the team has given an undertaking, to the Syrian authorities that it will return to complete its investigation of all pending allegations.  That remains the case.  I have got time for two more questions.  Yes?

Question:  Thank you, thank you, Martin.  Russian President Vladimir Putin said that he asked Americans to wait for the outcome of this UN investigation.  And also he asked, if the Americans has any other evidence, to bring it to the UN.  What’s your reaction to that?

Spokesperson:  I don’t have any specific reaction at this point to President Putin’s remarks.  I have obviously seen them, we have seen them.  I would simply say again that the team had a mandated job to do, and is continuing with that job.  Now what they need to do is to analyse the samples and they need to work on all of the other material, evidence that they have collected, so that they can come up with their findings as soon as it is feasible.  And as I just said, the Secretary-General has said that whatever can be done is being done to accelerate that process.  Last question, yes?

Question:  A few days ago, Mr. Brahimi said that he was almost sure that chemical weapons were used.  Did you have… have you had a chance to talk to him and to understand what was that judgment based on?

Spokesperson:  Well, I think my colleague, Farhan Haq, has addressed that already, and I would simply reiterate that the chemical weapons team has just left Syria with the information and evidence and samples that it needs now to analyse before coming up with its findings, that it intends to do that as soon as possible.

Thank you very much.  Have a good afternoon.

* *** *

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