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

4 September 2013

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

4 September 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 Farhan Haq, Associate Spokesperson for the Secretary-General.

Okay, good afternoon.  Please; if you could all please take your seats.

**Noon Guest

We are very pleased to be joined today by Lassina Zerbo, the new Executive Secretary of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO).  And he will speak to you for a few minutes and take your questions, and then we will proceed to the Spokesperson’s briefing after that.  Mr. Zerbo, welcome to the United Nations.

[Press conference by Mr. Zerbo is issued separately.]

**Secretary-General’s Travel

The Secretary-General arrived in St. Petersburg a few hours ago to attend the G20 (Group of 20) summit of leaders from the world’s major economies. 

This afternoon, he delivered a lecture at Saint Petersburg State University and answered questions from the students there.  The Secretary-General said that the international community is facing great trials and tests.  Around the world, human rights are at risk.  Democracies are threatened. Legitimate voices and movements of dissent are being stifled.  He said people are worried about the future and wonder whether institutions and decision makers will hear their pleas and act on them.

The Secretary-General said he firmly believes the international community had a duty to address the immediate crises in our world, notably Syria.  But he said that, at the same time, we must look to a wider time horizon and act now to take on the longer-term challenges — including strengthening global economic recovery and working to ensure sustainable development.  He said he had brought three interlinked messages for G20 leaders:  the need to accelerate work on the Millennium Development Goals; to craft the post-2015 development agenda; and to tackle climate change.  He also said he was sure that G20 leaders would be heavily engaged in tackling the crisis in Syria.

On Thursday and Friday, the Secretary-General will have a range of bilateral meetings and attend various segments of the G20 Summit.

**Security Council

This morning, the Security Council adopted its programme of work for this month and received a briefing from the Department of Political Affairs (DPA).  This afternoon at 1:30 p.m., Gary Quinlan, the Permanent Representative of Australia, which holds the Council presidency for the month of September, will brief you on the programme of work.

** Sahel

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said today that the food security situation remains dire in the Sahel.  It appealed to the international community to increase funding for aid to the most vulnerable farmers and herders in that region.  The UN agency said that about 11 million people in the Sahel are still severely food insecure and that poor families have used up their food stocks and are facing high food prices awaiting the next harvest.  Of particular concern is the food security situation in northern Mali, northern Nigeria and neighbouring countries.  Despite an appeal from the Food and Agriculture Organization for a total of $113.1 million this year, only $19.4 million has been received.

** Somalia

The number of people in crisis in Somalia has fallen to the lowest level since famine was declared in 2011, the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for the country said today.  Philippe Lazzarini said that the welcome improvement in the food security situation in Somalia is due to a combination of ongoing humanitarian response, successive seasons of good rainfall and low food prices.  But he warned that the needs in Somalia remain enormous, noting the need to continue providing life-saving assistance and scaling up investments in programming to build communities’ ability to cope with future shocks.  Mr. Lazzarini said that if we act to build up resilience now, we can ensure that the next period of poor rains does not turn into a deep humanitarian crisis.

** Cambodia

We have available in our office a statement from Ambassador David Scheffer, the Secretary-General’s Special Expert on United Nations Assistance to the Khmer Rouge Trials. 

He says that the national budget crisis of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) has been generated by a failure on the part of the Royal Government of Cambodia to meet its legal obligation to fund the salaries of most national staff at the Court.  Unfortunately, this situation now has led to yet another national staff strike that may disrupt further critical work on Case 002 and the fulfilment of the Extraordinary Chambers’ mandate, which the Cambodian people justifiably expect to see completed.  One cannot argue for more efficiency or speedier trial proceedings at the Extraordinary Chambers and at the same time starve it of the necessary funding.

Ambassador Scheffer says that at the United Nations, we are fully committed to ending the current funding crisis as soon as possible and providing the stable environment that will enable national staff to continue the critical work of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia and achieve accountability pursuant to its mandate.  The United Nations remains deeply concerned for the welfare of the national staff and their families, and about any disruption that might result in the judicial process, which is at a critical stage now.  The Special Expert appeals to the national staff to remain patient as we urgently continue with our efforts.  And like I said, the full statement is in our office.


Last, the Secretary-General's Envoy on Youth, Ahmad Alhendawi, has launched a new online platform for youth.  The website aims to be an information hub on the UN’s work with and for youth.  The website is a one-stop shop for all youth-related news and opportunities in the UN system for 1.8 billion young people — the largest generation of youth the world has ever known.  More details can be found online.

That’s it from me.  Any questions?  Yes?

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Thanks.  On Syria, I wanted to ask you…ask you something.  One is very specific, it is a… the… the… there was a letter… this… the 31 August letter from… from Syria cited back, and I just wanted to get your position on this; they say that in March, when they first requested the Secretary-General to investigate Khan al-Asal and the use of chemical weapons, that the… it was their request that the investigation actually determine, you know, who used them.  And so they are saying that… that the way it is being cited now that the UN can’t and won’t determine who used chemical weapons in Ghouta is not… you know, is not their fault.  I wanted to know, is… is their presentation of March accurate, according to the UN, and… and what do you make of their… this most recent letter from them?

Associate Spokesperson:  Well, the Secretary-General was asked about the decision yesterday in his press briefing to you, and he made clear that he had taken the decision to determine whether or not chemical weapons had been used and not who used them.  That is in line with previous such investigations, and in line with the procedures being used by the investigators themselves.  Yes?

Question:  Farhan, let me then follow up.  What, then, is the continued relevance of the inspectors and their findings, given the fact the world agrees, including the Syrian Government and the rebels, that chemical weapons were used?  What new and what impact are they going to have given, besides the fact that they could say that chemical weapons were not used?

Associate Spokesperson:  Well, it is not just that, they are not simply going to say whether or not chemical weapons were used.  They intend to compile what we have been calling an evidence-based narrative concerning what their findings reveal.  And that will include relevant facts that help us get to the bottom of what happened, both in the most recent incident on 21 August and on the Khan al-Asal and other incidents.  So they are trying to compile as many relevant facts as possible which can help determine many of the key facts that are… that need to be known, and, of course, along with that, the determination of whether or not chemical weapons were used.  Yes, way in the back.

Question:  Yeah, Farhan…

Associate Spokesperson:  No, no, behind you.

Question:  It’s okay, Nizar.  So what would be… like he was mentioning today, [United States] President [Barack] Obama actually talked about the UN when he was in Sweden, and one of the things that he said is that the United States respects the investigation of the UN, but they can actually… the UN cannot do anything for Syria or try to determine who used the weapons.  So what is the answer of the UN to the United States, who at this point basically is saying the UN is doing everything possible for the UN to do, but now we will have to take over, because there is nothing else that can be done from the UN at this point?

Associate Spokesperson:  I would simply refer you back to what the Secretary-General said yesterday.  He was asked about the recent comments by President Obama and he reacted at the time, and I draw your attention to his remarks then.  Stefano?

Question:  Yes, it’s a follow-up on this; we understand that the Secretary-General yesterday said that it was his decision not to investigate who used the weapons, but I am going to ask you this:  President [Vladimir] Putin of Russia today said that if the United States, or I guess also the UN, will present the proof that the [Bashar al-]Assad regime, or whoever is the source of weapon, Russia will agree of an intervention by the Security Council on this matter.  Now, can, if a country — let’s say Russia itself or another country from Security Council — ask the Secretary-General to change its position, means then can he change and give a order to the inspectors to investigate who did use those chemical weapon?

Associate Spokesperson:  The current team works under a mechanism and under operational guidelines that are not those of a criminal investigation.  They are there to determine the facts of incidents, including, of course, whether or not chemical weapons were used or not.  That is what they are mandated to do, and they will work according to the mandate.  Of course, if a relevant UN body such as the Security Council were to empower a body with a different mandate, that would be up to them, but that, of course, is speculative at this point.  Yes, Nizar?

Question:  Yeah, Farhan, will they be able to establish whether there are makeshift chemical weapons or they are industrial standard weapons?  Is that part of their investigation?

Associate Spokesperson:  Well, let us see what the facts are that they come up with.  Right now, they are going through the analysis, including the laboratory analysis, and we will see what they can provide once they have the facts at their disposal. 

Question:  Another question, Farhan, is regarding this storming by the Israelis today in Al-Aqsa Mosque and injuring so many people, also preventing people from going to worship in Al-Aqsa.  Do you have anything to say about that?

Associate Spokesperson:  No, no we don’t at this stage, but we will check with the UN Special Coordinator’s office to see whether they have any reaction.  Yes, Trish?  You need to use the microphone, Trish.

Question:  In May, Turkish media had reported that Islamic rebels were found to have sarin gas… a couple of kilograms of cylinders of sarin gas in the militants that are supposedly being supported by countries in the West.  And I had brought up a couple of days ago about the AP reporter that had interviewed, in Ghouta, rebels that said that they were connected with the sarin gas attack, and I am wondering, are… is… are those claims… are those claims being investigated by the UN equally with the claims against Syria?

Associate Spokesperson:  First of all, I believe you might need to discuss with your Associated Press colleague, who is sitting just a little bit behind you, after this briefing.  I believe there is some dispute as to whether AP has said anything of the sort.  Second of all… but I think you can talk that over, outside of this.  Second of all, like I said, this team is mandated to look into specific incidents on the ground in Syria, which it has been requested to look into.  And that is what it is following up on.  Yes, Evelyn?

Question:  Sorry.  Perhaps you can straighten out the chronology of a lot of this.  Last March, when Syria asked for the investigation in the Aleppo area and Russia then went and did one and so forth, the UN team did not go.  Why?  Were they… they went to five other places or three other places or… I can’t remember any more what the reasoning that was given.  But it wasn’t because they… they went to that joint with other places or… it wasn’t because they ignored it… has… it seems to be the… the fashion of summaries these days…

Associate Spokesperson:  Well, Evelyn, immediately after that request, we, the Secretary-General made clear his willingness to send a team over, and that was when the team headed by Dr. [Åke] Sellström was formed.  After that, there was a period of some months when the team was in negotiations, in discussions, with the Government of Syria about the basic procedures and the guidelines by which the team would work so they could be sure that they would have the sort of access that they needed to have on the ground.  They… as you know, they only arrived in August itself.

Question:  Okay, sorry, I had forgotten the chronology of that, which seems to be important these days.  Secondly, do you have any update on how soon that team might give preliminary findings?

Associate Spokesperson:  No, we don’t have a specific timeline to give on this.  It is very clear that what we are trying to do, the team is trying to get its work done as quickly as possible.  Their samples have gone to the laboratories.  Now they need to follow established procedures in terms of the analysis of those samples, but they are doing their very best to get the results as quickly as possible.  Once we have anything further to report about the completion of its work, we will let you know, but we can’t really give a timeline at this stage.  Songhwon?

Question:  Can you elaborate a little bit more about the inspection team’s mechanism and the operational guidelines?  Was this… were the guidelines set out for this particular mandate, or do they date back to a precedent?  And if you could kind of confirm that in line to what the Secretary-General said about him having made the decision, what were his exact comments about, yeah, but only determining the chemical arms use and not on who did it?

Associate Spokesperson:  Sure, sure.  What I can say on that is that these procedures are basically in line with previous investigations that have taken place.  There have been investigations in the late 80s and early 90s that took place in Iran and Iraq, in Azerbaijan and in Mozambique.  I could refer you to the…  there are General Assembly resolutions for those ones, just as there was a General Assembly resolution for this particular investigation.  For example, from 1987, regarding the Iran and Iraq case, there was a resolution 42/37, and I’d just refer you to one of the paragraphs there, which says that it “requests the Secretary-General to carry out investigations in response to reports that may be brought to his attention by any Member State concerning the possible use of chemical and bacteriological [biological] or toxin weapons that may constitute a violation of the 1925 Geneva Protocol or other relevant rules of customary international law in order to ascertain the facts of the matter and to report promptly the results of any such investigation to all Member States”.  And if you look at the practices of the previous investigations, many of them also looked into the facts of the matter but restricted themselves largely to the question of whether or not chemical weapons had been used.  Yes?

Question:  So in follow-up to that, then, why in this particular mission, or this mandate, was there no further discussion on whether there is a need for UN to establish who had used the chemical weapons?

Associate Spokesperson:  I think we said very clearly from the outset, from the very formation of the team, that it would be looking at the question of whether or not chemical weapons were used.  Like I said, they will also try to compile an evidence-based narrative.  And there should be other relevant facts in that, but this is not a criminal investigation; it is an investigation by experts dealing with chemical weapons and with health.  Yes, Pam?

Question:  I have a question on… do you have any updates on bilaterals of the Secretary-General at the G20?  But just first to follow up on some of these questions, can you clarify what the evidence-based narrative means?  It seems to imply… there is obviously a lot of interest in whether people, some countries, would wait for this report.  Evidence-based narrative seems to imply there would be enough evidence that others would be able to determine who was responsible from the evidence, even if the report does not indicate that.  Is that… am I reading that right from what you are saying?

Associate Spokesperson:  Well, at this stage, we really need to let the facts speak for themselves.  I don’t want to get ahead of when the investigators themselves complete their work, and then they can show what the facts reveal.  But we will see what that is, and hopefully before too long you can judge for yourselves what the results are of the work that they have done.  Matthew?

Question:  I want to ask you also about DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo] and Sri Lanka, but on Syria, yesterday, in the Senate, John Kerry was asked about the UN report and he said that it is his understanding it will be ready in about three weeks.  So I wanted to know, I know that you won’t give any date to it, but is this based on any communication he had with the Secretary-General?  And I also, I am sure you have seen this statement by former Secretary-General Kofi Annan that came out today.  He seemed to be… on behalf of the Elders, he seemed to be saying that Member States should hold off not on… not only on taking action, but on reaching conclusions until the UN report is done.  Is that… does the Secretary-General believe that… in terms of the statements made yesterday in the Senate about what people know and taking a vote as early as later today, does the Secretary-General think that’s useful or… or not useful given that the UN report hasn’t come out?

Associate Spokesperson: Well, the Secretary-General wouldn’t have any comment on the timing of domestic legislative processes, but he has very clearly called for countries to allow the work of the team to be done.  And again, I just refer you back to what he said yesterday.  And regarding a timeline, like I said, the Secretary-General has been in touch with Dr. Sellström, we put out some notes about his conversations in recent days with Dr. Sellström, and he has urged the team to do as much as they can to expedite their work while keeping within the scientific procedures that are required.  Yeah, Tim?

Question:  Sorry, there is a place called DR Congo south of Syria; can you update us on Special Envoy [Mary] Robinson’s trip?  Is she in Goma?  Has she been in Goma, and what is the state of hostilities there?

Associate Spokesperson:  Yes, Mary Robinson has been in Goma; she’s travelling in the region.  We are trying to get an update on her latest travels and once we have some further information about that, we will try to share that around, but yes, she has been in Goma, she’s been in discussions there.  She has also been working with the UN Special Representative for the DRC, Martin Kobler, and we will try to get a little bit more detail about the work she has been doing.

Question:  Who would she have spoken to in Goma, then?  Does she speak to M23?

Associate Spokesperson:  She has been in touch with local officials.  We are trying to get a precise itinerary of her things so that we can, once we have that, we will try to send that out as a note to all of you.  Sherwin?

Question:  Farhan, back to Syria: why would the Secretary-General not have comment on domestic legislative processes when they are in violation of the UN Charter?

Associate Spokesperson:  Because of the principle of State sovereignty.  They’re domestic legislative processes.  He understands that.  At the same time, you heard what his call was; you heard what his concerns were yesterday, and he stands by those.  Yes?

Question:  Yeah, Farhan, regarding the Khan al-Asal incident, Mr. [Bashar] Ja’afari yesterday spoke about a massacre which was committed one day after signing the agreement with Mr. Sellström, and the rebels stormed Khan al-Asal and slaughtered 300 eyewitnesses there.  How can the United Nations carry on an investigation in Khan al-Asal as promised, as pledged recently, when all the evidence not only have been tampered with, but also destroyed?  Also, how can the traces of sarin gas remain when it is gaseous and temperature there is very high and doesn’t usual… it doesn’t take hours even to evaporate and disappear in the atmosphere?

Associate Spokesperson:  Well, first of all, regarding Khan al-Asal, the team does intend to go back there.  Right now, they are focusing on the 21 August attack, and they will try to complete their study of that particular incident, but they do intend to go to Khan al-Asal and other sites.  Beyond that, in terms of what you said about sarin, I’d like to point out that sarin can be detected in biomedical samples for months following its use.  And additionally, reliable witness statements can be gathered as supportive evidence.  Yes, Matthew?

Question:  Yeah, sure, I want to ask about DRC and then, as I said, Sri Lanka.  On… on the DRC, yesterday, I want to… emailed in a question, you said that MONUSCO [United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo] was unaware of any… of fighting in the Kivus, but the spokesman for MONUSCO has now been quoted, at least in French media, as saying that there is some, the MONUSCO anticipates soon action in the Rutshuru area… area, so I wanted you to either square that or say what is the… what are the UN’s plans?  And do they… are… are… have they reached the point where they actually now plan offensive military action without regard to the actions taken by… by the armed groups that they are targeting?

Associate Spokesperson:  Regarding that, the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo says that there was no major fighting in the past few hours between the M23 armed group and the Congolese armed forces (FARDC) in North Kivu Province.  The Mission is closely monitoring the situation and remains on high alert to protect civilians.  And regarding any future operations, the Mission is monitoring the situation in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo and is prepared to implement its mandate, which includes protecting civilians.

Question:  What I… I just… one follow-up, because I am… this was in this… this was in the MONOUSCO press conference held today and the spokesman for MONUSCO… you know, I… I am going to sort of translate this on the fly, but it’s very different.  He said that… that… that the… the UN troops are following things from very closely, waiting for other future actions.  So I just wanted you to… know what does this means?  Does this mean…?

Associate Spokesperson:  That doesn’t contradict what I said.  I just said that the Mission is monitoring the situation in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo; it’s prepared to implement its mandate, which includes protecting civilians.  I just said that

Question:  So they are planning military action in Rutshuru?  That’s my question.

Associate Spokesperson:  I wouldn’t say that, no.  They are monitoring the situation.  Pam?

Question:  Farhan, given what Vladimir Putin… President Putin said about not excluding Security Council action, is there anything the Secretary-General plans to do in… at the G20 to discuss this, encourage it, forge a compromise? 

Associate Spokesperson:  The Secretary-General will be meeting a number of leaders at the G20, and we’ll provide you with readouts of those, but he fully expects to be discussing Syria with many of the leaders he meets.  Yeah, Trish, you had something?

Question:  Oh, yes, I was going to ask you about reports in the British media about Britain selling nerve gas chemicals to Syria 10 months after the war… the so-called Arab Spring began.  Would… would this be part of the investigation as far as provenance or the source of any chemical weapons or… how many… how many sources is the UN looking into?

Associate Spokesperson:  Ultimately, I’d just ask you to wait for the work of the investigation team to be completed.  Yes, Matthew?

Question:  Sure, on… on Sri…  Sri Lanka, I wanted to ask… and actually before asking, I… I asked this by e-mail yesterday, but I wanted, maybe at the end of your answer if you can say, at least I… I… I and some others were left unclear why there was no noon briefing yesterday, given that the Secretary-General didn’t speak until 1 p.m., and took two questions.  It seems like there is a lot of things going on in the world, so can you explain that?

Associate Spokesperson:  Yeah, it is a very simple explanation.  The Secretary-General… when the Secretary-General briefs the press, we don’t have a noon briefing.  You have had, by the way, extra noon briefings on Saturday and Sunday, so I hope you are duly appreciative.  [laughter]

Correspondent:  Sure.  No, no, it’s not the number of briefings, it has to do with… with whether the UN is… has billion dol… you know, billion dollar peacekeeping missions in Sudan, Congo, issues in Haiti, like you should be able to…

Associate Spokesperson:  But, Matthew, we answer questions all day and you e-mailed us several questions which we’ve been trying to answer since then.

Question:  Well, here’s a question that you didn’t answer, and I mean, I wanna ask it.  It has to do with, during the visit of Navi Pillay to Sri Lanka, she said it in her exit press conference that… that… that witnesses who spoke to her… who sought to speak to her were being intimidated and harassed immediately after, and she said the UN takes this very seriously, so I asked you about a specific case of a human rights defender who said that he was visited in his home at midnight by the Government after speaking with Navi Pillay, and I wanted to know whether the Secretariat has any comment on the intimidation of people for speaking to the UN.

Associate Spokesperson:  Certainly, we believe that no one should face intimidation for speaking to the United Nations.  We also encourage respect for the work of all human rights defenders.  And we, needless to say, we respect… we fully support the work that Navanethem Pillay was doing while she was on the ground in Sri Lanka.  We may have more to say on this down the line, but for now, basically, those are the standard principles.  Yes, Evelyn?  What?

Question:  When is the Secretary-General back?

Associate Spokesperson:  He returns this weekend.

Question:  This weekend?  Are you expecting any press conferences on the weekend?

Associate Spokesperson:  Hard to say.

Question:  Thank you, one last question.  Will the work of the UN chemical weapons expert Carla del Ponte be included in this… in this survey?  Is she… will her work, earlier statements on…?

Associate Spokesperson:  Carla del Ponte is a member of the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, which sends its own reports to the Human Rights Council.

Thanks very much.  Have a good afternoon, everyone.

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