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

8 January 2014

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

8 January 2014
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, Acting Deputy Spokesperson for the Secretary-General.

Good afternoon.  Welcome to the early afternoon briefing.

**Security Council

Sigrid Kaag, the Special Coordinator heading the Joint Mission of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the United Nations that is working in Syria, just briefed the Security Council this morning in its closed consultations about the Joint Mission’s work.

As you can see, Ms. Kaag spoke to reporters at the Council stakeout just a few minutes ago and gave an update about the progress the Joint Mission has been making on the ground in Syria.

You’ll recall that the Joint Mission informed the Secretary-General yesterday of the further progress that has been made towards the removal and elimination of the Syrian chemical weapons programme.

In a statement we issued yesterday afternoon, the Secretary-General welcomed the continuing progress in the international effort to eliminate the chemical weapons programme of the Syrian Arab Republic, as demonstrated by this latest achievement.  The full statement is online.

** Iraq

Nickolay Mladenov, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Iraq, said that the United Nations is working closely with the Iraqi national and regional authorities, as well as with humanitarian partners, to ensure safe passage for humanitarian assistance and emergency supplies to the stranded and displaced families of Anbar Province.

Mr. Mladenov said that there is a critical humanitarian situation in Anbar Province, which is likely to worsen as operations continue.  UN agencies are working to identify the needs of the population and prepare medical supplies, food and non-food items for distribution if safe passage can be ensured.

He expressed particular concern about the situation in Fallujah, as existing stocks of food, water and life-saving medicines begin to run out.

According to preliminary assessments, more than 5,000 families have fled the fighting and sought refuge in neighbouring provinces and elsewhere.  The United Nations is working with the Ministry of Displacement and Migration to identify their needs and meet them immediately.

**South Sudan

In South Sudan, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative, Hilde Johnson, visited the city of Malakal in Upper Nile State today, where there has been fighting in recent weeks.

Ms. Johnson met with internally displaced persons in the UN base in Malakal, where the UN Mission in South Sudan is protecting over 12,000 civilians, including those receiving medical treatment in the UN clinic on the base.  She also met with UN staff managing the Malakal operations, to assess the current challenges and Mission response.

Meanwhile, the Deputy Special Representative and Humanitarian Coordinator, Toby Lanzer, is in Bentiu in Unity State today, to assess the humanitarian situations and the UN response there.  There are reports of large movements of civilians in the area.

The Mission also reports that the situation in Juba continues to be tense.  In addition to protecting civilians in its bases, UN troops continue patrols in the capital.

The Mission also says that there is continued instability, fighting and mobilization of armed forces in a number of locations, including around Bor in Jonglei State and in areas in Unity and Upper Nile States.

Overall, the Mission continues to protect approximately 62,000 civilians in its bases, with humanitarian actors providing relief and support.  This includes nearly 30,000 at its two Juba bases.

**South Sudan — Humanitarian

On the humanitarian front, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says that an estimated 201,000 people have been internally displaced by the current crisis in South Sudan since 15 December.

About 85,000 people are estimated to be displaced in Mingkaman and surrounding areas in Awerial County, Lakes State.

The Office says that food, health care, shelter, water, sanitation and hygiene remain the top priorities for humanitarian response.  Aid agencies are also doing contingency planning for any potential additional displacement in the coming weeks, and for the rainy season starting in May.

The Office also says that humanitarian access continues to be constrained by active hostilities, attacks on aid workers and assets, interference with humanitarian activities and other obstacles.  It adds that humanitarian flights into Bor have been severely disrupted as a result of the fighting in the area.

Aid agencies continue to engage with all parties to the hostilities to secure safe access to civilians in need.

**Secretary-General Remarks

The Secretary-General is right now attending the annual handover ceremony of the Group of 77 and China’s Chairmanship.  In his remarks at the ceremony, the Secretary-General has thanked the outgoing Chair, Ambassador Peter Thomson of Fiji, and welcomed President Evo Morales Ayma of Bolivia as the new Chair of the Group. 

The Secretary-General has said that the Group of 77 and China represents the aspirations of billions of the world’s least privileged people.  He adds that we will all benefit from the Group’s unity and combined contribution to achieving a sustainable future.  He also is encouraging the Group to engage in the Climate Change Summit that he is convening in September and do more to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.

Following the Handover Ceremony, at 3 p.m., in this room, there will be a press conference here by Evo Morales Ayma, the President of the Plurinational State of Bolivia.

** Central African Republic

And last, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says that the situation in the Central African Republic remains volatile.

Yesterday, humanitarian actors launched the first joint distribution of food and non-food items to 100,000 internally displaced people at Bangui International Airport.  The food distributions resumed after a three-week break because of insecurity at the site.

The World Food Programme worked with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs over the last weeks to organize secure distributions of food and other assistance at the airport.

Food rations have already been distributed to 5,490 people on the first day.  In total, 20,000 households will receive food, shelter and basic household items, such as sleeping mats, plastic sheeting and buckets, in the coming days.

Meanwhile, the emergency vaccination campaign against measles launched on 3 January in four sites for displaced people where cases were reported is continuing.  And vaccinations at the airport were expected to start today after a delay due to insecurity.

That’s it for me.  Any questions?  If not, well, okay… I knew that was too good to last.  Yes?

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Thank you.  In regard to Palestinian refugees in Yarmouk Camp near the Syrian capital, they are suffering, starving to death and caught between the Syrian army troops and the radical armed group.  What is the Secretary-General’s position in regard to this issue?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  Yes, thanks for the question.  The Secretary-General has been concerned, as has the Security Council, about the lack of access to various parts of Syria for humanitarian actors.  And this situation in Yarmouk Camp has been of particular concern for many months now.  As you’re aware, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, UNRWA, has raised the alarm about the problems in Yarmouk camp and in recent weeks they’ve been talking about how children have been, and others, have been dying of malnutrition in the camp.  So it’s a very crucial need for access, and we continue to urge all the parties who have been responsible for the situation in and around the area at Yarmouk to abide by international humanitarian law and international human rights law and allow the access that we desperately need to get aid to the people in the camp.  Yes?

Question:  One question about the Syria chemical weapons and also something about South Sudan.  One, is… as you heard, Sigrid Kaag say that the OPCW intends to soon put its trust fund information on the website and the importance of transparency.  I wanted to know, can you give an update on the UN’s… the UN-side trust fund, who’s given what?  Or where will that information be?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  There are some details available on the website on the Joint Mission itself, which is opcw.unmissions.org.  So, look at that and they’ll keep updating that as they get more contributions.

Question:  Is it a single trust fund?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  There have been two separate trust funds:  one for the United Nations and one for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.  But we’re using both funds.  And, of course, in addition to the money we have been getting, as she pointed out just now at the stakeout, different sorts of assets in kind have been coming in, different vehicles and other things that are needed in order to transport the chemical weapons.

Question:  So, are they going to making the disclosure of the… finances of the UN’s trust fund?  Or is that going to be the UN?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  I think both entities will be providing updates to the respective bodies; that is to say, the UN to our Member States and then the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to its Executive Council.

Question:  Just one last… because she seemed to say that it’s important to be transparent to the public.  Are they going to put it on the website, not just to the Member States of OPCW?  Does the UN feel the same?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  That’s the intention.  As more information comes in, the website that I just gave to you, that’s going to have the relevant information there.  Yes?

Question:  Thank you, Farhan.  In terms of Geneva II conference, how many countries you sent invitation letters to so far?  And how many… Do you have any response to those invitations?  And there are reports that in these letters, if any country accepts the invitation, it means that they endorsed the Geneva Communiqué.  Is that right?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  I don’t speak for countries, so it’s not my place to say what their views are.  The point is that there’s a number of countries who have been invited.  In fact, aside from Syria itself, there are 30 other countries that have received invitations and there are also three international and regional groups, in addition, of course, to the United Nations itself.  So those are in the invitees.  We expect to be getting responses over the coming days, but the invitations only went out over the course of Monday, so we don’t expect them right away.  But, yes, we do expect to be receiving formal responses from all the various invitees.

Question:  But what about the endorsement of the Geneva Communiqué?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  Obviously, what we want is to have a meeting in Geneva that will have a point.  And the point of the meeting is to move forward on what was enshrined in the Geneva Communiqué, which is to say, a halt to fighting and the establishment of a transitional government with executive powers.  And so that is what the purpose of the conference is about, and presumably the people who will be attending will share the purpose of the conference.  Yes?

Question:  Sure, I wanted to ask you about, in South Sudan… and I also wanted to ask you about the, quote, layoff letters.  But, in South Sudan, in Bentiu, there was some very detailed reporting from there about people that… the sanitary conditions in the camp getting bad, nationals from countries like Sudan not coming out.  And now some people going to the camp because they feel the Government is seeking to retake the city.  I wonder, I mean, are those things true?  What is the condition in Bentiu and also what’s the UN’s role in terms of which countries’ nationals get evacuated?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  In terms of Bentiu, as I just pointed out a few seconds ago, Toby Lanzer, the Humanitarian Coordinator, is in Bentiu today.  He is there to assess the humanitarian situation and the UN response amid reports of large movements of civilians in the area.  So he is making that assessment and we will await what his assessment of the situation is. 

Question:  I just found it, because the reporting seemed to say that the Sudanese in particular are not being evacuated from the camp, but it seems like some of the evacuations are going through Heglig, which is in Sudan… I guess maybe the Mission can say, what’s their role in terms of some nations’ nationals all getting out and some not?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  We have a policy, as I think I believe I said yesterday, a policy of dealing with the protection of civilians without regard to where they’re from, who they are, and so forth.  So it’s a non-discriminatory policy of taking care of people who have protection needs.  Yes?

Question:  Hi, Farhan.  I wanted to ask what should be obvious, but may not be.  The big story these days is the weather, the extreme climate changes.  Can one expect the UN to enter this debate, with one of the many agencies who study climate change to make a comment on this?  I don’t expect you to answer it off the top of your head, nor to reach back for other statements on it.  But I’m just wondering if someone can, if the UN with all its work on this, could enter this discussion.

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  Well, as you expected, I’ll leave this in the hands of the experts.  As you know, there are a number of experts who advise the United Nations on matters involving the environment, the weather and climate.  And, it’s up to them to see what the latest developments are.  As startling as they are, it’s not really our position to comment until we’ve seen what they have to say upon their more informed analysis of the situation.  But, certainly, as you’re aware, there’s an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; there are other experts who work with the World Meteorological Organization and with the United Nations Environment Programme and we’ll see what they have to say down the line.

Question:  There’s an entire GA [General Assembly] session on the subject today, avoiding what’s going on outside.

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  Luckily, what’s going on outside is warm enough that we were all able to come into this building and actually have these discussions, so that’s something.  Yes, in the back?

Question:  Thank you.  Thank you, Farhan.  The Chinese ambassador, Ambassador Liu [Jieyi], spoke this morning at the stakeout that the visit of the Prime Minister, the Japanese Prime Minister to the Yasukuni Shrine, is a sort of challenge against the post-World War II order, or even to the UN order.  Do you have any comment on that?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  I think you will have seen what the Secretary-General said in a note to correspondents that we issued at the end of December that contained his views concerning the visit of the Prime Minister of Japan to the Yasukuni Shrine.  I don’t have anything further to add to what we said at the end of December.

Question:  Sure, I wanted to ask you again about these notices of termination and it seems like now… I mean, I’ve now seen and published a letter and also… the incoming, or they say elected Staff Union leadership has written to Catherine Pollard, disputing that this was agreed to in ACABQ [Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions] and that the letter… can you now confirm that these letters were handed out by DGACM [Department for General Assembly and Conference Management] to Publishing Section staff and what would you say… what’s the response either to the Staff Union or to those who said this should have at least waited for the Town Hall meeting… or is this in fact UN layoffs as the clock begins to run on the notice of termination?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  Yes, it’s clear that during his first term, the Secretary-General put out his vision of a digital Secretariat.  He visualized a Secretariat that would service our Member States in an efficient and effective manner by the use of modern technologies.

There has been progress in recent years in aspects of implementing that vision.  At the same time, those fundamental structural changes come with a price.

More than 200 posts were abolished with the current budget.  In one case, 59 posts were abolished in the Publishing Section of DGACM, which is the Department for General Assembly and Conference Management; and this comes on top of 41 posts abolished last biennium.

So far, none of the 100 affected staff members over those biennial budgets have involuntarily left the Organization.  Our managers in the Department for General Assembly and Conference Management and the Office of Human Resources Management have vigorously worked on finding acceptable solutions for all — and they will continue to do so with compassion.

Question:  So, just if you don’t mind.  The notices of termination seemed to have a three-month period after which they’d be separated from service.  What they’ve raised is that many of these people have G4 visas…  Are you saying here that the idea is to try to find them other posts before this time?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  Yeah, the information I have is that many of the affected staff members have already found a secure place one way or another, either within the Secretariat or through retirement and then going into their retirement plans.  At the same time, like I said, the UN managers will continue to energetically find solutions for all of the affected staff.  Yes?

Question:  Thank you, Farhan.  Back to Geneva II conference, the Syrian opposition hasn’t yet decided on its delegation and there are reports coming that the decision on this issue is postponed until 17 January, which is like five days before the conference.  My question is:  is the Secretary-General concerned about this, that there is so little time left before the conference and there is apparently growing division between rebels?  Will it have any effect on the outcome of the Geneva conference?  Thank you.

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  We have taken note of the numerous meetings among and between various opposition groups in preparation for the conference.  We urge the Syrian opposition to name their broadly representative delegation as soon as possible, so as to allow sufficient time to prepare for negotiations. Dulcie?

Question:  Yeah, on the same topic, did you say that Iran was sent an invitation to go to Geneva?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  No, I did not say that.

Question:  Well, has it been sent an invitation?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  No.   Iran was not included in the invitations that have been sent so far.  The Secretary-General and Joint Special Representative for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi have consistently expressed their view that Iran, as a regional power with influence on the Syrian conflict, can contribute to the solution of the Syrian conflict and should therefore be invited to the Conference, along with other regional powers.  Yes, actually Linda first?

Question:  Farhan, on a completely different topic, are there any plans for the Secretary-General to visit Washington this month to meet with top United States officials, as often is the case in January?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  I don’t have anything to announce in terms of a Washington visit.  Yes?

Question:  On the Central African Republic, Mr. [Laurent] Fabius and a Defence Minister are both quoted as saying that it will be determined tomorrow at a meeting held in Chad whether the current interim or temporary Prime Minister remains in power, that it will be decided by regional countries.  And I wanted to know, given, you know, the UN’s mission and role in the Central African Republic, is the UN attending that meeting?  Do they have any… what’s their presence there and what would they say to those who say that there should be more involvement in Central African people in deciding, you know, who the leader is, rather than the neighbouring countries or France?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  I wouldn’t speculate on what the meeting has to accomplish.  We’ll actually see what the outcome of the meeting is once it takes place.  At this stage, it’s speculative to see what the meeting entails for the leadership of the Central African Republic.

Question:  Is Babacar Gaye going?  I just want to know that before it takes place.

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  We’ll try to monitor the meeting as best we can.  I don’t have any details to give you right now, but once the meeting happens, we’ll let you know.  Yes?

Question:  Farhan, could you kindly repeat, to the best of your knowledge, how many homeless people are there in South Sudan?  Every UN agency seems to put out a different number, 23,000 went to Uganda as refugees, but how many are both uprooted and have fled the country?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  The number we have from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs is that there’s an estimated 201,000 people who have been internally displaced by the current crisis.  Of that number, the UN Mission in South Sudan says that it is protecting approximately 62,000 civilians at its bases. 

Question:  Can you say what the refugee total is on that?

Acting Deputy Spokesperson:  I’m not aware.  We’d need to get a number from UNHCR on that.  Thanks, have a good afternoon, everyone.  [He later added that there are at least 32,000 for refugees — 75 per cent of whom are in Uganda.]

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