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

20 January 2014

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

20 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 Martin Nesirky, Spokesperson for the Secretary-General.

Good afternoon everybody.  Welcome to the Briefing.  I have something to say about Syria talks and have a number of other items.  Then, I will be prepared to take some questions, of course.

** Syria

The Secretary-General, who has expended extraordinary efforts to try to end the suffering in Syria, is dismayed by the developments regarding participation in the Geneva Conference on Syria, scheduled to begin Wednesday in Montreux.

Some key participants have conditioned their acceptance to the inclusion or exclusion of other delegations. Iran, despite assurances provided orally to the Secretary-General, has made a disappointing public statement that suggests Iran does not accept that the basis for the Geneva conference, as defined by the two initiating states, the Russian Federation and the United States, is the full implementation of the 30 June 2012 Geneva communiqué, including the establishment by mutual consent of a transitional governing body with full executive powers.

The Secretary-General underscores that now is the time for a push for peace in Syria on that basis. This is not the time to add conditions but to build momentum behind such a political solution for Syria.

The Secretary-General is currently urgently considering his options, in light of the disappointing reaction of some participants.

**Security Council

This morning, the Secretary-General briefed the Security Council on the situation in the Middle East.

On Lebanon, the Secretary-General commended the leadership of President Michel Sleiman to uphold the country’s disassociation policy. This, he said, is vital to prevent the Syrian crisis from exacerbating tensions in Lebanon as has been seen with recent acts of terrorism and bombings.

The Secretary-General said that 2014 will be a decisive year to help Israelis and Palestinians draw back from a perilous and unsustainable status quo.

He said that we face possibly the last attempt to salvage the two-state solution. The Secretary-General said that his message to President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is clear: If they are prepared to take the bold decisions required, the Secretary-General will push ahead on the positive agenda of peace dividends for both sides and ensure the United Nations works towards realizing the legitimate aspirations of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples within the framework of a comprehensive regional settlement.

And his full remarks are available online and in my Office.

** Central African Republic

The Secretary-General said today that the situation in the Central African Republic was a crisis of epic proportions which requires immediate and concerted action.

In a message to the Human Rights Council’s Special Session on the Central African Republic held in Geneva, he said that the country was in freefall, with collapsed public service institutions, disintegrated security forces and documented widespread human rights violations. 

The Secretary-General called for an immediate end to the cycle of violence and retaliation and urged all to prioritize national reconciliation and lasting peace. His full message is available online and that message was read by Michael Møller, acting Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG).

And the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, also speaking at the meeting, said that a more robust response to the crisis was urgently needed to protect civilians, prevent further violence, end impunity and promote reconciliation.

And her full statement is online.


The UN Integrated Peacebuilding Office in the Central African Republic, BINUCA, has welcomed the election today of Catherine Samba-Panza as the new Head of State of the Transition in the country.

The Office says this election must mark a new beginning as the country moves towards the full restoration of democratic legitimacy, including through free, transparent, and democratic consultations. 

It also called on all actors to seize this opportunity and put an end to the senseless violence in the country.

** Central African Republic — Humanitarian

Also on the Central African Republic, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports that nearly half a billion dollars was pledged for the Central African Republic today at a high-level meeting organized in Brussels by the Office and the European Commission.

The Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Valerie Amos, said that the UN’s humanitarian agencies and NGO partners were scaling up their presence across the country and are delivering as fast as security and access conditions allow.

The World Food Programme (WFP) said today that insecurity was blocking supply routes and that it is running out of food to distribute to growing numbers of displaced people in the country.

It says that 38 of its trucks carrying rice are blocked at the Central African Republic border with Cameroon, along with hundreds of other vehicles. Following recent fighting, commercial and WFP [World Food Programme] truck drivers have refused to cross the border.

As a last resort, the World Food Programme is considering airlifting food from Douala in Cameroon to Bangui, but this would substantially increase the cost of its emergency operation in the Central African Republic.

** Mali

The United Nations Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) says that, this morning, one of its vehicles hit an improvised explosive device (IED), approximately 30 kilometres north of Kidal, on the road to Aguelhok.

Five peacekeepers were injured – none of them seriously – in the explosion. They have been evacuated by a medical team to Kidal.

** Afghanistan

The Secretary-General over the weekend expressed his sorrow over the killing of four members of the UN family in a terrorist attack in the Afghan capital, Kabul, on Friday.

He extended his deepest condolences to the families of Basra Hassan of the United States; Nasrin Khan of Pakistan; Khanjar Wabel Abdallah of Lebanon; and Vadim Nazarov of Russia.

The Secretary-General called the terrorist attack, in which the four UN staff were killed, totally unacceptable and a violation of international humanitarian law. All the perpetrators must be held accountable.

Yesterday, the UN system in Afghanistan held a memorial service in Kabul.

The Secretary-General’s Special Representative, Jan Kubiš, said that among the 13 foreigners killed in the attack were different nationals coming from different countries around one mission and one dream to work for Afghanistan: to work for peace in this country, for development, for human rights and humanity.

**South Sudan

The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) has reported clashes today between Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and anti-government forces in Malakal, in Upper Nile State.

The Mission says heavy fighting involving small arms occurred very close to the UN base in the town. Bullets are reported to have landed inside the base, wounding at least 32 civilians and two UN contractors who had sought shelter there. The Mission also says that its hospital inside the base has been considerably damaged.

It added that fighting close to the UN base in Malakal stopped late in the day, but that fighting continued in other parts of the town.

The Mission once again condemns any fighting taking place nearby its bases and calls on all parties to respect the integrity of UN installations and the safety and security of civilians taking refuge inside the bases and all UN personnel.

And you will have seen the statement we issued last night in which the Secretary-General demanded that all parties to the conflict respect the sanctity of UNMISS protection sites.

The Mission is currently protecting 22,000 civilians in Malakal, and overall, more than 70,000 civilians are being protected by peacekeepers in eight bases in the country.

UNMISS says that it has conducted more than 140 patrols in the past 24 hours, including in various locations in the capital Juba, as well as in Jonglei, Unity and Upper Nile States.

The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says that 494,000 people are internally displaced and 86,100 have fled to neighbouring countries.

**Event Today

And just one last point before questions:  journalists are invited to today’s roundtable on sustainable development with Nobel Laureate and Professor Joseph Stiglitz. The roundtable will take place at 3 p.m. in the Economic and Social Council Chamber and will be webcast live, as is this briefing.

So yes, please.

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Thank you Martin.  It looks like that in just about an hour, a lot of things will happen.  First, the Syrian opposition said that unless Iran publicly declares that it accepts Geneva I as the basis for Geneva II, it will decide not to go.  And you are saying that basically this is a precondition.  But this condition was set by the UN itself, and the Secretary-General actually said that Iran had accepted this basis.  My question is, why did the Secretary-General trust Iran in the first place without getting some kind of written agreement?  And what are his options? Can you elaborate on his options?   

Spokesperson:  No, I can’t elaborate on his options, but as I said, he is currently urgently considering those options and if we have something further to say later in the day, then, of course, we will do that.  But I just want to emphasize that the Secretary-General emphasized to all parties that the invitation stated clearly that the purpose of the conference is the full implementation of the Geneva communiqué of 30 June, 2012, and that he expects all parties to unite behind the vision in that communiqué for the Syrian parties in deciding by mutual consent on the establishment of a transitional governing body with full executive privileges.  As I have already said, the Secretary-General was deeply disappointed by Iranian statements today that are not consistent with the assurances he received regarding Iranian support for the Geneva communiqué.  But I can’t speak on behalf of the Iranian authorities for why they said what they said.  Yes, then I’m coming to Masood.   

Question:  Thank you Martin. Now as far as I understood, Iran was only invited to the session tomorrow in Montreux, not on the 22nd in Geneva.  Is this assumption correct?

Spokesperson:  Look.  That implies a massive misunderstanding about what this process is about.  Montreux was always and is always a one-day meeting of international players, countries and international organizations, brought together to express solidarity with the Syrian people who have suffered abominably over the past nearly three years.  There was then to be a day in-between — that’s the plan — followed by on the 24th, that was the plan as set out in Geneva.  So the Syrian parties – the opposition and the Government – would move to Geneva under this plan to begin their process.  And it’s a process, not an individual one-day meeting, but a process that would mediated by Lakhdar Brahimi, the Joint Special Representative of the United Nations and the League of Arab States.  There was never any intention of other players being involved in the Syrian-led talks being mediated by Lakhdar Brahimi.  I said I was coming to Masood, and then to Lou.  I haven’t forgotten you Talal.     

Question:  I mean, in view of the questions you answered just now, it seems obvious that the Secretary-General is getting to disinvite Iran to Switzerland… Is he succumbing to the pressure from the United States and … [inaudible] 

Spokesperson:  All I can say, as I said earlier, some key participants have conditions for their acceptance to the inclusion or exclusion of other delegations. There are some inevitable mutually exclusive positions. And that’s why the Secretary-General is currently urgently considering his options, in light of what he regards as disappointing reactions from some of the participants. I can also tell you that we have of course been in close contact with the Russians and Americans today, over the weekend and indeed for weeks and days before on precisely this topic, and also with a variety of other leaders.   

Question:  While talking to the press yesterday, he really made a case that why Iran should be invited and why Mr. Brahimi himself talks to Iran. What is the reason for this sudden change? 

Spokesperson:  Look, the Secretary-General remains convinced that Iran is an important regional player with an important role to play.  But the assurances were given to him in conversations he had and that others had and that is not been followed through.  The statement made today in Tehran by the Foreign Ministry spokesperson fell short by some measure of what the Secretary-General had expected to hear.  Lou.  

Question:  Thanks Martin.  Some people have said, some diplomats said that they felt the decision to invite Iran might have been made hastily. The Russian Ambassador told reporters that this is not the case, that all the key players were consulted beforehand.  So I am just wondering if you can give us a sense of how the discussions before the announcement was made yesterday went on.  Was it just a heads-up given to the key players?  How closely consulted was the Syrian opposition and were you taken aback by their public statement.  Maybe, you can give us some background.

Spokesperson:  I think we have seen disappointing public statements, not just from the Iranian authorities.  I would certainly say that.  But this was not hasty.  And certainly, I know for a fact that this could not have been a surprise to the US authorities.  It was not hasty and they were fully aware of the timing of the announcement.  And as I just said, of course, we’ve been in close contact with the Russians and Americans today, over the weekend, and indeed for days and weeks before on precisely this topic --and not just with them, of course, with a variety of other leaders.  Phone calls and meetings have continued today as I’ve said.  I’m going to the very back of the room.   

Question:  [inaudible] of Egypt.  I want to ask several questions. First question is that after the declaration…[inaudible] this is not so good… make us feel that maybe this conference will not start even if it is like this.  My question is the United Nations would withdraw this invitation if it makes a lot of troubles?  The second question is…  Can I continue?

Spokesperson: Yes, please do.

Question: My second question is the situation on the ground in Syria is very complicated.  There are a lot of parties fighting. How do you ensure all guarantees that all the parties fighting each other will stick to the political solution?  Do you have concerns about this? How do you guarantee that they will commit [inaudible]?

Spokesperson:  Okay I get your points.  Just speaking generally here — of course, the situation in Syria on the ground is extremely complex and complicated.  And the suffering that Syrian people are enduring, whether at the hands of the Syrian authorities or Syrian opposition groups fighting there, is of course terrible and has been going on, as I said earlier, for nearly three years.  So this is complicated.  That’s why you need a political solution and that’s why you need good will and solidarity of the international community, countries that have influence on different groups and different players to help to ensure that any political solution is then implemented.  That’s the spirit of Montreux.  That’s certainly the intention of Montreux — to provide that solidarity.  But of course, it’s for the Syrian parties — the opposition and the Government — to hold their meeting absent other international players mediated by Lakhdar Brahimi, the Joint Special Representative, to come up with a deal that is based on the Geneva I communiqué from June of 2012.  Maggie and then Mr. Abbadi.

Question:  Martin, since Montreux isn’t really shaping up to be sort of this international pep rally ahead of Geneva II — the Geneva part anyway, would the Secretary-General consider maybe cancelling Montreux and just going straight to the talks because if Montreux is going to be a distraction and there is going to be acrimony from several key players, what’s the point at this juncture, if you can’t get everyone to agree, why not go straight to the main game?  Right?

Spokesperson:  Well, as I said that the Secretary-General is urgently considering his options.

Question:  Thank you Martin.  The Secretary-General is disappointed and reasonably so because the parties, both Iran and the opposition, seem to be going over positions they have taken within the last few hours or last few days.  The opposition insists that Iran has not agreed to the transitional part of the Geneva communiqué.  The Secretary-General has obtained an oral acceptance from the Iranians.  Are we in a situation of diplomatic ambiguity?

Spokesperson:  I think I couldn’t put it better myself.  Right.  Coming up next is Somini and then Talal.

Question:  Thank you Martin.  Just a follow-up on Lou’s question earlier.  Can you say anything more about what conversations were had in the days prior to Sunday, in the hours and days before the announcement was made with the United States and Russian authorities?

Spokesperson:  No.  That’s diplomatic communications.  I’m not going to elaborate on that, except to say that there were conversations on Sunday and there were conversations in the days and weeks prior to that at various levels involving various UN, Russian and US officials.  But I don’t think you would expect me to give precise details about with whom and precisely when.  Talal?

Question: Yes, Martin.  You keep assuring us there was consultation with the United States?  Yet…

Spokesperson:  And the Russian Federation.

Question:  And the Russian Federation.  But the United States came up with an official statement saying Iran’s participation is unuseful, it is not useful in Geneva II.  This is really very surprising to people who were listening to you about the consultations in advance, even on Sunday, and the statement as such.  Also the Saudis… Saudis are saying today officially that Iran is not qualified, that’s the word they used to attend the…

Spokesperson:  Listen, it takes a lot of time if you make a statement before the question.  So just ask a question please.

Question:  My question is the Syrian opposition is saying that you did not consult with them and they signed the acceptance to attend on the eighteenth, Saturday after the conference in Istanbul.  Yet, you went and changed the rules of the game of the participants.  They feel that was unfair because they accepted to participate in the knowledge of who was participating.  But on Sunday, you changed that.  What do you say to them?

Spokesperson:  The Secretary-General spoke very clearly on this yesterday.  And I don’t have anything to add to that.  Okay.  I’m going to right to the back of the room to the lady sitting next to Oleg.  It’s Nada isn’t it?  I could not see from the lights.

Question:  I’m just wondering if you can clarify if in the Secretary-General’s conversation with the United States, if they have made a condition for Iran to publicly accept Geneva I.  And was that the Secretary-General’s understanding in speaking with Foreign Minister Zarif that Iran would publicly accept Geneva I.  Or was he satisfied that the condition had been met with private assurances?

Spokesperson:  A number of UN officials have spoken to US officials in recent days.  The Secretary-General has spoken to Secretary [John] Kerry and others at certain periods.  Can you just repeat the last part of the question, please? Just the very last part.

Question:  Whether if the Secretary-General was expecting Iran’s publicly statement… and whether that was a US condition?

Spokesperson:  That’s right.  Yes.  He said in his press briefing yesterday that he was expecting that the Foreign Ministry spokesperson would make a statement quite soon.  And his expectation was that it would be in line with the oral assurances he had been given.  That was not the case.  And also just to correct the perception that today’s stakeout by the Secretary-General was somehow abruptly cancelled, I should have said more clearly at the end of yesterday’s stakeout that yesterday’s stakeout was instead of today’s.  I’m here to answer questions.  But I have time only for a couple of more.  So I am coming first to you and then Matthew.

Question:  Yes, Martin, can you tell us more about who the Secretary-General is meeting with for these urgent talks?  And when is he leaving for Montreux?  Is he still going in fact?  We heard also that Special Envoy Brahimi could be meeting with Russians and Americans in Geneva tomorrow.  Can you confirm any of that?

Spokesperson:  I’m not in a position to give precise details on the Secretary-General’s travel movements at this point.  Nor am I able to say precisely with whom he has been speaking when.  But simply to say that there have been extensive internal consultations — and I know personally that there have been.  But also consultations with various players, not necessarily in meetings, but also by phone calls, and not just by the Secretary-General.  But I’m not going to get into all of the diplomatic to-ing and fro-ing at this point.  Matthew and one last question from Yasu.

Question:  Sure.  I want to… Is the invitation extended to the Syrian National Coalition, or Syrian Opposition Coalition?  Is this the only invitation to non-Assad Government parties?  I’m thinking for example Kurdish parties.  Are they represented through the coalition, or not?

Spokesperson:  The short answer there is that we have said consistently that there should be one Syrian opposition delegation that is as broad, comprehensive and inclusive as possible.  So that’s the answer to that.  What’s the second question?

Question:  Since you said you were dismayed in particular by the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeman’s quote…

Spokesperson:  Spokeswoman.

Question:  Okay.  Spokesperson.  Excuse me.  I’m going to use spokesperson.  You, too.  There is an SNC [Syrian National Coalition] spokesperson, called Soner Ahmed, whose direct quote published says that the Secretary-General “waited to invite Iran until after the coalition’s decision to attend the conference.  That is immoral, even in politics.”  I just wanted to know, are you dismayed by such a comment?  Is the Secretary-General…

Spokesperson:  Talal asked the same question.  I don’t have anything to add to what the Secretary-General said yesterday, nor beyond what I’ve also said, that there have been a number of remarks that have been a little disappointing in the last 24 hours.  There have been a number of remarks that have been disappointing in the last 24 hours.  Yes, Yasu?  This is the last question.

Question: Yes, since you explained us that the Secretary-General has been in contact with key players, including the United States and Russia, and the United States had been fully aware of the timing of the announcement.  So can I ask you, was the Secretary-General confident with the support from the United States about the idea of inviting Iran?

Spokesperson:  You need to speak to the US authorities about that.

Correspondent:  [inaudible]

Spokesperson:  Well, put it this way:  The Secretary-General is the convener and he is the person inviting, but he has consulted extremely closely to seek advice and thoughts from the co-initiators, the Russian Federation and the United States.  That’s where I would leave it.  Thank you very much.  Have good afternoon.

* *** *

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