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9 January 2015

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, Deputy Spokesman for the Secretary-General.

Good afternoon, everyone. 

**France

The Secretary-General right now is at the Mission of France to the United Nations, where he is signing a condolence

es book following the attack on the magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris. 

As you know, he will then depart for India. 

**Secretary-General’s Travels

After that, the Secretary-General will travel to Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on Wednesday, 14 January, and to San Salvador, El Salvador, the next day. 

In Honduras, the Secretary-General will hold bilateral meetings with President Juan Orlando Hernández and other senior officials and civil society representatives.  He will also address the National Congress of Honduras and visit the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage Site of Copán Ruinas.

On Thursday, 15 January, the Secretary-General will travel to El Salvador to attend the twenty-third anniversary of the signing of the peace agreements that put an end to 12 years of armed conflict in the country. 

The Secretary-General will meet with President Salvador Sánchez Cerén and other senior officials, and address the National Assembly of El Salvador.  He will also visit a joint programme on violence reduction and social capital, as well as the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Joya de Cerén. 

The Secretary-General will return to New York in the evening of Saturday, 17 January. 

**Ebola

On Ebola, the World Health Organization concluded a meeting with researchers, regulators, vaccine developers and policymakers on vaccines. 

Dr. Marie-Paule Kieny, Assistant Director-General of Health Systems and Innovation at the World Health Organization, said in a press conference that so far, the 2 Ebola vaccines that have already undergone the first phase of testing have an acceptable safety profile. 

The third phase of testing — which consists of giving the vaccine to healthy volunteers in affected areas — is about to begin.  Research teams have been set up and preparations have been put in place, including special refrigerators for Ebola vaccine tests, in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. 

Also today, the Head of the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, and the Special Envoy on Ebola, Dr. David Nabarro, are in Sierra Leone, before heading to Guinea on Sunday. 

**South Sudan

The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) has issued a detailed report compiled by its Human Rights Division on the mass killings last April in the towns of Bentiu and Bor. 

The 33-page report looks at allegations that armed opposition forces killed hundreds of civilians on 15 April 2014, after they retook control of the Unity State capital of Bentiu from Government troops.  The report also documents the killing of dozens of people by a mob of armed men who attacked the peacekeeping mission’s protection-of-civilians site outside the Jonglei State capital of Bor two days later.   

According to the report, at least 353 civilians were killed, and another 250 were wounded, in the two attacks.  The report found that in both Bentiu and Bor, victims were deliberately targeted on the basis of their ethnicity, nationality or perceived support for one of the parties to the conflict. 

The report also says that nearly nine months after the attacks took place, no perpetrator has been held accountable by either the Government of the Republic of South Sudan or the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army in Opposition. 

The Head of the UN Mission in South Sudan, Ellen Margrethe Loej, called on the parties to end the violence and undertake comprehensive and credible investigations into alleged violations in order to hold perpetrators to account. 

**Mali

The UN Mission in Mali, MINUSMA, has condemned the attack on its peacekeepers near the Kidal airstrip this morning, when one of its vehicles struck an explosive device. 

Seven Senegalese peacekeepers were wounded and have been evacuated. 

The Mission adds that the area of the explosion has been secured and that a team of experts from the Mission has started an investigation. 

MINUSMA calls on all actors involved in the peace process to respect the commitment they made last September in Algiers to prevent attacks against peacekeepers.  It also calls for those responsible for these acts to be brought to justice. 

**Libya

From Libya, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for the country, Bernardino Leon, held meetings with Libyan stakeholders yesterday to discuss ways to end the hostilities and convene the political dialogue. 

He met with representatives in both Tobruk and Tripoli, and stressed the need to convene the second round of political dialogue as soon as possible to prevent the risk of the country sliding deeper into conflict and economic collapse. 

Mr. Leon also proposed a freeze in hostilities to create a conducive environment to hold the dialogue. 

More information is available on the UN Mission’s (UNSMIL) website. 

**Yemen

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein says that deepening insecurity and violence in Yemen are wreaking a terrible toll on civilians, and he appealed today for more international attention to be focused on the plight of Yemenis. 

He noted that the past few weeks have seen dozens of people killed in a succession of bomb attacks in Yemen.  Such wanton acts of indiscriminate violence are utterly deplorable, yet — perhaps because of the violence engulfing so many other countries — relatively little attention is being paid to the situation in Yemen. 

He added that it is essential that Government security personnel halt the use of excessive force, resulting in civilian deaths, and that both Government and armed groups cease carrying out arbitrary detention.  Violations of international human rights law by all sides must be promptly, independently and effectively investigated to bring perpetrators to justice and ensure that the victims’ right to justice and remedy is upheld. 

**Chad-Nigeria

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said today that some 7,300 Nigerian refugees have arrived in western Chad in the past 10 days, fleeing attacks by insurgents on Baga town and surrounding villages in north-east Nigeria.  UNHCR teams in Chad are at the border and seeking more information on the new arrivals and their needs. 

The attack this week on Baga left hundreds of people dead, according to media reports, and forced most of its surviving inhabitants to flee. 

The newly arrived refugees in Chad are staying with local communities in villages around 450 kilometres north-west of the capital, N'Djamena. 

The Chadian Government has requested the assistance of aid agencies to help the refugees, and distribution of relief items has started.  More than 1,000 refugees are stranded on the island of Kangala on Lake Chad, bringing the number of refugees from Nigeria in the country to more than 10,000. 

In Niger, too, the UN refugee agency has started to relocate refugees who fled in the past weeks following November's attack on the Nigerian town of Damassak. 

A second camp is scheduled to open in the next days in the Lake Chad area of Niger. 

The conflict in north-east Nigeria has led to the exodus of 135,000 people and the displacement of at least 850,000 within Nigeria.  There is more on the UN refugee agency’s website. 

**Syria

The staff of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) has been working around the clock this week to help millions of refugees and internally displaced people endure a severe winter storm that has been sweeping across much of the Middle East.  Forecasts say cold weather is set to continue over the next few days, with heavy snowfall at higher elevations and gale force winds. 

Despite the severity of the storm, UNHCR offices around the region have so far reported relatively little damage in most refugee communities.  But flooding is already a problem in some lower-lying areas, and will become more serious once the snow begins melting at higher elevations. 

Refugee agency teams and partners have worked as fast as possible over the past few days to replace damaged tents, provide repair kits, deliver emergency supplies and offer alternative temporary shelter for those forced to abandon their homes. 

UNHCR is particularly concerned about the situation in Lebanon, where many refugees spread out over 1,700 settlements live in precarious situations.  There have been reports of more than 100 shelters and tents damaged across the country. 

**Appointment

And I have one appointment for you:  The Secretary-General has appointed Major General Salihu Zaway Uba of Nigeria as the Force Commander for the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL).

Major General Uba will succeed Major General Leonard Muriuki Ngondi of Kenya.  The Secretary-General is grateful for Major General Ngondi’s dedicated and exemplary service during his tenure with UNMIL. 

Major General Uba brings to this position 32 years of national and international military experience.  Before his appointment, he served as the Commander of Training and Doctrine Command of the Nigerian Army and the Commandant of the Nigerian Army Peacekeeping Center from 2013 to 2014.  His bio is available in our office.

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Sure, Farhan.  I want to ask if the Secretariat yet has any comment on the new Government in Sri Lanka.  The new President, [Maithripala] Sirisena, has already been sworn in.  Many have spoken on it.  What — in particular, does the Secretary‑General believe that the new President should cooperate with the UN investigation as the previous President, [Mahinda] Rajapaksa, refused to?

Spokesman:  Yes.  On that, I actually do expect a statement, and hopefully possibly even while we speak at this briefing it might come in.  Before I get that — certainly, we welcome the transfer of power.  Beyond that I'd like to, of course, express what the sentiments are in the statement once we get them.  But certainly with the Government of Sri Lanka, whether with the new Government headed by President Sirisena or the previous one, we had been wanting the cooperation of Sri Lanka for an investigation into the events, particularly of 2009.  And we'll continue to press that point.  Yes?

Question:  Thank you, Farhan.  Stéphane [Dujarric] has been asked at least twice, I believe, and he gave the same answer twice, to the question of eligibility of the Palestinians joining the ICC [International Criminal Court], and he said that that question was up to Member States to decide.  Haven't the Member States already decided that when they voted in November 2012 to make Palestine a non‑member observer State with the right to join treaties, which they've already done until now, noncontroversial ones that no one's challenged, and, of course, Switzerland was a non‑Member State when they joined the ICC, so hasn't that question already been answered?

Spokesman:  Well, you saw the note that we put out about this, which Stéphane was referring to.  I don't have anything further to add to that note.  Certainly when it comes to the question of Palestine's status at the United Nations, on that we are governed by the resolution passed by the Member States in 2012.

Question:  Does the UN have a position on whether a non‑member observer State is eligible to join treaties of any sort?

Spokesman:  Well, as you saw, in terms of the Secretary‑General's role as depositary, he's fulfilled that role.  And the paperwork that he was presented with has been accepted, as you saw, in what we — as — in the note that we issued a few days ago.

Question:  So that's a de facto acknowledgement.  But there's nothing written anywhere that says what the rights are of a non-member observer State, that you know of.

Spokesman:  You've seen what observer States can do in terms of their participation.  You’ve seen it at the General Assembly, for example.  I don't have anything in specific to say about this particular case.  The inclusion to the Rome Statute, as you know, there are certain guidelines that are followed within the language of the Rome Statute itself.  Yes?

Question:  I want to ask about Mali and Haiti, but just one follow‑up on that.  The note to correspondents sort of created in some people's minds the idea that there's some further step needed, right, at the ICC.  And I wanted to just know, is that a misreading of it?  Because people — basically, they've joined.  They've gotten a letter back that say you've joined.  It goes into effect 1 April.  That's it, right?  There's nothing more for Member States to do.  It's basically — the law applies in Palestine beginning 1 April.

Spokesman:  Well, I referred to the language of the note itself.  The Secretary‑General's role as a depositary has been fulfilled in this regard.  So from our standpoint, that aspect is done.

Question:  But it's the line about something being up to Member States that's created this confusion, I think.

Spokesman:  Well, the responsibilities have to do with the responsibilities of the Member States themselves.  Of course, the responsibilities of Member States are up to Member States.  We respect that.  Yes.  Roger, is it?

Question:  Yes, it is.

Spokesman:  There we go.

Question:  There was a question put to Stéphane yesterday about this Saudi Arabian blogger, Raif Badawi, who's going to be flogged 1,000 times over the coming weeks.  I don't know if he was able to give a substantive response yesterday, so I wonder if anything's happened in the last 24 hours.

Spokesman:  Well, there have been some things that have happened in the last 24 hours, including, it seems, the start of the actual flogging.  Given that, it's possible that we might have a statement later today, but in advance of that, what I would like to say is that the High Commissioner for Human Rights is deeply concerned about the public flogging of Mr. Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison.  Apparently, the lashes have begun today in Saudi Arabia.  Saudi Arabia has ratified the Convention against Torture.  The Committee against Torture, in its last review of Saudi Arabia in 2002, noted its concern at the sentencing to and imposition of corporal punishment, such as flogging, by Saudi judicial and administrative authorities that are not in conformity with the Convention.

Mr. Badawi, an online blogger and activist, was arrested, tried and convicted for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression and freedom of belief.  The Human Rights Office has previously raised its concerns at harsh sentences imposed by the Saudi authorities against human rights defenders for peacefully promoting human rights.

And, of course, on this, I can say that the Secretary‑General shares the concerns expressed by the High Commissioner for Human Rights.  Yes, Luke?

Question:  On Boko Haram, you mentioned the Chadian appeal for humanitarian assistance.  We're hearing now, I guess, from Cameroon, they want international military help.  If I'm not mistaken, the UN has sent terrorism advisers to Nigeria, but in light what seems like a real difficulty for Nigerians to protect civilians, is there a sense in the SG's office more needs be done?  There could be an investigation into some sort of peacekeeping mission to protect civilians against this group?

Spokesman:  Well, ultimately decisions on peacekeeping missions and mandates for peacekeeping missions are issues for the Security Council.  I don't believe we've gotten to that stage and I’m not aware that Chad — I'm sorry, Cameroon has requested that of the United Nations.

Regarding the support we've been providing, a lot of that includes things like psychosocial support and counseling for families affected by the various kidnappings.  Also, of course, Mohammed ibn Chambas, the head of the UN Office for West Africa (UNOWA), has been seized to the matter and he's repeatedly been visiting and trying to provide assistance that we can give to Nigeria as it deals with the questions of activities by Boko Haram.  But beyond that, you'll have seen the very personal appeal that the Secretary‑General made not just as Secretary‑General of the United Nations but as a father and as a grandfather yesterday afternoon, when he spoke to you following his briefing to the General Assembly, and that's an appeal he takes very seriously.  He wants those who have taken school girls, school boys and any others in Nigeria to release them without any further delay.  Yes, Seana?

Question:  Hi.  Just a quick question on North Korea:  There's a report that North Korea rejected a South Korean call to resume stalled talks.  Does the SG have any comment on that?

Spokesman:  We don't have any specific comment on the latest developments, but as you know, we've been encouraging dialogue in the Korean peninsula as a way to resolve any of the differences, and we would continue to encourage that.  Yes?

Question:  I still want to ask about Mali and Haiti, but now after this, I want to ask a South Korea question.  Is — in South Korea, they've announced they intend to deport a Korean‑American woman, Shin Eun‑mi, for speaking, they say, in favour of North Korea, and that apparently is not permissible in the territory of South Korea.  So I wanted to know not — without any tying to, you know, national capacity or anything like that, what is the Secretary‑General's position on deportations for speech that might be construed as kind of reconciliatory?

Spokesman:  Again, without getting into the specifics of the case, of course, the Secretary‑General's position on freedom of expression and of freedom of opinion is well known and applies in all cases, to all countries, and so that would apply here as well.  Yes?

Question:  Thank you, Farhan.  I have two questions, if I can.  On the ICC, Senator Rand Paul of the United States has drafted a bill, or his lawyers did, which talks about the Palestinians' attempt to join the ICC and their request to join the ICC and, unless they give up their request, they're going to have US funds cut off.  Can you please put on the record that there was no request, there's no application, there's no attempt, that the UN had no role in judging whether they're eligible — the Secretariat had no role in judging this?

Spokesman:  We have functions, which are essentially procedural and administrative functions as the depositary of treaties, which we've described; and I would just refer back to the notes that we put out about that, in terms of the role that we've played.

Question:  Was there an application or request to join?

Spokesman:  What?

Question:  Did they make an application or a request to join?

Spokesman:  The Palestinians?  They deposited instruments of accession.

Question:  They did not make a request.  I'm trying to get to you say that because I need to you say that for the story I'm writing.  [Laughter]

Spokesman:  It's not for me to weigh in on different semantic points of view.

Question:  It's in a bill in the US Senate.

Spokesman:  There's a procedure that followed here at UN.  I can only use the language that we use, which is the language of the treaties involved.

Question:  Okay.  Thank you.

Question:  On this most recent injury of UN peacekeepers by IEDs [improvised explosive devices], I'd asked Stéphane yesterday — and I don't mean to… to… I just wonder, given the number of peacekeepers being injured by these mines, if you can say a little bit more what steps are being taken by DPKO [Department of Peacekeeping Operations] to have people have mine‑resistant vehicles or… it just seems like it's putting people out where these land mines — can you say what more steps?  It seems like something the DPKO has something on.

Spokesman:  Since September 2014, MINUSMA and UN Headquarters have initiated a series of measures to mitigate the worsening of the security situation, including the enhancement of the physical protection of MINUSMA facilities; the Department of Field Support (DFS) has provide the most exposed units with armoured ambulances and mine‑protected vehicles; a counter-improvised explosive device programme established by the UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS) and MINUSMA to improve the awareness and training of MINUSMA units deployed to the most dangerous areas, including the deployment of UN Mine Action Services mentors to the military units, has also taken place.  And there has been enhanced route verification capacity to enable resupply convoys to reach field locations.  So those are the steps.

Question:  So is this — is it that the Kidal airport is not considered the most exposed forward unit?  I'm wondering, is the vehicle that these peacekeepers were in, was it a mine protected vehicle or not?

Spokesman:  There have been a number of risks just because of the nature of the situation.  You know, what I've described is the steps that we have been taking but, of course, the big problem is the huge number of improvised explosive devices that are being used.  As you know, since 1 September of 2014, 22 military peacekeepers have been killed and 49 have been wounded in northern Mali in attacks against MINUSMA.  Yes, Luke?

Question:  I want to take another stab at that previous question about the ICC documents.  I guess, you know, we saw the note to correspondents after the Secretary‑General approved the documents.  He said they were in due and proper form.  And I guess the impression I've been hearing, perhaps mistakenly from the US media, is as a depositary, the SG's weighing broader concerns, you know, the international impact of approving these documents might be as opposed to just making sure everything is signed and dated properly.  Is that correct?  What is he actually weighing as a depositary?

Spokesman:  Our role is what we have described it as.  Basically the question is:  Are the documents in order?  Can they be accepted?  And our response was what we put out.

Question:  And, you know, one of those things you weigh is whether or not the State depositing is it — is whether it’s a Member State, is qualified to submit the documentation.

Spokesman:  Is qualified to submit the documentation.  It's not necessarily a question of Member States.  It's a question of States.  On this, you'll have seen what we said in fact a year ago when there was a previous round of these applications.  And then beyond that, of course, like I had told your colleague just a few minutes ago on questions of statehood, we are governed by the relevant General Assembly resolution that was passed in 2012. 

And with that, I have the following statement attributable to the Spokesman for the Secretary‑General on Sri Lanka's presidential elections: 

The Secretary-General congratulates the people of Sri Lanka on the successful conclusion of the presidential election, and welcomes the constitutional transfer of power.

The Secretary-General applauds the Sri Lankan Elections Commission for its professionalism in ensuring a peaceful and credible election.  He also commends the efforts of the candidates, including in particular outgoing President Mahinda Rajapaksa, law enforcement agencies and civil society for upholding and respecting democratic governance.

The Secretary-General looks forward to working with President Maithripala Sirisena and the people of Sri Lanka. He affirms the continuous support of the United Nations for development, reconciliation, political dialogue and accountability in Sri Lanka.

Question:  I’m sorry.  I think you might have mis-spoken.  You used the word “application”.  And application implies somebody can reject or accept it, and I don't think that was the role of the Secretariat at all.  Correct?

Spokesman:  These are various instruments of accession to multilateral treaties.

Question:  Because the ICC President of the Assembly of the State Parties issued a press release two days ago welcoming Palestine as the 123rd member of Court, so this train has left the station.  Isn't that correct?

Spokesman:  I don't speak for the International Criminal Court.  I'm aware of their press release, yes.

Question:  But as far as the Secretariat is concerned… You're holding on to the treaty now.  So that's a done deal, correct?  There's no legal challenges that can be made now?

Spokesman:  Like I said, we've described what our role has been and that's been fulfilled.  Yes?

Question:  I don't want to say that I need you to say this for a story, but I'd like to you unpack the word “accountability” as to Sri Lanka.  Is it fair to assume this means the Secretary‑General calls on new President Sirisena to cooperate actually with the Human Rights Council inquiry into 2009?

Spokesman:  We've always encouraged Sri Lanka to cooperate, including with the inquiry of the Human Rights Council, and we will continue to do so.

Question:  I want to ask a question about Haiti.  In the run‑up to the fifth anniversary of the earthquake there, yesterday the State Department held a call and they said — they were asked about the litigation about the UN allegedly bringing cholera to Haiti and they said, although they are arguing in court for the UN's immunity, this doesn't mean that they're not sympathetic to the victims.  It's simply an application of their duty under treaty, i.e., to defend the UN. I wanted to know… I guess I wanted to ask for your response.  Do you see the US making these arguments in court that the UN should not have to appear and answer the charges as somehow vindicating the UN's position or a legal requirement that the US must undertake under its — under the Host Country Agreement?

Spokesman:  I wouldn't have any comment.  I don't really have anything to add what the US has said.

Question:  Okay.  And I saw that the Deputy Secretary‑General is meeting with Haiti's Foreign Minister, I guess at 12:30, so just about to start.  Can we get a readout on that?  Do you think the issue might actually arise in that meeting?

Spokesman:  I don't know whether we'd have a readout.  We can request one.

Question:  Can I ask one more?

Spokesman:  Sure.

Question:  Because of the Secretary‑General's upcoming trip to India, I saw — I know in this room, he was asked about this ongoing case of the Italian sailors who shot the Indian fisherman.  And I thought it was just said that his position remained the same, but after I saw a story in which Stéphane was quoted as adding that… that in fact, Secretary‑General sees this as a threat to… affecting peace and international security, that this issue could affect international peace and security, which seemed something he often doesn't say about cases, so is this something that he's going to raise in his trip to India, if it in fact does impact peace and international security?

Spokesman:  Well, on that, what I can tell you is: Our position is the same as what we articulated in a piece of paper I have here dated 13 February 2014.  And here's what we said then and what we say today:  The Secretary‑General is concerned that this longstanding matter between Italy and India remains unresolved and it is prompting tensions between two friendly and important Member States of the organization.  The Secretary‑General feels it is important that both sides seek to come to a reasonable and mutually acceptable resolution.  He's concerned that the matter may have implications for wider common efforts and collaboration around matters of international peace and security, including anti‑piracy operations.

Question:  So, basically, it would be incorrect to say the quotes that Stéphane gave on, whether it was the 5th or the 6th, represented sort of a new focus on the case.  It was simply reheated…

Spokesman:  No, no.  It was something consistent that we pulled up in this document from February.

Question:  And will he raise it on this trip, that's the last — does he anticipate raising it or intend to raise it?

Spokesman:  It's always difficult to say what's going to come up in a trip until the trip has happened.  What we'll try to do is provide readouts of discussions he has while he is on the trip.  Have a good weekend, everyone.

For information media. Not an official record.