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4 February 2016

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.

**Secretary-General’s Travels

This morning in London, the Secretary-General opened the Syria Donors conference.  As the crisis enters its sixth year, he said, the international community bears a heavy responsibility.

On the political front, the Secretary-General noted that the temporary pause in the talks, announced yesterday by Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura, shows just how deep the divisions are.  He added that it is deeply disturbing that the initial steps of the talks have been undermined by the continuous lack of sufficient humanitarian access and by a sudden increase of aerial bombing and military activities within Syria.  He added that the focus on the people of Syria is being lost amid petty procedural matters.

The Secretary-General said that, while focusing on humanitarian needs, the conference also needs to lay the foundations for long-term international support for Syria. The Secretary-General also stressed that we need to find ways to protect civilians.  He said that all sides in this conflict are committing human rights abuses of a shocking scale and depravity.

The Secretary-General also held a number of bilateral meetings in the margins of the conference.  Those included meetings with the Foreign Ministers of Morocco and Iran, the German Chancellor, the Amir of Kuwait, the King of Jordan and the Prime Minister of Denmark.  And in a press conference just now, he called the donors conference a great success in which more than $10 billion has been pledged.

**Syria

And as I mentioned just now, the Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has announced a recess in intra-Syrian talk.  The talks are to resume in Geneva no later than the 25th of February, and possibly much earlier.  In the interim period, the Special Envoy shall undertake intense consultations with concerned stakeholders, including women and civil society.

In recessing the talks, the United Nations makes it clear that the alleviation of the suffering of the Syrian people remains the top priority.  Mr. de Mistura said yesterday that he will call on the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) to address these and other matters, including the call for a nation-wide ceasefire to be launched in parallel to talks, in the Support Group’s meeting next week.

**Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

Yesterday afternoon, we issued the following statement on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) notification of a satellite launch.   

The Secretary-General has seen the reports that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea notified several international organizations of its intention to launch a satellite in the coming weeks.

This is a deeply troubling development and will further aggravate the profound concerns that the international community already has in the wake of the recent nuclear test.

The Secretary-General calls upon the DPRK to refrain from using ballistic missile technology and work for peace and stability on the Korean peninsula.

He stands ready to help to reduce tensions and facilitate reconciliation and dialogue.

**Central African Republic

On the Central African republic, the UN Mission there (MINUSCA) has identified seven new possible victims of sexual exploitation and abuse in Bambari.

The soldiers implicated in these cases are from the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  The Governments of the two countries have been notified and asked to launch investigations.  The Central African Republic national authorities have also been informed.   

Due to the gravity of these allegations and given the information collected through the initial fact-finding, the United Nations has decided to take immediate measures, including the repatriation of the 120 soldiers from the Republic of Congo who were deployed to Bambari from the 17th of September to 14th of December 2015.  This repatriation will occur after an investigation is carried out; in the meantime the soldiers will be confined to barracks.

These cases were brought to the Mission’s attention on the 21st of January by a team of Human Rights Watch researchers, who passed this information to the Mission in the interest of ensuring medical and psycho-social care for the victims and accountability for any alleged crimes.

The UN Mission, MINUSCA, dispatched a fact-finding expert from the United Nations Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) to Bambari.  OIOS found sufficient initial evidence that five of the victims were minors and had been sexually abused and that one adult had been sexually exploited.  OIOS was unable to interview the seventh alleged victim, reportedly a minor.  Finally, one of the allegations passed to the Mission by Human Rights Watch was previously reported and is currently under investigation.

The Secretary-General’s Special Representative for the Central African Republic, Parfait Onanga-Anyanga, today travelled to Bambari with a high-level delegation.  He expressed his outrage and shame, discussed the sexual exploitation and abuse incidents with affected communities and recommended additional emergency mitigation measures.

**South Sudan

On South Sudan, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says that humanitarian partners estimate that around 50,000 people in Mundri, in Western Equatoria State, need assistance following fighting in recent months.   

Humanitarian operations have been hampered by ongoing insecurity and partners continue to engage with all sides to seek the necessary assurances so that they can safely deliver assistance.

They are currently distributing essential household items and shelter materials for around 17,500 of the most vulnerable people in Mundri West County, including those whose properties have been looted or burned.

Humanitarian partners delivered food assistance in late December 2015 for about 10,000 people in the area.

**Cancer

In his message on World Cancer Day, the Secretary-General stresses that we must do more to end the many tragedies that cancer inflicts.

He adds that about one third of cancers can be prevented, while others are curable if diagnosed and treated early.  And even when cancer is advanced, patients should benefit from palliative care.

He highlights the importance of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which calls for reducing by one third premature death from non-communicable diseases.  His message is available online.

**Food Prices

The Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) Food Price Index fell nearly 2 per cent this month, dropping to a nearly seven-year low.

Prices of all commodities, in particular sugar, have fallen, and FAO attributes this to the generally ample agricultural supply conditions, a slowing global economy, and the strengthening of the US dollar.

In another new finding, FAO said that El Niño-related weather patterns are casting a shadow on cereal crops for this year, with lower production expected in Southern Africa.  You can read more about this on their website.

**World Humanitarian Summit

As you may be aware, the Secretary-General is expected to present his report for the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS), called "One Humanity — Shared Responsibility", to the General Assembly during an informal session at 11 a.m. next Tuesday, 9 February.

Ahead of that, tomorrow at 1:30 p.m. in this room, there will be a background briefing on the report.  We have more information, including embargoed copies of the report, available in our office, if you’re interested.

**Stamps

I wanted to flag that later today, starting at 4 p.m., close to the public entrance at the General Assembly Building Lobby, there will be a pre-launch presentation of six new UN postage stamps promoting equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

The actual launch will take place on 5 February, when the UN Postal Administration will for the first time issue a set of six commemorative stamps promoting the UN Free & Equal campaign.

**Press Conferences

And for press conferences — tomorrow at 10:15 a.m., right here in this room, there will be a briefing by Ambassador Danny Danon, Permanent Representative of Israel to the United Nations.

**Questions and Answers

And that is it from me.  Are there any questions?  Yes, Mr. Abbadi.

Question:  Thank you, Farhan.  As you indicated, the Secretary‑General is speaking about the negotiations in Geneva on Syria, said there was deep suspicion, and the opposition earlier said that the Government entered the negotiations with bad faith.  The Syrian representative said if there was a failure, it's a failure of all the parties; yet de Mistura said it was not failure.  Whose opinion is he expressing?

Deputy Spokesman:  He is expressing the point that it was an achievement to bring the parties to Geneva, and he will continue with that.  He does not intend for this to be a long recess in the talks.  And like I just said, the intention is to resume them at the latest by 25 February and, hopefully, earlier if we can get them back sooner.  In the meantime, Mr. de Mistura is going to do his utmost to work with the members of the International Syria Support Group to see what pressures they can bring to bear, so that the parties come back and come back, not simply to show up, not simply to talk, but to deal concretely with their concerns.  Yes?

Question:  Farhan, what is the Secretary‑General's reaction to the growing… what seems to be a growing body of evidence of Rwanda's involvement in training rebels to oust Burundi's President, Pierre Nkurunziza, and what the implications will be for the peace, security and cooperation framework for the entire Great Lakes region?  

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, at this stage, as you know, there are experts who are looking into the whole issue of the situation between Rwanda and Burundi.  They're presenting their findings to the Security Council, and we trust that the Security Council will look upon it and evaluate it fairly.  For our part, what we are hopeful for is that the serious situation in Burundi will be resolved and that there will be a political solution.  This is what the Special Adviser, Jamal Benomar, has been working on, and, of course, you're aware of the Secretary‑General's own efforts in… over the past weekend, dealing with the leaders at the African Union Summit, to make sure that there is a concerted effort to resolve the situation in Burundi.  And in resolving that effort, we hope that all of the countries in the region will play a helpful role and, indeed, will work with each other and with Burundi to make sure that further violence in the nation can be forestalled.

Question:  Same topic?

Deputy Spokesman:  Sure.

Question:  On the same… I've seen the Group of Experts' report and actually published it, and I wanted to ask you the following:  It's a… you said there's a Group of Experts, the DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo) sanctions Group of Experts.  And there's two paragraphs in the report about… on this, which is, you know, interesting, but I wanted to know, according to… just if you can say from this podium, what is the mandate of that Group of Experts?  And I ask because, previously, they were asked to look into the Government… Burundian Government's youth militia training in South Kivu, and the answer was that they were… this was beyond their mandate, that they are the DRC sanctions committee.  So I wanted to know, was there some change in their mandate, and, perhaps relatedly, what is the process to replace… you've announced that Movses Abelian is getting a promotion, all to the good… what is the process for replacing the head of SCAD, and does it… Security Council Affairs Division, and does it involve consultation with the P5 members?  Thank you.

Deputy Spokesman:  First of all, regarding your first question about the mandate of the Group of Experts, that mandate is set by the relevant Security Council resolutions.  I'd simply refer you back to those.  Regarding Mr. Abelian, yes, we announced that he will be in charge of the Division of General Assembly Affairs and Conference Management and, while we… while we look for a replacement through the usual procedures, there will be an acting head of the office.  Regarding how selections are made, of course, it's the standard process by which we hire personnel.

Question:  Is Kelvin Ong either a candidate to replace him or who's in charge now of SCAD?

Deputy Spokesman:  I would never, never… 

Question:  Who's in charge of SCAD? 

Deputy Spokesman:  For all personnel appointments, we don't go into lists of candidates.  I would check who's the acting head right now.  I don't believe that Mr. Abelian has started his next job already, so it may be him right now.  But there will be an acting head.  Yes?

Question:  Yeah.  The Syrian army managed to break the blockade against Nubl and Zahraa today.  70,000 people have… were under siege.  Now they are free.  What is the United Nations doing to assess the situation there and bring in aid to the people?  I heard thousands of people need medical aid there.

Deputy Spokesman:  Certainly, whenever areas are opened up for the possibility of assistance, we try to get assistance on the ground.  So if the developments on the ground have allowed for greater access, we will respond by trying to get humanitarian aid there.  That's a process that will need to begin, of course, once the fighting has ended.  But in any case, I do want to point out that the Secretary‑General, even in his remarks just now in London, made clear his hope that the coming days should be used to get back to the table, not to secure more gains on the battlefield.  Yes?

Question:  In London, the Turkish Prime Minister said up to 70,000 people near camps and in Aleppo are now moving towards Turkey as a result of recent airstrikes.  And the King of Jordan also said his country had reached its limits on receiving refugees.  What do you make of these statements from officials from neighbouring… from countries neighbouring Syria?  And will you demand parties to stop bombing civilians and [inaudible]?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, we certainly have repeatedly called for a halt to the fighting, and we are doing that again now, even as these talks have been ongoing this London.  What's clear and what the Secretary‑General made clear again today is that the neighbouring countries of Syria have been extremely generous in allowing people to enter across the border and escape the fighting inside Syria.  And he has been very moved by their generosity and their solidarity with the people of Syria.  Of course, we hope that the burden on them is eased.  And the progress we've made in today's donor conference in London indicates a sign that the rest of the world sees the nature, the serious nature, of the challenge they face and appreciates the need to share the burden and responsibility of taking care of so many people fairly.  And so, hopefully, there will be some help in that regard.  But the responses that they've made in terms of keeping their borders open and of allowing people to reside in Jordan, in Lebanon, in Turkey, has been a great advance for the people of Syria at their time of need.  Yes?

Question:  Thank you, Farhan.  How does the Secretary‑General view press reports that United States plans to intervene in Libya to go after IS… ISIS, whose numbers are alarmingly increasing?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, I don't have any reaction to the latest media reports.  Regarding the situation in Libya, you know what our efforts have been.  And you also know our concerns about the activities of Da’esh, not just in Libya, but throughout the Middle East and North Africa.  And so we continue to encourage all States to unite in the efforts against Da’esh in whatever ways they find possible.  Yes, in the back?

Question:  Thanks, Farhan.  Yesterday, the Foreign Minister of Venezuela met with Mr. [Edmond] Mulet here, and she asked for a meeting on the issue of border dispute with Guyana.  What is the UN position, and does the UN answer this request?

Deputy Spokesman:  Regarding the borders dispute with Guyana, I believe that this is an issue that has come before the International Court of Justice.  I wouldn't have any comment while that's… while that matter is in their hands.  So we would leave that matter where it is right now.  [He later issued the following clarification:  We have been discussing with Venezuela and Guyana the way forward in dealing with the question of their border, including possible referral to the International Court of Justice.]  Yes, Evelyn?

Question:  Thanks, Farhan.  You mentioned the Group of Experts' report on the DRC, which also, according to Reuters, has… says that Rwanda is recruiting and training Burundian refugees with the goal of ousting the President of Burundi.  I… the real question is, if there's more political turmoil in Burundi, does anyone expect Rwanda to just stand by and not do anything, considering what they went through?  I mean, how… who is monitoring all of this, aside from experts coming back and forth?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, like I'd said, our focus is on a political solution that would bring together the current Government of Burundi and the opposition for talks on the way forward.  We have made our views known prior to and since the elections in the country, and we want to make sure that the stability of the country and… can be preserved.  This is where… what Mr. Benomar's focus has been, and this is what we've been in touch with the countries in the region about.  Yes?

Question:  But is there no reaction to the alarm bells that the Group of Experts raised?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, you'll have seen what the Group of Experts' report is.  I… it's clear that many of you have it, and also, of course, the members of the Security Council have it, and they'll be able to review and see what steps they feel are necessary and to respond.  Yes?

Deputy Spokesman:  On the prerequisite that a ceasefire should be arranged in Syria before any negotiation… resumption of the negotiations or the talks in Geneva, when you talk about ceasefire here, of course, there are many terrorist groups like Nusra, like Da’esh, al‑Qaida, and their affiliates.  Are they included in that… if they… if they are in areas they control, they continue belligerent or hostile actions, will that bring about any ceasefire?  Can that be arranged, I mean?

Deputy Spokesman:  The Secretary‑General and Staffan de Mistura have each made clear their concerns that, as long as there is the fighting of the level that we've seen, it will be difficult to conduct talks that can produce any meaningful result, and so that's… so what they're working with is seeing what kind of ceasefire can be obtained.  I'll just refer you back to the comments that he made.  You'll have seen his press remarks from yesterday.

Question:  Yes, I've seen that, but I mean… so combatting terrorism is a priority here, in this case.  

Deputy Spokesman:  We have a number of priorities, but right now, as Mr. de Mistura and the Secretary‑General made clear, our priority is to bring the fighting down.  You'll have seen the impact that the last days have had, and we want to make sure that we can have meaningful talks, not just talks for the sake of talks.  Yes, Oleg?

Question:  Thank you, Farhan.  On the Julian Assange case, I understand that the report of the UN Group of Experts on Arbitrary Detention is going to be out tomorrow, but the Swedish Government has already confirmed that their experts already took the side of Assange.  What is the reaction of Ban Ki‑moon in this regard to the decision of the UK authorities… they already said that they will arrest Assange no matter what, no matter the… what the side will the UN experts take.  What's the opinion of the UN in this regard?  Should this decision… how it should been implemented, forced or whatever?  

Deputy Spokesman:  I don't want to prejudge what decision is taken tomorrow.  Obviously, tomorrow the Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions will make their opinion public, and we will have to see.  As you know, the opinions of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions are authoritative, and they're based on international law.  Yes, Edie?

Question:  I was also… sorry, Farhan.  I was also going to ask about Julian Assange, but since the Swedish Government has actually confirmed what the decision is, why do you have to wait until tomorrow?

Deputy Spokesman:  I cannot move ahead of what the Working Group itself says.  That's… it's up to them to confirm what their decision is.  Yes, and then you again.

Question:  Sure.  I wanted to ask about what you read out about MINUSCA and these new allegations of sexual abuse.  First I wanted to… I'd asked on 27 January, Stéphane [Dujarric] to confirm that there were these allegations against the Republic of Congo troops, and he said he wouldn't confirm it.  Now it's confirmed.  So it seems like there's a… a… you know, as you describe, maybe a two‑week lag between allegations being received and OIOS looking at them.

Deputy Spokesman:  It's not two weeks.  It's 27 January, you realize. Today’s…

 

Question:  No, 21 January is when these allegations came in from Human Rights Watch.  Maybe I'm counting wrong.  Anyway, my question is this.  Since, on 11 January, The Washington Post ran a story quoting UN officials that there are allegations also against peacekeepers from Burundi, Gabon, Morocco and France, where are those allegations?  As I'd asked Mr. [Anthony] Banbury, are they on some different timeline in terms of verifying them?  Did the officials speak about the allegations and not verify them, or where are they?

Deputy Spokesman:  I wouldn't have any response about anonymous comments.  The details of the incidents that we have, as soon as we have confirmed details, we put those out.

Question:  And it was said that Mr. Mulet, taking over for Ms. [Susana] Malcorra, in terms of coming up with the Secretary‑General's response to the [Marie] Deschamps report and what will be done, maybe I misheard it; I thought it was going to be done in late January, and now it's… I mean, maybe I'm counting days wrong… 4 February.  Where is the response?

Deputy Spokesman:  It… I think we should be having something to say for you fairly shortly.  I don't know when it is, but it's being finalized, and we'll be able to say something soon.  Yes, Oleg?

Question:  Stéphane.  Actually two quick questions.  If you could please remind us the position of Ban Ki‑moon on what happened actually with Assange, his… that he's staying in embassy and cannot leave it.  And the second thing is, tomorrow, the Security Council will convene a meeting on Syria, closed‑door session.  Is Staffan de Mistura going to be present, or he's going to be doing it by video conference?  Thank you.

Deputy Spokesman:  He's certainly not… he's not physically present here.  He'll… I don't know whether he'd have any other appearance there, but we can check then.  But right now, today he's been in London.  I believe tomorrow he will be back in Geneva.  Yes?  Oh, sorry.  One second.  And as for Assange, you can look back at the records.  There have been some remarks that we made at the time of the case.  We stand by our past remarks.  Yes?

Question:  Yeah.  On Assange, could you clarify, make clear, because it's been reported everywhere; the headline is: UN exonerates Assange and so on and so forth.  Could you clarify what exactly is that panel in relation to the Assange… to the UN?  I mean, do they answer to Ban Ki‑moon?  Does Ban Ki‑moon sign off on…

Deputy Spokesman:  No.  No.

Question:  So…  Be precise about what exactly is going on here.

Deputy Spokesman:  It's a working group.  There's a group called the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.  That's an independent group, and that's one of the 55 UN special procedures that's part of the overall human rights framework.  That group is based in Geneva.  They come out with opinions.  Those opinions are not legally binding, but they are authoritative and they're based on international law.  And, as I mentioned, that opinion on this case will be published tomorrow.

Question:  And it's called an independent working group.  How independent is it and independent of what?  

Deputy Spokesman:  I don't see the need to pursue semantics about what the word "independent" means.

Question:  There is a need, because, Farhan, the UN is being called to task here by… or the UN is being praised, whoever would… depending on what side you're on, they say the UN exonerated Assange.  So the question is, is it the UN, or is it independent of the UN, and is it… what… what exactly is the standing of this…?

Deputy Spokesman:  It's an independent body.  You know from past experience all of our various independent experts, they're independent rapporteurs.  They're independent working groups.  They… you know, they deal with a range of topics — from torture to arbitrary detention, to extrajudicial execution, to racism.  And you know from past experience, therefore, that they express their views.  They are not staff of the United Nations.  They do not report to the UN Secretary‑General.  Yes?

Question:  And… and their decisions are not binding.

Deputy Spokesman:  I've said that already.

Question:  Sure.  A question on Sri Lanka and then a question about one of your answers yesterday.  On Sri Lanka, in the north, there's been a case of a… of a 6‑year‑old boy that was… apparently went into this Navy base in northern Sri Lanka, offered food and chocolates, and has been found raped and dumped in a well outside of the Navy base.  And I wanted to know… this has given rise to a lot of the protests among Tamils in northern Sri Lanka.  And I wanted know, what is the UN's current presence in the country to… to… both as a matter of just human rights and an individual case, but also something that stokes communal tensions in terms of investigating or addressing or dealing with this type of a case?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, certainly, we can look into human rights violations where they occur.  We don't have a permanent human rights presence, but we do have staff on the ground, and we can bring in people as we need.

Question:  And do you have anything on Zeid's trip there?  I mean, I'm sorry.  Go ahead if you had more to say on Prince Zeid's trip.

Deputy Spokesman:  You can check with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.  I believe they put out some details earlier.

Question:  Okay.  My question about yesterday…

Deputy Spokesman:  Hold on.  One question again and then back to you.  Yes.

Question:  On the DPRK, did the SG speak to any of the representatives from that country?

Deputy Spokesman:  He hasn't spoken to them recently.  As you know, he's been on his travels to London, but his views are expressed in the statement that we issued yesterday.  And, as you know, those statements are shared with the relevant permanent missions.  Yes?

Question:  Sure, the Sri Lanka question, just to finish it, was, I understand… I've seen what Prince Zeid's office or the office… OHCHR (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) put out.  The Government is saying this visit has nothing to do with this issue… the issue of war crimes tribunal having international presence or not, that it was an invitation made before the Human Rights Council resolution was passed.  So given the… the… the… I've heard from this podium there have been things said that, the Government should abide by the resolution and have some international participation.  That's why I'm asking you.  Do you… does the Secretary‑General view this high‑profile visit to Sri Lanka as intended to address this accountability issue or not?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, we would let High Commissioner Zeid and his office speak to that question.  It's his visit, and you'll have seen what they've put out.  Yes?

Question:  The Israelis have cracked down on Qabatiya in West Bank and they have holding siege after what happened.  There's curfew there, and many houses have been demolished in several parts of West Bank.  Do you have anything to say about that?  

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, certainly, we have our concerns about the demolition of houses, and I can share that… some further details with you after the briefing.  [He later said the following:  The Secretary-General is deeply troubled over yesterday's demolition of 30 Palestinian-owned structures by the Israeli authorities in two Palestinian communities — Al Halaweh and Jinba — in southern West Bank.  According to initial UN assessments, this action led to the displacement of 121 Palestinians, including 71 children.  The Secretary-General reiterates the United Nations position that implementation of plans to evict Palestinians from this area would appear to amount to individual and mass forcible transfer, contrary to Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law.]  Yeah?

Question:  Sure.  Thanks.  I just wanted… yesterday I'd asked you, has the room been lent by your office or any… to any affiliate or fundee of Ng Lap Seng.  And I'll leave the rest of it out.  And you said no, flatly.  So I wanted to know, now it's 24 hours later, is it your position that Ng Lap Seng did not fund the group to which the room was lent last Friday?  Because you said no.  So I'm asking you about this answer.  Is it true or not?

Deputy Spokesman:  We lent out the room for an organizational meeting to the UN Correspondents Association because their other… their regular room was in use.  If you have the ability to investigate the UN Correspondents Association and find wrongdoing there, please share your findings with the authorities…  [cross talk]

Question:  But you guys are doing an audit of Ng Lap Seng.  That's why I'm asking.  [cross talk] You said Ng Lap Seng has been indicted and you're doing an audit, so I'm asking you…

Deputy Spokesman:  Right now… [cross talk] Even though you're talking over me, my point is, right now you're trying to exculpate yourself from what was a clear, visible lapse by making accusations that, as far as I know, are unfounded.  That's all I have to say on that. 

Have a good afternoon, everyone.

For information media. Not an official record.