DAILY PRESS BRIEFING OF OFFICE OF SPOKESMAN FOR SECRETARY-GENERAL
Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York
1 April 1999
The following is a near-verbatim transcript of today's noon briefing by the Spokesman for the Secretary-General, Fred Eckhard:
There's no special interest in the briefing this morning. The extra bodies in the room are from San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton, California. Welcome to the briefing.
On Kosovo, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) officials are describing the arrival scenes of refugees from Kosovo streaming in all directions as reminiscent of the last days of World War II when Europe was awash with refugees.
As aid workers responded to the systematic expulsion of Kosovars, our concerns are mounting over the fate of the people left behind in Kosovo where humanitarian workers have no access.
By mid-day today, some 180,000 Kosovars have crossed into Albania, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Montenegro since the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) air strikes began nine days ago. They included at least 100,000 into Albania, 31,000 into Macedonia and 30,000 into Montenegro.
We just received the following report from the Kosovo-Macedonia border. A total of six trains carrying more than 25,000 persons have now arrived in Macedonia. Passengers said they were being rounded up en masse in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, in what many refugees said seemed to be a deliberate and systematic policy to "railroad" large sections of the population into exile.
When one train pulled into a siding, people were pushed aboard and "packed like sardines" into the boxcars. One refugee said one old man and one old woman had died while waiting for the train. Three babies had been born.
The new arrivals said Pristina was now like a ghost town, and that more trains were en route. Thousands of people from the trains milled around the border area with nowhere to go. Some people were carried off on stretchers, but otherwise there was no immediate relief for many.
The Government established three collective centres and planned to open at least three more, but these facilities were already full. Blankets, mattresses, juice and bread were distributed to the early arrivals, but as additional trains arrived, welcome facilities were being overwhelmed. Endless lines of cars were reported waiting to cross. Some arrivals said the line was almost 30 kilometers long.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) announced that some of its resources -- vehicles, other material and personnel -- will be transferred temporarily to UNHCR and other agencies to help in humanitarian work both in Albania and Macedonia.
**United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR)
This afternoon in Geneva, Mary Robinson, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, announced a new initiative that her office will be taking in response to the crisis in Kosovo.
Speaking before the Commission on Human Rights, Mrs. Robinson expressed outrage over reports of a vicious and systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing conducted by Serbian military and paramilitary forces in Kosovo.
In response to the need to ensure accountability, she has requested the Special Rapporteur monitoring the situation in the former Yugoslavia, Jiri Dienstbier, to travel to the region to assess the situation first-hand. She also asked Michel Moussalli to accompany Mr. Dienstbier as her personal Representative, and said they may travel as early as next week. In addition, she is redeploying human rights officers from field offices in the former Yugoslavia, as well as staff from Geneva, to Albania, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Montenegro to conduct interviews with refugees and other displaced persons, and to make an assessment of the human rights situation in Kosovo.
We have the full text of her statement and we also arranged to have it broadcast live to New York for those of you who were here to listen to it.
Mr. Moussalli, by the way, is the Special Representative for the situation of human rights in Rwanda, taking on a new assignment now for Mary Robinson.
You'll see on the Secretary-General's appointments for today that he's meeting today with Lloyd Axworthy, the Foreign Minister of Canada. They will be discussing Kosovo. The Canadian Foreign Minister will address the press, that's you, at 4:20 p.m. today at the Delegate's Entrance.
The Secretary-General will also be meeting with Archbishop Renato Raffaele Martino, the Permanent Observer of the Holy See. The Holy See tells us that Kosovo will top the agenda of that meeting as well.
**Report on Stand-by Arrangements
Out on the racks today is the Secretary-General's progress report on stand-by arrangements for peacekeeping operations (document S/1999/361).
According to the report, 81 Member States have now pledged personnel for peacekeeping operations. That's 14 more than last year, and it brings the total number of personnel that Member States would consider making available to 104,000.
While the United Nations still does not have true rapid-reaction capability, stand-by arrangements have been a step forward, and the Secretary- General welcomes the efforts by Member States to make resources available for peacekeeping.
There's no Security Council meeting today. The president of the Council for the month of April, Ambassador Alain Dejammet of France, is holding bilateral consultations with Council members to define the Council's work programme for the month.
**International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda
At the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda today, genocide suspect Ignace Bagilishema pleaded not guilty to 13 counts against him. The suspect is charged with involvement in a massacre which took the lives of thousands of people during the country's 1994 genocide. We have a press release from the Arusha-based Tribunal with more details.
**Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS)
We also have available in our Office an embargoed press release from UNAIDS on the spread of HIV in Asia and the Pacific. According to the press release, the financial crisis in the region is likely to increase the prevalence of AIDS, especially among young people.
Since tomorrow is a United Nations holiday, we'll do the weekly "Week Ahead" feature by the end of today. A few items I can give you right now.
On the Kosovo crisis, the Security Council is expected to hear a humanitarian briefing on Monday. I believe that will be given by Sergio Vieira de Mello, the Humanitarian Coordinator. For contact numbers of agency officials in the Kosovo area during the Easter weekend, please ask Marie Okabe in my office.
The Security Council is expected to take up next week, in addition to Kosovo, the Ethiopia-Eritrea border dispute, the United Nations Iraq-Kuwait Observation Mission (UNIKOM) -- whose mandate expires on 7 April -- and also, Libya.
The Secretary-General as we announced yesterday, leaves on his trip to Europe on Tuesday.
Question: Are your people in Kosovo aware that the refugees and those fleeing the area are being deprived of their identity documents? Secondly, had those three soldiers been given any other assignments besides their former duties within the framework of the United Nations Preventive Deployment Force (UNPREDEP)? Should they be considered prisoners of war or as belonging to the former mission of the United Nations in Macedonia?
Spokesman: I don't know whether we have any first hand knowledge of documents being taken away from refugees. Of course, we've seen press reports to that effect. Any details like that would come out in the interviewing process that is going on and is now being accelerated by Mary Robinson.
On the three American soldiers taken prisoner by the Serbs, there's been some misunderstanding by some people, who are reporting that they are United Nations peacekeepers. The United Nations mandate in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia expired at midnight on 28 February. So we've had no official business in Macedonia, except to wind down our mission there. So, the three soldiers were under United States command not under United Nations command. I now have no comment on their status as prisoners of war or whatever else. They're not our soldiers.
Question: In terms of the refugees pouring into Macedonia, Montenegro and Albania ... obviously, in terms of Montenegro, that's still part of the Yugoslav Federation. So what is going on in Montenegro, specifically? Are the refugees being handled in the same way they're being handled in Albania? Are the Yugoslav authorities allowing the United Nations into Montenegro?
Spokesman: I don't have the details on that. We can get that information for you. If you ask Marie Okabe, she may know off the top of her head or she can get that information with a phone call.
Follow-up Question: And then in general, on the refugee situation in all three countries, are there plans to set up permanent camps for these people? What is the long-term strategy? Are they going to try to mix them in with the population?
Spokesman: I think we mentioned yesterday that there is the intention of setting up some tented camps. I don't think they can all be absorbed, given the numbers that are coming across now, among the local population. But again, ask Marie for the specifics.
Question: Is there anything specific you can share with us on Foreign Minister Axworthy's visit with the Secretary-General this afternoon?
Spokesman: Only that the Foreign Minister asked for it. Kosovo is at the top of the agenda, but I believe he also wanted to discuss Sierra Leone and some other issues. You would have to ask the Canadian Mission for details.
Question: Could you tell us whether the Secretary-General has been having any conversations or contacts about possible ways of the United Nations helping to end this crisis? You talked about his seeing Foreign Minister Axworthy and the delegate from the Holy See, but has he been having any other telephone conversations? Has he been doing anything else? Talking to the representatives on the Security Council?
Spokesman: I can't give you any specific details on who he might have had phone calls with. I don't think I have anything to add to what I said yesterday. He's following the situation closely. He's prepared to respond to a call, should there be one, but he doesn't see a role for himself at this moment. But, he's watching things very closely, staying in touch with all sides.
Question: Does he want to go to Belgrade and is somebody else stopping him?
Spokesman: He has no intention of going to Belgrade at this time.
Follow-up Question: What is the role of the United Nations Secretary- General in tragedies like this one?
Spokesman: He can call to the attention of the Security Council a matter that they may not be addressing, but in this case, it's a matter they have addressed. He can use his moral authority to call attention to a human tragedy, which he has also done. But, he doesn't have an army. There's not much more he can do.
Question: The events in the Balkans are escalating and the situation is deteriorating on a daily basis -- if not on an hourly basis. Is the Secretary-General reviewing his plans -- rescheduling his visit to Spain and dinner with King Juan Carlos, and not attending the journalists dinner in Switzerland -- to stay home?
Spokesman: You're implying that he's going off to Geneva and Spain to have fun. I think if you listened to the other items that I mentioned on his agenda for that trip yesterday, you'll see that it's an intensely scheduled set of meetings and a wide variety of things that he's doing, people that he's meeting with. He's not going there to have fun.
As I've already said, he does not see an opening for him at this time. Should there be one, he would cancel whatever else he had on his programme and he'd get right to it. But, at this time, he has no intention of cancelling his trip to Europe.
Follow-up Question: But if he wants to go, can anybody -- the Americans or anybody else -- stop him from going to Belgrade?
Spokesman: He is the head of a Secretariat that services 185 nations. He doesn't get very far in front of his bosses -- those 185 governments. If he went, it would be with the blessing of the Member States.
Follow-up Question: So that means that the Member States don't want him to go?
Spokesman: No. He does not see an opening for himself at this time. He personally does not see a way that he can help move this process forward towards a political solution.
Question: Is there any discussion of any possible form of peacekeeping or United Nations troop formation of any kind, for any aftermath scenario or even any sort of current formulation that might be done for this region?
Spokesman: To my knowledge, there's no contingency planning being done in the peacekeeping department. Apart from a few references in the press, we're not aware that there's any active consideration of a United Nations role. On the other hand, I don't think we can exclude it. It's just that there's nothing concrete on which to base any planning at this time.
Question: On the Rwanda inquiry, where does that stand? Now that the Council has approved it, what's the next step?
Spokesman: The Secretary-General's staff has drawn up terms of reference for the study and has put together a list of names of people who could be involved in it. That went to the Secretary-General either late yesterday or this morning. So the next step is for him to approve the terms of reference and name one or several individuals who would carry out this inquiry.
Follow-up Question: Are these candidates from outside the United Nations system?
Spokesman: I didn't see the list and I'm not at liberty to say.
Follow-up Question: In terms of the terms of reference, are you talking about the dates covered? What are you referring to when you say terms of reference?
Spokesman: Well, the scope of the inquiry, who they should speak to, access to documents, these types of questions.
Question: Can you tell us if the Secretary-General has spoken to anybody in the last few days from NATO, the State Department or the White House?
Spokesman: I don't have that information.
Question: Does the Secretary-General believe, being in Switzerland or in Spain, that he is closer and could be more useful being in Europe at this time for the Kosovo crisis? Secondly, what is the response so far to his appeal for humanitarian and other kinds of assistance to the region?
Spokesman: There's no link between his official visit to Switzerland and Spain and the Kosovo crisis. Everywhere he goes, he has staff and communications with him. So, he's essentially on the job 24 hours a day.
On the response to his appeal for assistance, we mentioned yesterday that UNHCR indicated that they were pleased with the response from governments. If you want more details, please ask Marie Okabe of my Office.
Question: I understand politically what you're saying, that the Secretary-General doesn't seem to find an opening for himself in the current conflict. But, being the voice of moral authority, to what level does this conflict have to rise before the Secretary-General acts unilaterally, and perhaps puts aside the political positions of 185 Member States, and says that I have to go, I have to make a statement, and I have to have a meeting?
Spokesman: Well, just read the Charter. His job description is defined therein. The concept of the job of a Secretary-General has evolved over fifty years, tending towards a more liberal interpretation of the Charter. He feels he has done and is doing everything that is within his power.
You know him well enough. He's not the type to grandstand or call for some kind of dramatic gesture that isn't going to be substantive and lead to some results. So, he's keeping a low profile, but watching the situation closely and looking for a way in which he might eventually be helpful. At the moment, he doesn't see a role for himself.
Question: Who asked him to go to Iraq last year?
Spokesman: There were a number of governments. There was a strong public demand. Again, he needed a consensus among the Security Council members before he could go. It took him several days of meetings to put that consensus together, but in the end, the governments blessed his trip. The Iraqis indicated flexibility. In his assessment, there was a chance to achieve results and he went.
Follow-up Question: But he had the will to go? It was his initiative?
Spokesman: Governments supported. Iraq was receptive. The situation appeared conducive to ...
Follow-up Question: But he initiated the trip? If I remember well, he said to the Members that I have to go, I want to go.
Spokesman: He did, but again, it was in response to a certain amount of pressure, public pressure as well as government pressure. It also had to do with his sense of his role and his sense of what could be achieved. If he had that same sense -- that governments wanted it, governments could agree on a mandate, and the parties in the field were receptive to his intervention and were ready to cut a deal -- he'd be off in a minute. But those conditions don't exist.
Question: Is he personally frustrated? You're as close to him as anyone, or perhaps probably more so I would say. How would you describe his feelings toward this, and his inability to find an opening and make a difference?
Spokesman: You have to keep putting it in the context of what he is constitutionally able to do. I think any decent person is horrified and frustrated at the images we see in the papers and on the television screen. We want the right thing to be done, but it's a politically complex issue and we haven't yet found the solution. He doesn't yet see how his role could be helpful, but he's watching every minute.
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