DAILY PRESS BRIEFING BY THE OFFICE OF THE SPOKESMAN FOR THE SECRETARY-GENERAL
Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York
2 March 2005
Following is a near-verbatim transcript of today’s noon briefing by Stephane Dujarric de la Riviere, Associate Spokesman for the Secretary-General.
**Democratic Republic of Congo
In the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, United Nations peacekeepers were involved in a firefight with a local militia group, while carrying out a regular search-and-cordon operation in the Ituri district. The operation, which was carried out yesterday morning, was aimed at flushing out militia members and dismantling a local headquarters for the militia known as the Nationalist Integrationist Front, or by its French acronym, FNI.
Around 240 peacekeepers -- from Pakistan, Nepal and South Africa -- carried out the operation near the village of Loga when they came under fire. Also taking part in the operation were attack helicopter units from India. In the ensuing firefight, at least 50 militia members were killed and two United Nations peacekeepers were wounded; they have both been evacuated to South Africa.
At this stage, it is believed the militia members involved in the attack did belong to the FNI. The operation resulted in the destruction of two militia camps, one of them believed to be battalion headquarters for the FNI militia.
The operation was part of the United Nations Mission’s more robust approach to normalize the situation in Ituri, where local militias have been carrying out premeditated attacks against the local population.
**Statement Attributable to Spokesman for Secretary-General
The Secretary-General is very concerned at the recent escalation of serious incidents in and around the Zone of Confidence in Côte d’Ivoire, culminating in the attack by some 100 armed “youth” against Forces nouvelles’ position in the Zone on 28 February 2005. United Nations troops promptly deployed to the area and regained control of the town. During the intervention, a Bangladeshi peacekeeper was seriously injured and some 70 armed youth were captured and disarmed by United Nations troops. The Secretary-General reminds the parties that everything has to be done to cooperate in earnest with the African Union mediation led by President Mbeki of South Africa, which is fully supported by the United Nations, and to avoid any steps which could contribute to the deterioration of the situation on the ground.
In this regard, the Secretary-General calls on the parties to rein in all militias and remind their leaders, as well as those behind them, that they will be held accountable for premeditated attacks, including through the measures envisaged in Security Council resolution 1572 (2004).
Security Council members held consultations on the March programme of work and other matters today. Under other matters, Council members first heard a briefing by Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Hédi Annabi on the recent constitutional referendum in Burundi. Then they heard a briefing by the chair of the Côte d’Ivoire sanctions committee, Ambassador Vassilakis of Greece.
Council members also held a formal meeting to adopt a presidential statement on the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In that connection, Mr. Annabi provided a brief update on the latest developments involving United Nations peacekeepers in the eastern DRC, which I’ve just told you about.
Immediately following my briefing, the Security Council President, Ambassador Mota Sardenberg, will brief you here on the programme of work for March for the Council.
**Secretary-General in London
The Secretary-General ended his one-day trip to London last night by meeting with the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. They agreed on the importance of following through on the important agreements reached at the London Conference held earlier yesterday. They also discussed Palestinian elections, for which the United Nations was providing technical assistance, as well as the prospects for the Palestinian economy, and the importance of freedom of movement for Palestinians in improving the economic situation.
**Deputy Secretary-General in Liberia
The Deputy Secretary-General, concluding her visit to the United Nations Mission in Liberia, today met with the Mission’s Force Commander, General Owonibi, and Marc Howard of the International Police Services, as well as national military contingent commanders, and national police contingent commanders. She emphasized the Secretary-General’s zero-tolerance policy regarding sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers.
Among the issues discussed was the need for increased pre-deployment training on sexual exploitation and abuse issues and for peacekeepers coming to the United Nations Mission in Liberia and also improved staff welfare and recreation programmes for United Nations peacekeepers and international police officers, and the need for increased investigative personnel and resources. Before leaving Monrovia for Freetown, the Deputy Secretary-General spoke to reporters, and we expect a transcript of that encounter a bit later on.
She then travelled to Freetown, which is the second leg of her mission. Her first appointment is to be with the Secretary-General’s Special Representative in Sierra Leone, Daudi Mwakawago. During her stay, she plans to meet with the senior United Nations Management Team, the Country Team, as well as mission personnel. She will also be conducting a town hall meeting with the mission’s military and civilian staff to also discuss issue of sexual exploitation.
Turning to Haiti, in his latest report to the Security Council, the Secretary-General says the security situation in Haiti remains precarious, and the possibility of outbreaks of violence cannot be ruled out. He says that it is essential to continue a firm and even-handed approach in dealing with armed groups that challenge the authority of the State. He also calls on Haiti’s Transitional Government to establish a national disarmament and demobilization commission.
The Secretary-General also calls on all political parties and Haitian voters to join in the electoral process, with the first round of parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled to take place in November. At the same time, he remains concerned about allegations of human rights abuses, and calls on the Haitian authorities to take the appropriate action if those allegations are substantiated.
On the Sudan, the United Nations Mission in Sudan continues to receive reports of violence in Darfur. Earlier this week, an inter-agency assessment team heard reports from many internally displaced persons of an attack that took place in South Darfur on 23 February, in which approximately 26 people were killed while travelling to Salakoyo.
Meanwhile, there is a high risk of a measles outbreak in EzoCounty, in southern Sudan, according to another inter-agency assessment mission. In response, a measles campaign is taking place in that county.
Turning to Iraq, the United Nations Development Group Trust Fund is carrying out a $35 million programme to strengthen basic irrigation, as well as farming skills, in Iraq. The programme is also designed to encourage professionals and technicians from different disciplines to work together to benefit farmers in Iraq. We have a press release available upstairs.
On Kosovo, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative in Kosovo, Søren Jessen-Petersen, met this morning in Pristina with Prime Minister Vlado Buchkovski of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Jessen-Petersen welcomed the opening of a Macedonian trade office in Pristina, noting that now all States in the region, with the exception of Serbia and Montenegro, have such offices in the city. The two also discussed border demarcation and the return of refugees.
**Secretary-General’s Message on Gender and Education
We have a message today delivered by video by the Secretary-General on the Conference on Gender Parity and Education, which is being held in Washington, D.C. In the message, the Secretary-General says that if we are to succeed in our efforts to build a healthier, peaceful and equitable world, classrooms must be full of girls, as well as boys.
He added that, although the world’s leaders set a target for girls to catch up with boys in primary and secondary education by this year, most of the more than 100 million children not in school today are girls. We have the full text of the message available upstairs.
**Tokelau/Cook Islands – Cyclone Percy
A couple of more announcements. The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says it is sending emergency teams to the Cook Islands and Tokelau, in the Pacific Ocean, to assess damage from Tropical Cyclone Percy. The Cook Islands’ Government has declared a state of emergency for two of its northern islands, one which has only 10 houses left intact. Cyclone Percy is now headed towards one of the Cook Islands’ southern atolls. We have a press release available upstairs.
**United Nations International School (UNIS) Conference
The United Nations International School will be holding its annual UNIS-UN conference this Thursday and Friday. This year’s theme is global health. Speakers will be Morgan Spurlock, director and producer of the Oscar-nominated film “Super Size Me”. The annual event, as you may know, is organized by students from UNIS. We have press release available upstairs.
Later this afternoon, Sir Emyr Jones Parry, the United Kingdom’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, will give an informal briefing on the London Meeting on Supporting the Palestinian Authority, which, as you know, took place yesterday. That briefing will take place in the Trusteeship Council. Delegations, as well as journalists, are invited.
This afternoon, at a press conference in this room at 3:30, the Senegalese Minister for Community Development, Culture and Gender Affairs, Ms. Aida Mbodi, will talk about the Beijing+10 Conference.
Tomorrow at 10:30 a.m., the Permanent Mission of Canada will be sponsoring a press conference on Women’s Environment and Development Organization. That will also take place here.
Then at 11:15 a.m., Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs Jose Antonio Ocampo, together with Carolyn Hannan, Director of the Division for the Advancement of Women, will be here to launch the report, “World Survey on the Role of Women in Development”, which focuses on women and international migration.
Finally, at 3:30 tomorrow afternoon, the 1992 Nobel Peace Laureate Rigoberta Menchu and others will be here to brief on the increasingly dangerous circumstances facing indigenous peoples face, especially indigenous women.
That’s it for me. Any questions?
**Questions and Answers
Question: Concerning the DRC operation, can you be more specific about what “search and cordon” means. Are they really going after these guys? To what extent does this represent a change in the mandate or a shift in strategy?
Associate Spokesman: There has been no specific change in the mandate. I think the operation falls under the current mandate. But it is part of the mission’s more robust approach to normalize the situation in the area, and to better protect the local population which have fallen prey to a number of those militia members.
Question: Were they going after these guys? Was this an operation to go out and get these guys and kill them?
Associate Spokesman: No, it is not an operation to go out and kill anybody. It is an operation to go out and cordon off areas to limit the ability of these militia members to prey on vulnerable populations. It is not a “search and destroy” mission, if that is your question.
Question: Are the military exchanges between the militias and the peacekeepers a direct result of the United Nations’ more robust policy? You weren’t seeing these kinds of lethal exchanges in the past.
Associate Spokesman: The more robust approach has to do with going out on patrol. The United Nations peacekeepers were attacked. It is their inherent right to return fire when attacked. The United Nations did not open fire first. The new robustness of the operation should be seen in the fact that these patrols were going out.
Question: It looks like these militias were responding violently because they were seeing a greater challenge through this more robust United Nations peacekeeping mission.
Associate Spokesman: I don’t know what was going through the militia’s mind as they were opening fire on United Nations peacekeepers. I do know there were patrols out there trying to cordon off an area so as to better protect the civilians. The United Nations again was fired upon, and the peacekeepers returned fire.
Question: Does the United Nations believe that this militia is being supported by Uganda, and is the United Nations calling on Uganda to stop its support this militia?
Associate Spokesman: I don’t have enough information here to tell you exactly what this FNI militia is and who may be backing it, but I’ll be happy to look into it.
Question: Would that be possible?
Associate Spokesman: That would very well be possible.
Question: With all the turmoil in the Congo right now, I’m wondering whether it’s really the best time for the United Nations to be pushing for William Swing to resign. Could I get your remarks on that?
Associate Spokesman: As you know, and as we’ve said here, there have been quite a lot of changes in the leadership of the Mission. Ambassador Swing is on his way here. He was supposed to travel last week, but that was delayed because it is a very delicate time in the Congo. The leadership changes are ongoing. In the discussions he will have here, there will also be discussions of his own plans, and there will be discussion as to the timing of any other leadership changes. But I don’t want to get ahead of myself until the meetings he will have here have actually taken place.
Question: Would you have a replacement in the pipes pretty quickly in pushing for him to step down now?
Associate Spokesman: There’s no pushing for anyone to step down. There needs to be an examination as to the timing of further leadership changes in light of the fact that this is a very delicate time politically and militarily in the Congo.
Question: Was the operation in Loga a response to the killing of the Bangladeshis?
Associate Spokesman: No. It was not a response in the killing of United Nations peacekeepers. It was an operation meant to secure areas to better protect the civilian population in that region.
Question: You mentioned that this is more of a secure area thing than go out seek and destroy those people responsible for killing the peacekeepers. Is there some sort of mechanism under discussion or in the planning coming out soon to establish some sort of deterrence, so that this sort of thing doesn’t repeat itself? Such as holding the militias responsible, or at least showing some sort of severe response from the United Nations forces on the ground?
Associate Spokesman: I don’t know what further operations will be planned. These operations are planned at the local level by the military force commander. Obviously, if United Nations peacekeepers come under fire, they have the right to protect themselves under the existing mandates.
Question: Since the situation is now getting bad again, and in the wake of the death of the Iraqi judges, has the Secretary-General Special Representative given any report on that as yet?
Associate Spokesman: No, we didn’t get anything from them today, but I’d be happy to check when I go back upstairs.
Question: Yesterday, several high-level people in this Building launched the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development. Isn’t this subject important enough to have had a press conference with these folks to discover what the United Nations is trying to do about education for sustainable development? Should we not have an opportunity to ask questions of these people?
Associate Spokesman: I completely agree with you. We’ll go upstairs and try to drag someone down for you.
Question: When did the more robust approach (in the DRC) begin? Did it begin after last week’s attack?
Associate Spokesman: No, I think it’s an ongoing phase. I’d be happy to check if there was a Day 1 of more robust operation. I’ll have to check for you. [He later added that these types of operation are routine.]
Question: Was this one of many search-and-cordon operations going on, or was this the first one going on?
Associate Spokesman: I believe there have been others, but I would have to get those facts for you.
Question: Could you clarify how this is managed and observed, since we’re seeing a more aggressive United Nations stance? Is this done through the military component of peacekeeping? How does the civilian component come in and inform and decide on exactly when the soldiers are going to go in and take on these people? Are they any non-military people who are observing and providing some non-military account of what went on?
Associate Spokesman: There is a force commander, who is responsible for all the national contingents. He works under the Special Representative for the Secretary-General, and the civilian commander works very closely with him. So, I would say the strategic decisions are taken by both the military and civilian leadership. As to the tactical decisions on the ground, I’m sure they’re done by the military component on the ground. But I don’t really understand your second question.
Question: First of all, I just want to know how we know that an account given to us by the soldiers is correct, whether the United Nations civilian command even trusts what its military command is saying. Also, does a tactical manoeuvre have to be okayed, and what is the highest civilian level that the United Nations has that would have to okay an operation in which lots of people get killed.
Associate Spokesman: The aim of the operation was not to go out and kill people, but it is the right of United Nations peacekeepers to return fire when fired upon. The account we have was that they were fired on with mortars and heavy weapons, as well. They came under attack, they defended themselves. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here to say that if they are shot at they need clearance all the way back up the chain of command up to United Nations Headquarters to return fire. But the overall strategic components are made by both the military and civilian components. As far as the trust of reporting, the reporting comes from the military force commander and the civilian mission. I have no reason to doubt it.
Question: Is this the deadliest attack on a United Nations group in a decade or something like that? Do have any sense of when there’s been such a bloody incident involving the United Nations in which it was responsible for killing people.
Associate Spokesman: It’s not a United Nations attack on a civilian group. Okay, I know, incident.
Question: Were the attack helicopters part of the original search-and-cordon operation? Did they go in with big, heavy guns, prepared to carry out the major military operation that they needed to?
Associate Spokesman: They went in with the force that they believed was required to protect themselves. Obviously, it was a hostile environment. As far as putting this into context, I don’t think this is the biggest peacekeeping incident in United Nations history. We’re checking. One that comes to mind in recent history is an operation in Sierra Leone, I think in 2000, but we’re trying to do some checking with peacekeeping. We’re trying to get some numbers.
Question: So you didn’t go on a search-and-destroy mission, but you went with a significant contingent bristling with guns and attack helicopters into an area where there was a vast amount of militia ready for a fight. Would a decision to put that many people with a potentially aggressive posture in a situation have to go up to the Secretary-General, or William Swing, or the force commander?
Associate Spokesman: I’d be happy to check who takes the decisions. But again, they were preying on villages and it was felt that it was the United Nations’ role to protect the vulnerable population. That’s what the aim of the mission was.
Question: Some non-governmental organizations are calling for the United Nations to appoint a Special Rapporteur or something to check on implementation of the Beijing Platform. Would the United Nations be interested in that role, basically checking into which countries have implemented what laws and so forth?
Associate Spokesman: I need to get some guidance for you on that.
Question: I heard that the nine peacekeepers who were killed were lined up, shot in the back of the head, executed in style. Do you have any information about that?
Associate Spokesman: I have not heard that, but I will check it out.
Question: The United Nations has been beat up a lot lately, over the oil-for-food and sex abuse scandal and things like that. In the larger context, with this peacekeeping mission, is the United Nations trying to project an image of toughness, that change is afoot, that this is the new United Nations. Is there a new philosophy that is governing United Nations actions, not only in peacekeeping, but in personnel, management, audits for oil-for-food, things like that, all across the board?
Associate Spokesman: Linking Ituri to oil-for-food is a stretch. The situation in the Congo, I think, has to be seen just in the context of the Congo. There have been a number of setbacks recently, especially in the eastern part of the DRC, and it was felt that the situation needed to be addressed.
Question: Why in this atmosphere is there even discussion of change, whether William Swing is going to leave or not? This mission has never gotten so much attention or committed so much chaos before. Why now talk about replacing a guy who by most accounts has done a pretty good job?
Associate Spokesman: Ambassador Swing has the great respect of the Secretary-General. The military commander was recently changed. The former military adviser at headquarters is now the force commander in the Mission. There were a number of issues that needed to be dealt with in the United Nations Mission in the DRC. One is the political/military situation on the ground, and the other is the issue of sexual abuse and exploitation by United Nations military and civilian staff. We’ve had to reinforce the regulations and make sure they are fully enforced.
The Mission and all its facets must be looked at as a whole, but it’s not an issue of pushing out Ambassador Swing. What he’s coming here to discuss is obviously a timeline for any further transition. But I don’t want to prejudge the outcome of any meetings he will have here.
Question: You said the peacekeeping force came under fire from mortars and other heavy armaments. What other heavy armaments?
Associate Spokesman: I was told other heavy mortars and anti-tank weapons.
Question: How large was the FNI force?
Associate Spokesman: I’d have to check that for you.
Question: Have there been a significant number of troops added to the Ituri brigade?
Associate Spokesman: I’m not aware of that, but I’ll check.
Question: How large geographically was the area to be cordoned off?
Associate Spokesman: I was not provided with that information, but I’ll get you more details.
Comment: Given that the United Nations has killed 60 people, that seems to be an episode of sufficient gravity that we should have a briefing.
Question: Concerning Lebanon, do you have an update from Fitzgerald, and is Larsen heading back to the region?
Associate Spokesman: No, I do not have an update on Fitzgerald, and we will not be providing daily updates on his work. I’m sure Mr. Larsen will be going back to the region before he submits his report in April.
I have been corrected. Patrick Cammaert is not the force commander but rather the divisional commander of United Nations forces in the eastern DRC. That is one of the changes that was recently instituted, given the size of the country, to put a very high-level commander locally in the eastern part of the country.
Question: He’s the one who’s commanding all these operations?
Associate Spokesman: Yes, he’s the divisional commander in the eastern DRC.
Thank you very much.
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