Daily Press Briefing by the Office of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General
Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York
7 July 2014
The following is a near-verbatim transcript of today's noon briefing by Farhan Haq, Deputy Spokesman for the Secretary-General.
**Secretary-General at Economic and Social Council
The Secretary-General spoke at the high-level segment of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) this morning, and he launched the 2014 report on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
He said that the report makes clear that many key targets have been met or are within reach. The targets to reduce the proportion of people living in extreme poverty by half and to reduce the number of people without access to improved water sources have been met five years ahead of schedule. And remarkable gains have been made in the fight against malaria and tuberculosis, with a decline of 42 per cent in malaria mortality rates globally.
But, at the same time, the Secretary-General says that achievements have been uneven between goals, among and within regions and countries, and between population groups. For the most marginalized and vulnerable in society, social exclusion and discrimination are among the greatest obstacles to progress. He warned that, unless these imbalances are addressed through bolder and more focused interventions, some targets will not be met. His remarks and the MDG report are available online.
The Security Council is holding consultations on Syria's chemical weapons this morning. Council members heard from Sigrid Kaag, the Special Coordinator for the OPCW [Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons]-UN Joint Mission that is working in Syria, who briefed the Council by video teleconference from Cyprus.
You'll recall that the Secretary-General issued a statement last month welcoming the completion of the destruction and removal of the declared chemical weapons material from Syria. The Secretary-General congratulated the OPCW-UN Joint Mission for completing this most challenging of tasks in an active war zone.
The Secretary-General's Special Representative for Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov, has called on Iraqi political leaders to reach an agreement on the election of a Speaker of the Council of Representatives as soon as possible.
Over the last few days, Mr. Mladenov has held discussions with a number of Iraqi political leaders and encouraged everyone to stay within the framework of the constitutional political process so that the Council of Representatives meets promptly. He added that the blocs in Parliament should limit the number of days for final negotiations, and work within constitutionally mandated timelines for the necessary nominations. More information is available online.
Over the weekend, the Secretary-General's Special Representative for Somalia, Nicolas Kay, issued a statement condemning the recent attack on the Somali Parliament and the many killings claimed by Al-Shabaab since the start of Ramadan. He called on all Somalis to unite, and work with the authorities to prevent further attacks and bring the perpetrators to justice. Mr. Kay added that the UN is working actively with the Federal Government, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and international partners to help the country build a strong Somali national security force. More information is available online.
The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) is deeply concerned by Australia's announcement today that it has returned some 41 asylum-seekers to Sri Lanka after having intercepted them at sea.
The agency says it understands that "enhanced screening procedures" were used as a basis for determining whether these 41 individuals raised claims for protection which required further consideration. Without further information, the agency says it cannot confirm whether they were in accordance with international law.
The agency has previously made known its concerns to Australia about its enhanced screening procedures and their non-compliance with international law. It says that it does not object to the returns of persons properly found not to be in need of international protection, but it considers that anyone claiming asylum has a right to have their case properly assessed by qualified personnel in accordance with the necessary procedural and legal safeguards.
The agency also expressed its concern over the fate of a further 153 asylum-seekers of Sri Lankan origin who are now subject to an Australian High Court injunction on their return. Its full statement is available on its website.
I have the following statement attributable to the Spokesman for the Secretary-General:
The Secretary-General was saddened to learn of the passing of H.E. Mr. Eduard Shevardnadze, who served as President of the Republic of Georgia during the challenging early years of his country's independence.
The Secretary-General recalls Mr. Eduard Shevardnadze's significant contribution as Foreign Minister of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the international stage and his efforts to overcome the divisions of the Cold War, including through advocating for nuclear disarmament at the United Nations.
The Secretary-General extends his sincere condolences to the bereaved family of Mr. Eduard Shevardnadze as well as the Government and people of Georgia.
The UN refugee agency, or UNHCR, has reported that many Pakistani families displaced in Afghanistan's Khost and Paktika provinces are urgently in need of food. Military operations in Pakistan's North Waziristan region had forced an estimated 95,000 people to flee to Afghanistan. Many of them have arrived across the border with few possessions and host communities in Afghanistan are struggling to cope with the influx.
UN agencies and humanitarian partners have scaled up assistance since mid-June. The World Food Programme (WFP) has distributed food rations to 900 families. UNICEF, the World Health Organization (WHO) and partners have vaccinated nearly 25,000 children against polio. WHO has prepositioned life-saving medication for 25,000 patients and UNHCR has distributed tents to hundreds of families. More information is available online.
**Personal Status of Same-Sex Couples in Secretariat
The Secretary-General has issued a bulletin that presents a new way of determining personal status applicable to same-sex couples across the UN Secretariat.
Previously, a staff member's personal status was determined by the laws applicable in their country of nationality. Now, personal status will be determined instead by the law of the competent authority under which the personal status was established. As such, if a same-sex couple get married in a country where same-sex marriages are legal, the personal status of the staff member involved will be determined on that basis.
Describing the new policy, the Secretary-General said that human rights are at the core of the mission of the United Nations. He said that he is proud to stand for greater equality for all staff. He also calls on all members of the UN family to unite in rejecting homophobia. The new policy became effective on 26 June.
Tomorrow at 11 a.m., Jeffrey Sachs, the Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, and Laurence Tubiana, the French Ambassador for climate negotiations, will be here to brief on the Decarbonization Pathways report. The Secretary-General will make introductory remarks at that briefing. Yes, Karahman?
**Questions and Answers
Question: Thank you, Farhan. Two questions. One, on this same-sex couples issue, can you elaborate on it? What does it mean for the people of same-sex background here at the UN? What does it mean for them? How is it going to improve working for them? And is this a better policy? I mean, there seem to be a lot of people working for the UN system that are from countries that do not actually support same-sex marriage. What does it mean for those people?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, the basic point is that, at this stage, the personal status of the staff member is determined by the law of the competent authority under which the personal status is established. In other words, if you have a marriage — including, for example, a same-sex marriage — that is performed in a country where same-sex marriages are legal, then the status of that staff member is in accordance with the fact that their marriage was conducted in a place where same-sex marriages are legal. This is a step forward that many of the staff members of the United Nations have been seeking for some time. So this certainly is something for which gay, lesbian and other staff members have seen as a step forward. Like I just said, the Secretary-General, in announcing the policy, pointed out that he is proud to stand for greater equality for all staff.
Question: And on Syria, we hear a lot from the diplomatic community that some Member States have actually not reached an agreement over who the successor to Mr. [Lakhdar] Brahimi would be. Is the Secretary-General feeling strained by these indecisions or fighting amongst the Member States, or between Member States? Is he being held up by those… can you kind of enlighten us on that?
Deputy Spokesman: The Secretary-General's decision-making is influenced primarily by what he thinks would be the best course forward for us on Syria, and it is with that in mind that he is looking to see who would be the best person to carry on the work that had been done by Mr. Brahimi. When we have something to announce, we will announce it, but at this stage we don't have any final thing to tell you about that. Yes?
Question: Just a follow-up on the same-sex issue, did the Secretary-General confer with the incoming President of the General Assembly on this matter? And is this something that the Secretary-General decided he had the authorization to do unilaterally, without a vote by the General Assembly?
Deputy Spokesman: This is not a matter for which he needs to go to the Member States. The Secretary-General acted on his own authority as the head of the management of the United Nations; this was a managerial decision affecting UN staff. Yes?
Question: Thanks a lot. Two quick questions. One, is there a response to the letter from Mahmoud Abbas delivered through Robert Serry about the situation in Israel and Palestine? And also, what does the Secretariat think of the military action in eastern Ukraine, including what is described now as sort of a blockade and a convergence around Luhansk and Donetsk? What is the Secretariat's comment on what should happen next?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, regarding your first question, we can confirm that Robert Serry, in his capacity as the Secretary-General's representative on the ground, was handed a letter on Sunday by President Mahmoud Abbas which calls for "an international and independent investigation into the murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir". The letter is being transmitted to the Secretary-General. The Secretary-General has not yet seen the letter. When he sees it, we will study it and respond in due course. We are aware of the issues concerned, but of course he needs to see the letter from Mr. Serry.
Regarding your second question, we are studying the situation in Ukraine. You are aware of course of our concerns, and the Secretary-General's previous comments in terms of the desire to make sure that all the parties on the ground do what they can to avoid violence. If we have anything further to say on this, I will let you know then. Yes?
[The Deputy Spokesman later issued the following note to correspondents:
The Secretary-General is aware of reports that armed militias have regrouped in Donetsk and Lugansk and that the Ukrainian forcesare engaging in intensified military activity.
The Secretary-General strongly condemns the continued, unlawful actions of armed groups. He also urges the Ukrainian authorities to exercise maximum restraint and to take every possible step to ensure the protection of the large civilian population in these areas.
The Secretary-General reiterates that military means alone cannot provide a solution. A renewed and lasting ceasefire upheld by all parties is fundamental. The continuation of a political and diplomatic process towards a definitive cessation of violence and a peaceful resolution of the crisis is critical.]
Question: Thank you. What is the position of the Secretary-General on the idea of convening an international meeting on Iraq at the UN, as was proposed by the Russian Federation?
Deputy Spokesman: We are aware of the proposal. I believe the Member States will be discussing that and we will see where they go with their discussions. I don't have any other reaction at this stage while they discuss it amongst themselves. Yes, Iftikhar?
Question: Thank you, Farhan. Following up on Matthew's question on the situation in the Middle East, has the Secretary-General issued a statement on the Palestinian boy who was brutally beaten by Israeli soldiers?
Deputy Spokesman: We have talked at length about the violence, and you are aware of the statement we issued after the murder of one youth late last week, and I would refer you to that statement. But he [the Secretary-General] is on record expressing his concerns, both about the killings of the three Israeli youth and of the other actions that have taken place on the ground since then. Yes, Pam?
Question: Thank you, Farhan. Has there been any statement by the Secretary-General following up on the Al Jazeera reporters, particularly since the President [of Egypt, Abdelfattah] al-Sisi said during the weekend that he had wished these reporters were not tried?
Deputy Spokesman: Yes, the Secretary-General had, as you know, met with President al-Sisi in Malabo in Equatorial Guinea just recently, just the week before last, and as he told the press afterwards, he had raised the issue of press freedom with him. I would refer you to the readout we put out of that meeting, as well. I don't have anything new to say. Of course, we are monitoring recent developments, and he is aware of the recent interview that the President gave. Yes?
Question: Regarding the situation in the occupied territories. Of course, the escalation happened when two youths were first killed near Ofer prison — the video showed they were killed when they were not in any violent actions against the Israelis, and the soldiers who killed them, they were not brought to justice yet. Do you have anything? The Secretary-General, I remember, called for an investigation about that? Did you receive anything from the Israelis about any action taken against those who killed the two young people?
Deputy Spokesman: You have seen the statements that we have issued, and we have put out a considerable amount of comment on the incidents on the ground. I would just refer you back to those. I don't have anything to add to what we have already said on that.
Question: The Secretary-General asked for an investigation on that. He asked the Israelis to investigate the matter.
Deputy Spokesman: Like I said, I would just refer you back to what we have said. I don't have anything to add at this point. Yes?
Question: Thanks for the statement on the Sri Lankan asylum seekers. I wanted to ask you… over… since, reported today and released is a Sri Lankan Government letter to all NGOs in Sri Lanka, saying "it has been revealed that certain NGOs conduct press conferences, workshops, training for journalists and dissemination of press releases. They are ordered to cease this forthwith." And I wanted to know, is this, what is the Secretariat's position on the rights of NGOs to do those things, the right of journalists to receive information? And did Mr. [Oscar Fernandez-]Taranco, who visited there recently, raise this issue? Does he have anything to say about it? What is your view of this?
Deputy Spokesman: We will check. We will have to study what this particular injunction was, and we will have to evaluate that. Yes?
Question: Farhan, just a follow-up to Matthew's. Actually, what is the ethnicity or religion of those asylum seekers from Sri Lanka, do you know?
Deputy Spokesman: As far as I am aware, there was a variety. There was no specific ethnic group, but for further details you might want to check with the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, which is trying to get more information about that. Yes, in the back?
Question: Regarding the Ebola outbreak, there's an announcement from Doctors without Borders [inaudible]. Does WHO have the resources? And what's the latest?
Deputy Spokesman: You will have seen that we put out some updates from the World Health Organization [WHO] on Ebola, in fact it continues to provide a running update on Ebola on its website, so I would refer you to that. Its concerns about the scale of this outbreak remain the same. It is very concerned about that, but at the same time, it has been doing what it can to work with the local authorities to deal with the problem on the ground. But, like I said, for periodic updates, I would refer you over to the World Health Organization's website. Yes?
Question: Farhan, you spoke about the work done by the United Nations agencies for Pakistani refugees in Afghanistan, but what about the displaced persons within Pakistan? What is the update on the United Nations activities there?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, we provided an update on that last week, I believe. If we have any further updates about how we are dealing with the situation of displacement in Pakistan, I will let you know, but we have been giving periodic updates on that. And the next time we can, we will do that.
Question: On Saudi Arabia, and Syria. In Saudi Arabia, an activist, Walid Abu Al Kheir, has been sentenced to 15 years, basically for speaking to the media and tweeting, and for criticizing human rights in Saudi Arabia, and I wondered if the Secretariat has any comment on that?
Deputy Spokesman: At this stage, we will study the matter, and we will see whether either our side or the High Commissioner for Human Rights makes a comment.
Question: And the other one is, since Sigrid Kaag is not here, and is presumably not doing a stakeout, I just wanted to ask you this and maybe you will have an answer, the most recent report there says that the next step in the destroying the production facilities, the Director-General of the OPCW, under this joint mission, will begin preparatory work for the conclusion of a contract, without calling for tenders, quotations or proposals, which seems to me to be kind of a sole-source contract, or a set-aside contract. Is there some reason that the work cannot be done in the normal way of seeking bids, etcetera?
Deputy Spokesman: For that I would have to refer you over to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. It is their Executive Council and their Director-General who are going to be seized with the matter of what the next steps will be and how that is handled, so I would refer you over to their people.
Question: The only reason is… Is any of the money raised by the Secretariat side of this Joint Mission going to be used for that contract? That is why I think it's important.
Deputy Spokesman: I believe Ms. Kaag has been providing the Security Council with updates about the various trust funds and how they are to be used. I believe this is a separate expenditure, but you would need to check that again with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. That is part of their work, as opposed to the work of the Joint Mission. Yes?
Question: With the head of ISIS [Islamic State in Iraq and the Sham] — Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — declaring the caliphate, compromising the sovereignty of two States — which is Syria and Iraq, and also jeopardizing other States in the region, how does the United Nations view such a declaration? Do you have any statement on that?
Deputy Spokesman: I have nothing really to say, other than that of course we continue to uphold the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all States, and that of course includes Iraq and Syria.
Have a good afternoon, everyone.
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For information media • not an official record
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