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Daily Press Briefing by the Office of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General, 28 August 2014

Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York

The following is a near-verbatim transcript of today’s noon briefing by Stéphane Dujarric, Spokesman for the Secretary-General.

** Ukraine

Good afternoon, I will start off with a statement from the Secretary-General on the situation in Ukraine. The Secretary-General is alarmed by reports that fighting in eastern Ukraine has spread southward, near the border of the Sea of Azov and the Russian Federation. If confirmed, this will mark a dangerous escalation in the Ukrainian crisis. The international community cannot allow the situation to escalate further nor can a continuation be allowedof the violence and destruction that the conflict has wrought in eastern Ukraine. The Secretary-General notes the recent talks in Minsk on 26 August, as well as the first official meeting between the Presidents of Ukraine and Russia. He calls for continuity of these talks, with a view to forging a peaceful way out of the conflict. All must do their part to contribute to the peaceful resolution of this conflict, in a manner upholding Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. And that statement is now online.

** Golan Heights

Many of you have been asking us this morning for an update on the situation in the Golan Heights, and I can tell you some more details on the peacekeepers serving with the UN Disengagement Observer Force, otherwise known as UNDOF, who have been detained or whose movements are currently being restricted. A period of increased fighting began yesterday between armed elements and the Syrian Arab Armed Forces within the area of separation in the Golan Heights. There are 43 Fijian troops from Position 27 who are being detained in the vicinity of Al Qunaytirah. Our understanding is that they are now in the southern part of the Area of Separation. There are a further 81 troops from the Philippines who are having their movements restricted at Positions 68 and 69 in the vicinity of Ar Ruwayhinah and Burayqah.

The United Nations is making every effort to secure the release of the detained peacekeepers, and to restore full freedom of movement of the Forces throughout its area of operation. UNDOF peacekeepers, as you will remember, were previously detained by armed elements in March and May of 2013 and were then released safely. Peacekeepers serving with UNDOF monitor the 1974 disengagement accord between Syria and Israel after the 1973 war. In June, the Security Council extended the mission's mandate for another six months, until 31 December. And just to give you a breakdown, as of 31 July, there are 1,223 peacekeepers serving in UNDOF from six countries — Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, Netherlands and the Philippines. And we have put out maps in the back of the room to give you a better idea of where these different positions are.

**Secretary-General Travels

Turning to the Secretary-General and his travels, he is currently in Bali to attend the sixth Global Forum of the Alliance of Civilizations. Today, he met with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. They discussed the recent elections in Indonesia, the situation in the Middle East, Myanmar, Iraq, as well as the partnership between the UN and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). And that readout is available online and in my office.

The Secretary-General also attended the closing ceremony of the Youth Event organized by the Government of Indonesia and the Alliance of Civilizations on Unity in Diversity. He praised the young participants for raising their voices to drown out extremists, and encouraged them to be solid global citizens and leaders of today. Those remarks are also available online. And tomorrow, the Secretary-General will address the Global Forum of the Alliance of Civilizations and will also hold several bilateral meetings, before departing for Samoa to attend the Conference on Small Island Developing States.

**Security Council

And back here, the Security Council met this morning on Syria, and it was briefed by Kyung-wha Kang, the Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs. Ms. Kang told the Council that in the past six months since resolution 2139 (2014) was passed, the plight of the people in Syria has deepened. She noted the continuing collective punishment of civilians in violation of international humanitarian law. Ms. Kang also said the advance of ISIL [Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant] into central Syria is taking the violence meted out to unprotected civilians to a new level. She called on the Council to all it can to end the conflict and ensure humanitarian access increases. Humanitarian agencies and our partners are doing everything we can, but, she said, the solution to this crisis does not rest with us. Her full remarks are available in my office.

And I also understand the Council is currently being briefed by DPKO [Department of Peacekeeping Operations] on the situation in the Golan Heights. And at 2 p.m., as you will see, the Security Council will also meet on Ukraine.

**South Sudan

Turning over to South Sudan, the Humanitarian Coordinator for South Sudan, Toby Lanzer, today said he was worried that it might not be possible to prevent a famine in the country this year. He said that if famine were to happen, it would be towards the end of the year, more likely in early 2015. Mr. Lanzer said the single biggest cause, if there is famine, is the failure of the political leadership to resolve the current crisis. Meanwhile, the UN has suspended all flights to Bentiu in Unity State, following the crash of the UN cargo helicopter earlier this week, in which you will recall three Russian crew members were killed. This suspension will impact the provision of lifesaving assistance to more than 46,600 people who are seeking safety in UN peacekeeping bases in Bentiu.

** Iraq — Humanitarian

And from Iraq, our humanitarian colleagues in Northern Iraq said that the UN continues to support the Iraqi Government and the northern regional authorities in delivering emergency life-saving aid. Key priorities are shelter, food, clean water and sanitation as well as medical assistance. Protection remains a critical issue. The World Food Programme (WFP), which has delivered food to more than 700,000 people since the start of the crisis in June, warns that there is an urgent need for assistance in areas under siege by armed groups, particularly in Anbar and Salah al-Din. The UN refugee agency reports that a new camp for displaced people is now open in Dahuk, in the Kurdistan region. Since the major scale up of assistance last week, UNHCR [Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] has delivered more than 10,000 tents and over 100,000 mattresses for hundreds of thousands of displaced people. In Dahuk, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) today signed an agreement with authorities to drill wells to provide water to displaced people in the Governorate, which now hosts more than 400,000 people. UNDP and its partners are also providing legal assistance on gender-based violence to displaced people in Dahuk. And more information is available on the UNDP website.

**Occupied Palestinian Territory — Humanitarian

A quick note on Gaza: our colleagues there said that, as of yesterday afternoon, almost 233,000 displaced people had left the UNRWA [United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East] shelters and approximately 54,000 people remained in 78 shelters. However, the number of IDPs [internally displaced persons] is still very fluid, as people left shelters temporarily to go back to their work and check on their homes to gather personal items.

** Libya — Humanitarian

And a humanitarian update also from Libya. The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says the latest figures from the local authorities in Libya indicate that around 107,000 people are internally displaced in and around Tripoli. However, reliable figures for Benghazi are not yet available. UN agencies and partners are working plans to provide humanitarian aid to displaced people. The World Food Programme (WFP) is preparing to reach some 50,000 of them.

** Afghanistan

And a note from Afghanistan: earlier today, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for that country, Ján Kubiš, briefed President Hamid Karzai on the progress of the Presidential election run-off audit. Mr. Kubiš emphasized that, given the absence from the audit of agents of the presidential candidates, UN experts engaged in the audit continue to conduct their work with strict impartiality, professionalism and vigilance. Mr. Kubiš said that the audit could be completed around 10 September. He added that, following all other necessary steps, the inauguration of the new President should then be possible soon thereafter. And more information is available on UNAMA’s website.

**World Health Organization — Ebola

And an Ebola update. The World Health Organization (WHO) has issued a road map to guide, coordinate and scale up international response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. The road map will serve as a framework for updating detailed operational plans where the aim is to stop ongoing Ebola transmission worldwide within six to nine months, while rapidly managing the consequences of any further international spread. WHO reports that there are now 3,069 probable and confirmed cases in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. So far, 1,552 people have died. And more than 40 per cent of the cases have occurred within the past three weeks. And more information is available on WHO’s website. And I will add that we expect both Dr. [David] Nabarro and Dr. [Margaret] Chan to be in New York next week and we have asked that they come and brief you.

** Turkey

In response to a question that Erol asked — he’s not here, but I’ll give him the answer anyway — that it was the UNDP Resident Coordinator and Resident Representative of the UN in Turkey, Kamal Malhotra, who attended the inauguration of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Ankara today, representing the UN and the Secretary-General.

**Noon Briefing Guest

And after you have done with me, we will be joined by UNDP’s Deputy Director for the Bureau for Asia and the Pacific, Nicholas Rosellini, as well as Odo Tevi, the Permanent Representative of the Republic of Vanuatu to the United Nations. They will be here to brief you and to present findings from a new UNDP report entitled “The State of Human Development in the Pacific: A Report on Vulnerability and Exclusion in a time of rapid change.”

Now it’s your turn and you’ve got to be ready.

**Questions and Answers

Question: Thank you. My question is whether the UN has established a contact with the armed group who is responsible for abducting those peacekeepers or observers? And I wonder whether the UN has taken any precautious measures because of the previous incidents to protect these observers in the Golan Heights? Thank you.

Spokesman: In the past, the mission has been reinforced in the past year to ensure that we're able to perform our mandate. As for contacts, there are contacts being held at different levels, on the mission and on the ground. They are talking to representatives of various armed groups that they have contact with, operational contact with. They are talking to countries in the region. And here at Headquarters, obviously we are in touch with various Permanent Missions.

Right now, they are trying to establish the best contact possible to ensure that the freedom of movement of the peacekeepers is resumed as quickly as possible.

Question: Can you name [inaudible]…

Spokesman: Obviously, all the countries in the region. And obviously, critically, the countries of the troops that are detrained, both the Fiji and the Filipinos. But, as these contacts are ongoing, I think the situation — you'll understand the situation is extremely fluid. We're obviously very concerned about the fate of our colleagues and of these peacekeepers. So, as soon as we can update you further with more details, we will share it with you. Oleg?

Question: Thank you, Stéphane. With the reports that the fighting is heading to the border with the Russian Federation…

Spokesman: Could you speak a little louder, please?

Question: With the reports that the fighting is heading towards Russia, can the UN verify these reports or no? And also does the Secretary-General have anything to say with the escalation situation, the reports that Russian troops are in Ukraine?

Spokesman: I think the statement is based on the reports that we're seeing. We're obviously not in a position to confirm exactly who is on which side of the border. But, I think the Secretary-General notes that this would create — be a very important escalation of the situation. And I think through the statement which I just read, he calls on both the Russians and the Ukrainians to increase their bilateral contacts and build on the initial meeting they had in Minsk earlier this week. Yes, Masood.

Correspondent: That report candidates are not participating in the counting process. In event that the United Nations does come up with a result, it seemed as though they will not accept it. Will there be another election? What [inaudible]…

Spokesman: This is an Afghan-led process. A lot of that will be up to the Afghans themselves to ensure that the Constitution is followed. The UN is supporting the audit and is continuing with the audit. And I think as the Deputy Secretary-General said in an op-ed a few days ago, what's important is that we count the ballots and that the results be accepted by all sides, and that the transition of power be a peaceful transition of power.

Correspondent: But, the thing is with statements made by both the candidates, especially Abdullah Abdullah, he basically is rejecting the election.

Spokesman: We obviously regret that one of the presidential candidates has decided to halt his participation in the audit process; however, we are continuing with that audit process, with Afghan experts, international observers and UN experts. I don't want to predict or get in front of whatever the results will be. But, it is an Afghan-led process. Nizar?

Question: Stéphane, given the incident of the Golan happened between Syria, Israel, Georgia and other parties are involved, in the previous occasion or previous experience in 2013, the Filipinos, the Filipino observers, were let to go through Jordan. How is every country now cooperating in this regard? The Israelis have allowed rebels to go through the buffer zone or the non-fighting zone? And they, in the past, they were allowed even to carry out attacks even with thanks as the report of the Secretary-General showed.

Spokesman: What is the question, Nizar?

Question: How is every country cooperating in [inaudible]…?

Spokesman: Every Member State has a responsibility to support the work of the United Nations, and we would accept — we would expect that all the countries bordering the UNDOF area would support the UN and would help facilitate the return of the peacekeepers that are being detained and would ensure the safety of the mission as a whole. And I think we're getting good cooperation from all those concerned.

Question: Does it mean that these Filipinos now or these observers are used as hostages in order to open a way?

Spokesman: I think you're speculating. No, no, I know you're asking, but you're asking while speculating or speculating while asking. We are not using that word. Currently they are detained. We are trying to locate their whereabouts and trying to ensure that they are released. I'll come back to you. Benny?

Question: Can you confirm reports from the region that some of them were actually released?

Spokesman: No. I asked as of a few minutes ago, but I'm not able to. Yes, Ma'am. And then Matthew.

Question: In the previous cases, was a ransom asked? And regarding UNDOF. And also what was the negotiation process to get them released safely last time?

Spokesman: Negotiations. No ransom was asked, as far as I'm aware. No ransom was paid. And negotiations were done at the local level. Matthew?

Question: Sure. I wanted to ask about South Sudan. Yesterday, I asked you if there's any UN response to the SPLA [Sudan People’s Liberation Army] in Opposition that they don't accept the IGAD [Intergovernmental Authority on Development] process and the Secretary-General had praised. I also, wanted to ask you about an UNMISS [United Nations Mission in South Sudan] employee/journalist George Livio, who they say has been retained by the Government, and the UN has supposedly said nothing for a week? Can you verify he is detained?

Spokesman: I'm trying to get information on that, as well. I don't have anything new on IGAD.

Question: Stéphane, during the Israeli attack on Gaza, three UN schools belong to UNRWA were attacked. And the statement of the Secretary-General, he said these attacks would be investigated. Any update on the investigation [inaudible]?

Spokesman: No. I think these things are currently being worked out. The process of border inquiry, of assessment, the administrative details are being worked out, and we hope to be able to share something with you soon. Yes. All the way in the back.

Question: Stéphane, President [Petro] Poroshenko spoke to the nation today and he was asking the UN to take action on the situation with Russia. What does Secretary-General thinks about this call for action of the UN? And will we see any members of the UN team going back and analyzing what's happening on the ground?

Spokesman: I think, obviously, we have to see what comes out of the consultations on Ukraine that are happening in Security Council this afternoon. And I think, as far as the Secretary-General's message, it’s clear that he is encouraging both President Poroshenko and President [Vladimir] Putin to build on their initial meeting in Minsk to continue a dialogue. Evelyn and then Joe.

Correspondent: Yes, thanks, Stéphane. On UNDOF, you mentioned various armed groups. I thought it was one. And it's been named in the press.

Spokesman: The situation on the ground is exactly what I said, is fluid. We are dealing with non-State armed actors. The command and control of these groups is unclear. So, at this point we're not in a position to confirm who is holding whom. Some groups have self-identified as being affiliated with Jabhat al-Nusra, however we're not able to confirm it. Joe, you've moved to the left now.

Correspondent: Yeah. And actually I was going to ask you the same question as Evelyn, so I will pass.

Spokesman: Jonathan and then Richard and then Stefano. First round first, then second questions later.

Question: Back to UNDOF. Qatar the other day played an instrumental role with the release because of their connections of Al-Nusra of the American journalist. Has Qatar been contacted by the United Nations? Are they playing a role?

Spokesman: At this point the discussions are ongoing. We're contacting all countries that we think can play a positive… to ensure positive outcome of the situation. Richard then Stefano.

Correspondent: I don't like following Fox.

Spokesman: You're four rows behind.

Question: I have another line that will be derogatory towards myself, so I will not say it. No, no, I don't want to be “Twitterized”. Maybe you could remind people, including myself, what are the rules of the road when the UN peacekeepers are "detained"? It is starting to recall those "hapless" images of peacekeepers in Bosnia being tied to telephone poles. They are peacekeepers, but obviously no one wants a flare-up in the situation. What are the rules for UN peacekeepers? And perhaps if it continues, maybe we can get Edmund Mulet tomorrow to brief us?

Spokesman: Sure. Obviously, the safety and security of our troops is paramount. They need to have the freedom of movement that they need to ensure that the mission, their mission mandate is fulfilled. You know, in extreme circumstances, these troops are trained and prepared and equipped to defend themselves, but obviously, each situation has to be analysed on a case-by-case basis. But, they are trained and equipped to defend themselves. And the mission and the mandate, as appropriate, to the extent of their capabilities, which depends, as I said, on the conditions on the ground. Stefano and then we'll go…

Question: Yes. Richard's question was my question, a real engagement. I don't want to miss the opportunity to ask a question, so I ask another question. Of the two crises in this moment, Syria and Iraq and the one in Ukraine, this particular day between today and tomorrow, which one is the one that doesn't make the Secretary-General sleep at night?

Spokesman: You also forgot to mention Ebola. I think we're seeing an almost unprecedented level of crises that the UN has to deal with around the world. I don't think it is — Secretary-General as a rule doesn't sleep much. So, I think — and he works hard. So, I don't think it's impacting his already heavy — he's already working extremely hard, and as I mentioned, not sleeping much. But, I think it's not so much which one is more important, because it just depends where you are. If you're in Iraq, that's probably the most important situation to you. If you're in Syria, that's the most important situation. So, I would hate to rank the importance of suffering that we're seeing around the world. One of you had a question and then we'll move back left.

Question: Hi. Regarding UNDOF, in lieu of ransom, have any other demands been put?

Spokesman: Sorry. You have to speak a little louder. Hold. No. I understand you were asking if any demands have been met. I'm not going to go into any details at this point. We're just working on securing the release.

Question: Yes, thank you, Stéphane. With respect to the Commission just having reported that Syrian Government forces may have likely used chlorine gas in eight separate incidents, does the UN have a position on whether the 1925 Geneva protocol concerning chemical weapons applies to both international and non-international armed conflicts? And given that, now we have what is really a trans-border conflict with ISIL. Is the Syrian conflict, by definition, a de jure international conflict?

Spokesman: You're asking me to make legal rulings, which I will not make. I'm only a Spokesman; I'm not a lawyer. However, I think we've seen the regional implications of both the conflict in Syria and Iraq. And that is one of growing concern. In terms of, you know the chlorine. As you will recall, there was a fact finding mission undertaken by the OPCW [Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons] in May, which was separate from the joint UN-OPCW mission. They found that with the available information lend credence to the view that toxic chemicals, most likely pulmonary irritating agents such as chlorine, had been used in a systematic manner in a number of attacks. However, the OPCW was not in a position to draw any conclusions as to regard to responsibility of those attacks. Kristin and then Evan.

Question: A point of clarification. When you said the peacekeepers are being held in the southern part of the area of separation, that's still on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights?

Spokesman: That's within the… you should look at the map. It's within the UNDOF area, within the UNDOF area.

Question: Which is considered not necessarily either side?

Spokesman: We can go through the map with you in detail.

Question: I have a report that the National Council for Television and Radio Broadcasting of Ukraine proposed to increase the black list of Russian journalists banned from the country from 38 to 49 names. What is the position of the Secretary-General on that?

Spokesman: I haven't seen those reports, but I think as we've talked about Ukraine here before, the Secretary-General supports full freedom of access for journalists, which is a critical to the straight reporting of information. Joe, then Masood, then Matthew.

Question: This is sort of a follow-up to an earlier question regarding ISIL and also in light of the statement to the Security Council this morning about the advancement of the ISIL into central Syria, taking violence meted out to unprotected civilians to a new level. Does the Secretary-General have a view on whether there would be justification for [the United States] or Coalition Forces to conduct air strikes in Syria against ISIL, irrespective of whether the Syrian Government consents? Or does he believe that that has to still go to the Security Council for a resolution?

Spokesman: I think we've talked about what ISIL and ISIS [Islamic State in Iraq and the Shams] have done. I think we've condemned it in very clear terms and it's caused great anguish and concern to the Secretary-General to see the suffering. He would hope that whatever action is taken against these groups is done within the confines of international law. Matthew? Sorry. Masood, then Matthew, that was the order of the winning ticket. Yes, you go.

Question: Just want to know, the first information that you got about of the capture of the UN peacekeepers [inaudible] was from Israel? Is that rights?

Spokesman: No, not at all. I never said that.

Question: Who gave you the information?

Spokesman: We do. They have a mission. They know when their soldiers go missing.

Correspondent: Yeah, what I'm saying now that at that point in time, the way I read it, Israel also informed you that Al-Nusra Israel has crossed over and taken UN peacekeepers hostage.

Spokesman: The way we receive information is through UN sources. I was in a video conference with the head of the mission a few hours ago. I mean, we obviously can keep track of our positions if there is an issue. We know when these people go missing. So, Matthew, then Evelyn.

Question: Sure. I was going to ask about international law, but I guess I can put that one off. I do ask you about Thailand. Their human rights activists there… [Pornpen] Khongkachonkiet has been charged with criminal defamation for reporting on alleged torture in southern Thailand in Muslim provinces. And people are saying there's a 96 per cent conviction rate and this makes it impossible to report these things. So, I wondered, one, is there any comment? Two, I saw the readout of the Secretary-General with the President of Indonesia and he listed a series of issues, but Thailand not being one of them. Does he view, as his travel of that region, is he discussing this crisis with any other leaders? How does he view the military rule in Thailand?

Spokesman: I have nothing to add to what I said a couple days ago on the need to return to constitutional rule in Thailand. I will look up this specific case for you and if we get anything, I will share it with you. Evelyn, and then we'll allow our UNDP guests to come in.

Question: France is asking the United Nations to intervene directly in the Libyan crisis. Is anyone preparing things? Or is something the Council will eventually [inaudible]…?

Spokesman: I would assume that this is something that the Security Council will take up. If I ask you to wait two minutes and we will bring our UNDP guests in.

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