Daily Press Briefing by the Office of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General
Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York
26 March 2015
The following is a near-verbatim transcript of today's noon briefing by Farhan Haq, Deputy Spokesman for the Secretary-General.
Good afternoon, everyone.
I have the following statement attributable to the Spokesman for the Secretary-General on Yemen:
The Secretary-General notes that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has announced that, at the request of the Government of Yemen, it has begun military operations in Yemen. He is aware of reports that other States, in particular members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, are also supporting these operations.
The Secretary-General recalls the Security Council's presidential statement of 22 March, which, while supporting the legitimacy of the President of Yemen, Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi, called upon all parties and Member States to refrain from taking any actions that undermine the unity, sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Yemen. The Security Council also called on all Member States to refrain from external interference which seeks to foment conflict and instability and instead to support the political transition.
The Secretary-General reminds all parties involved of their obligations under international humanitarian law to ensure the protection of civilians and of all humanitarian and United Nations and associated personnel, as well as of the rules and principles of international human rights law and refugee law.
The Secretary-General highly appreciates the tireless efforts of his Special Adviser, Jamal Benomar, and notes that, despite escalation, negotiations remain the only option for ultimately resolving the Yemeni crisis. The Secretary-General will continue to closely monitor the unfolding situation in Yemen.
I have a trip to announce. The Secretary-General will travel tomorrow to Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, to participate in the Summit of the League of Arab States on 28 and 29 March, before heading to Kuwait City, Kuwait, to chair the third pledging conference for Syria.
In Sharm el-Sheikh, the Secretary-General will address the opening session of the twenty-sixth League of Arab States Summit. He will also hold bilateral meetings with several Heads of State and senior officials attending the meeting, including Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the President of Egypt.
On Monday, 30 March, the Secretary-General will travel to Kuwait City for the third pledging conference for Syria, organized on 31 March. He will meet with Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah, Amir of the State of Kuwait, and hold a series of bilateral meetings in the margins of the conference. The Secretary-General will be back in New York on 1 April.
The Security Council heard this morning from Robert Serry, the departing UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process. He congratulated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud party on winning the highest number of seats in the recent elections, but expressed his concern about many of the hard-line statements put forward in the final days of campaigning, in particular remarks by the Prime Minister raising serious doubts about Israel's commitment to the two-State solution. He urged the incoming Israeli Government to seize the opportunity of a fresh mandate to quickly demonstrate in words, and more importantly by actions, this commitment.
Mr. Serry added that there is a genuine possibility that ending Palestinian security coordination with Israel may be the final nail in the coffin of the Oslo Accords. However, there is still time for parties to end the cycle of counterproductive action and counteraction.
He said that, as the parties do not appear at this point ready to recommence negotiations, we should not rush them back to the table. But, he added that, if, indeed, we believe that they do continue to seek an outcome of two neighbouring States living in peace and security, the international community should seriously consider presenting a framework for negotiations, including parameters, to achieve this. This may be the only way to preserve the goal of a two-State solution, in the present circumstances.
Mr. Serry intends to speak to you in this room at 12:30 p.m. if he leaves the current consultations of the Security Council on time. But, if he can't be available by then, Mr. Serry will speak to you at the Security Council stakeout once consultations have ended. We'll let you know whether that happens.
And also on the Middle East, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, in its annual overview for 2014, said today that 2014 witnessed the highest civilian death toll for Palestinians since 1967. In Gaza, 1.8 million people experienced an escalation of hostilities, which resulted in more than 1,500 Palestinian civilian fatalities, including more than 550 children, and left some 100,000 residents without a home.
As you will have seen, the Security Council extended this morning the mandate of the UN [Organization Stabilization] Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) for another year. The Council endorsed the recommendation of the Secretary General to reduce the force by 2,000 troops.
And the Council also decided to authorize an increase of 750 military personnel, 280 police officers and 20 correction officers for the UN [Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization] Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA). This afternoon, Valerie Amos [Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs] will brief the Security Council on Syria and will come to the stakeout afterwards.
The Special Representative of the Secretary-General for West Africa, Mohammed ibn Chambas, continues to follow closely the situation in Nigeria. Today, he is scheduled to travel to Gombe State in the north-east of Nigeria to meet with the State authorities. As part of his mission in Nigeria, which started on 15 March, Mohammed ibn Chambas met yesterday in Port Harcourt Rivers State with the Governor, the PDP Gubernatorial candidate, and the State Resident Commissioner of Nigeria's Independent National Electoral Commission.
Mr. Chambas conveyed to all interlocutors the Secretary-General's message for peaceful, free and credible elections. He urged all stakeholders to strive towards achieving this objective. In particular, he called on the security apparatus to be above board and to demonstrate professionalism in discharging its duties during and after elections.
The UN refugee agency announced today that the number of asylum applications in industrialized countries reached a 22-year high last year. Almost 900,000 were lodged in those countries; that is a 45 per cent increase from 2013, and the highest since 1992, at the beginning of the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Syrians were by far the largest group among those seeking asylum in 2014, with almost 150,000 applications, one in every five asylum claims in the industrialized world. Iraqis accounted for 68,700 applications, almost double the number in 2013. Afghans were the third largest group, with almost 60,000 applications, followed by citizens of Serbia and Kosovo and Eritreans. The industrialized country receiving the largest number of asylum-seekers in 2014 was Germany. Then come the United States, Turkey, Sweden and Italy.
UNHCR [Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] also says that the Russian Federation, which is not included in this report for methodological reasons, received some 265,400 applications for temporary asylum and 5,800 applications for refugee status from Ukrainians during 2014. More details are available on the agency's website.
**Chiefs of Defence Conference
The Secretary-General will open the first-ever Chiefs of Defence Conference at the [Economic and Social Council] Chamber tomorrow. The event will gather chiefs of defence and senior military officials from more than 100 Member States to discuss issues central to UN Peacekeeping. This historic conference is part of a wider process of engagement with Member States to expand the peacekeeping partnership and promote effective and efficient implementation of complex mission mandates.
And you can watch the Secretary-General open the conference on UN WebTV at 9:15 a.m. The closing remarks by the Deputy Secretary-General, Jan Eliasson, and Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, Hervé Ladsous, will also be webcast live from 4:30 p.m. onwards.
And for press conferences, tomorrow, at 11 a.m., there will be a press conference here by Assistant Secretary-General on Climate Change Janos Pasztor on Earth Hour — that will take place on Saturday. That's it from me. Yes, Joe?
**Questions and Answers
Question: There's been a lot of debate, public debate, as you know, over the last year or so over whether change of Government is a coup or not. Egypt and Ukraine certainly come to mind. Can the UN consider what happened in Yemen a coup? Was it two coups? Was there one in Sana'a and was there one now in Aden? The reason I ask this is the Western position on Ukraine is that [Viktor] Yanukovych just ran away, fled. We read yesterday Hadi fled in a boat. Was that a coup?
Deputy Spokesman: You'll have seen the statement that I just read. We, as you know, did not use that word, but we do mention, as I said, again, the Security Council's presidential statement that was adopted this Sunday, which, once again, supports the legitimacy of the President of Yemen, Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi. So, we would continue to emphasize that particular point. Of course, what we have also said in the statement is that negotiations remain the only option for ultimately resolving the Yemeni crisis. Yes, Oleg?
Question: Thank you, Farhan. Yesterday from this podium, you were… I understand as you were warning about the consequences of the military solution to the conflict and you called not to use this path. Isn't the Secretary‑General concerned that some countries did not adhere to this call and are now… have now begun pursuing military solution of the conflict in Yemen? Thank you.
Deputy Spokesman: Well, once again, I'd refer you back to the statement we just put out, which, again, recalls that… again from the Security Council's presidential statement of 22 March that all Member States need to refrain from taking any actions that undermine the unity, sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Yemen. Yes?
Question: Sorry. Also on Yemen, could you just try to clarify the UN position — if the Secretary‑General is supporting or is opposed to this intervention without a resolution?
Deputy Spokesman: I've underlined what the concerns of the Secretary‑General are. That's part of the statement in full. Again, both the Secretary‑General today and the Security Council earlier this week listed several particular concerns about Yemen and those concerns are what apply to the situation. Regarding military action, again, while the Council does support President Hadi's legitimacy, they made it clear that States do need to refrain from taking actions that undermine the unity, sovereignty and independence of Yemen. Beyond that, as you know, the Security Council called on all Member States to refrain from external interference which seeks to foment conflict and instability, and instead, to support the political transition. And we would once more call on all nations, on all sides, to do what they can to support the political transition and to support the efforts of the Special Adviser, Jamal Benomar. Yes?
Question: All right. Thank you. Do you have any update on UN staff in Yemen and evacuations and what potential obstacles you have right now there with your staff there?
Deputy Spokesman: Regarding that, at… this is a very delicate and fluid situation, so things may change rapidly. We are keeping track of the conditions of all of our staff in Sana'a and we'll have to see what further steps need to be taken to ensure their security, but I wouldn't have anything to report on that. Regarding Aden, we had, I think, a little bit more than 10 international staff there who have now left, have been temporarily relocated from Aden and they are now outside of Yemen. Yes?
Question: Thank you. I want to go back to Yemen and so by recalling the presidential statement by the Security Council, does the [Secretary-General] think that countries that are taking military actions or countries that are supporting these military actions in their efforts are running counter to that presidential statement? I mean, I'm asking to you elaborate in that end and try to give us more sense of the way the [Secretary-General] is thinking. Does he think, by recalling this statement, he thinks that these States are… and actions are running counter to that statement?
Deputy Spokesman: That's… that's… that's not quite what I've said, so I would refer you directly to the language of the statement in full, which… which lays it out in the way that he intends. Beyond that, as you know, we're going to continue to engage with different parties to get further information on what's been happening and on how this particular intervention has come about. The Secretary‑General did speak by telephone earlier this morning with the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, and he also did discuss with him the situation and get from him further information about what's going on.
Question: Well, different news outlets are reporting that Saudi Arabia and Egypt might be ready to actually have… invade, like have some kind of ground offensive after this campaign. Do you think this would be further escalation of the situation in Yemen if it were to happen?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, I'd just refer to you what I've just already said on this. We have our concerns about any such involvement as laid out in the statement. Beyond that, we'd have to react if and when such a thing happens. Yes, Matthew?
Question: Hi. You said that Saudi Arabia said that they intervened at the request of Yemen. Has the UN verified that the Yemeni Government actually made this request?
Deputy Spokesman: We would need to get verification from President Hadi about what precisely he has said, but we… we would need to get that particular clarity. Like I said, the Secretary‑General has spoken to the Saudi foreign minister, but we would need further information from President Hadi and those authorities. Yes. Yes, Erol?
Correspondent: Farhan, I just… sorry. I have it in my hand, the statement attributable to the spokesman regarding Yemen, and it's… in the very first sentence, it goes that the understanding of the Secretary‑General actually is that the intervention is made on the request of the Yemeni Government. Now, my question is whether this intervention, or call it as you wish, indeed, could be put in any kind of context like responsibility for protection since civilians… protection of civilians are mentioned also, as well, here.
Deputy Spokesman: What's mentioned here in terms of protection of civilians is the need to make sure that, in any operations, the protection of civilians is kept at the forefront and we would keep it at that. Otherwise, I wouldn't have any such characterization to give. Yes, Joe? You, Joe, not you, Joe; you'll come later.
Question: Sticking with the topic of Yemen, maybe I try to ask this a different way. Excuse me. Number one, you referred in the statement to the Security Council presidential statement. It's been reported that the United States, which obviously voted for the presidential statement or supported, I should say, the presidential statement, has been providing some logistical support to Saudi Arabia. And secondly, the British deputy ambassador had said this morning in entering the Council that his Government supports what Saudi Arabia's doing. So, there's at least some interpretation of the presidential statement by permanent members of the Security Council that would say that what Saudi Arabia's doing at the request of the Government of Yemen to help the Government in self‑defence against the Houthi rebels is legitimate and not inconsistent with the spirit of the presidential statement. So, in light of that, could you try to reconcile here what it seems like the Secretary‑General is saying?
Deputy Spokesman: I just informed of you what the Secretary‑General said. In terms of interpreting the presidential statement of the Security Council, I'll leave it to the members of the Security Council who, as you just noted, have already been offering their own views about this. Yes, Linda?
Question: Thank you, Farhan. Regarding Yemen, can you just clarify again, is the UN looking into the question of whether Hadi requested help? And my second question is, you mentioned that I guess there are 10 international staff who are being located or may be relocated. What's the policy regarding local UN staff? Are they ever relocated because of danger?
Deputy Spokesman: Sometimes they're relocated to other areas. Other times, they're told to stay at their homes. It varies. The entire point is that for locally recruited staff, we don't, as a practice, take them out of their home countries. That's not what we tend to do. But, we do take specific measures to make sure that they'll be safe either in their homes or in other places where they might be safer. By the way, the… when I refer to 10 staff and international staff, that's only in Aden. There are about 100 or so international staff in Sana'a. Yes, in front. Yeah? Oh, okay. Then Joe. Joe Lauria, not Joe Klein.
Question: Essentially, the other Joe asked this. But, going beyond the political security matters in the statement that you've read several times now, just a legal question: There was a letter from Hadi to the Security Council requesting authorization for military force. So, there was a formal request. Under Article 51, that could be interpreted as self‑defence. I'm just saying on a legal basis, is… does Saudi Arabia have the legal right since Hadi is nationally recognized?
Deputy Spokesman: Certainly we're aware of Article 51 and what it entails. By the way, one of the parts of Article 51 if I can read… read part of it, it's a lengthy enough article, but, yes, it says: "Nothing in the Charter should impair the inherent right of self‑defence if an armed attack occurs against a member of the United Nations until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by members in the exercise of this right of self‑defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security."
Question: Did Riyadh notify the Security Council?
Deputy Spokesman: I… from what the Secretary‑General's phone conversation in the morning, we have at least some information that some notification might be forthcoming. And we'll see whether that happens or not.
Question: I'm assuming [Jamal] Benomar is really behind this statement. He doesn't think this is a good idea. Is that a fair characterization?
Deputy Spokesman: This statement encapsulates the views of the Secretary‑General, including his senior advisers. Yes?
Question: Since you just said that the notice is coming to the Security Council, was Jamal Benomar… did he have a prior notice before the beginning of the operation? And did Ban Ki‑moon know that there is something going on over there? Thank you.
Deputy Spokesman: I don't have any… anything to give you about prior notification. Like I said, following the operation, the Secretary‑General did speak with the Saudi foreign minister. Yes?
Question: Sorry, again. So, can we describe the [Secretary-General's] concern about this intervention?
Deputy Spokesman: I think I've described it just in terms of what's in the statement. Yes?
Question: So, in light of this… the possible forthcoming notification from Saudi Arabia, does the [Secretary-General] think that Security Council should take up this matter as urgently as possible, to discuss the situation in Yemen?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, the Security Council has been seized to this matter, which is how they came about issuing their presidential statement on Sunday itself. And I believe they'll remain seized of the matter and the Secretary‑General trusts that they will continue to be apprised of the issue. Yes?
Question: Will the Secretary‑General's visit in Egypt, will Yemen be the main topic?
Deputy Spokesman: We don't set the agenda for League of Arab State summits, but we trust that this will be a matter of some intense discussion. Yes?
Question: Farhan, going back to this statement and rather than obviously two things that somehow and so far, the Security Council is omitting… is missing as a player in all this, how would you characterise actually because… other than the Secretary‑General's intentions to monitor the situation in Yemen whether he's more in favour or he's not in favour of this kind of intervention?
Deputy Spokesman: The statement clearly says that, despite escalation, negotiations remain the only option for ultimately resolving the Yemeni crisis. That is the Secretary‑General's preferred course of action, and he's made that clear before this and continues to make that clear now. Regarding the role of the Security Council, as you can see, the language of the statement repeatedly harkens back to the Security Council's own presidential statement. So, it's a very strong role that they're playing in this. Yes?
Question: Is there any indication that the Houthis or Hadi's people are willing to negotiate? Have they made any offer right now, or are we locked in conflict?
Deputy Spokesman: At this point, the situation on the ground, as you know, has materially changed over the past couple of days. Despite that, as you know, Jamal Benomar has been intensely working with the Houthis and with others to get back on track. And he'll continue to do that as long as there's a possibility of resolving things through negotiations rather than through the sort of violence we've seen in recent days.
Question: Neither side has said, "I want to talk now; it's enough"?
Deputy Spokesman: We will continue to work with whoever is able to help bring the parties back to the table, and the ultimate goal is to resume both the course of negotiations and to resume the efforts at political transition, which have been arrested by these recent events. Yes?
Question: Thank you, Farhan. Why does the Secretary‑General seem hesitant to call the events in Yemen a coup?
Deputy Spokesman: We would need more details about precisely what's happened. You will have seen what we did say, and again, we continue to affirm the legitimacy of President Hadi. Yes?
Question: Could you describe a little bit more the Saudi military action? Would you describe it as an intervention and does it go against Article 51?
Deputy Spokesman: I read the entirety of Article 51, so you can interpret that as you see fit. I think I've described it as much as I can in the course of the… of the press conference thus far. Yes?
Question: Do you know where President Hadi is right now? Is he in a slow boat to Sharm el‑Sheikh or… and do you know where [former] President [Ali Abdallah] Saleh is?
Deputy Spokesman: We are not aware of the whereabouts of President Hadi specifically. We are trying, of course, to get in touch with President Hadi and with the other interlocutors.
Question: And Saleh — is he inside Yemen?
Deputy Spokesman: I do not know what his present location is, either. Have a good afternoon, everyone.
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