Daily Press Briefing by the Office of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General
Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York
12 April 2016
The following is a near-verbatim transcript of today's noon briefing by Farhan Haq, Deputy Spokesman for the Secretary-General.
I know that some of you have their attention elsewhere, but we will start promptly so that we can get to our guest, to Toby Lanzer, who will be speaking after me.
**Secretary-General at Yale
First off, just to let you know that this afternoon, the Secretary-General will travel to New Haven, where he will speak at the Global Colloquium of University Presidents that are convening there to discuss the preservation of cultural heritage. In his remarks, the Secretary-General will put the preservation of culture into a geopolitical context, to show why the United Nations believes it is essential to its mission of peace and security, sustainable development and human rights.
He will discuss how cultural diversity is under grave threat around the globe, including such recent outrageous acts as the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamyan, the monuments of Palmyra and the mosques and cultural artefacts of northern Mali. Such destruction, he is to say, is part of a ruthless wave of cultural and ethnic cleansing, inseparable from the persecution of the communities that created these cultural gems. And he will discuss the efforts of the UN system, including the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), to protect cultural heritage, including in Palmyra and Timbuktu. We'll post those remarks later today.
Staffan de Mistura, the Special Envoy for Syria, has been meeting with senior Iranian officials in Tehran today, and he is currently briefing the Security Council by video teleconference from Tehran. As we had mentioned earlier, he will travel to Geneva tomorrow to resume the intra-Syrian talks. Later this afternoon, Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Hervé Ladsous will brief the Security Council on Côte d'Ivoire.
The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) is warning today in a new report that the number of children involved in "suicide" attacks in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger has risen sharply over the past year, from 4 in 2014 to 44 in 2015. More than 75 per cent of the children involved in the attacks are girls. UNICEF's Regional Director for West and Central Africa, Manuel Fontaine, stresses that these children are victims, not perpetrators, and that deceiving children and forcing them to carry out deadly acts has been one of the most horrific aspects of the violence in Nigeria and in neighbouring countries. UNICEF also says that the calculated use of children has created an atmosphere of fear and suspicion that has devastating consequences for girls who have survived captivity and sexual violence by Boko Haram in North East Nigeria. The report, entitled Beyond Chibok, is available online.
Still on Nigeria, our humanitarian colleagues say that some 2.5 million people in the conflict-affected parts of the country are facing a food security crisis. The worst affected areas are rural Borno and Yobe states, and Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, which have been severely affected by the Boko Haram-related conflict. International humanitarian agencies do not have access to many of these communities because of insecurity, and tens of thousands of displaced people in these areas are in camps run by the Nigerian military, where food deliveries from the national and state emergency management agencies are sporadic.
**Central African Republic
The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) is welcoming the formation of a new Government – that was announced yesterday. The Mission says it is an important step in setting up the new institutions in the country, under the leadership of President Faustin Archange Touadéra. There is more on this in a press release from the Mission.
The UN refugee agency is calling today for the negotiators of the Colombia peace talks to give special attention to the rights of victims, especially internally displaced people and refugees. Colombia's five-decade armed conflict has produced the world's second biggest displacement situation - Syria being currently the biggest. Some 6.7 million people are displaced inside the country – around 13 per cent of the entire population – and 360,000 officially recognized refugees have fled abroad, mostly to Ecuador and Venezuela. More on this issue is available on UNHCR's website.
Regarding Venezuela, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) says today it is very surprised with the ruling by the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court against the Amnesty and National Reconciliation Bill. The Bill, which was approved by the National Assembly, could have served as the basis for a path of dialogue and reconciliation in Venezuela. The Office notes with concern that the court declared the entire text unconstitutional, while the High Commissioner had sent a legal analysis of this Bill to Venezuela, advising that the text was generally in conformity with international human rights standards. The Office calls on the Government of Venezuela and the political opposition to open up avenues for a process of dialogue that could contribute to reaching the crucial political agreements necessary to tackle the multiple human rights challenges that the people of Venezuela are facing.
The United Nations is deeply concerned over reports that humanitarian conditions in Fallujah, Iraq, are worsening and human suffering increasing. Sources indicate that food prices remain extremely high in Fallujah, and stocks in shops and households are depleting, according to a report released by the World Food Programme (WFP) yesterday. There are also credible reports from key informants that people wanting to leave the city and seek safety are unable to do so. In a press release issued over the weekend, the Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq, Lise Grande, expressed profound concern over the situation in Fallujah. She said that the United Nations doesn't have access to the city, but we have to assume, based on what we are hearing, that people are in terrible trouble.
The UN and its partners continue to engage with civil and military authorities to find the best ways to reach civilians in areas under siege. In late March, the Government of Iraq informed the United Nations that it intended to open safe corridors to allow civilians to exit the city. The UN has received reports that Da'esh has killed civilians attempting to leave and that it controls potential escape routes. The UN and its partners are ready to respond to help people in need in Fallujah, with stocks pre-positioned in sites where displaced people may go or to bring into the city if access is obtained.
On 8 April, the Gaza Power Plant shut down after exhausting its fuel reserves, triggering a 18-20 hour daily electricity blackouts that are affecting 1.8 million people. Power outages combined with a lack of affordable fuel have reduced water supply to households and affected critical sanitation, health and solid waste collection services. Energy supply is a long-standing vulnerability in the Gaza strip due to infrastructure and restriction constraints. The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs is coordinating the delivery of emergency fuel to maintain access to critical basic services, but has highlighted that funds are limited and may not last until the end of April.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned today that the presence of recently discovered desert locust infestations in Yemen, where conflict is severely hampering control operations, poses a potential threat to crops in the region. FAO urges neighbouring countries – Saudi Arabia, Oman and Iran – to mobilize survey and control teams and to take all necessary measures to prevent the destructive insects from reaching breeding areas situated in their respective territories. Strict vigilance is also required in Morocco and Algeria, especially in areas south of the Atlas Mountains, which could become possible breeding grounds for desert locusts that have gathered in parts of the Western Sahara, Morocco and Mauritania, FAO added.
**Space Flight Anniversary
On the occasion of the fifty-fifth anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's first human space flight, which is today, there will be an exhibition opening and a film screening on the 1st Floor of the Secretariat Building at the South Wall at 5:45 p,m. The event is open to all.
As for press encounters, in a short while, I will be joined by Toby Lanzer, Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Sahel, who has just returned from Northeastern Nigeria and will be here to talk to you about Boko Haram. At approximately 1:00 p.m., Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization will brief at the stakeout area near the Trusteeship Council.
And then at 5 p.m., at the same stakeout area, Antonio Guterres, former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees will also speak to reporters. And then tomorrow at 11 a.m., here in this room, there will be a briefing entitled "World Water Day, Findings of the 2016 World Water Day Report on Water and Jobs". That's it for me. Is there anything? Yes, Joe.
**Questions and Answers
Question: Yes. I have a couple of questions relating to the OIOS audit report. First, the OIOS has the authority to conduct full investigations, but it chose to do just a more limited audit. So, I'd like to know why that was the case but also whether there are any plans for the Secretary‑General to direct the OIOS to move beyond the audit report and open up a full investigation. And, secondly, I'm going to read you just this one paragraph from the report, and I have to ask you a question about it, make sure that I'm interpreting it right. It says: "At this stage, the allegations are still under investigation by the concerned law enforcement authorities of the host country. There is a need for the Secretariat to monitor these proceedings and determine at the appropriate time depending on their outcome as to whether the United Nations would continue to engage in partnership with Sun Kian Ip group or its affiliated NGOs." Now, the way that reads, it implies that there is at least the potential for some sort of continuing relationship between agencies or offices in the UN, including in the Secretariat, with the indicted individual and this Sun Kian, his company and foundation, Sun Kian Ip. So are there any relationships that are still ongoing? And why is it that the UN will assert immunity, you know, against a host country's federal proceedings relating to, for example, the cholera outbreak in Haiti but yet, in this audit report, it is sort of hiding behind the criminal proceeding of the host country before it severs all relationships, you know, with these individuals and the companies?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, I don't think it's hiding behind. We need to get the full information about how this lawsuit proceeds…
Question: Why is that… why is that…?
Deputy Spokesman: Excuse me, please. Excuse me. I'm not aware that we have any ongoing relationship with Sun Kian Ip, and you'll have seen from this audit the concerns raised about the activities of that group. But, at the same time, we are following the court proceedings to figure… to find out exactly what information that provides, and that will also bear into any further dealings with any of the groups or any possible affiliates.
Question: Well… well… but, that's my basic question. Why should it be relevant? We already have enough information that Ng David… or whatever his name is, was… has been indicted. There have been guilty pleas already in this proceeding. Why does what happens in a criminal proceeding affect what the UN as an ethical matter should be doing in relation to these individuals and groups? I don't understand why one's dependent on the other.
Deputy Spokesman: In a way, you're restating what was said in the report. The report was already receiving information and acting on the basis of that information, and as we get further information, that will be useful in terms of any follow‑up that we do.
Question: But, why doesn't it simply declare a recommendation to immediately sever all relations? It just says it's going to monitor a continuing…
Deputy Spokesman: That's a policy decision that is not part of the OIOS audit process. This is an audit report. There will be follow‑up activities, and they will follow up on the findings in this report, basically, regarding all the information provided in the audit, actions being taken to determine responsibility and any measures that may be appropriate. Sometimes that will entail potentially disciplinary action. Sometimes that will entail action in terms of how we deal with all of these various entities, but now that follow‑up will proceed as a result of the audit.
Question: All right. Just because… going back to my first question, though, and maybe that was your answer. The audit is limited in scope. A full investigation, according to the OIOS website, is a lot broader in scope. It delves into wrongdoing and has the… OIOS has the authority to collect documents and interview people and so forth. Is there any consideration of opening now this whole thing up to a full investigation under the auspices of the OIOS?
Deputy Spokesman: Yes. The means of follow‑up are being determined right now, but with regard to the specific cases that were referred to in the audit, actions being taken to determine responsibility and any measures, including possible disciplinary action that may be deemed appropriate. The bottom line for us is that the UN will remain committed to providing full cooperation as well with any requests from the United States authorities further to investigations and legal proceedings with respect to the former President of the General Assembly as well as any others.
Question: Same topic? Sure. I wanted… I mean, I just noticed you said that you're not aware of the UN having any relationship to any Sun Kian Ip affiliate and…
Deputy Spokesman: To Sun Kian Ip, at this stage, yes. I mean…
Question: Like the World Harmony Foundation, do they remain…?
Deputy Spokesman: I've pointed out… to you [that] the World Harmony Foundation remains in the Global Compact. They'll have to review what they're going to do with that.
Question: And I'd wanted to ask you, I'd asked yesterday Dan Thomas on this recommendation number 5, which said the Secretary‑General should advise DPI [Department of Public Information] to sensitize the Presidents of the main bodies of the United Nations about the need to comply and demonstrate compliance with applicable regulations for organizing exhibits in public areas, et cetera. And I asked him to state whether the President of the General Assembly has received such a communication from the USG [Under-Secretary-General] of DPI. I haven't heard back from him. I guess I'll ask you. Has this relatively straightforward recommendation been implemented? And if not, why not?
Deputy Spokesman: Part of the point is that it takes time to do the follow‑up. We are in the process of doing the follow‑up. We'll provide further details on that as it proceeds. The idea that it will happen… that all of these actions can happen immediately is not the way policy works. Policy has to go through several stages. But, we are looking at all the recommendations, and we'll try to follow up with all of them.
Question: It said the audit cut-off date was the end of 2015. When did the Secretariat, DPI in particular, become… receive a copy of the audit to respond to? because this recommendation is like… it really doesn't require much work, and it's now April.
Deputy Spokesman: Well, the audit…
Question: Can you say a date when [inaudible]…?
Deputy Spokesman: As you know… the audit, as you know, formally becomes a document on 22 April. This is even in advance of that. But, the follow‑up is already proceeding.
Question: Yeah, sure, but the Secretariat… there's management responses. There's… put in italics. There's things at the end. So, I'm just asking you, when did the Secretariat get this?
Deputy Spokesman: And different parts of the UN system got involved at different times as was relevant.
Question: And just one last thing. Because of this Habitat announcement today and because of the involvement of Habitat being listed in the audit as having had a failure to do due diligence with the Sun Kian Ip affiliates, can… does it… are there partners for Habitat for the conference that was just announced and signed for? Because what they're saying here is that Habitat partnered without doing any due diligence. You've said that that's how, at least in one instance, this content got into UNTV. There's other instances. What is the status of Habitat's partnering programmes and its due diligence?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, certainly Habitat will be… will have to do the due diligence for all of its meetings, including the ones that we just announced in Quito, and we will make sure that they go about that process.
Question: So, they've carried out the recommendations? Because one of the recommendations is for them to do that.
Deputy Spokesman: It's for all parts of the UN system that are affected to do the follow‑up as needed to the work of this audit. Yes, Lou and then in the back.
Question: Thanks, Farhan. Does the UN have a position on the ongoing… on the referendum in Darfur… voting began yesterday… referendum on the political future of Darfur? Particularly given the ongoing instability, conflict, displacement of people there.
Deputy Spokesman: Yeah. On Darfur… hold on just one second. What I can say on this… our Mission there, the African Union UN [Hybrid Operation in Darfur], UNAMID, has been providing logistical support to the African Union Observer Mission, which has deployed observers, to central, east and south Darfur as this referendum has been continuing. No security incidents have been reported over the past day, but UNAMID continues to implement its mandate to maintain security and protect civilians. UNAMID is not providing any logistical or administrative support to this process. Like I said, they're there to make sure that there are no security incidents.
Correspondent: Just to follow up, I'm interested also in the UN's view of the value of this, as a kind of political exercise, given the situation in the country.
Deputy Spokesman: We have made clear in past weeks our concerns about different arrangements having to do with the reshaping of the territory of Darfur, and those concerns remain. Obviously, for the current phase, what we're trying to do is make sure that this exercise is conducted peacefully without violence. Yes.
Question: Thank you. There will be a parliamentarian election in Syria tomorrow, and the opposition claims that army [inaudible] bombing Aleppo and Homs. How do you think… how Secretary‑General thinks that this election will take place, and do you think it's legitimate?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, I would just refer you to the remarks that Staffan de Mistura's made in his recent press appearances, including late last week, about this particular issue. He's made clear that our focus is and will continue to be the intra‑Syrian talks, which he expects to resume in Geneva tomorrow, and we want to make sure that the parties deal with each other in good faith. We are not… we're not really dealing with the issue of the elections, but like I said, he has taken up questions on this in his press remarks, and I'd refer you to those.
Question: So, you don't think it's serious election? I don't get it…
Deputy Spokesman: Like I said, I would refer you to what Mr. de Mistura has been saying. His focus is elsewhere. It is on the intra‑Syrian talks and on dialogue among the Syrian parties. Yes.
Question: Yeah, on the Syrian talks which will begin tomorrow, there has been concern by a number of countries, last of which is the United States, Iran and France, about the repeated breaches of the cessation of hostilities. So, how concerned are you about these? And, second thing, do you think that these breaches can affect the talks, which will begin tomorrow?
Deputy Spokesman: Ultimately, what we want is for there to be no breaches whatsoever of the cessation of hostilities. That's not what's happened, but at the same time, there's been a massive lowering of the level of violence in the country in recent weeks, and we appreciate the significance of that. The mechanisms that are in place, including through the two guarantor countries of the United States and the Russian Federation, have so far succeeded in preventing the violence we have seen from spiraling out of control and, essentially, nullifying the cessation of hostilities. So, at this stage, the cessation of hostilities remains in effect, although there have been breaches, and we will continue with the process. But, we are trying to make sure that all sides and, of course, all of the various countries that have influence on the parties on the ground will halt any further violations from taking place. Yes.
Question: I want to ask you a few questions about peacekeeping. Number one, and just to see if you have a comment on it, the first candidate, the Foreign Minister of Montenegro, spoke this morning, made a proposal or an idea of a tribunal to directly try UN peacekeepers that are accused of sexual abuse. And I wanted to know, can you either compare that? Is that something that the current Secretary‑General thinks is a good idea? And I also wanted to know, there's… tomorrow a house committee is having a hearing on sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers and lack of accountability from 2 to 5 on Capitol Hill. And I'm wondering if… I know that a Better World Campaign will be there. Is the UN sending anyone to that hearing, or is it monitoring the hearing? Do they think the hearing is going to be useful?
Deputy Spokesman: We'll try to keep apprised of the results of the hearing as it happens. But, regarding accountability, the Secretary‑General has been very forthright in talking about the steps we're taking to pursue greater accountability. You've seen them laid out in his various reports, in the response he made to the Panel headed by Marie Deschamps, and we'll continue with that. We believe that the United Nations is trying to improve on accountability, and you're hopefully going to be able to see the effects of that on the ground.
Question: What he was trying to say… I mean… at least it sounded and I was unable to ask him this one, but the tribunal would be like the UN setting up its own accountability mechanism rather than encouraging countries to do their own proceedings. And I wanted to ask you, the DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo] has now put three people on trial. Some people are saying the victims aren't represented, that there's no confrontation of… of… of… you know, confronting the… the… the… the… where the victim can say: "This is my testimony." So, do you think it would be more useful to have these things be done in‑country? Do you think it should be done not necessarily by the TCC [troop-contributing country]?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, we, of course, are trying to get the troop-contributing countries to do everything they can to make sure that there is accountability that is pursued at all levels when these allegations surface. Ultimately, the Secretary‑General has been working with the troop countries and the Member States as a whole to push what we think of as a higher standard of accountability, and we're going to continue pushing that. We've made some successes and including, of course, the recent trials that you just mentioned. And we're trying to push for greater accountability at all levels. Yes, Evelyn.
Question: Do you have anything on the Syrian Government's push into Aleppo? Which is an important area. And, secondly, speaking of referendums today, rather than election votes there, there's one due in Syria also, which is strange.
Deputy Spokesman: Your colleague in the back just asked about these questions, and so I'd just refer you back to what I just said a few minutes ago. Yes.
Question: On Burundi. One is, I'd asked yesterday about this switch of payments from the Burundian Central Bank to a bank in Paris, and I guess that's okay with the UN. But, there are various reports that, at least since last fall, some Burundian peacekeepers have not actually been paid. And I'm wondering, what steps are taken by DFS [Department of Field Support] to make sure just what… what Stéphane was saying yesterday, that the soldiers… I mean, he said that we want it to happen, but… meaning "we" the UN, but what steps are done to make sure that does happen…?
Deputy Spokesman: The UN… the UN contacts troop-contributing countries to make sure that there's follow‑up so that there is payment. If there's any problems, we'd have to deal with the necessary troop-contributing country on that.
Question: And on press freedom, I wanted to ask you, there's a radio station Isanganiro, which is now in exile from Burundi, but the sister of the edit… the director of the radio station was arrested yesterday in Bujumbura. And it was… it's viewed as basically a kind of retaliation against freedom of expression. And I wanted to know, is that something that the UN is aware of? Do they have… are they monitoring cases where people either directly journalists or close family members of journalists are being detained, and what does the UN do about it?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, we'd be concerned about any reports of harassment of the media. You'll have seen what the High Commissioner for Human Rights, for example, has said in recent weeks about such reports on the ground in Burundi. And we continue to have concern, to make sure that all of those who are exercising freedom of speech and freedom of expression can do so without any hindrance. Yes.
Question: Thank you, Farhan. The United Nations has reacted after the decision of the Supreme Court in Venezuela to declare unconstitutional the decision of their congress to [free] about 14 political detainees, or they say they are political detainees, including Mr. Capriles, who has been sentenced to over ten years in jail. What the United Nations have to say, or the Secretary‑General, to this decision that it will stop the [freed] of these people who has been declared political prisoners by the United Nations in Geneva?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, as I mentioned earlier in this briefing, the High Commissioner for Human Rights and his office said that they were very surprised by the ruling of the Constitutional Chamber against the Amnesty and National Reconciliation bill. And we note with concern that the entire text of that bill was declared unconstitutional. The High Commissioner's office had, in fact, sent a legal analysis of the bill to Venezuela, [in] which it advised that the text was generally in conformity with international human rights standards. So, our… so, the Human Rights Office is calling on the Government and the Venezuela opposition to open up a political dialogue on this. And with that… okay. One more question, and then we'll get to our guest. Yes. Okay. Hold on, and I'll just be back with Toby Lanzer. One second.
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