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UN Geneva Regular Press Briefing by the Information Service: Mozambique, Chechnya, Kosovo, Iraq

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The Officer-in-Charge of the Information Service at Geneva, Jamel Ben Yahmed, said Secretary-General Kofi Annan had been on the phone to world leaders and potential donors in an effort to mobilize international assistance to flood-stricken Mozambique.
Mr. Annan had also spoken to President Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique, as well as President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, which has played a leading role in airlifting victims from treetops and roofs to safety. The Secretary-General was also dispatching his humanitarian coordinator for the Mozambique emergency, Ross Mountain, to Pretoria for a meeting on Friday that will bring together representatives from Mozambique, South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe in an effort to take a regional approach to the crisis and identify priority needs. The United Nations would be participating fully in the process of identifying the priority needs. 'I hope once the needs are further clarified, the international community will respond and that those with the capacity to give will give, and give generously,' Mr. Annan said.

Mr. Ben Yahmed said Hans Blix, the chief of the new United Nations weapons inspection body for Iraq, the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, had on Wednesday, his first day, met with the Secretary-General. Mr. Blix said his first task was to develop an 'organizational plan' for the work of UNMOVIC. He said he expected to complete the organizational structure of UNMOVIC within the allotted 45 days, noting that work was already under way. Concerning staffing, Mr. Blix said that he would respect United Nations rules regarding contracts. For the short term he would draw upon the expertise of the remaining staff members of UNSCOM. The longer-term staff would be on United Nations contracts and, as envisaged by resolution 1284, they would be under Article 100 of the United Nations Charter. They would be responsible solely to the United Nations as their employer.

Mr. Blix said the Security Council had confirmed UNMOVIC's right to unrestricted access to both sites and information. Such inspections were indispensable for gathering credible evidence. He was determined to exercise the right to unrestricted access. However, UNMOVIC's role was not to humiliate the Iraqis. He was aware of the hardship that the Iraqi people had suffered. The best thing for them to do would be to cooperate

Mr. Ben Yahmed said the Government of Iraq appeared to have rejected United Nations proposals under which the participation of Iraqis in the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, or Hajj, would have been financed out of the UN's oil-for-food programme for Iraq. The plan envisaged the distribution by UN humanitarian officials in Baghdad of $1,750 in traveller's cheques and $250 in cash to 22,000 Iraqi pilgrims. The funds totalling $44 million would have been drawn from the UN Iraq account and transferred to an established bank in Amman, Jordan. The proposed arrangements were approved by the Security Council on Wednesday after a series of informal consultations.

In conclusion, Mr. Ben Yahmed said the United Nations Office at Geneva was on Wednesday, 8 March, commemorating International Women's Day. There would be a number of activities at UNOG from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. These included a round table discussion organized by the Information Service on the theme of 'Women Waging Peace.' The Director-General of UNOG, Vladimir Petrovsky, would be opening the discussion and a number of UN officials would be participating. A press release with the programme of activities was available in the press room.

A journalist noted that quite a few agencies which had big press departments did not bother to send representatives to the briefings. For example there was no one from ITU, ILO, WMO or UNEP. He asked that Mr. Ben Yahmed ask them to come to the briefings at least once a week. Mr. Ben Yahmed said he would. He noted out that the ILO representative was present at the last briefing but the journalist was not.

Donato Kiniger-Passigli, spokesperson for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said that as journalists knew, Ross Mountain, the Secretary-General's humanitarian coordinator for the Mozambique emergency, had been in Mozambique since 1 March and was presently fully occupied with air recognition on the Save river area. Concerning the organization and coordination mechanisms, the Government of Mozambique had set up a coordination centre called the International Institute for Disaster Management in Maputo. The aim of this centre was to ensure coordination between the Government and the UN system, international organizations and NGOs.

Mr. Kiniger-Passigli said an United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) team of five persons was reporting to the Government in this coordination role. The Disaster Management and Coordination System was represented in every province. The main focus of the relief operation was presently on the Limpopo and Save river basins. That was where the UNDAC team was. Concerning the situation in the various areas, the Limpopo river basin was the closest to the capital. Major rescue efforts were ongoing and they were primarily helicopter operations. Official figures of helicopter rescue efforts indicated that as of yesterday, 9,474 persons had been rescued. Today, another 1,000 persons should be reached. The situation in the Save river basin was also critical.

At present, the main focus of the relief operation was saving persons marooned in the floods and ensuring the supply of food and medical aid, Mr. Kiniger-Passigli said. According to a report which he had just received, initial attention had been focused on securing necessary air crafts, both helicopters and planes with fixed wings, to ensure that the rescue operation proceeded as quickly and effectively as possible. There were now 30 helicopters in place in Mozambique, available in particular to assist the World Food Programme in delivering food. Also, 120 boats, supplied by the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, were expected to arrive this weekend. They would be accompanied by 40 operators. Health was a major priority, including the capacity to undertake extended immunization programmes and to have access to vaccines .

Mr. Kiniger-Passigli said that in terms of the appeal that was launched 10 days ago, as of yesterday evening, $32.6 million were reported to have been contributed.

Asked why the rescue efforts were going to end in two days, Mr. Kiniger-Passigli said he had not said the rescue efforts would end in two days, however they expected to finish picking up persons stranded on roof tops and trees and evacuate persons whose lives were endangered within two days at the present capacity. This did not mean that the rescue effort would be ended since there were 1 million persons affected by the floods and 300,000 displaced.

A correspondent thanked spokespersons for giving them updated information on Mozambique but he wanted to ask why did the international community wait so much before it helped in this obvious catastrophe.

Mr. Ben Yahmed said the response to this question was very simple, whether it applied to Mozambique or other emergency or peacekeeping operations. For a long time, the question of resources had been a difficult issue. The United Nations could only urge donors to give money to help with a crisis. For the response to be immediate, the donors and the international community had to come up with the money before efforts could be carried out. Donors could not be forced to give funds. To give a concrete example, the United Nations was faced with a serious problem regarding the police force in Kosovo, as it has often been reported at the briefing. The United Nations had indicated before the start of the mission that more than 4,000 policemen were needed. Until recently, the number of policemen contributed was little more than 2,000 despite the precarious situation and the numerous appeals by the Secretary-General and his Special Representative for the Balkans, Bernard Kouchner.

José Luis Diaz, media and information officer for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the Office of the High Commissioner had received official indication that the Russian authorities were willing to allow High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson to travel to the North Caucasus region, including Chechnya. He recalled that the High Commissioner had asked to go to Chechnya to assess firsthand the situation there, a situation which had been characterized by persistent allegations of serious human rights violations. The details of a possible visit, would be discussed with the Russian authorities.

Mr. Diaz said Mrs. Robinson had left Beijing yesterday after opening the Eighth Workshop on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in the Asia-Pacific Region. The Workshop was concluding its meetings today. The High Commissioner had also gone to China to continue discussions on the conclusion of a technical cooperation agreement with the Chinese authorities. However, during her meetings with Foreign Ministry officials, it had become clear that such an agreement, or 'Memorandum of Understanding, could not be signed at this time. The Office of the High Commissioner and the Foreign Ministry of China would continue discussions on this issue with a view to concluding the agreement before the end of this year. The High Commissioner also had what were termed 'open and frank discussions' with Chinese officials on substantive issues related to the human rights situation in China. The High Commissioner had expressed concern regarding, in particular, allegations of the violation of human rights in the areas of freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of religion.

In preparation for the Commission on Human Rights, Mr. Diaz said a number of reports were being published at the moment. Among them was the report of the High Commissioner on the situation in Kosovo during the conflict (E/CN.4/2000/10). The High Commissioner continued to believe that it was essential that those responsible for the criminal violations that took place in Kosovo be bought to justice. In this respect, the Office was providing full cooperation to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The High Commissioner's report confirmed that Serb forces had committed shocking crimes during the NATO air campaign which commenced on 24 March. The report also showed that the situation of Serb,
Roma and other minorities since the withdrawal of Serb forces had been particularly painful. The High Commissioner expressed her will to invite the members of the Commission to consider how the international community could discharge its duty of protecting endangered communities in a situation that was unfolding in full view of the international community.

Also concerning the Commission, Mr. Diaz said the report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the territory of the former Yugoslavia, Jiri Dienstbier, was out (E/CN.4/2000/39). Mr. Dienstbier should be in Geneva to present the report to the Commission during the third week of the session. The Special Rapporteur was also going to the region in the next few weeks and more information on his visit would be available later.

In conclusion, Mr. Diaz said the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination would be meeting starting next week from 6 to 24 March to take up reports from the Governments of Australia, Bahrain, Denmark, Estonia, France, Ghana, Lesotho, Malta, Nepal, Rwanda, Spain, Tonga and Zimbabwe. A journalist asked if the High Commissioner considered criminals the leaders of NATO countries who had been 'responsible for killing at least 500 innocent civilians in Serbia, according to Human Rights Watch'. Mr. Diaz said that was not stated in the report. He suggested the journalist look up and read the report, including its conclusions and observations.

Concerning the air campaign, did the High Commissioner condemn the violation of the United Nations Charter by NATO? Mr. Diaz said that if the journalist recalled, the High Commissioner, during the conflict in Kosovo, had expressed concern about the issues related to the proportionality of the campaign as well as its legality. He referred the journalist back to those comments and to the report.

Asked whether in his opinion the air campaign was a violation of the UN Charter, Mr. Diaz said the High Commissioner had said on a number of occasions that it was not up to her to decide whether it was legal or not. That judgment could only be made by the competent international judicial authorities, specifically the International Court of Justice in the Hague. The High Commissioner did say that there were legitimate issues regarding the legality and proportionality of the air campaign.

A journalist asked if there was a date set for the High Commissioner's visit to Chechnya and whether there would be anything to see if she went in April, as had been indicated. Mr. Diaz said the High Commissioner had asked to go a while ago and had not asked specifically for April. It was no known yet when the visit might take place, that was being discussed at the moment. In their communication, the Russian authorities did indicate that they would be ready to have her visit in early April. That was to be discussed.

A reporter asked if the High Commissioner had any comment on the freeing of Augusto Pinochet. Mr. Diaz said the High Commissioner had made a number of statements during the proceedings related to the extradition of Mr. Pinochet. She had also said that regardless of what the final outcome was, the principle of international jurisdiction for the crimes of which he had been accused had been upheld. It had set a precedent and that was what was important.

A journalist asked if the Commission on Human Rights would provide the Chilean judicial authorities with material that it had received in the 1980s and before on violations of human rights in Chile to help the authorities there prosecute Mr. Pinochet or if it would be kept classified and confidential. Mr. Diaz said he would check and get back to the reporter.