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Transcript of the press conference by the Secretary-General and the Joint Special Envoy on Syria at the high-level segment of the Geneva Conference on Syria

22 January 2014

Following is a full transcript of the press conference given in Montreux by the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the high-level segment of the Geneva Conference on Syria.

Good evening, everyone. Thank you for your participation and covering this important meeting. We have just completed the High-level of the Geneva Conference on Syria.

More than forty delegations came to Montreux with one purpose -- to send a message to the two Syrian delegations, and to the Syrian people, that the world wants an urgent end to the conflict and a political solution for Syria.

I thank the two Syrian delegations who are here today, representing the government and the opposition. It is not easy to sit across the table after so much bloodshed and destruction. But many countries have found peace and a new future through negotiations, and we are determined to help the Syrians achieve this too.

The past three years have been filled with horror: the bombardment of civilians and towns, the use of chemical weapons, terrorist attacks, executions, disappearances, torture, killing and destruction.

Enough is enough. The time has come to negotiate.

Syrians must come together to save their country, protect their children, and find a peaceful path to a better future. Syrians have a long history of living together. They must recover all they have lost.

Today almost everyone with the means to influence the course of this conflict was in the same room under the auspices of the United Nations. That alone is historic. We did not expect instant breakthroughs from today’s conference. No-one underestimates the difficulties. But the seriousness and horror of the situation has focussed all minds, and there is a new determination to insist that the parties find a way to peace. We must seize this fragile chance.

In Geneva on Friday, 24th of this month, the hard work begins. The two Syrian delegations will begin talks, chaired by Joint Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi. I thank him sincerely for his wisdom and dedicated service.

This must be a Syrian-led process – Syrian owned - one that fully respects Syria’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and unity.

The goal is clear: to fully implement the Geneva Communiqué, which has been endorsed by the Security Council, and which calls for a transition through a number of steps.

The first is the formation, by mutual consent, of a transitional governing body with full executive powers, including over the military, security and intelligence services.

The State’s institutions must be preserved and reformed and respect human rights, and be led by people who command public confidence, under the control of the transitional governing body.

Other steps must follow – national dialogue, constitutional review, elections.

As the parties work for this goal, they must respect international humanitarian law, which has been flagrantly violated in this conflict.

They can start today, now, by allowing full humanitarian access to all in need, especially in besieged areas where people have gone without aid for months. Civilians are facing malnutrition and desperate health conditions. Food, medicine, and surgical equipment must be allowed in. Civilians, including the sick and wounded, must be allowed out.

Attacks against civilians must cease. All parties must work to put an end to all terrorist attacks.

We must also look for every opportunity to reduce and end violence and build confident through practical arrangements on the ground, including local ceasefire and release of detainees. The Syrian people are looking desperately for relief from the nightmare in which they are trapped.

The international delegations who were here today may be leaving shortly. But I have asked all of them to be available whenever we need their support.

I thank the Government and people of Switzerland and the authorities and citizens here in Montreux for their hospitality and for their support. I thank the Russian Federation and the United States for initiating this conference, and for working with the United Nations so closely to launch it. Their continued support, and the support of the Security Council, the countries of the region and others, whether here at this Conference or not, will be essential.

Ending this war and making peace will be hard. We have taken a first small step here in Montreux. We will take another step on Friday when the two Syrian parties sit down to talk. We have a difficult road ahead. But it can be done. And it must be done.

It is still not too late to end the bloodshed, and find a peaceful and democratic future in a united Syria, where all can live together in democracy and dignity, enjoying full equality. The moment to act decisively and courageously is now. The really hard work begins on Friday and the international community has shown here today its support for the efforts needed. In all of this we must keep uppermost in our minds the Syrian peoples’ desire for peace and tranquillity.

Thank you.

Q: Thank you Mr. Ban, thank you for coming to talk with us. Believe me Mr. Ban, we are not the enemy. My question is about access for humanitarian assistance. How are you going to integrate this issue in the process of negotiations? How are you going to engage both parties to guarantee access? Thank you.

SG: In the absence of a political solution, it has all been the people, particularly civilians, women and girls and weak people, you have all the statistics, more than 100,000 people have been killed and millions of millions of people internally displaced and become refugees. And therefore, it will be extremely important, crucially important, to continue to provide humanitarian assistance, particularly to those people who are living in hard-to-reach [areas]. There are at least 2.5 million people to whom the United Nations humanitarian agencies are not able to have access. Therefore, in the course of these negotiations, it must be emphasized that they must have cessation of violence so that humanitarian assistance can be delivered. There were many delegations today, almost all the delegations, who have emphasized the importance of this continuing humanitarian assistance and end violence immediately. And at least if they cannot, at least while these negotiations continue, they must show some sincerity as confidence measure, which I have already said. Thank you.

Q: Secretary-General, when you heard both sides speak today and deliver their speeches, there clearly was not a lot of common ground. How difficult is the task facing your Joint Special Representative? Joint Special Representative Ambassador Brahimi, can you give us some insight into how you plan to conduct these negotiations? For example, where do you plan to start and will you have both sides on Friday morning in the same room?

SG: Nobody underestimates the difficulty of this issue. That is why it has taken three years without having been able to meet even for the first time. This is for the first time that we are meeting -- two parties of Syria. So there is very significant importance of this international high-level meeting where more than 40 countries came and showed their sincere and strong solidarity to encourage them as strongly as possible to begin their talks. Now, I have been urging both parties; I met Deputy Prime Minister [Al-] Moualem and also the President of the Syrian National Coalition, Mr. Jarba, and my main message was that, I did not touch much on detailing their grievances, their complaints and their problems. My message has been that “sit down together with patience, with flexibility”, think about only their future, peaceful and brighter and better future with a dignity. So I am sure that under the very wise and skilful diplomatic mediation of Mr. Brahimi, they will sit down together and engage in earnest sincerity. That is my message this time.

Joint Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi (JSR): You know, our original idea was that we would have the delegations nominated before the end of December. That would have given us three weeks to talk to them, find out exactly what is it, what their thinking was, share with them our own thinking. Unfortunately, this has not happened. The delegation of the opposition was formed a couple of days ago. So tomorrow, I am going to meet them separately and see how best we can move, do we go straight on Friday into one room and start discussing, or do we talk a little bit more separately, I don’t know yet. What we will try to do is talk about how to end this bloody war. For that, I think, we have a kind of roadmap in the communiqué of 30 June, 2012, and we will see how we use that map forward to best effect. We have no illusions that it is going to be easy, but we are going to try very hard.

Q: I have a question to Mr. Secretary-General and I have a question to Mr. Lakhdar Brahimi. Mr. Secretary-General, it seems that there is a big gap between the two delegations and even a big gap between the targets of this conference, one side is talking about acting against terrorism and the other part is talking about a transitional body. How can we tighten this gap? This is the question for the Secretary-General. Mr. Lakhdar Brahimi, I will ask it in Arabic if you do not mind. [Unofficial translation] Mr. Lakhdar Brahimi, regarding the talks, things are not very clear. You said you will meet tomorrow with both delegations. But can we see them both on one table?

SG: I have noted through the presentation of both parties, and particularly from the Syrian Government delegation -- in fact, the Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister sent me a letter, a response letter, saying that countering terrorism should be discussed. In my letter of invitation, I had made it quite clear that the main goal and purpose and objective of this high-level Conference on Syria would be to discuss how to implement the Geneva communiqué, which was adopted 30 June, 2012, that is establishing a transitional government with the full executive powers upon mutual consent. So everybody has come with the clear understanding that this is the basis. Now, of course, countering terrorism is very important. I have discussed this matter with the Syrian Foreign Minister at length. It is important, but what is more important is that you should have peace and stability and provide all livelihood to the people and give a sense of hope and future, then all this terrorism and extremism or violence will lose their breeding ground because they have been divided, because they have been fighting among themselves during the last three years, they have provided a sort of a breeding ground for external forces or extremist elements or terrorist elements or giving some breeding ground for them. Therefore, there is no better solution than a political solution. There is no military solution, and while this political negotiation goes on, we have to provide the necessary humanitarian assistance to save lives and to keep people living with dignity, without fear and without fear of want. That’s our basic vision.

JSR: [Unofficial translation] We are now entering the next phase of this process and we fully realize that there is nothing easy and that there is a very big difficulty. As you said, the interventions by the two parties showed the big gap between them. But there was a very big step as the Secretary-General said, they had agreed to come to this conference and today they were in one room. We will meet with them tomorrow in Geneva, we will meet each delegation apart and discuss with them what the next step will be. Would it be for example like what was said a while ago that on Friday we will sit in the same room. Or will we continue for example on Friday morning in separate meetings with them, then hope to reach sitting together in one room for sure. As for how quickly we can reach results that would bring happiness and return hope to the Syrian people, this I cannot tell you.

Q: I will ask you by Syrian language because I am from Syria. [Unofficial translation] Mr. Ban Ki-moon, a while ago, one of our colleagues asked you how you will ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid and you said that the violence must stop immediately. Why are you hiding behind your finger why don’t we determine one goal clearly to end the crisis in Syria which is to fight terrorism. There are decisions being held up by the Security Council to punish countries, estimated at 83 countries, that are sending Jihadi fighters to Syria to kill the Syrian people. There were countries present in the conference and you said that the world was committed to a political solution to the crisis in Syria. What is the world going to present in the form of measures and commitments to reach such a solution. Thank you.

SG: Thank you very much. I have answered in part your questions. You will find my answer from my previous answers. Syria used to be a very peaceful and prosperous country and I visited many times as Secretary-General of the United Nations and I was very much impressed by your very proud, long, historical civilizations and cultures, your proud people, but somehow, unfortunately, you have been fighting among the people, between the people, during the last three years. I have been urging to President Assad, please listen more attentively and seriously, what their concerns, what their grievances are, and please try to resolve with some broader mind and engagement and [in a] reconciliatory way. Just accommodate and try to resolve all these issues. Unfortunately, this kind of reconciliatory or inclusive process has not taken place and it has taken three years; and during that time, many people have been killed, many people have to flee their country because of the fear. In the course of this, when the country was devastated, infrastructure, schools and sanitation, people lost their hope and you opened a possibility of a breeding ground for some external elements, extremists and terrorists. They came in, and you are much more divided. You are now fighting against opposition groups, against terrorist groups, and against extremist groups. So you are now fighting [on] multi[ple] fronts. It is very sad. That is why we are urging that there are no other options that establishing a transitional governing body will have full power over military, security and intelligence. Then let the person with a vision for a better future govern this one and try to put forward their proposals, which will be led by the Syrian people. Then I am sure that all these external elements and terrorist groups will have no place to stand when your people are united. I think that is why we are now beginning peace talks, peace talks, and I am very glad that for the first time, the two parties are coming to sit down together.

Q: As you know, Mr. Secretary-General, the priority for the Syrian Government now is to fight terrorism. Have you heard from them directly that they actually reject the terms of reference for the meeting in Geneva which you very clearly stated is about the implementation of the Geneva I. [Unofficial translation] Mr. Brahimi, if I may in Arabic, you talked about the delays in naming the delegations and the meeting tomorrow, is there a possibility that you might postpone the negotiations in Geneva on 24 January until all the lists are completed, and do you have any intention of placing a timeline for the negotiations so that it does not become an open process? Thank you.

SG: When the Syrian Government has confirmed the participation, after having received my letter of invitation, it is clear that the basis and main proposal of this conference will be to discuss the implementation of this transitional governing body. Deputy Prime Minister [Al-] Moualem is fully aware of that. I was surprised and disappointed when his response letter was that they were more concerned and giving priority to this one [the fight against terrorism]. Of course as I said and I told you, terrorism --countering terrorism -- is a very important aspect of this Syrian crisis, but you have to resolve this issue through political dialogue, in a political way. There is no other solution, viable solution, than a political solution. You have seen all this, what has happened, from military options. That is why I have been urging the countries, whoever one may be, who have been providing arms to either side, must stop, and encourage them to engage in political dialogue.

JSR: [Unofficial translation] We will not postpone the start of the negotiations with the Syrian brothers but we will start tomorrow, instead of Friday. As for how this will develop, of course I do not know. As I told you, we had been hoping that we would have enough time to discuss with them, three weeks, but this did not happen. We spoke with them yesterday and today, and tomorrow, we will sit with each party a serious and long sitting and God willing we will agree with them on how things will develop.

Q: Mr. Ban Ki-moon, a question precisely on the issue of the transitional government. If you were disappointed with the Syrians, and you are disappointed with the Iranians, why were the Iranians disinvited and not the Syrians in this case. This is a question of coherence. To Mr. Brahimi, you predecessor wanted very clearly a cease fire before talks happened. It seems that you are ready to do the talks without the cease fire. Why such a change and how can you actually have a talk if you don’t have a cease fire?

SG: Syria is a directly related party to this crisis, so it is important that Syria participates. If for either one of two parties does not participate, this meeting could not have taken place, so it was very encouraging that the opposition group and Syrian Government delegation both have participated. You must have been following closely the process of the opposition groups, whether they would participate or not. They have gone through many many [of] their internal discussions and conferences, and finally they agreed to participate on 17 January in their conference in Istanbul. Therefore it is different from Syria and Iran. Iran should know that the basis and main purpose of this conference is to discuss establishing this transitional governing body. Unfortunately, I was not able to get a firm confirmation from the Iranian Government at the last minute. That is what has happened.

Q: We have talked quite a bit about your persuasion on the Syrian Government delegation that they should find a different approach to fight terrorism. How about the opposition? They have been calling for President Assad to step down as a kind of precondition for the talks to start even today. How do you look at the possibility that this precondition could bring the talks into a kind of impasse even at the very early stage? Thank you.

SG: As the Secretary-General of the United Nations, I have been stating that the status or future of President Assad is an issue which needs to be determined by the Syrian people. Therefore, that is something which will have to be discussed between the two parties under the facilitation, mediation of Lakhdar Brahimi. My message to Mr. Jarba last year and this time was that they should first of all try to have broad-based support among and from Syrian people -- as you know, there are many different groups and sub-groups under this Syrian National Coalition (SNC) --, try to have as tight a unity as possible among yourselves and discuss this matter with the Syrian Government delegation and that is why they are here. He was re-elected as President of SNC and he is representing the opposition groups. I sincerely hope that they will be able to address all the difficult issues, including the one which you asked.

Q: Secretary-General, my question is why did you invite Iran to the conference before getting the firm confirmation that they do support Geneva I. And second question is to Mr. Brahimi, where is the certainty that you will be able to negotiate perhaps confidence building measures. Dating back to previous questions on that, there is no fundamental agreement on how to proceed, on the question of President Bashar al-Assad’s future, so how do you plan to proceed, if you could go into a little bit more detail, that will be great. Thank you

SG: I and Lakhdar Brahimi have been consistently stating that all the regional countries, including Iran, should be part of this process. Those countries have direct relationship and influence and they may [make] great contributions to the process of this resolving the Syrian crisis. Iran is also very important -- one of the important regional players. That is why we thought that Iran should be invited. As you know, there has not been consensus among the key players on this issue, but we have been discussing this matter over weeks, most recently, and even months, to find some common ground or understanding. I have explained many times that key principles of this Geneva communiqué should be the basis of this conference, and that is the only way we can resolve and address Syrian crisis. There were a lot of meetings and telephone conversations on that, and they also said that they would play a constructive role and they would understand the basic principles of this meeting would be this joint communiqué. We would expect that they would come [with] much concrete commitment. Finally, we were not able to confirm it. The statement they issued after my invitation was not at all consistent with this basic principle and lines and purpose of this meeting. That is why unfortunately and regrettably, I had to rescind the invitation at the last minute. At the same time, you should know that my main priority as convenor of this conference was to have this international high-level segment convened as scheduled. If by the Iranian participation or by whatever misunderstandings that there might have been, then if this meeting could not have taken place, then it is not to the purpose of serving the purpose of Syrian people and of the international community. I believe that I have taken the right decision, even at the last minute. That is why we have had a very successful meeting where two parties have participated. This meeting was conducted in a harmonious and constructive way. All the participants made very constructive and productive contributions and there was broad support. Except just the Syrians, I think almost all the countries supported this principle that the main purpose of this conference should be implementing this Geneva communiqué I, that is establishing transitional governing body.

JSR: You know, we have had some fairly clear indications that the parties are willing to discuss issues of access to needy people, liberation of prisoners, and local cease fires. But certainty is a very rare commodity in our kind of business.

Q: Could you tell us what are the positions of both sides regarding this idea of partial cease fire, what did express so far regarding this idea, thank you.

SG: I think the announcement by the Syrian Government to propose a local cease fire in Aleppo and the willingness to release detainees was a good and encouraging proposal, which should have been met by all other opposition groups. As you know, there are many different military armed elements within and among Syrian opposition group. That is why I am urging again, as they have just started now peace talks, they should establish [some] sort of confidence building measures. This is a very important confidence building measure. First, establish and declare cessation of violence all throughout the country. If not, even the localized cessation of violence will be helpful. I am urging the Syrian Government as a confidence building measure, as a way of showing their sincerity. [Releasing] detainees will also help reconciliatory process. That will help create a favourable atmosphere when they sit down together with opposition groups.

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