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close this bookThe Courier N° 136 - Nov-Dec 1992 - Dossier Humanitarian Aid - Country Reports: Soa Tomé- Principe- Senegal (EC Courier, 1992, 96 p.)
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The response of the United Nations to humanitarian emergencies by


United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs

Whenever countries are struck by natural disasters or other emergencies, to quote the words of a recent UN General Assembly resolution on emergency humanitarian assistance: 'The United Nations has a central and unique role to play in providing leadership and coordinating the efforts of the international community to support the affected countries'. The UN has several agencies involved in humanitarian relief work, notably UNICEF for child health matters, the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the World Health Organisation to deal with epidemics and the World Food Programme for food distribution. In 1990, 10.5% of emergency aid provided by the European Community went to these agencies. Now the world body has set up a single department to coordinate their efforts, the Department of Humanitarian Affairs, as the senior UN official in charge of it explains.

The world of the 1990s is a world of turbulent change. In the new world that has emerged at the end of the cold war, ethnic and civil conflicts have dominated the international scene and humanitarian issues have increasingly become the focus of special attention.

Many societies are torn between demands for autonomy or self-determination and face the danger of fragmentation, what the United Nations Secretary-General has termed 'micro-nationalism'. The already fragile structures in a large number of developing countries are being severely tested by the vicious cycle of poverty, population pressure and environmental degradation. More than one billion people today face abject poverty, with over 500 million, or roughly 10% of the world population, undernourished and some 50 million facing famine. Poverty is accelerating environmental degradation to such an extent that natural resources soon may not be able to meet the food required for the world's fast-growing population. I With 97 million people being added to the world population each year, the disintegration of fragile structures and environmental phenomena are causing increased displacement and refugee flows. More and more people across the globe require urgent humanitarian assistance.

The international community has an obligation to provide humanitarian assistance to all the affected populations regardless of political or other considerations. Recent experience has shown that this is not an easy undertaking. We have seen how international relief efforts have been impeded by serious threats to the security of relief personnel both in the case of the former Yugoslavia and in Somalia. We have also seen how access to the affected populations is denied in conflict situations such as those in Sudan and in Mozambique. These situations affirm the inextricable link between the security, political and humanitarian issues. Given the wide range of actors and the complexity of the problems, clear leadership and strengthened coordination of effort have become increasingly important. This requires an intensified and innovative response from the United Nations system as well as full support and commitment from all partners in this challenging endeavour.

In 1991, Member States held a pioneering debate on the capacity of the United Nations to coordinate humanitarian assistance. These deliberations, and a subsequent report of the Secretary-General on the subject, provided the basic elements for resolution 46/182, adopted by the General Assembly on 19 December 1991. This in turn led to the establishment by the Secretary-General, in March 1992, of the Department of Humanitarian Affairs.

Resolution 46/182 constitutes the programmatic framework for the new Department. The work of the office is based on four guiding principles, which are: 1) at all times, UN humanitarian assistance shall be provided in accordance with the principles of humanity, neutrality and impartiality; 2) the sovereignty, territorial integrity and national unity of States will be fully respected; 3) assistance will be provided with the consent of the affected country and, in principle, on the basis of a request from that country and; 4) each State has the responsibility first and foremost to take care of the victims of natural disasters and other emergencies occurring on its territory. Hence, the affected State has the primary role in the initiation, organisation, coordination and implementation of humanitarian assistance within its territory.

The emphasis in the work of the Department is on coordination, cooperation and leadership. Its main function is to enhance the leadership role of the Secretary-General in dealing with natural disasters and other humanitarian emergencies and excludes any operational responsibilities. Resolution 46/182 provides specific suggestions as to how the coordination of humanitarian assistance should be carried out. Measures for prevention and preparedness of disasters are to be achieved through coordinated support and the optimal utilisation of an Inter-agency Standing Committee, a process of common assessment and consolidated appeals, a central emergency revolving fund and a register of stand-by capacities.

A notable new development in terms of the humanitarian role of the United Nations has been the active involvement of the Security Council in the consideration of humanitarian issues and the provision of assistance. This is reflected in decisions in regard to Cambodia, Iraq, Somalia and the former Yugoslavia. In the cases of Yugoslavia and Somalia, in particular, the Council has accorded the secure delivery of humanitarian assistance a very high priority.

The few months since the adoption of General Assembly resolution 46/182 and the emplacement of the institutions and mechanisms for its implementation have provided a first, albeit a very initial, opportunity to evaluate the United Nations' humanitarian role.

Firstly, while humanitarian assistance must be provided regardless of whether there is an immediate solution at hand, the United Nations has been increasingly called upon to address simultaneously both the humanitarian and the political dimensions of conflict situations. Somalia, Yugoslavia, and Mozambique are cases in point. Humanitarian assistance, delivered impartially, can have a positive impact on peace-making efforts. Corridors of peace and zones of tranquillity can reinforce peace-making initiatives.

Secondly, the United Nations is required in an increasing number of emergencies to negotiate not only access, but also arrangements to ensure the safety of personnel and relief supplies. The situations in Somalia, the former Yugoslavia and Iraq are tragic reminders of this dilemma.

Thirdly, the serious problem of land mines, millions of which remain scattered in current and former combat zones, must be urgently addressed. Relief assistance, repatriation and rehabilitation have been and will continue to be seriously hampered unless de-mining is vigorously pursued.

Fourthly, cooperation among operational organisations is essential for effective UN response to disasters and emergencies. This cooperation must be all-inclusive, applying equally to the relationship among the UN organisations and with the ICRC, IFRC, IOM and the NGOs. Cooperation must also be extended to and strengthened with the relevant regional organisations.

Lastly, while the UN stands ready to meet growing challenges in response to emergencies of increasing magnitude and complexity, the UN must be provided with the necessary resources to carry out the tasks entrusted to it. This applies not only to the immediate humanitarian requirements, but also to rehabilitation and development. Resources should be mobilised to prevent emergencies from recurring.

I am all too well aware of the need for the United Nations to be at the same time at the forefront of international humanitarian action and to proceed on the basis of the hard-won consensus that characterised resolution 46/182. I believe the only appropriate path is to convince governments and peoples alike that humanitarian action is in their best interest. We must clearly and compellingly demonstrate that humanitarian assistance will be incorporated in the overall continuum from emergency relief to rehabilitation and development.

To be truly effective, our endeavour should be founded upon cooperation not coercion, upon a shared responsibility and mutual respect. The safety of humanitarian personnel ought once more to be assured as an indispensable element of their mission. The force necessary to guarantee this objective and to protect humanitarian resources should be seen as geared solely to these ends and must be sufficient to achieve them. Humanitarian assistance must place human dignity and well-being as its sole criterion for success. It must express solidarity in action.