Press Releases

    ECOSOC/6128
                                                                            14 July 2004

    Economic and Social Council Debate Stresses Importance of Strengthening Disaster Preparedness, Need to Boost Coordination in Field

    Council Vice-President Paints Bleak Picture of Growing Death Toll Arising from Natural Disasters

    NEW YORK, 13 July (UN Headquarters) -- Given the unpredictable nature of sudden disaster emergencies, slow-onset crises and complex, conflict-related emergencies, the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) focused today on two vital issues facing humanitarian relief strategists:  the need to strengthen disaster preparedness; and the need to boost field-level coordination within United Nations-led relief operations.

    With dramatic statistics, Council Vice-President Daw Penjo (Bhutan) set the stage for a dialogue on “Preparedness and Response to Natural Disasters, with Emphasis on Capacity Building”, the first of two panel discussions held today. He said that last year, some 700 disasters had resulted in 75,000 deaths -- a toll nearly seven times that of the previous year -- and economic losses of more than $65 billion.

    Unfortunately, he said, emerging trends pointed to an even bleaker outlook for the near future, and with so much at stake, the management of natural disasters must be tackled in an integrated manner from preparedness to reduction and response, focusing on efforts to build and strengthen regional and local capacity.

    The dialogue opened with one expert stressing that preparations for natural disasters required both planning and flexibility in executing those plans effectively and efficiently. And while the international community’s early warning systems were generally well developed, the key was not just to issue warnings, but to ensure that grass-roots structures at the provincial level were capable of responding rapidly. “Early warning” must become “early action”, he said.

    A development expert said the United Nations often lost opportunities by trying to ensure that its early response avoided risk. Careful planning should include a reduction of vulnerability by ensuring, for instance, that houses were built up to standards and not located in areas that were often flooded. Crises also offered good opportunities for change and for establishing foundations for sustainable development. Natural disasters compromised development, but short-sighted development choices increased risks. Rapid urbanization, unsafe buildings and environment degradation all magnified the potential impact of disaster.

    Another speaker suggested that disaster preparedness should focus on the least developed countries, particularly those poor countries most prone to natural disasters.  Strategies should include legislation for an adequate framework and clearly identify vulnerability and risk-reduction factors. A “preparedness culture” should also include community-level decision makers.  Noting that too much attention was often paid to the emergency phase of disasters, he stressed the importance of a continuing response in the post-emergency phase.

    Speakers in the interactive dialogue that followed welcomed the increased attention paid to international disaster reduction and prevention strategies and pondered ways to make them more effective. However, several mentioned that the international community was still failing to invest sufficiently in natural-disaster prevention.  Contingency planning, awareness and preparedness were among the priorities requiring serious consideration, as were risk-evaluation mechanisms and measures to improve donor responses.

    Leading off the panel discussion on “Field-Level Coordination of United Nations Humanitarian Assistance Mission in Higher-Risk Environments”, the Vice-President of the Council said humanitarian work had always entailed operating in risky environment, but the growing complexity of conflicts had put humanitarian personnel ever closer to the frontlines, often at great risk. The tragic bombing of United Nations headquarters in Iraq and the killing of aid workers in Afghanistan were recent examples of what had become a disturbing trend.  Action must be taken to ensure the safety and security of humanitarian staff and to preserve the autonomy of humanitarian objectives.

    Jan Egeland, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator, said that an extensive review of the security apparatus undertaken since the bombing in Iraq was nearing completion. The results would have to balance two contradictory imperatives:  the need to stay on in high-risk environments; and the imperative to do whatever possible for the security and safety of staff. 

    On the humanitarian side, it had been agreed that those in the field were best positioned to judge the risks, he continued. The field-based approach was also best to address risks in a coordinated manner. At a recent Geneva meeting of chief executives of major humanitarian organizations, it had been agreed that more could be achieved by coordinated action. However, diversity among agencies had also been acknowledged, with some undertaking live-saving tasks, while others undertook roles that could wait until the risks were lower.

    An expert opening the dialogue said that as humanitarian operations were increasingly perceived as associated with Western political motivations -- a perception reinforced by the blurring of mandates between political and military actors -- his agency had reiterated its commitment to the vital need for strict neutrality and independent humanitarian action. In practical terms, that meant humanitarian action must be consensual and non-militarized.  It must also be genuinely impartial and employ a needs-based and non-discriminatory approach.

    When the floor was opened for debate, delegations echoed that sentiment, stressing that given the recent blurring between the formerly distinct roles of humanitarian and military actors, United Nations integrated missions must continue to be widely perceived as independent and neutral. More than one speaker suggested that the trend towards integrated missions currently found itself at a crossroads.

    As one delegate pointed out, while 10 out of 25 current missions were integrated in nature and had evinced synergistic effects, questions relating to the multi-fold nature of those missions -- which comprised political, peacekeeping and humanitarian elements -- had also been raised, as had the need to avoid the incorporation of all elements into one, overall military strategy. Meanwhile, another delegate cautioned against “throwing out the baby with the bathwater”. Just because integrated missions were not appropriate to some environments did not mean they were not appropriate to any environment. Instead, it was suggested, the United Nations should set up a mechanism to determine the factors that made some situations suitable to integrated missions and others not.

    The panel on preparedness and response to natural disasters included: Jean-Jacques Graisse, Senior Deputy Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP); Julia Taft, Assistant Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Director of its Bureau of Crisis Prevention and Recovery; Toni Frisch, Chairman of the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group and Head of the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit; Mostafa Mohaghegh, Director-General, International Affairs Department of the Red Crescent Society of Iran; and Michel Arrion, Head of Policy Unit, European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid Office.

    Members of the panel on field-level cooperation of United Nations humanitarian assistance missions operating in higher-risk environments included: Jacques Forster, Permanent Vice-President, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC); Diana Russler, Deputy United Nations Security Coordinator; Eric Morris, Director and Special Adviser to the High Commissioner, United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR); and Max Gaylard, Resident Coordinator/Humanitarian Coordinator, Somalia.

    The Economic and Social Council will meet again tomorrow to continue its general discussion on special economic, humanitarian and disaster relief assistance.

    Background

    Continuing its humanitarian affairs segment today, the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) was expected to hold two panel discussions: the first one, on measures to strengthen preparedness and response to natural disasters; and the second, on field level coordination in higher-risk environments.

    Panel on Preparedness and Response to Natural Disasters, with Emphasis on Capacity-Building

    The theme of the discussion was presented by five panellists: Jean-Jacques Graisse, Senior Deputy Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP); Julia Taft, Assistant Administrator of the  United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Director of its Bureau of Crisis Prevention and Recovery; Toni Frisch, Chairman of the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group and Head of the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit; Mostafa Mohaghegh, Director-General of the International Affairs Department of the Red Crescent Society of Iran; and Michel Arrion, Head of Policy Unit, European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid Office.

    Opening the discussion, Council Vice-President DAW PENJO (Bhutan) stressed the critical importance of today’s theme as the impact of natural disasters was an urgent and growing problem affecting all countries. Although natural hazards happened in both developed and developing countries, they often impacted developing countries more severely, leaving large populations chronically vulnerable.

    He said that in 2003 some 700 disasters had resulted in 75,000 deaths -- a toll almost seven times that of the preceding year. The resulting economic losses had amounted to over $65 billion. Unfortunately, a number of emerging trends pointed to an even bleaker outlook in the near future. The management of natural disasters must be tackled in an integrated manner from preparedness to reduction and response, focusing on efforts to build and strengthen regional and local capacity.

    Moderating the event, JAN EGELAND, United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator and Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, said that natural disasters, which represented one of the greatest humanitarian challenges, was underestimated by international media and did not receive adequate attention. In fact, in an average year, seven times more people were affected by natural disasters than by conflicts and war.

    Right now, as a result of the worst monsoon floods, millions of people in Asia were losing their homes, he pointed out. However, after years of floods, national authorities, with assistance from the international community, had developed preparedness and response mechanisms which showed that the first line of defence was the best line of defence, when it worked. At the same time, international teams now had the capacity to arrive at a disaster site just hours after it struck. Early warning, response and preparedness were among the main issues to be discussed, as well as efforts to build local and international preparedness and response capacity.

    Mr. GRAISSE, Senior Deputy Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP), stressed that preparing for natural disasters required both planning and flexibility in executing those plans, effectively and efficiently, and acknowledged that, since the late 1990s, the international community had enhanced its ability to address emergency preparedness and response issues at the local, regional and global levels. The WFP had reviewed and strengthened its capacity for early warning, enhanced its information-management capacity and strengthened the ability of its decentralized regional bureaux to prepare for potential emerging crises and adjust to shifting scenarios on the ground.

    Overall, early warning capacities had been well developed, he said. Yet the key was not just to issue warnings, but also to ensure that grass-roots structures at the provincial and grass-roots levels were capable of responding rapidly. “Early warning” must become “early action”. Quick response to natural disasters also required flexible programming tools, in which regard the WFP had developed an extensive institutional network of development assistance in schools, mother-and-child health centres and food-for-work activities.  Such structures were effective because their administrative mechanisms were already in place and could be expanded quickly in reaction to disaster.

    He said a number of important factors for emergency preparedness had been highlighted in southern Africa, where poor and erratic rainfall in mid-2002 had led to failed harvests and major food shortages, aggravating a situation already made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS, chronic poverty and weakened governance structures. Collaboration between all stakeholders -- national governments, United Nations agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) -- had been identified as essential, and it had been suggested that the United Nations should increasingly rationalize its use of resources to develop a “UN response”, as opposed to agency-specific initiatives.

    Another major finding concerned the need for capacity-building, he continued. The United Nations must continue to help governments rebuild their capacity for service delivery at the community level. Also, vulnerability assessments must be improved to include the systematic monitoring of market prices and non-food needs analysis, cross-border trade and better understanding of linkages between HIV/AIDS, food security, malnutrition and coping strategies.

    Among the innovative approaches to natural disasters currently under exploration was that of acute hunger insurance for people affected by weather-related disasters, he concluded. The WFP and World Bank had begun a project to develop a formal insurance mechanism, an approach that would provide cash aid at the appropriate time and create important incentives to mitigate risk. Built upon existing insurance instruments, it would also allow the humanitarian community to draw on the financial and technical resources of the private insurance sector.

    Ms. TAFT, Assistant Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), addressing specific efforts to strengthen national and regional natural disaster-management capabilities, noted that more than 3 million people had lost their lives in natural disasters over the last two decades.  In many countries, disasters had wiped out hard-earned development gains in hours and even minutes. Immediate response to crises was dominated by local response and management. As in post-conflict situations, there was often a planning gap between the humanitarian assistance and long-term recovery phases.

    The United Nations system often lost opportunities by trying to ensure that its early response avoided risk, she said. Careful planning should include a reduction of vulnerability by ensuring, for instance, that houses built were up to standards, or not located in areas that were often flooded. Crises also offered good opportunities for change and for establishing foundations for sustainable development. Natural disasters compromised development, but short-sighted development choices increased disaster risks.  Rapid urbanizations, unsafe buildings and environment degradation all magnified the potential impact of disaster.

    She said that from the development perspective, more action was needed to undertake long-term measures to mitigate disaster risks. There was a need, first of all, to improve collective understanding of risk and vulnerability. The UNDP had developed a global risk index measuring the risks of vulnerability to natural disasters. Natural disasters and their aftermath were often man made rather than natural.  The UNDP was working with the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) on disaster reduction and developing web-based tools and an overview of best practices in risk-management, as well as on other tools to be introduced during the upcoming Kobe Conference.

    There was also a need for an enabling environment for risk reduction, with a focus on emphasizing governance and capacity-building, she continued. For instance, national civil defence structures often did not allow for civil society participation. One must also ensure that where disaster struck, there should be programming that looked beyond the immediate emergency. That required building on local capacities, rebuilding structures that were seismic-resistant and ensuring that risk reduction was included in planning at all levels.

    Mr. FRISCH, International Search and Rescue Advisory Group, addressed the global challenges of international search and rescue, saying that the creation of rapid response capacities required the establishment of adequate organizational structures within the agencies involved in providing assistance to victims of natural disasters. The International Search and Rescue Advisory Group and the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit engaged in the preparation of guidelines, the provision of training and the strengthening of national capacities. As time was a life-saving factor, it was important to strengthen rapid response capacities within disaster-prone areas, as well as to update and review national strategies.

    Also of great importance were coordination and consistency in national and international rescue and relief efforts, he said.  While immediate local response was often the most effective, international rescue teams should be authorized to come into affected areas, where they brought value. Regular training and monitoring of their effectiveness were of great importance.  In the aftermath of a disaster, it was important to provide adequate reporting on the situation to the local population, including families of victims.

    Much remained to be done at the national level, where disaster preparedness and prevention measures should be allocated top priority, he added. It was necessary to strengthen international efforts, as well. The conference in Kobe next January should contribute to the creation of the necessary momentum for identifying common action in that regard.

    Mr. MOHAGHEGH, Red Crescent Society of Iran, recalled that on 26 December 2003, Bam, one of the remotest cities in Iran, was destroyed within 10 seconds by an earthquake, which had left numerous dead and injured, rendered 150,000 homeless and destroyed the local infrastructure. The response to the disaster had started at the lowest community level, among survivors and the local Red Crescent Society.  Relief teams from the closest city had arrived after 150 minutes. In the afternoon, the national response was operating in the city and more than 30,000 injured were transported to other cities. More than 150,000 people were given shelter and food within 48 hours. About 18,000 relief workers and volunteers had participated in the first three months.

    The Red Crescent Society response to the disaster in Iran had started at the local level, spreading to the provincial level and then the whole country, in close cooperation with the Government and NGOs, he said. There had also been close coordination with the United Nations family, particularly the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), who had arrived soon after the disaster. It had been the first time that the United Nations and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Society had coordinated their appeals to avoid any gap or overlap. There were lessons to learn for the future. Iran’s Red Crescent Society was very well rooted in the local community, and, at the international level, there had been close cooperation with major international organizations.

    He recommended that disaster preparedness should focus especially on the least developed countries, but also on those developing countries that were most prone to natural disasters. Preparedness should include legislation for an adequate framework.  Vulnerability and risk reduction were of key importance to preparedness. “Preparedness culture” should not only be confined to decision makers but also include individuals at the community level.  Iran’s Red Crescent Society planned to have one member of every family trained in first aid, for instance.

    Noting that too much attention had often been given to the emergency phase of the disaster, he said a continuing response in the post-emergency phase should also get attention. Timely information management was also very important. In Bam, the Red Crescent Society had been able to establish a transparent and timely information system to manage and coordinate international assistance. Coordination should be organized between all parties concerned and victims should be seen as equal partners, not just as recipients. 

    External assistance should be complementary to efforts by the local community, he said.  States had a major role to play in establishing good mechanisms for coordination. The International Disaster Response Laws, Rules and Principles (IDRL) was designed to identify the facilities that the State could provide in emergencies. It was an appropriate framework through which the required facilities for the effective delivery of international assistance to the victims of disasters could be secured.

    Mr. ARRION, Policy Unit, European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid Office, said there was a clear need for enhanced preparedness, given the evolution of humanitarian needs. For example, throughout the 1990s, an estimated 200 million people had been affected by natural disasters each year, with an estimated 80,000 killed per year –- 97 per cent in developing countries. Good humanitarian donorship meant there must be an increased focus on consistency, transparency and advocacy. Furthermore, good donors should also focus on appropriate forward-planning instruments and methodologies, early warning and alert mechanisms, rapid decision-making processes, effective implementation of assistance through high-quality partners, close cooperation with other key humanitarian players and enhanced preparedness for a smooth transition from relief to rehabilitation and development.

    Among the innovative approaches to be adopted by good donors, he noted, early warning monitoring must be permanent and without interruption. The use of new technologies, including capacity-building for Internet-based crisis monitoring and alerts, should also be supported. The European Commission had developed a Global Index for Humanitarian Needs Assessment through which it had adopted a comparative approach across 130 countries using global indicators. Among other innovations, it had also developed a Disaster Risk Indicator, which broke down risk levels both globally and within various regions and countries.

    Interactive Debate

    Speakers in a lively interactive dialogue that followed the panel presentations welcomed the increased attention paid to international disaster reduction and prevention strategies and pondered the ways to make them more effective. However, several participants mentioned that the international community was still failing to invest sufficiently in natural disaster prevention.  Contingency planning, awareness and preparedness were among the priorities requires serious consideration, as were risk-evaluation mechanisms and measures to improve donor responses.

    One speaker commented on the need to establish a “transition to development” approach following natural disasters. International response must focus on the need to stop a vicious cycle of natural disasters and poverty in developing countries. To rectify the fact that 97 per cent of casualties were registered in those countries, they must integrate disaster prevention and reduction into their national development strategies, and donors should support their efforts, speakers agreed. There was a need for greater emphasis on risk reduction and early warning, involving local populations. Continued efforts were required to increase people’s awareness of the risks posed by earthquakes and floods. Among the problems faced by developing countries in that regard was the lack of information in local languages, as well as the academic character of most existing publications.

    Expanding upon the need to focus development programmes on actual risks and threats in the future, one panellist pointed out that it was useless to talk about mountainous agricultural development without discussing issues of deforestation, avalanches and landslides provoked by earthquakes and floods.  “In terms of money, what would it cost the international community to allow developing countries to reach the same level of preparedness as their developed counterparts?” another speaker asked.  Seeking a response to that question, several country representatives elaborated on their respective national research and evaluation efforts, expressing the hope that the forthcoming international conference on disaster prevention in Kobe, Japan, would help the international community to find the answer.

    Private sector Involvement, including through possible disaster-insurance schemes and the construction of housing and roads, was also discussed, as was the need to ensure the mutual complementarity of United Nations regional and national efforts. International exchange of experts was a good practice example, as was the establishment of clear structures that could be effective in cases of emergency. In order to avoid duplication and competition in the field, it was important to put in place a “good division of labour”, promote teamwork, share best practices and ensure regular communications and liaison among various players, including civil society. Also emphasized in the debate was the role of modern information and communications technologies (ICT) in strengthening international ability to respond to natural crises.

    It was impossible to achieve 100 per cent disaster preparedness, a panellist said, but it was important to improve it, achieve better understanding of existing capacities and resources, and strengthen cooperation and communications among all actors involved. External assistance should complement national efforts, improving the response capacity of local systems. When hours and mere minutes counted, it was also important to establish clearly who was in charge on the ground. In that connection, another panellist emphasized the importance of focusing on countries’ self-sufficiency, resorting to international teams only in cases of extreme need.  Affected countries should take the lead in coordinating relief measures, and international actors must accept their leadership.

    Referring to challenges faced by the international community and United Nations agencies in responding to natural disasters, the representative of the UNDP noted that, although natural disasters often had regional dimensions, UNDP offices were organized on a country basis. That situation posed a challenge to the development of more effective response mechanisms. She also stressed that the best time to sell prevention was right after the disaster had occurred, while world and national attention was focused upon preventing a recurrence.  The humanitarian community must improve its ability to go in with recovery programmes that incorporated disaster prevention.

    Concluding the discussion, the moderator noted that many speakers had emphasized that primary responsibility for disaster response would continue to lie with national governments. It was the duty of the international community to foster local and national response capacity. It was not enough to send United Nations Disaster and Assistance Coordination (UNDAC) teams to disaster sites. Instead, there must be a real team effort to coordinate disaster response across all levels.

    Panel Discussion on Field-Level Coordination of United Nations Humanitarian Assistance Missions in Higher-Risk Environments

    Panellists included Jacques Forster, Permanent Vice-President, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC); Diana Russler, Deputy United Nations Security Coordinator; Eric Morris, Director and Special Adviser to the High Commissioner, United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR); and Max Gaylard, Resident Coordinator/Humanitarian Coordinator, Somalia.  Jan Egeland, United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator and Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, was the moderator.

    Introducing the panellists, Council Vice-President DAW PENJO (Bhutan) said humanitarian work had always entailed operating in risky environment. However, the growing complexity of conflicts had put humanitarian personnel ever closer to the frontlines, often at great risk. The tragic bombing of United Nations headquarters in Iraq and the killing of aid workers in Afghanistan were recent examples of what had become a disturbing trend. Action must be taken to ensure the safety and security of humanitarian staff and to preserve the autonomy of humanitarian objectives.

    In opening remarks, Mr. EGELAND said the topic was a serious and challenging one.  The question was how humanitarians could face the unprecedented threats against their work in the field. They were not new challenges, as risk-taking had always been an implicit part of the work, but there was an increased sense of urgency and frustration, as well as a determination to overcome challenges produced by events in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia, where humanitarians had been deliberately targeted.

    He said the United Nations had undertaken an extensive review of the security apparatus since the bombing in Iraq, which was nearing completion. The results would have to balance two contradictory imperatives: the need to stay on in high-risk environments, and the imperative to do whatever possible for the security and safety of staff.  On the humanitarian side, there had been agreement that those in the field were best positioned to judge the risks. The field-based approach was also the best one in addressing risks in a coordinated manner. At a recent meeting of chief executives of major humanitarian organizations in Geneva, it had been agreed that more could be achieved by coordinated action. However, diversity among agencies had also been acknowledged, with some undertaking live-saving tasks, while others undertook roles that could wait until the risks were lower.

    Mr. FORSTER, Permanent Vice-President of the ICRC, said the discussion raised two questions of fundamental importance to the agency: how to make humanitarian assistance more effective; and how to make the deployment of humanitarian operations more secure. The complexity, diverse dimensions and number of humanitarian actors present in disaster situations made coordination among humanitarian organizations indispensable. The ICRC approach to coordination was motivated by the desire to share experiences and to ensure complementarity among organizations for the ultimate benefit of the victims.

    In planning its activities, the ICRC had recognized the need to enhance its knowledge of policies and approaches of other humanitarian actors, he stated. Thus, although it was not coordinated by the United Nations system, the agency was committed to working with it. However, the ICRC must preserve its neutrality in order to be accepted by all parties to conflicts. The risk for humanitarian actors in the field had increased, and there was no denying that the past 15 months had been particularly dangerous as direct attacks had targeted humanitarian actors.  Conflict environments tended to be doubly complex, with the fight against terrorism, for instance, pitting States against radical non-State actors and undermining the principles of humanitarian action, as many believed it impossible not to take sides. Yet, ensuring access to those carrying out terrorist attacks became difficult, if not impossible, in such a situation. That scenario represented a crucial operational challenge to the ICRC, for which dialogue with all actors remained necessary.

    As humanitarian operations were increasingly perceived as associated with Western political motivations, a perception reinforced by the blurring of mandates between political and military actors, the ICRC reiterated its commitment to the vital need for strict neutrality and independent humanitarian action, he said. In practical terms, that meant humanitarian action must be consensual and non-militarized. It must also be genuinely impartial and employ a needs-based and non-discriminatory approach. With regard to security policy, the ICRC continued to employ a decentralized system in which responsibility for management was located at the local level. Yet, given the changing security environment, the necessity of integrating the global nature of some threats into the agency’s operations had been recognized.  However, ICRC activities had been limited in only a few areas.

    Ms. RUSSLER, Deputy United Nations Security Coordinator, addressing the Organization’s efforts to enhance the ability of humanitarian agencies to responsibly maintain a presence in higher risk-crisis environments, noted that while United Nations personnel had operated in high-risk environments for many years, the security paradigm had changed now that the institution itself was being targeted. Traditionally, when the Organization had been protected by its flag and the diversity of its personnel, the essentials of its response to threats had consisted of passive protection measures, and it had relied on host governments to provide security. While no security system could eliminate danger completely, new threats imposed a quantum increase on the security demands.

    A number of changes had already been implemented, she continued, adding that more were expected following the completion of an ongoing security management review. Threat and risk assessment were at the heart of that process. As there was no generalized solution to all the demands under “difficult if not desperate” conditions, it was essential to take into consideration the conditions of specific duty stations. Security contingency planning was needed, taking into consideration the patterns of movement, needs and requirements of each agency. 

    Minimum operational security standards (MOSS) were of great importance, she said.  Staff should know in advance about the risks they were about to face and be equipped to deal with them. One of the key issues in dealing with high-risk situations was determining whether programme benefits outweighed human costs. Adequate resources should be provided to ensure personnel safety and security. The United Nations was not always perceived as the neutral organization that it was supposed to be, and in order to address that perception, it was important to raise awareness of its goals and activities. Level-headed analysis, security planning and implementation of guidelines were the way to success.

    Mr. MORRIS, of the UNHCR, said the Office had 6,000 staff members, 80 per cent of whom were in areas where refugees crossed borders. By definition, refugee movements across borders had security implications, as they were often accompanied by the movement of fighters, resulting in enforced recruitment in camps and sexual abuse. They also represented a threat to international peace and security and to staff, as well.

    In UNHCR’s work, the intent of neutrality and impartiality was always present, he said.  However, parties to conflict often did not see the camps as neutral and impartial, as refugee camps worked against their interests. A lasting solution to refugee problems, namely, return, could also work against the political interests of parties.  For the UNHCR, the right of access was not only a right but also an obligation. Victims also had a right to assistance, for which access was necessary.  One must always respect the independence of the humanitarian endeavour, accompanied by the principle of non-discrimination.

    The report on Baghdad highlighted the critical challenge: to find the balance between risks and objectives, he said, arguing for a differentiated approach. Regarding the “Iraqization” of security challenges, the United Nations must be careful not to succumb to a siege mentality, and work with its partners to nourish hope for peace and a decent standard of living. Staff security was an issue of field-level coordination, a “bottom-up” approach, in which it was important to focus on strengthening capacity at the field level.

    Regarding coherence and response of the United Nations system, he said it was important to keep in mind the common purposes of the Organization’s activities.  Independence was critical, but how it was accomplished differed from situation to situation. The UNHCR supported, however, a single chain of command for staff security within the United Nations system. There must be an integration of operational and security planning from the beginning, but much capacity-building remained to be done at the field level.  States had the responsibility to ensure that adequate resources were in place for humanitarian staff to address and ensure the rights of the victims.

    Mr. GAYLARD, United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Somalia, described the specific challenges of maintaining a humanitarian presence in that country and the Organization’s efforts to ensure the continued and effective delivery of aid.  Somalia had desperate and pervasive humanitarian needs in the absence of a central governing authority and amid the prevailing “general and chronic insecurity”. Even while observing the principles of impartiality and neutrality, humanitarian workers could get into trouble in Somalia. For example, it had taken a while to deal with a situation in which an NGO’s headquarters had been besieged by a militia group who had arrested its personnel and demanded $1 million ransom.

    Specific challenges in Somalia included the need to conduct a timely assessment of needs and deliver services in a hostile and high-risk environment, he said. Humanitarian access had to be negotiated with regional and municipal administrations, elders, militia groups and warlords. Under those circumstances, it was important to ensure the safe delivery of aid, coordinate the efforts of various agencies and mobilize adequate resources for that purpose. International engagement in Somalia was based on full compliance with safety procedures for all staff; promoting the rule of law; building the capacity of local police forces, where possible; protecting air lifelines; and maintaining a flexible approach.  A professional security service was in place.

    He concluded by saying it was indeed possible to provide humanitarian assistance in high-risk situations, provided there were good procedures, security awareness among staff and good communications in place. Implementing agencies must be mobile and able to act quickly. Innovative mechanisms were needed for quality control, while timely and adequate donor control was of critical importance.  It was also important to empower local staff and minimize the presence of international staff in the field.

    Interactive Discussion

    As the Economic and Social Council began its second interactive dialogue of the day, those participating overwhelmingly stressed two related issues: the need to ensure that integrated missions continued to be seen as independent and neutral; and the need to ensure the safety and security of United Nations staff.

    Given the recent blurring between the formerly distinct roles of humanitarian and military actors, many speakers stressed the need to ensure that integrated United Nations missions continued to be widely perceived as independent and neutral. More than one speaker suggested that the trend towards integrated missions was at a crossroads. As one delegate pointed out, 10 out of 25 current missions were integrated in nature and had evinced synergistic effects. Yet, questions relating to the multiple nature of those missions -- which comprised political, peacekeeping and humanitarian elements -- had also been raised, as had the need to avoid the incorporation of all elements into a single overall military strategy.

    Meanwhile, another delegate cautioned against throwing out the baby with the bathwater, noting that just because integrated missions were not appropriate to some environments did not mean they were not appropriate to any environment. The United Nations should set up a mechanism to determine comprehensively the factors that made some situations more suitable to integrated missions than others.

    In response, the panellists agreed that there should be a neutral and impartial review of all United Nations missions. However, the representative of the ICRC pointed out, it was essential to maintain a highly principled approach to neutrality and impartiality. In particular, modern communications, which were immediate and global, meant that humanitarian actors must maintain consistency, as deviations therefrom could be immediately publicized worldwide.

    Proposing a slight shift in the focus of the discussion on neutrality and impartiality, one speaker asked whether the emphasis on those qualities needed simply to be promulgated in public, or whether there should not be a substantial discussion as to the very concepts of neutrality and impartiality.  Several speakers also stressed that the safety of staff must come first, but added that risk management should not devolve into risk avoidance, which would lead, in turn, to a reduction in the effectiveness of the United Nations.

    In that regard, the panellists agreed, Member States could contribute collectively to improving the situation, including by redressing the phenomenon of impunity. For instance, offered one panellist, 270 United Nations staff members had lost their lives in the line of duty since the beginning of the 1990s, but only 22 perpetrators had been brought to justice. Member States had a responsibility to ensure that security was given due consideration, both in terms of funding and political support. If security concerns were given consideration in all United Nations mandates, they would become integrated elements of the system.

    As for the organizations on the ground, another panelist added, it was their responsibility to identify the needs of the people and to implement their presence accordingly. Just because some organizations needed a larger presence than others should not lead to a high staff presence on the part of all.

    Another set of questions was addressed to the representative of the Office of the United Nations Security Coordinator (UNSECOORD), who affirmed that its report would be ready to go before the forthcoming session of the General Assembly. In terms of staff protection, it should be noted that nearly 100,000 staff were deployed globally and that risks to them changed on a daily basis. Among areas for further work in respect of staff security, one speaker suggested that, while the decentralization of responsibilities to the field level should be continued, such cross-cutting issues as security must continue to be addressed at the centre.

    Moreover, in order for the security dialogue to be successful, the humanitarian community must see itself within that system.  To that end, UNSECOORD must hire individuals with more than just security and police backgrounds, a point that was agreed by the representative, who urged Member States to help the department identify individuals with the necessary analytical skills to contribute effectively in high-risk field stations.

    Also raised in the debate were questions regarding the impact of recent unilateral military operations on the delivery of humanitarian operations and response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. On the latter, it was noted that the multidimensional catastrophe of HIV/AIDS, natural disasters and internal strife had to be tackled with a multidimensional response involving the participation of local, national, regional and international players.

    In conclusion, the moderator acknowledged that roles in the field had been “somewhat blurred”, in part by the introduction of new actors, and asked for Member States’ help in re-establishing a safe humanitarian space for the United Nations. For humanitarian workers, the international community should “do more than put plaster on the wound”.  Besides protecting those who worked in situations of extreme danger, the international community had a collective responsibility to go beyond emergency response and proceed with peace-building and development.

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