PRESS BRIEFING BY HUMANITARIAN AFFAIRS
Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York
3 February 1999
The two major districts of Brazzaville, the capital of the Congo, a country which had received virtually no press attention, were empty of their residents and had both been severely and efficiently looted, Martin Griffiths, the Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, told correspondents at a Headquarters press briefing today, reporting on his recent visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Congo and Angola.
"We reckon about 50,000 people have been displaced in Brazzaville and are now in makeshift sites where they are receiving minimal humanitarian assistance from the United Nations, non-governmental organizations and the Red Cross", Mr. Griffiths went on to say. "We are still missing roughly 120,000 people south of the capital who fled from the conflict -- which has been happening in recent months -- and we still have not been able to identify them and provide assistance", he added.
He said that the offices of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) had been looted in daylight in Brazzaville. "Our capacity to respond to the needs of the people in that country is severely limited because the security of our staff and other international staff cannot easily be guaranteed. We are now down to a very small compliment of international staff there now."
The Congo was a forgotten emergency, but an important one, Mr. Griffiths stressed. "We believe that donors, for example, are going to probably be reluctant to provide much beyond the minimum humanitarian assistance, because they believe that the cycle of violence will continue." They were probably right he added, stating that the situation in the Congo was "very dismal". He gave particular credit to the humanitarian workers who were there and who were operating under extremely difficult conditions to provide the assistance that they could.
Mr. Griffiths added that the principal objective of his mission to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which he visited about 10 days ago, was to discuss both with the Government in Kinshasa and the leadership of the rebel movement in Goma, the basis on which United Nations humanitarian assistance would be provided throughout the country to all those in need.
"We are estimating that there are just under 200,000 refugees in that country and possibly as many as 500,000 displaced persons, Mr. Griffiths continued. About 190,000 of the displaced persons were in North and South Kivu in the east of the country. He was glad to say, however, that, as a result of the discussions in both Goma and Kinshasa, "we believe that we are in a position to move assistance into rebel areas".
In Kinshasa, Mr. Griffiths went on to say, the Government repeated what it had said before, which was that it perfectly accepted the principle that humanitarian assistance should be provided wherever it was needed without discrimination. He had also given the Government a document on the basic humanitarian principles of engagement "which we will be using to guide our actions". The same document was given to the rebel leadership in Goma.
"In the case of the rebel leadership, what we are doing is asking them to subscribe in writing to that document", he continued. As far as the Government was concerned, they were already bound to the great majority of the principles under international humanitarian law. Even so, he welcomed the fact that both sides had acknowledged that the principles were appropriate and that "our assistance should be provided".
Factors that would affect that outcome, however, included the extremely patchy security, particularly in the east -- not simply the tides of war between the Government and its allies and the Congolese Rally for Democracy Movement, but also the sporadic fighting. For example, a few days before his visit to the town of Bukavu, it had been the scene of a substantial battle. "Security is, therefore, going to be very difficult, and as international non- governmental organizations which have been working in the area for some time reminded us, you have to be very opportunistic about where you can operate and where you cannot." The second issue was the return of looted assets, Mr. Griffiths said. The great majority of the approximately 120 vehicles that were looted from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in South Kivu in the middle of last year had still not been returned. The rebel movement recommitted themselves to having those assets returned and some progress had been made, particularly in Goma and North Kivu.
The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), which would play the lead in Goma, would, therefore, be opening a United Nations office in that town. "We are also hopeful that the United Nations United High Commissioner for Human Rights' office might also open an antenna in Goma as per our recommendation."
Addressing Angola, the third country he had visited, Mr. Griffiths said that there was talk about the Organization possibly pulling out of that country. "I think that the first simple fact is that, as far as humanitarian agencies are concerned -- they are not going to be leaving Angola", he stressed. Their task was already very difficult and was going to become more difficult. They were, however, not leaving, he reiterated.
There were 170 local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Angola operating in a humanitarian programme, Mr. Griffiths continued. Ninety-two international NGOs were also working there, in addition to United Nations agencies such as the WFP, UNICEF, UNHCR, WHO and so forth. The problem facing the agencies was the lack of access to any people in the areas under the control of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA).
He went on to say that, even in areas under government control, access was very difficult and mostly by air to the urban centres where people gathered. "We can only assume that the situation will get worse, that access will become more difficult, and that the United Nations security system, which is being managed by the mission and which presumably will have to change, is going to have to cope with an extremely fluid situation and also a more expensive one." The WFP, which ran the airlift part of the humanitarian programmes, had already estimated that it would need an extra $9.5 million for the additional costs that would be incurred in providing access to the limited population.
"What we are talking about", Mr. Griffiths continued, "is 550,000 new displaced people -- a new caseload has been created in this current cycle of violence, which started just under a year ago." That brought the total displaced population requiring assistance to 1.5 million people. "We are in the process of discussing, planning and seeing what the particular operational requirements are that we need to plan for, with the current situation presumably deteriorating in military terms, with access becoming difficult and with the need to have separate contact with UNITA, as well as with the Government."
The same basic humanitarian principles of engagement which had been provided to both sides in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and which stated that humanitarian assistance should be provided in a manner which was neutral and impartial would obviously apply to Angola, Mr. Griffiths told correspondents.
Recapping the good and the bad news that he had reported, Mr. Griffiths said that some progress had been made in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Congo-Brazzaville, however, was a stain on "our conscience", and Angola would present the kind of challenges that had not been since 1992, when the international NGOs were burying 250 children a day in Malanje alone.
Responding a question about the length of his stay, Mr. Griffiths said that he had spent about two weeks altogether, covering the three countries. Asked if the dismal situation he had described in the Congo was a condition that could be found from coast to coast, Mr. Griffiths said that it certainly was. "If you just look at the figures of those in need -- that paints the picture."
"If you look at the conditions for humanitarian organizations to work, it is very difficult", he continued. That was so because the conditions changed so frequently. Security was one such example. Planning an effective response was, therefore, very difficult. One of things, however, that humanitarian organizations had done a great deal of over the last five years and more, was to improve their response capacity.
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