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Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York

10 May 2004

Colombia was by far the biggest humanitarian catastrophe of the Western hemisphere, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Jan Egeland, told correspondents at a Headquarters press briefing this afternoon.

Having returned from a four-day mission to the country late last night, Mr. Egeland said he had visited internally displaced persons (IDPs) outside of Cartagena, on the Atlantic coast, and an IDP community close to the capital, Bogotá. He had also met with Colombian President Alvaro Oribe and his ministers, as well as some 60 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and representatives of 25 concerned countries.

Since his last visit and over the last year, there had been some improvements, Mr. Egeland said, noting that he had in the past served as the United Nations Special Adviser for Colombia. Security was better for many Colombians, and the number of kidnappings and assassinations was down.

The humanitarian situation, however, was worsening, he said. The accumulated number of IDPs over the last 15 years was some 2 million. One million of those could be attributed to the last three to four years alone.

Colombia was the third biggest internally displaced crisis in the world, he said. Only the Congo and the Sudan had more IDPs than Colombia. Although the number of new IDPs was down slightly from the peak levels of 2002, the net number was increasing. Colombia was by far the biggest humanitarian catastrophe of the Western hemisphere with the largest number of killings, humanitarian problems and the biggest conflict in the Western hemisphere.

In light of that, everybody had to do much more, he said. Colombia had largely become a forgotten humanitarian crisis. The international community and the United Nations had to do and would do more. The Colombian Government also had to do more at the regional, national and local levels. The rich Colombians also had to share with those that had nothing. The IDP communities he had visited in Colombia were very similar to those in the Congo, the Sudan and northern Uganda, he added.

Mr. Egeland noted that the United Nations currently had 38 offices in Colombia -- a quadrupling of its presence in the last four to five years. That was highly appreciated by Colombian NGOs, as well as Colombian governmental partners, and the United Nations would increase its presence. Next month, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), together with the Government and NGOs, would launch a humanitarian plan of action, which was an ambitious plan to focus on the internally displaced.

The crisis of internal displacement was also a crisis of security for Colombia, he continued. Together, the millions of young people, the traditionally poor and the internally displaced would lead to massive new recruitment into the guerrilla, the paramilitary forces and the drug mafias.

Describing high-risk areas, he said that with the Government speeding up its campaign against the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerrilla and increasingly strong paramilitary groups, large parts of the country were in danger of experiencing a worsening conflict.

He said he was particularly concerned with 10 areas where Indian and peasant tribes were totally trapped, cut off from the international community either because of guerrilla and paramilitary groups or because of government military campaigns. Having spent one month with an Indian tribe as a teenager, he noted that all of his Indian friends had been massacred, dispersed or besieged by drug mafias and paramilitary groups.

The continuing war, fuelled by the drug problem, had led to an increase in the number of land mines in recent months, he added. Colombia was one of the few countries in the world where the use of landmines was increasing.

Asked to explain why the number of IDPs was increasing, he said the people were being displaced because armed groups were attacking them. Colombia had had an increasingly dirty war in recent years, where paramilitary forces and the guerrilla systematically attacked the civilian population that they believed supported the other side. People were forced to leave the countryside and live in shantytowns outside of the cities with no access to health or educational services. Describing a place he had visited near Cartagena, he said he had the impression that some 10,000 people were floating around in a “sea of sewerage and garbage” living in improvised housing.

How many people lived in the 10 high-risk enclaves? a correspondent asked. Responding, he said he did not have a specific number. There were several hundred thousand people without access. That number would vary according to the military strategies of the various groups and the Government’s anti-drug and anti-guerrilla offensives.

Asked what he would like the Government to do specifically, he said the Government should devote more resources. Most public spending in Colombia was caught up in paying for the war and national debt. In the middle of the Western hemisphere was one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises with enormous consequences in terms of drugs, conflict and massive humanitarian suffering.

Asked whether he was negotiating with the Government or the other groups blocking the 10 high-risk places, he said he had raised the issue with the President. A procedure had been established whereby they would meet with the High Commissioner for Peace to discuss how to undertake humanitarian diplomacy either with the parties or through the Church. “In the absence of a peace process, we should at least try to humanize this very dirty conflict”, he added.

Given his broad experience in the country, how had the increased presence of United States troops and activities impacted the humanitarian situation over the past years? a correspondent asked.

The biggest donor country to Colombia by far was the United States, he said. It was a politically sensitive issue. The United States had the whole spectre of projects, namely, humanitarian, political, and military. The humanitarian projects were seen as largely positive. The other part of its activities was not a part of his portfolio.

Asked what could be done to protect indigenous people in Colombia, he said a collective international eye opener was needed for the drama in Colombia. Several Indian tribes were in acute danger of becoming extinct. Some 80 Indian communities had been affected by the conflict and several of them were in danger of extinction.

Colombia also had one of the biggest deforestation problems in the world with much of the jungle being claimed by the war, he said. There was not much information on the matter, as many of the affected areas were out of reach of the international community. Nevertheless, the conflict was having a great ecological and environmental effect.

On the issue of debt, he said that those who had lent money to Colombia should be aware of the vicious circle facing the country as a result of it being so heavily indebted. The money saved by a potentially less heavy debt burden should be earmarked for the social and humanitarian sectors. With the launching next month of the humanitarian plan of action and following consultations with some 2,000 Colombian, NGO and international stakeholders, there would be a large number of programmes not only to administer the crisis but also to solve it.

Responding to a question on United States activities in the country, he said the United States, as well as other donor countries, had helped to lower the number of killings from the peak of 2002. The fumigation of coca crops was a highly controversial issue within Colombia and among NGOs. Whether there was a military solution to the conflict was also controversial. He had said publicly that he did not believe that there could be a purely military solution and that a negotiated solution was needed.

Responding to another question, he noted that the OCHA did not have a consolidated appeal for Colombia, as the country did not want that kind of appeal. The humanitarian action plan had been about 20 per cent covered by international donors and was not among OCHA’s biggest appeals.

Asked about the conscription of child soldiers, he said the Government no longer conscripted children. Both the FARC and the paramilitary had used child soldiers and still did. While he did not have a precise figure, it was a large number. In some of the heavy fighting a couple of years ago, many of the killed had been children.

Responding to several other questions, he noted that the number of kidnappings, displacements and killings had peaked between 1999 and 2002. The number was now slightly down. For example, in 2002 more than 400,000 had been displaced, whereas last year the figure had been less than 300,000. While there was no correlation between those figures and international aid, there was a correlation between those figures and government and illegal armed group offensives.

The multibillion-dollar drug industry was fuelling the intense conflict in Colombia, he said. The Indians and the Afro-Colombians had been most affected by the hardships of the war.

The rich had to do much more, he said, responding to another question. The richest 10 per cent in Bogotá were some 50 times richer than the poorest 10 per cent. The rich in Colombia were very rich. The Government had increased taxes substantively mostly for security programmes. Security was the biggest source of employment in the country.

Asked to describe the difference between the old humanitarian action plan and the new plan, he said the new plan, to be launched next month, would be an 18-month plan and would focus on concrete humanitarian projects. An all-embracing programme, it would serve as an umbrella for government, international and NGO programmes. The previous plan, launched some two years ago, had been a smaller attempt.

Asked why Colombia was the worst humanitarian crisis in the Western hemisphere, Mr. Egeland said it was because of the drug-fuelled war. The drug trade, while causing misery both on the receiving and production side, caused even greater misery on the production side. In Colombia, massive misery was linked to a drug-driven war, where paramilitary and drug groups became increasingly strong.

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