PRESS CONFERENCE BY UNDER-SECRETARY-GENERAL FOR HUMANITARIAN AFFAIRS
Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York
5 March 2007
Introducing himself to correspondents at a Headquarters press conference today on his third day as Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, John Holmes of the United Kingdom highlighted his urgent areas of focus, including Darfur and Somalia, and announced plans to set up an office in Amman, Jordan, to tackle the “significant and increasing humanitarian problem” in Iraq in a more coherent and coordinated way.
Saying he wanted to “get onto the ground soon to see for myself what is happening in some of the critical areas”, he announced plans for a first visit in his new capacity to Chad, the Sudan and the Central African Republic from 20 to 31 March. He was discussing arrangements with the Governments concerned. It was clearly a major priority in the humanitarian sense, because of the worsening problems in Darfur, eastern Chad and, perhaps to a lesser extent, in the north-western part of the Central African Republic.
In Darfur, there were approximately 13,000 aid workers on the ground and 4 million people in urgent need of emergency assistance, including 2 million people who were internally displaced, and that number continued to rise. There was also continuing insecurity for those people and for the humanitarian workers, themselves. The security problems were increasing and unacceptable, given the levels of need.
He said there were 230,000 refugees from Darfur in eastern Chad, another 48,000 from the Central African Republic, and 120,000 and rising internally displaced people from Chad, a number that had doubled since last October. That was placing a lot of strain on the humanitarian system and on a very poor country in an extremely difficult and very remote area.
In the Central African Republic, there was a very significant problem with some 210,000 internally displaced persons and 70,000 others who had fled into Chad or Cameroon, he said. Again, the Central African Republic was a very poor country and a much neglected crisis. He had been trying to use the Central Emergency Relief Fund (CERF) to improve the situation there.
Also high on his list of concerns was the critical situation in southern and central Somalia, where 1 million people were in urgent need of assistance, he said. Access had been extremely difficult for many years, and there were hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people and serious food insecurity after 15 years of conflict and alternative bouts of drought and flooding. He wanted to be more active in that area, irrespective of a peacekeeping mission by the African Union or the United Nations.
In Uganda, he said, he was very focused on what was happening in the peace discussions between the Government and the Lords Resistance Army. The humanitarian situation was relatively stable, but still very serious, with something like 1.4 million internally displaced people in the northern provinces. Thus, he was watching that peace process, because the situation was fragile and he wanted to be prepared in the event of either good news or bad.
Uganda was a prime example of the need to focus on the humanitarian side in a way that it was not contaminated by ongoing political and peacekeeping processes, he added. He cautioned against the humanitarian process becoming “too involved” in the political processes, but said the two became entangled from time to time.
Nevertheless, he stressed it was important to keep that humanitarian separation, to keep the humanitarian aid that’s being offered on the basis of the classic humanitarian principles of independence and neutrality and impartiality, and not get dragged into the political side in ways which would put that aid or those delivering it at risk.
He was also closely watching the situation in Iraq, particularly how the United Nations and the humanitarian system, in particular, could get more closely and coherently involved in that increasingly multifaceted humanitarian problem. There were approximately 1.8 million refugees from Iraq in neighbouring countries, notably Jordan and Syria, and a similar number of internally displaced persons inside Iraq, owing to the sectarian violence and tensions of recent months.
There were also other concerns in Iraq, he added, such as food insecurity, which was deepening because of the faulty public distribution system, drawing attention to a new report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) on malnutrition among children. The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), other United Nations agencies and non-governmental organizations were working hard to begin to address that problem in a more coherent and energetic way.
Mozambique was a neglected crisis, at least in media terms, he said. That country had been suffering from two separate emergencies in recent weeks: flooding in the Zambezi River valley, which had displaced more than 160,000 people; and the impact of tropical Cyclone Favio, which had hit southern central Mozambique, affecting an additional 140,000 people. OCHA had been working with the Government, which had responded effectively to crises. So far, $10 million from the CERF had been contributed to ensure that the basic needs of the most affected people were met.
Asked how his style would be different from his predecessor’s, he said: “I will be my own man and do it in my own way, and I will not try to be sort of Jan Egeland. He did it in his own way, and very effective it was too.” He thought he would try to “combine a certain amount of quiet diplomacy, but also, I will have no hesitation in speaking up in a striking and passionate way when I think that speaking up in a striking and passionate way is exactly what is needed”. Perhaps that was not appropriate in his first press conference, before he had actually seen those situations on the ground for himself.
He added: “When you get there and see it for yourself and you see the problems and can feel the problems in a more direct way, then I think you will find me being rather more high profile than perhaps you expected.”
Asked if he had any assurance that the Sudanese and Chadian Governments would allow him into the countries, given their recent lack of cooperation, he said he had every expectation and hope of getting the access he wanted in Darfur, and he wanted to see various aspects of the humanitarian operation there. His contacts with the Sudanese Government had “not suggested any problems so far, but let’s tackle that as we go along”. It was the responsibility not only of the United Nations system to tackle those problems, but of the Governments concerned, and their cooperation was absolutely essential. He had every expectation of receiving it, he emphasized.
As for whether his Office was still receiving reports that aid workers were coming under attack in the Sudan, he said yes, there were continuing security problems for humanitarian workers in Darfur. That had been a pattern for several months now, and his Office had made clear that that was completely unacceptable, wherever the problems came from –- whether they came from the authorities or some of the rebel groups. He wanted to raise that matter when he was in the Sudan himself.
Despite the enormous problems in Darfur, humanitarian aid was getting through, at least to some in need, he said. There were two big problems -- the insecurity felt by humanitarian workers and the attacks against them, and the problem of access to remote areas. He feared that, while the situation was very serious at the moment, it could get much worse, if those working on the ground felt the conditions no longer allowed them to continue.
“We’re not at that point yet, but one or two NGOs have pulled out in the last few months, and those that are left, and UN agencies left, are facing very severe difficulties. If there is a major pull out, there could be a humanitarian catastrophe,” he warned.
Replying to a series of questions, he said the problems in Iraq were increasing and increasingly visible, and there was a desire on the part of Governments, non-governmental organizations and the United Nations system as a whole to try to address that in a more systematic way. There were already non-governmental organizations working in Iraq, and he wanted to coordinate that more effectively and to have a “single humanitarian plan for the country and the refugees and IDPs and food needs and to establish what the real needs are”. He was working very closely with the Iraqi Government to do that. There was a general recognition of the problem, and the fact that it was getting worse, he added.
What he envisaged with respect to the new OCHA office in Amman was a relatively small structure of up to 10 people initially, he said. Then, different ways of operating in Iraq would be investigated and in different parts of the country, so as to deliver aid to the people who needed it. The attention on Iraq had been focused on political issues, issues of violence and the future of the country, while the humanitarian side of it had been relatively neglected. It was time to bring the humanitarian side onto the agenda “rather more clearly and visibly”.
To what extent was he concerned about the decision of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to suspend operations in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and would the conditions underpinning the decision cause others to follow suit? another correspondent asked.
The problems were specific to UNDP, he said, adding his hope that humanitarian aid would be able to continue and not be affected by that. He saw no reason, at the moment, why that situation should “spread” to other more humanitarian aspects of the operation in that country.
He said he would want to continue the mission of his predecessor to broaden the donor base for OCHA and the CERF, and that included countries in the Gulf region, as well, whether for Iraq or for other causes.
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For information media • not an official record
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