UN deputy chief warns of ‘hurricane of humanitarian crises’

Amalendu Upadhyaya
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There is a “bloody surge” impacting humanitarian crises around the world, with civilians in conflict zones paying the highest price, the UN deputy chief told the Security Council on Friday. 

17 July 2021. Briefing on behalf of the UN chief, Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed, painted a grim picture of civilian executions, arbitrary arrests, detentions, forced displacement and sexual violence against children, on a massive scale, in the Tigray region of Ethiopia.

She also spoke of “brutal attacks” in Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen, where 20 million people are living “face-to-face” with hunger.

Two children collect drinking water in a camp for displaced people in Idlib, Syria.

“We are in uncharted waters”, she said, with the “sheer scale of humanitarian needs” never greater. 

This year the UN and its partners are seeking to assist 160 million people – its highest number ever.

‘Relentless’ attacks

The “hurricane of humanitarian crises” is compounded by a “relentless wave of attacks” on humanitarian and medical workers, and the imposition of ever-narrower constraints on humanitarian space, according to the deputy UN chief.

“The Secretary-General urges this Council to take strong and immediate action to support its numerous resolutions on the protection of civilians, humanitarian and healthcare workers, and humanitarian space”, she told ministers and ambassadors.

Surge in incidents

Shootings, bodily and sexual assault, kidnappings and other attacks affecting humanitarian organizations, have increased tenfold since 2001, according to Ms. Mohammed. 

“In the five years since this Council’s landmark resolution calling for an end to impunity for attacks on healthcare systems, workers and patients have suffered thousands of attacks”, she said.

Meanwhile, it is becoming ever more difficult to provide vital humanitarian aid to people in need.

Delaying tactics

Some authorities impose restrictions on the movements of humanitarian staff and supplies, long visa and customs procedures and delays at checkpoints. Other obstacles include high taxes and fees on humanitarian supplies.

And while every country needs to act against terrorism, each also has a responsibility to make sure its counter-terrorism efforts do not undermine humanitarian operations. 

As Governments create systems around humanitarian aid delivery, the deputy chief reminded, “it is essential” that they support, rather than block aid.

Protect humanitarian space

Because the best way to protect humanitarian space is by ending violence and conflict, the Secretary-General had called for a global ceasefire to focus on the common enemy: the COVID-19 pandemic.

And on Thursday, the UN chief issued a call for silencing the guns in the run up to the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo: “People and nations can build on this temporary respite to establish lasting ceasefires and find paths towards sustainable peace”, he said. 

“Turbo-charged” by COVID, humanitarian needs are outpacing the capacity to meet them, said Ms. Mohammed. 

While the UN engages in difficult negotiations to create lasting ceasefires and build sustainable peace, the delivery of life-saving humanitarian aid must continue and that requires the necessary humanitarian space.

Member States and the Security Council have “a responsibility to do everything in their power” to end attacks on humanitarians and assets, and seek accountability for serious violations, she underscored.

Key steps

She said there needed to be greater respect for international humanitarian law that does not “blur the lines” between military operations, political objectives and humanitarian efforts.  

“Upholding the principles of humanitarian action…is essential to building trust with political, military, security, non-State armed groups and others”.

Secondly, “investigation and accountability” are essential to prevent attacks on aid workers, which she said was “completely unacceptable and may constitute war crimes” adding that “what goes unpunished will be repeated”.

Thirdly, governments need to protect the ability of humanitarian organizations to engage with conflict parties, including non-State armed groups, because when humanitarian agencies are perceived as part of a political agenda, it puts workers in danger “and reduces their effectiveness”.  

Counter-terrorism measures should include clear provisions to preserve humanitarian space, she said, minimizing the impact on humanitarian operations and ensuring that humanitarian and healthcare personnel are not punished for doing their jobs.

Finally, the Council must use its influence to immediately stop attacks against schools and hospitals.

“The unprecedented healthcare emergency cause by the COVID-19 pandemic makes the protection of medical facilities and workers more critical than ever”.

Calls to action

Member States were urged to endorse and implement the Safe Schools Declaration, which aims to protect all educational institutions from the worst effects of armed conflict and support the Health Care in Danger initiative.

Due to the enormous challenges faced by humanitarian agencies, the Secretary-General has asked his incoming Humanitarian Affairs chief to appoint a Special Adviser on the preservation of humanitarian space and access and to strengthen humanitarian negotiations.

“The international community owes humanitarian aid agencies and healthcare and humanitarian workers its full and unwavering support in their difficult and often dangerous work”, Ms Mohammed concluded.

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