New UN aid official calls obstacles to humanitarian assistance 'moral outrage'

4 September 2003

It is "a moral outrage" that United Nations humanitarian operations are forced out of countries or cut back because of violence, turmoil and lack of security, the new Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator said today.

Jan Egeland, formerly head of the Norwegian Red Cross and a Norwegian state secretary, told a news briefing in New York that the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) was struggling to maintain a presence in Iraq and would not be deterred.

But security conditions were such that OCHA was scaling down its staff there to a fraction of what it was and many humanitarian agencies were cutting back to one international staff, whereas they each had several dozen before, Mr. Egeland said.

He noted, however, that the Office had a better response system today than when it was first created in the wake of the 1991 Persian Gulf War and could, within 24 hours, send anywhere in the world a team of qualified and experienced experts to do assessments and then organize relief action.

"Being there", he said, meant not only life-saving services but also being witnesses to what was occurring, protecting local staff, and being able to plan future development and reconstruction. But in Liberia, OCHA had to leave due to the turmoil and it also had to leave during the Afghan crisis, he added.

Maintaining a presence was closely linked to the right of access, he continued. In many parts of Africa, the Middle East and other parts of the world, OCHA did not have access. Governments often did not do what should be done to provide access. Also, turmoil prevented assistance from reaching the affected. He hoped that issue would receive more attention from Member States and other partners.

Mr. Egeland also said a major problem was that most humanitarian emergencies were forgotten and lacked funds. Many of the forgotten disasters, most of them in Africa, got a fraction of what better-known crises received. One of his tasks would be, with the help of the media, to shed light on those crises.

People were dying today in many areas because OCHA was not able to do its job and did not have the resources, he added. While he would like to avoid being protected by arms, in some cases, such as in Iraq, humanitarian personnel were totally dependent on armed protection, he added.


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