Global perspective Human stories

New UN humanitarian chief set to visit Sudan, other ‘critical areas’ in Africa

New UN humanitarian chief set to visit Sudan, other ‘critical areas’ in Africa

John Holmes
The top United Nations humanitarian official, whose tenure began on 1 March, said today that he is eager to see first-hand the dire humanitarian situation in western Sudan, as well as visit Chad and the Central African Republic (CAR), which are both hosting refugees who have fled the war-torn Darfur region.

“I want to get onto the ground soon to see for myself what is happening in some of the critical areas,” John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, told reporters in his first press briefing since taking office.

In the region, the problems regarding the safety of the displaced as well as of humanitarian workers “are increasing and unacceptable and the problems of access, if anything, are worsening,” he added.

To this end, Mr. Holmes, who now heads the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), is currently in discussions with the authorities of the three countries regarding a trip scheduled for 20-31 March, during which he hopes to meet with Government officials, humanitarian workers and those living in camps.

In his new position, Mr. Holmes will wear “three separate hats,” each with “various goals.”

In his capacity as the Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, he said that he believes he will play a significant advocacy role to emphasize such issues as the significance of access in humanitarian relief, highlighting neglected crises and the sexual violence in conflict.

As the Emergency Relief Coordinator, he hopes to build upon reforms and innovations initiated in recent years, such as the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), which helps countries cope with underfunded emergencies.

Finally, of the International Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction which he will lead, Mr. Holmes noted that he wants to increase the public’s awareness that “money spent on prevention is a better investment than money spent on response after [a disaster].”

The new Under-Secretary-General, who replaces Norway’s Jan Egeland, also described what he believes will be his dual approach to his position. “What I will try to do is combine a certain amount of quiet diplomacy if necessary… but also I will have absolutely no hesitation of speaking up in a striking and passionate way.”

Aside from Sudan, Chad and the CAR, other countries high on his agency’s agenda are Somalia, where OCHA hopes to increase its activities in the south and centre of the country, Uganda, where the government is currently in talks with the rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), and Mozambique, which has been ravaged by both floods and a tropical cyclone.

Mr. Holmes also mentioned Iraq as a country whose humanitarian situation OCHA is closely monitoring. Approximately 1.8 million Iraqis have been internally displaced, while the same number of Iraqi refugees now reside outside the country’s borders. OCHA is opening an office in Amman, Jordan, to help coordinate humanitarian efforts to assist the refugees.

Mr. Holmes, a veteran diplomat from the United Kingdom, most recently served as his country’s ambassador to France prior to assuming his current position at the UN. In his career with the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, he has covered and been posted in many regions, including the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Latin America. In 1999, he was awarded a knighthood, largely for the role he played in the Northern Ireland peace process and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.