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Zimbabwe: UN officials concerned at blocking of food aid

Zimbabwe: UN officials concerned at blocking of food aid

John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator
The top United Nations relief official today expressed grave concern at a decision by authorities in Zimbabwe to restrict distribution of aid in the country in the run-up to presidential elections.

“This goes against fundamental humanitarian principles,” John Holmes, Emergency Relief Coordinator, said today in a statement. “Humanitarian agencies must be allowed to reach freely those who are in need in Zimbabwe. Millions of Zimbabweans are unfortunately dependant on humanitarian aid in the present circumstances,” he added.

Mr. Holmes, who is also the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, called on the Zimbabwean Government to facilitate unrestricted access for aid workers. “Humanitarian agencies are guided by the principles of neutrality and impartiality, their mandate being only to alleviate the suffering of people in distress,” he said.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Zimbabwe have been facing increasing restrictions in advance of presidential elections later this month. NGOs in different parts of the country have recently been ordered to suspend their operations, partially or totally.

Aid programmes that have been affected include school feeding programmes and those for orphans and vulnerable children.

According to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), among those displaced by election-related violence are more than 10,000 children.

Meanwhile, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights also said today that she is “deeply concerned” at the reports from Zimbabwe.

“If true, this would be an unconscionable act,” Louise Arbour said. “To deprive people of food because of an election would be an extraordinary perversion of democracy, and a serious breach of international human rights law.”

Ms. Arbour made her comments in Rome shortly after addressing global leaders at the High High-Level Conference on World Food Security on the issue of human rights and food.

The restrictions in Zimbabwe come at a time when food security in the country is deteriorating, leaving an increasing number of people vulnerable. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), poor rainfall and lack of seeds mean that this year’s harvest will be worse than in 2007.

Aid operations in the country are intended to benefit over four million Zimbabweans, or over one-third of the population.

In late 2007, 42 UN agencies and NGOs appealed for $317 million to provide aid to the country. Halfway through 2008, the Appeal is only 17 per cent funded.