Zimbabwe: top UN official urges lifting of restrictions on aid groups

Zimbabwe: top UN official urges lifting of restrictions on aid groups

Zimbabweans crossing the Limpopo River  into South Africa (file photo)
The United Nations humanitarian chief has called on the Government of Zimbabwe to rescind its decision to suspend all field operations by non-governmental aid groups.

“This is a deplorable decision that comes at a critical humanitarian juncture for the people of Zimbabwe,” Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes said today in a statement. “I therefore strongly urge the Government to reconsider and rescind this decision as soon as possible.”

Pointing out that much of the UN’s humanitarian assistance to Zimbabwe is channeled through non-governmental organizations (NGOs), Mr. Holmes said that aid for two million of the most poor and vulnerable among Zimbabwe’s people would be severely restricted.

He said that organizations under the current suspension are “engaged in vital humanitarian work, fully respecting the principles of impartiality and neutrality,” and called for unrestricted access for the groups as well as guarantees for their safety and security.

Speaking to reporters in New York, Mr. Holmes said that the UN was in daily contact with Government ministers in Zimbabwe through its Humanitarian Coordinator in the country, in an effort to have the decision changed.

He added that the UN was assisting more than 4 million people in the country, about a third of Zimbabwe’s population.

“Clearly that’s a very large number and it comes against a background of a deteriorating humanitarian situation in general which is a result of the general economic and political situation in the country, but also a drought in recent months as well, so that’s why it’s such a worrying situation,” he said.

Earlier this week, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights described reports that the aid groups’ work had been suspended in advance of presidential elections later this month as “an unconscionable act.”

“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,” Louise Arbour said.