During a lecture delivered at the Council on Foreign Relations, the United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator described the increasingly complex environments in which humanitarian actors work, as they deal more and more with the consequences of crises whose roots lie in poor governance, political paralysis, underdevelopment, and rising levels of poverty and inequality.
“The challenges facing organizations working in the humanitarian field reflect the wider challenges facing the entire United Nations,” said Valerie Amos, who heads the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
“How do we live up to the values in the UN Charter? How do we safeguard human rights, protect civilians and help secure a more peaceful and a more just world?”
She described some of the insights held by those working in the humanitarian field, notably the fact that breaking cycles of violence requires engagement of political actors with communities to find sustainable solutions to crises.
To fulfil that need, she called for a stronger and possibly “more interventionist” global architecture for dealing with the humanitarian consequences of conflict. States also needed to live up to their responsibility to protect civilians from harm and multilateral institutions had to be able to step in where they failed to do so.
The tools currently available to the international community were “extremely limited” despite the complexity of the challenges they face, she said, looking to international humanitarian law, which, although it provided means for tackling challenges arising from conflicts, lacked implementation and required stronger vision and commitment from governments, multilateral institutions and humanitarian agencies.
The result was not only continued danger for humanitarians trying to provide assistance around the world but the “manifest failure” of political leaders to protect their people, with humanitarian organizations forced to fill the “glaring gaps” left. Such situations increased the difficulties associated with separating humanitarian responses from political imperatives in places like Syria, Iraq, Ukraine and Gaza.
“We have a responsibility to be strong advocates for the people caught in the midst of conflict and many Governments don’t like what we say,” she said, noting that 155 aid workers had died, with 134 others kidnapped in the course of 251 attacks on aid workers in 2013. “We are constantly ‘under fire’ – both literally and figuratively.”
She also pointed to the financial pressures on humanitarian work as needs grow around the world. In 2015, 78 million people in 22 countries require urgent humanitarian assistance, in the form of shelter, health care, education and food, at a cost $16.4 billion.
“[That money] will help people to survive,” Ms. Amos said. “But what it will not do is help people to rebuild their lives, because without resolution to conflict, people will continue to flee brutality.”
Despite the dangers and pressures, she noted that humanitarian groups continue providing assistance around the world every day, and said she would continue pushing for better protection of civilians in conflict, whether calling on States to deliver on their duty to protect their citizens or highlighting governments and militaries the devastating impact that the use of explosive weapons has on people living in densely populated urban areas.
Solving the problems faced by humanitarian workers and finding the right approaches to resolving them would be a priority for consultations leading up to the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, which she noted would be the first ever such conference.
“At that Summit, we will have a unique opportunity to reshape our approach to humanitarian aid and the way we do humanitarian business,” she said.