Afghanistan: UNAMA facing new humanitarian challenges

NILI, 28 May 2007 (IRIN) - Daykundi is a mountainous and isolated province in central Afghanistan, home to the ethnic Hazaras, and Shia by religion. In February, heavy rainfall and flooding washed away many roads between Daykundi and neighbouring regions impeding transport in and out of the province.

"Prices of foodstuffs and other commodities have already skyrocketed and if the roads do not re-open quickly we will face a famine and a humanitarian crisis here," said Sultan Ali Urozgani, the governor of Daykundi.

Over 80 people died and hundreds lost houses in the seasonal flooding in Daykundi two months ago, provincial officials confirmed. Yet many affected families say they have received no tangible relief, only promises.

On 21 April Tom Koenigs, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Afghanistan (SRSG), inaugurated a United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA) sub-office in Daykundi and told a gathering: "We have come to Daykundi to listen closely to the needs of the local community".

UNAMA's role poorly understood

However, some local residents have little understanding of UNAMA's role, even though it has been established as the lead UN body in Afghanistan for over five years.

Laila, 40, who lives in Nili, the provincial capital of Daykundi, said: "My daughters are illiterate and I want UNAMA to build schools for girls and help us educate our children".

"If UNAMA is a kind of food assistance I would like to get some, and if it is an office it should help the poor people of our province," said 60-year-old Mohammed Hussain, a resident of Nili.

UNAMA's new mandate

Opening new offices in the provinces to extend its reach into remote and conflict areas is part of UNAMA's renewed mandate.

The UN Security Council recently extended UNAMA's mandate to 23 March 2008, calling on it to "promote humanitarian coordination and to continue to contribute to human rights protection and promotion, including monitoring of the situation of civilians in armed conflict". (Security Council Resolution 1746 of 23 March 2007 -

The UN's humanitarian affairs coordinator in Afghanistan, Ameerah Haq, says the new responsibilities reflect the growing humanitarian consequences of the insurgency that has plagued parts of the country.

"We, as with everyone else, did not foresee what was going to happen with the rise of the insurgency. Because of the escalation in the insurgency a number of military operations had to be undertaken, and we are seeing much more of a situation where humanitarian response is required that we had just not anticipated in the planning," Haq said.

Growing humanitarian needs

Humanitarian needs have grown in scale, contrary to expectations of post-conflict recovery and normalisation, and this has necessitated the re-think on UNAMA's role.

Some argue that too much responsibility was unrealistically placed on the fledgling Afghan government in taking on the humanitarian role, which it has been unable to shoulder due to other pressing priorities and a general lack of capacity in terms of budgets, staff and experience. NGOs express this view, and also seek new and better mechanisms sometimes without direct government control.

"We need a good focal point for humanitarian coordination and UNAMA can do that, but there's been too much focus on meeting development benchmarks to the detriment of the underlying policy environment," said Anja de Beer, director of the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief, an umbrella organisation for NGOs in Afghanistan.

Now, the diplomatic and international community seems to be recognizing the need for a stronger hand on these issues, and has mandated UNAMA to do it.

Humanitarian coordination

Oxfam UK is one of a handful of NGOs operating in Daykundi and its country representative, Grace Ommer, says UNAMA input into coordinating recent flood relief was impressive.

Other NGOs say humanitarian coordination has diminished in recent years.

"Humanitarian response has been compromised over time by a lack of functional coordination mechanisms and the absence of a mechanism to discuss humanitarian issues," said Ann Kristin Brunborg, resident representative of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) for Afghanistan.

"Humanitarian response is not solely a canister of ghee and 50kg of rice from WFP [World Food Programme]. What is missing in Afghanistan is a coherent, efficient and accountable humanitarian response system, which not only should address needs in a timely manner, but also build and strengthen local response capacity," said Shukria Barakzai, a member of parliament in the Afghan lower house.

"Ideally the UN is expected to help create this system. Unfortunately, in Afghanistan, the UN has been unable to meet this expectation," Barakzai added.

Until 2006 much humanitarian coordination in the country was conducted through a Humanitarian Advisory Group. However, when Afghanistan moved from an emergency phase to a development phase, much of the humanitarian coordination was incorporated into processes supporting the Afghan government and its Interim Afghanistan National Development Strategy.

Neglected areas

Anja de Beer suggested that issues including social protection, civilian protection, human rights and civil-military relations were among those that had suffered due to a lack of a "comprehensive approach".

Those issues were raised by several NGOs including the NRC. However the NRC's Brunborg went further to suggest that what coordination remained also suffered from a lack of independence.

"There also needs to be a mechanism where the humanitarian community can address serious protection issues without the government and other actors who actually perpetrate breaches, being present," Brunborg said.

Some question whether Afghanistan moved into a development phase too quickly. But UNAMA's Ameerah Haq says that at the time there was little dissent.

"Following the election of President [Hamid] Karzai and parliamentary elections I think we all felt that we were on a path towards reconstruction and development and that the immediate humanitarian needs of a post-conflict country had been well looked after," she said.

Growing civilian casualties

Two prominent international rights watchdogs, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, recently raised concerns over civilian casualties in Afghanistan saying non-combatants were becoming a major victim of fighting between Afghan security personnel supported by international forces and insurgents.

In the past two months alone, more than 120 civilians have reportedly been killed in the fighting.

The bulk of the blame for the civilian casualties falls on the Taliban who have repeatedly and deliberately targeted civilians in order to achieve purely military gains.

Nonetheless, US Special Forces operating under Operation Enduring Freedom and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) have also been accused of disproportionate use of force and violations of international humanitarian law.

Monitoring civilians in armed conflict

The Security Council has also tasked UNAMA with monitoring the situation of civilians in armed conflicts.

UNAMA is an appropriate body to monitor civilian protection, says Paul Fishstein, director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit - a Kabul-based think-tank.

"The UN has good credibility and it is critical to maintain that so that the organisation is able to act as a credible reporter and a credible voice that will help to protect civilians," he said.

So far, UNAMA has had difficulties collecting and releasing data about civilian victims in Afghanistan's ongoing insurgency.

Information gap

In addition to insecurity UNAMA's access to firsthand, accurate and reliable information about the situation of non-combatants in southern and southeastern provinces has been affected by insufficient cooperation from ISAF, officials say.

"We don't get as much information as we'd like," conceded Ameerah Haq, referring to displacements due to fighting in the south last year.

However she says cooperation is getting better and UNAMA is trying to establish a system through which it receives information before military operations so that humanitarian assistance can be pre-positioned.

In order to carry out civilian monitoring, UNAMA will work to disseminate international humanitarian and human rights law and promote the issue of civilian protection in armed conflicts in Afghanistan, Haq said.