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Press briefing by Executive Director of World Food Programme

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Host countries must be responsible for the security of humanitarian workers and must punish the perpetrators of crimes against humanitarian workers, the Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP), Catherine Bertini, told correspondents at a Headquarters press briefing this afternoon.
Ms. Bertini, who was participating in the Security Council's debate on the protection of United Nations humanitarian and associated personnel, said that out of the 184 staff members killed in violent acts since 1992, only two cases had ended with the perpetrators been brought to justice. According to figures provided by the United Nations Security Coordinator, 98 of those deaths, she noted, had been murders. "We have a long way to go to ensure that these violent acts stop", she said.

Highlighting the points she had made in her presentation to the Security Council, Ms. Bertini said that she was pleased that the Council was discussing the protection of staff. Full-time workers in the humanitarian field were encouraged by the fact that the Security Council increasingly included humanitarian topics on its agenda. With growing concern for staff safety, it was encouraging that the organ responsible for peace and security was considering the issue of protection of staff. "We would expect that this is the first of further discussions about very serious measures toward ensuring security of staff", she said.

Strengthening the Office of the United Nations Security Coordinator was essential for increasing the protection of humanitarian staff, Ms. Bertini said. Given the number of staff it was responsible for, the Office was tiny, she said. Referring to the Office's budget, she said that it had $537,000 a year to cover expenses for four staff members, while approximately $100,000 covered non-staff expenses, such as travel. Eight of the Office's 12 New York staff members were paid for by inter-agency agreements. Another 42 staff worldwide were also paid for by various United Nations agencies.

Ms. Bertini said that in protecting humanitarian staff it was necessary to re-endorse the humanitarian principle of impartiality. "No matter what is happening, no matter what decision the Security Council has taken on a particular issue, we must always remember that we have a basic commitment that innocent civilians do not starve", she stressed. Humanitarian access must always be provided to the victims of conflict, she added, and the safety of humanitarian staff bringing the relief must also be secured.

Another way of ensuring the protection of staff was to give peacekeepers a mandate to protect humanitarian workers, Ms. Bertini said. The peacekeeper's role in protecting civilians was often spelled out, but their role in protecting humanitarian workers was not.

The United Nations itself must provide more security and cultural training for humanitarian workers going to dangerous and difficult duty stations, she said. As an institution, the United Nations must do more to make sure that staff understood what it meant to work under difficult conditions.

Referring to the case of four humanitarian workers on a charter plane being held hostage in the Sudan since Thursday, Ms. Bertini said that it was just another example of the increasing dangers facing humanitarian workers. She hoped that the intensive negotiations under way to secure their release would soon be successful.

Asked to comment on a draft presidential statement expected today, Ms. Bertini said she was pleased with it. She hoped that it was the first of a series of discussions that would be held on the issue of protection of staff. Discussions would get stronger and louder as time went on.

A correspondent said that WFP staff had been accused, rightly or wrongly, of having taken sides in various conflicts. What was the WFP doing to prevent that? Ms. Bertini said that all humanitarian workers had a serious problem in that their mission was to feed everyone. Sometimes people on one side of a conflict would consider that WFP staff were supporting the people on the other side. This not only increased the danger of their assignment, but also their resolve to maintain neutrality and reach everyone. That was WFP's mandate and purpose, and it did its best to handle those accusations.

Asked to discuss the case of Angola, Ms. Bertini said the WFP had been looking forward to the opening of humanitarian corridors throughout the country for some time. They had numerous conversations with the Government to try to assure the authority to travel unimpeded throughout the country. The problem was that if access to part of the country was denied, the agency would be accused of being one-sided. This was not the case. The WFP had absolute commitment to reach everyone, but they needed to negotiate the ability to do that.

When asked how big the Security Coordinator's Office budget should be, Ms. Bertini said that she didn't have a specific proposal. She had cited the issue of the Office's budget to highlight how little attention had been paid to be what had become a big issue. The Deputy Secretary- General had organized two task forces made up of the heads of agencies and security personnel, to strengthen the internal system and move the programme forward. It was a management issue and there had been no specific proposal.

Were United Nations agencies doing anything to press governments to adhere to the convention on protecting humanitarian workers?

Ms. Bertini said that in addition to United Nations investigations, the WFP had also raised the issue with governments on the progress of murder cases. Ultimately, it was the responsibility of the government to first find out who was responsible for crimes against humanitarian workers and then to bring them to justice. Since 1988, 53 WFP staff had been killed in action.

With the pending United Nations peace mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, would the WFP be able to expand its humanitarian activities in that country, and what were its security concerns? a correspondent asked. Ms. Bertini replied that while the WFP was very concerned about the security situation there, it was also hopeful that an increased number of United Nations troops would improve the level of security.

Asked to comment on the negotiations to release the four staff members in the Sudan, Ms. Bertini said that the negotiations were very delicate and since she was not part of them, she could not respond.

Referring to the Security Council's debate on the situation of refugees and internally displaced persons in January, a correspondent said that United States Ambassador Richard Holbrooke had mentioned a letter from Ms. Bertini on the WFP's role with refugees. What was the appropriate way to deal with these two groups of people? the correspondent asked, and what did the WFP plan to do to help them?

Ms. Bertini said that Ambassador Holbrooke had raised a very important issue. While there were various forms of assistance for internally displaced people, there was no formal system to ensure that they were housed and provided with medication. The issue needed to be addressed within the system and was high on the list of priorities for the Acting Emergency Relief Coordinator, Carolyn McAskie.

According to Ms. Bertini, the answer lay in trying to define what internally displaced people should receive from the international community while living in forced exile. If the form of assistance were defined, it would be easier to decide how it would most adequately be handled.

Ms. Bertini said that she had not sent Ambassador Holbrooke a letter, nor had she called him. She had, however, had a chance to see him last Tuesday, at which time she had discussed the same issues she had discussed today. She said that it was an issue that demanded additional attention on the part of the United Nations. The topic of the internally displaced would be discussed in Rome at a conference on 16 March. Perhaps, this was the letter Ambassador Holbrooke had referred to.

In response to another question, Ms. Bertini said that the draft presidential statement was very important and positive. While it was the first time the Security Council had debated the issue, there was clearly recognition of the problem. Because it was the first time the issue had been debated, she would fully accept the first results. This was the first major step toward serious measures on the part of the security of staff. The most major issue, however, was holding governments accountable for what happened in their country and, therefore, ensuring adequate security of staff.