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Emergency humanitarian relief must lead to rehabilitation and sustainable development, Economic and Social Council hears

Debate Continues on Means of Strengthening United Nations Economic, Humanitarian and Disaster Assistance
International policy makers and providers of emergency humanitarian assistance must retain a focus on the transition from crisis relief assistance to assistance with rehabilitation, reconstruction and, ultimately, sustainable development, many representatives told the Economic and Social Council this afternoon.

Continuing with the humanitarian affairs segment of its substantive session, the Council discussed the continuing need to strengthen all phases of international humanitarian assistance, with one delegate stating that the effort was 'a grave duty for the international community'. Humanitarian assistance should be provided on the basis of humanity, neutrality and impartiality, many speakers concurred.

As several delegations recounted the negative impact of recent natural disasters, the need for a timely commitment to development resources for reconstruction after such disasters was stressed. The process should embrace a new paradigm it was said, with delegates calling for a new partnership among donors and the humanitarian community.

While progress towards strengthening the delivery of humanitarian assistance was noted, more improvements were called for, particularly in the transitional phases between humanitarian aid and reconstruction. The absence of the necessary political will remained the greatest obstacle confronting the international community, the Council was told. Humanitarian assistance could do no more than address the symptoms of crises, and it could only be successful when accompanied by political measures to address the root causes, it was said.

Speaking during today's debate were representatives from Finland (for the European Union), Guyana (for the 'Group of 77' developing countries and China), the United States, Japan, Mexico, Indonesia, Ecuador, India, the Republic of Korea, Canada, El Salvador, Colombia, Argentina, Angola, Sri Lanka and Peru. The observer for Switzerland also spoke.

Representatives of the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the World Bank took part in the debate.


LARS BACKSTROM (Finland), on behalf of the European Union, said the past year had been one of enormous challenges for the humanitarian community. Respect for international humanitarian law and human rights law could be enhanced through dissemination information and by ensuring that those responsible for violations were held accountable. Innovative approaches to international humanitarian law were welcomed. Firm commitments were needed from all parties in conflict to work with the humanitarian operation to enable humanitarian actors to meet some of the most immediate needs of the victims. All those who planned, authorized or executed campaigns in Kosovo should be held personally accountable and brought to justice. The international community would face an enormous challenge in terms of reconstruction and rehabilitation.

During the past year, natural disasters had caused immense human suffering and development losses in many parts of the world, he continued. For disaster reduction strategies to be successful and efficient, they should be based on the understanding of the universal and multi-disciplinary nature of disaster reduction, which called for a coordinated approach encompassing the scientific, technical, humanitarian and developmental aspects. Whilst natural hazards could not be prevented, their impact could be mitigated or neutralized if adequate early warning measures were taken.

Political and rehabilitation efforts should reinforce each other and prevent slipping backwards, he said. All agencies should respect the coordination structures that had been set up and work together in a spirit of cooperation. Whenever possible, the participation of local actors in the design and implementation of the planning tools had to be ensured. Small investments in the present would save society from much heavier costs in a future rehabilitation phase. These should be made in specific areas such as primary education and immunization.

The rights based approach clearly had the potential to close gaps between the humanitarian action and development cooperation, he said. United Nations agencies should explore how their approach to relief and development could be further strengthened, using international human rights law as a source for policy formulation and planning.

SONIA ELLIOTT (Guyana), speaking on behalf of the 'Group of 77' developing countries and China, said the figures on humanitarian crises were staggering: last year, more than 50,000 people were killed by natural disasters and economic losses amounted to $90 billion. The response machinery of the United Nations was not only severely strained in its capacity to cope but the financial resources available were clearly inadequate. There also was a need to develop an understanding of the root causes of those crises in order to elaborate a strategy for treating them -- otherwise the trend would worsen.

Unfortunately, most crises occurred in developing countries, which were least able to deal with them, she continued. Those disasters resulted in grave deprivation and suffering. The Group of 77 and China saw a stronger role for donor countries in providing adequate funding in response to humanitarian emergencies while ensuring that the allocations were not to the detriment of resources for development assistance. There should be special efforts by the international community to ensure that resources were efficiently and effectively used. It also was necessary to strengthen the Consolidated Appeal Process and implement it in an impartial manner. Much too often, reactions to crises situations seemed to be ad hoc and arbitrary rather than governed by the provisions of the United Nations Charter. Specific measures, furthermore, should be taken to meet the needs of especially vulnerable groups, such as women, the elderly, and the young.

JULIA V. TAFT (United States) said that as the world applauded political resolutions to conflicts, those in the humanitarian field knew that the task was not completed. The initiative to identify methods for greater coherence in framing policies and designing programmes was welcome. That process was not aiming to create new structures, it was aiming to infuse current structures and mechanisms with new thinking and a new commitment.

All present opportunities for transition planning, and all participants should understand their responsibility for integrating relief and development strategies. The process should embrace a new paradigm: partnerships among donors and the humanitarian community, and the host Governments and people affected by the humanitarian crisis. Any successful transition from post-conflict relief to sustainable development would share certain characteristics.

A constant theme and criticism of the humanitarian community had been the lack of political will and resources to ensure a seamless transition from relief to sustainable development, she said. In that regard, the current efforts in Kosovo represented a clear opportunity to provide an effective continuum. As investments in both relief and construction aid were planned, it would be important to reinforce the local and regional economies by a concerted effort to procure commodities locally and regionally. Human suffering needed to be addressed, and that required regional involvement.

YUKIO SATOH (Japan) said attacks on humanitarian personnel should not be tolerated and a strong condemnation of such attacks must be registered here. Japan had contributed $1 million to the United Nations Trust Fund for the Security of United Nations Personnel and hoped that such workers would be better equipped to deal with threats to their safety through more effective training. Recent positive developments included entry into force of a convention on landmines, the establishment of an International Criminal Court, establishment of Office for the Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), and establishment of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee; all of which Japan had made major financial contributions.

The transition from relief to rehabilitation was vital, and greater efforts to that end must be made by the international community following disasters and complex emergencies, he continued. The International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction deserved greater support. International responses to the situation in Kosovo would be a test case for post-conflict coordination of relief, reconstruction and development. Japan had made major contributions to United Nations operations in Kosovo.

ROGELIO MARTINEZ AGUILAR (Mexico) said natural disasters in 1998 had made it a year of intense challenges, especially in confronting the human and financial cost. The strengthening of humanitarian assistance was a grave duty for the international community, because of its potential beneficial impact upon millions. Humanitarian assistance should be provided on the basis of humanity, neutrality and impartiality, and always with the consent of the receiving State. Complex humanitarian emergencies were a special concern, and unconditional assistance should be given, with the highest priority for women, children and the elderly.

For efficient aid to be given, a precise definition of the concept of complex humanitarian emergencies should be provided, he said. The safety of international humanitarian workers should be ensured. That required an integrated strategic focus, which would enable the United Nations system to adapt and to strengthen its role as coordinating centre for countries affected by a natural disaster. Reduction of the impact of natural disasters was a necessary part of development in many countries. Important work remained to be done.

Humanitarian assistance was an activity of international cooperation, and it was important to correctly value the role of developing countries as active contributors, he said. No effort should be spared to improve cooperation with those countries to ensure their rehabilitation, reconstruction and reintegration.

LUCIA HELWINDA RUSTAM (Indonesia) said that a concentrated effort was needed to develop a more systematic humanitarian response, with an emphasis on reconstruction and development. Funding was the prime preoccupation; it was necessary to find sufficient funds for carrying out relevant programmes.

Indonesia was no stranger to natural disasters, he noted. The consequences of huge forest fires during the past two years had been addressed with the much-appreciated help of OCHA, the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination Team (UNDAC) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). A prevention and mitigation programme and an awareness campaign were now in effect. At the end of 1998, several parts of the country had suffered from earthquakes and assistance had been dispatched from national resources. Indonesia welcomed strengthening of the Consolidated Appeals Process (CAP) and efforts to improve coordination in the field. It felt there was an urgent need to develop a comprehensive approach to countries in crisis, including early application of development tools in humanitarian emergencies, and a need to establish greater flexibility in funding mechanisms.

JENO C. A. STAEHELIN, observer for Switzerland, said it was vital that the destiny of humans touched by natural crises remained at the centre of the preoccupations and efforts of the Economic and Social Council whilst it deliberated on the improvement of coordination in the humanitarian area. The rules of international humanitarian and human rights law were often ignored or rejected. To create a surer environment for humanitarian action, the existing rules of humanitarian law needed to be fully respected by all parties in a crisis situation.

How to organize the transition phase between aid, reconstruction and development was an issue that had been discussed for many years, he continued. The international community had still not managed to ensure that the passage from humanitarian aid to development cooperation was done without failures or duplication. The most important elements in a phase of transition were included in the long-term strategies of countries. The implementation of a strategic framework represented the only viable option to achieve an integrated approach covering all aspects of the transition phase.

Coordination implied a close collaboration and a great reciprocal confidence between participants in the reconstruction, he said. Partners in developing countries should also be more closely associated with the elaboration of transition strategies. It was true that an important part of financial resources was often given to new causes attracting the attention of the media, and other causes were forgotten.

LUIS GALLEGOS CHIRIBOGA (Ecuador) said response to humanitarian emergencies had to be strengthened. The United Nations should continue to be a platform for solidarity and sustained response to natural disasters and to catastrophes provoked by human actions. Armed conflicts or mass displacements due to poverty had grown in severity in recent years. A basic premise for unity was alleviation of poverty and enhanced social development, along with respect for cultures. Developing and poor countries were most vulnerable to natural and man-made disasters; it was necessary to have a comprehensive and effective response system for them.

Ecuador was quite vulnerable to natural disasters, and firmly supported emergency humanitarian assistance to countries affected by such natural events, along with recovery and development assistance, he said. More attention needed to be paid to the cyclical effects of the El Niño, phenomenon which was occurring more often and with greater violence. Analyses should be made of countries which repeatedly suffered from El Niño and rehabilitation and development schemes devised for them. To date, United Nations work related to El Niño had been informative and effective.

DILIP LAHIRI (India) said that the provision of humanitarian assistance by the United Nations system to those in need was important. Any offer or availability of aid from the United Nations did not, however, imply any rights on the part of the United Nations to forcibly apply that aid. There was concern that the levels of funding available for humanitarian assistance had been declining over the last few years, to the point of four per cent of requirements. At the same time, the number of natural disasters had increased. There was a need to fund assistance implementation, without removing funding for development. The implications for under-funding were very serious.

Humanitarian assistance should not be used as a tool to bring pressure upon any part of those involved in a conflict, the representative of India said. Thus, geographically-specific funding should not be allowed. It was essential to ensure optimal use of available funds. Funds for reconstruction should be made available sooner, and with less onerous procedures. Capacities for immediate relief often existed, but as needs shifted from immediate to the long-term, the lack of resources became apparent.

There were many new causes of crises, including globalization, he noted. The phenomenon of economic globalization had weakened the powers of the State, and that trend should be reversed. In any crisis, the final guarantee of well-being for all lay in a strong State. The central question in transitions lay in the strengthening of the Government's capacity to deal with the situation.

YOUNG CHEOL CHA (Republic of Korea) said OCHA needed to be institutionally and financially reinforced, and coordination between it and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) had to be enhanced. Short-term and long-term responses, long-kept separate, needed to be implemented so that there was less overlap and so that long-term relief served the purpose of preventing future emergencies. The Central Emergency Revolving Fund should be used for natural disasters, as recommended by OCHA, and the system of coordination of humanitarian assistance at the field level should be enhanced. Humanitarian personnel had to be protected as they carried out their important work in affected countries.

The Republic of Korea concurred that there should be early introduction of humanitarian concerns and reconstruction plans into post-conflict peace processes, he said. But, to do that it was necessary to have sufficient advance funding and sufficient budgets. His Government had decided to provide 30,000 blankets worth $1 million to Kosovar refugees. By the end of 1998 it had provided $2 million to 21 countries stricken by natural-disaster.

HUNTER McGILL (Canada) said in order to ensure the overall effectiveness of the United Nations humanitarian response, enhanced cooperation and coordination was necessary between United Nations actors and other humanitarian practitioners. The focus should be on broad, cross-cutting policy and the modalities should remain relatively informal. Management of specific issues should be left with the respective agency governing bodies.

The last year had witnessed the continued targeting of civilians by combatants during armed conflicts, he said. Comprehensive and innovative policies and strategies were required to protect their lives and that of humanitarian personnel. That could be helped by continued efforts to mainstream human rights and to more clearly define the interrelationships between human rights and humanitarian action.

The emphasis on international cooperation and coordination as related to the transition from relief to rehabilitation, reconstruction and development was welcomed, Mr. McGill said. The subject required an urgent commitment to a collaborative approach from both international and local partners in conflict and disaster affected countries. The transition between relief and development was not a linear, orderly process. Existing local capacities should be identified, tapped and enhanced. Grassroots involvement was key to sustainable peace and development. To ensure an effective transition in the aftermath of a natural disaster, local capacities needed to be developed and supported.

The absence of the necessary political will remained the greatest obstacle confronting the international community, he said. Humanitarian assistance could do no more than address the symptoms of crises, and humanitarian action could only be successful when accompanied by political measures to address the root causes.

VICTOR MANUEL LAGOS PIZZATI (El Salvador) said it was regrettable that the report on strengthening United Nations humanitarian assistance coordination was only made available in Spanish this morning. Humanity, neutrality and impartiality should be the cornerstones of humanitarian assistance; political considerations should not intrude; further, assistance should not be provided at the expense of development funding. It also was disturbing that the extent of emergency funding was almost always related to the level of media coverage -- lesser-known disasters received less money, even if they deserved more.

Rehabilitation, reconstruction and development were of great importance following emergencies, as El Salvador well knew, he continued. Following a crisis of armed conflict, the country had moved from dictatorship to democracy and from a state of war to peace. That progress had occurred with extensive United Nations support and with the help of friendly countries, many of which continued to offer aid. The devastation of Hurricane Mitch had posed new, major challenges for Central American countries; most had nowhere near the resources needed to cope, especially as human actions such as deforestation and unwise urban development had worsened the storm's effects. El Salvador had turned the corner to recovery, but further aid was needed for the country and the region. There was a large gap between assessed needs and donations resulting from the Consolidated Appeal Process.

Mr. LEUS, representative of the World Health Organization (WHO), said the greatest challenge of the organization was to reduce the burden of excess mortality and morbidity suffered by the poor. To meet that challenge, WHO was particularly concerned by health and disease dynamics. It was now demonstrated that problems faced during the post-conflict transition could be attributable not only to the consequences of the conflict but also to poorly conceived responses by both relief and development agencies during the crisis. Introducing or promoting development-oriented approaches in health response during the emergency phase would make a positive impact on long-term needs, as well as in the short term.

Coordination within the United Nations system and the international community of donor countries and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) was of great importance, he said. It was of prime importance to consider how the coordination with national authorities could be promoted and strengthened.

ALFONSO VALDIVIESO (Colombia) said there was an alarming increase in natural disasters and complex emergencies, some created by human beings. Colombia suffered from volcanic activity and earthquakes, and had endured one of the worst earthquakes in its history in January -- some 400,000 people were directly affected, and 1.6 million indirectly. Damage amounted to some two per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) and some 17 per cent of the country's exports. It would take four to five years to recover the loss in national wealth.

International aid in response to the earthquake had been well managed by the United Nations and international community, and the Government was grateful, he said. The Government had a number of systems in place to respond to disasters and emergencies, and it was working to make those systems more effective. It also was bolstering efforts aimed at prevention and sustainable development. Natural disasters couldn't be prevented, but their affects could be greatly mitigated. Colombia agreed that the budget and staff of OCHA should be increased. As for forced displacement of persons as a result of the armed conflict in Colombia, the problem had taken on immense proportions. The Government was seriously committed to seeking peace and was trying to prevent further displacements and to promote the return of persons who had fled their homes.

NORMA NASCIMBENE DE DUMONT (Argentina) said the extent of natural disasters in 1998 and the consequences upon humans had shown how appropriate it was for the Council to hold such a segment. The international community should make every effort to prevent violations of international and humanitarian law. International humanitarian aid and law were closely linked, and the one protected the other. In complex emergencies, the specific vulnerability of children should receive particular attention.

It was important to develop the concepts and activities linked to programmes of reconstruction and rehabilitation, she said. The emphasis placed by United Nations agencies attached to the development of local capacities was fully agreed with. Full support was given to humanitarian assistance programmes in the transition phase.

JOSE ANTONIO MARTINS (Angola) said the country was again facing an unjust war that was worsening its already difficult economic and development situation. The military situation was increasingly bleak and peace efforts had been seriously undermined. Many young people who had expressed opposition to violence had disappeared, and there were long convoys of refugees and internally displaced persons.

The resources needed to pursue the war were coming at the expense of social funding, he said. Nearly 1.7 million people had been internally displaced, joining 700,000 previously displaced, along with hundreds of thousands who had fled the country entirely. Cities and provincial capitals were overcrowded with people seeking safety, making life hard for the host communities. The Government was continuing its efforts to sustain its emergency responses. A United Nations appeal for $105 million had been launched, which so far had elicited only $30 million in donations. Angola appealed once again to the generosity of the world. Land-distribution policies had been undertaken to increase food production among displaced persons, and mine-clearance operations were being carried out. Debt relief for Angola would make more money available to the Government so that it could better help its sorely tried citizens.

NARCISA L. ESCALER, Deputy Director General of the International Organization for Migration, said the numbers of people in need of humanitarian help remained enormous, and the difficulties of helping them extremely challenging too. If the year had not been one of great progress in resolving or preventing humanitarian crises, it had been one of achievement in improving how the international community worked together to react to emergencies and to alleviate the sufferings of the victims. Great strides had been made in coordination, but more work remained to be done.

The human and financial cost of fires, wind, water and earthquakes had been unprecedented in 1998, she said. The aftermath had provided an opportunity to establish links between the various phases of international assistance, the success of which was all the more important given the decision of Governments to enhancing economic, political and social transformation. Whether humanitarian assistance was given in response to such natural disasters or man-made ones, it was essential that relief programmes not create dependency, but paved the way to sustainable development. Planning, capacity-building and flexible financing were key factors in the international community's ability to succeed.

HIROFUMI ANDO, Deputy Executive Director of Administration and Policy, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), said UNFPA had intervened in natural disasters, man-made emergencies, and complex emergencies. There was a growing interface between its mandate of population and development with that of humanitarian assistance, culminating in the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. Follow-up activities included almost 100 projects in 41 countries, two-thirds of them developed during emergency and rehabilitation phases.

Among significant products of UNFPA were a field manual on reproductive health in refugee situations and a reproductive health kit for emergency situations, both realized in collaboration with other United Nations agencies, he reported. The UNFPA had provided assistance to Kosovo, Burundi, Tanzania, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and Angola in emergency situations. It viewed such efforts as part of its development work, but serious constraints hampered full delivery of services. There was a very real limitation of funding; the agency was cash-strapped in terms of fulfilling its role during emergencies, as it was not allowed to use its regular funding for such activities. It was hoped that donations could be increased through the Consolidated Appeals Process.

D.M. PERERA (Sri Lanka) said the United Nations system had for many years attempted to reinvigorate the response mechanism to emergency humanitarian crises. Sadly, those responses had not been able to match the frequency, intensity and ferocity of those emergencies. A coherent approach was necessary for crisis response and the post-crisis measures of rehabilitation, reconstruction and development. In order to address humanitarian emergencies at a local and regional level, the important component of capacity-building was required, both in terms of technical and human resources and in a predictable manner. That was especially true, in the context of transition from relief to rehabilitation, reconstruction and development. An important part of the response should be rapid access to financial and other resources. That should be supplemented with an enabling international environment in order to sustain economic growth in developing countries.

ALFREDO SFEIR YOUNIS, of the World Bank, said that on the economic front, preventing natural disasters was an essential instrument for fighting poverty. The poor suffered the most from such catastrophes, and had the most difficulty recovering from them. 'Social capital' was destroyed or heavily depleted, as were assets such as dams and other energy-producing facilities. There were serious macro-economic consequences. Disasters furthermore had effects on global trade, immigration and foreign investment, with consequences that crossed political boundaries. For all those reasons, the World Bank placed a high priority on natural disaster reduction efforts and had been active in assisting countries with natural disaster mitigation programmes. In the last decade or so, its lending programme had reached nearly $14 billion in disaster related operations.

In Kosovo, he reported that the World Bank's responses had focused on two fronts: providing immediate aid to relieve the suffering of large numbers of refugees and displaced persons, as well as those returning home; and helping neighbouring countries to receive adequate external financing to deal with the adverse macro-economic consequences of the crisis.

MANUEL RODRIGUEZ (Peru) said all had become aware of the need for shared responsibility, which should translate into ever broader and more comprehensive response to natural disasters and emergencies. Part of that awareness was due to the current segment of the Council session. There had been an extraordinary increase in the number and impact of natural disasters over the last few years, with an incredible human and financial impact. There was a lack of balance in the distribution of wealth, and in national distribution. The cyclical phenomena of natural disasters should be taken into account in the elaboration of programmes of responses to emergencies.

Disaster response faced many challenges, not least of which was the lack of funds available for disaster relief, he said. The grave situation of human rights, the ethnic cleansing and displacement was evidence of the growing dimensions of the humanitarian crises. Coordination was essential, as was international cooperation in the field of responding to humanitarian crises. There should be clear priorities identified in the fight against the laxity of humanitarian standards.