Natural disasters and conflicts: Horrifying human and economic tolls during 1998 and 1999 hover in background as ECOSOC takes up Humanitarian Affairs

Report
from United Nations
Published on 13 Jul 1999
Natural disasters claimed more than 50,000 lives and resulted in economic losses exceeding $90 billion during 1998; while wars in Africa, Asia and Europe displaced millions more. This horrifying toll will set the scene for the Economic and Social Council's debate, when it begins its segment on humanitarian affairs on 13 July.
In his report on strengthening United Nations humanitarian assistance to the Economic and Social Council, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan highlights the 'enormous challenges' that marked 1998. Natural disasters -- including floods, induced by the El Niño phenomenon; the widespread destruction caused by Hurricanes Georges and Mitch; the vast fires that ravaged Indonesia, Brazil and far-eastern Russia -- wreaked three times more havoc than in 1997.

Twenty-two natural disasters were identified in 1998, requiring the United Nations to come up with an initial response of around $600,000. ' In view of experience gained over the years and the repeated occurrence of natural disasters requiring a timely emergency response, the Secretary-General has suggested, in the context of his proposed programme budget for the biennium 2000-2001, an increase of $300,000, bringing the total to $1,500,000 for the biennium', the report notes.

Regarding war-torn areas in 1999, the report stresses that within two months, 1,200,000 people were uprooted from their homes in Kosovo; in Angola, renewed fighting pushed the figure of displaced people up to an estimated 1,600,000 since the beginning of the year. The war between Ethiopia and Eritrea is believed to have brought about the internal displacement of some 750,000 persons. Added to that is another alarming figure: an estimated 300,000 child soldiers are serving on the front-line in conflicts around the world. This practice is especially prevalent in Sierra Leone and Uganda, says the report.

The report points out that ' the focus of international media on Kosovo helped to ensure essential relief for people fleeing the conflict', whereas the 'airlift of vital food to Angola was threatened with disruption due to security reasons and the lack of funds.'

Arguing that ' the tragedies in Angola and Kosovo have raised serious issues for the international humanitarian community', the report raised areas of concern, including:

-- access by humanitarian agencies to victims of conflict;
-- impartiality and independence of humanitarian aid;
-- the definition of the lead agency and coordination functions in certain types of complex crises; and -- the role of the military in support of humanitarian operations.

The Secretary-General's report -- which provides the themes for the Economic and Social Council's discussions on humanitarian affairs from the afternoon of Tuesday, 13 July, through Thursday, 15 July -- reaffirms the importance of an 'effective and independent' International Criminal Court. According to the report, a body enjoying the power to ' prosecute individuals suspected of genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes, could contribute to improving the secure environment for humanitarian action, on the one hand, by deterring those who instigate genocide or ethnic cleansing, and on the other, by granting redress to victims '.

The report further underlines the importance of ad hoc agencies focusing on early humanitarian warning and preparedness, streamlining their strategic planning and strengthening their field presence. Effective coordination is particularly important for designing inter-agency responses to the needs of the internally displaced, whether in providing assistance or protection, the report states.

The report of the Secretary-General on strengthening of the coordination of emergency humanitarian assistance of the United Nations is available in print under symbol number A/54/154- E/1999/94 and on Internet at the following address: http://www.un.org/esa/coordination/ecosoc/