ABIDJAN/DAKAR, 22 April 2011 (IRIN) - The perceived impartiality of UN aid agencies and NGOs is still at risk and must be re-stressed in Côte d'Ivoire, say NGOs, given the UN peacekeeping force's direct role in the fighting.
Aid agencies - both UN and NGOs - are deliberately distancing themselves from the UN mission (UNOCI) so they can reach populations at risk, staff told IRIN.
UNOCI fired at ex-president Laurent Gbagbo's military units when the latter shelled the Golf Hotel, where President Alassane Ouattara was based. UNOCI chief, Alain Le Roy, defended UNOCI's actions, saying it had to respond, following direct attacks on civilians and peacekeepers, including on UNOCI headquarters.
Aid workers have to be particularly careful in all UN integrated missions (where humanitarian and military UN missions are managed under the same umbrella), stressed Philippe Conraud, Oxfam West Africa humanitarian coordinator, in Man, central Côte d'Ivoire, "especially here where UNOCI's actions have been controversial both in Côte d'Ivoire, and outside".
Oxfam keeps its distance from UNOCI, and spells out to everyone - be it village chiefs or military forces - that they are not linked. "The basic principle for us, for NGOs, is to be courteous, cordial with everyone - armed or not. I greet people at all the roadblocks manned by the [Republic Forces of Côte d'Ivoire, Ouattara's army] FRCI, I greet UNOCI, but it doesn't go beyond that," Philippe Conraud, head of humanitarian operations at Oxfam, told IRIN.
It is particularly important to remind national staff of this, he said. In tense zones where there has been ethnic conflict, as is the case in Western Côte d'Ivoire, Oxfam sends out teams from different parts of the country and different ethnic backgrounds to ensure they are not seen as partisan. "National staff's names are on their badges, and people could associate a name with a certain political orientation... Staff do not have the right to express a political view in the name of the NGO." [http://www.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportID=92506]
Ed Schenkenberg van Mierop, head of ICVA, a network of 70 national and international NGOs, said in a communiqué last week that as a result of UNOCI having appeared to take sides in the conflict, several local NGOs that were supposed to distribute aid to areas held by Gbagbo's forces on behalf of the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, had to return the aid to the organization. UNHCR could not be reached for comment.
Following the battle for power in Abidjan in a bid to separate themselves from military units, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) stopped using UN cars, hiring local ones instead, said Carlos Geha, OCHA's deputy head of office in Abidjan, the commercial capital. This was one of the examples of best practice to boost staff security in a just-released OCHA report, "To Stay and Deliver" [ http://www.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportID=92459 ]
"We demarcate ourselves from UNOCI and always say we are humanitarian," stressed Geha, adding that OCHA was also drawing up operating rules to preserve humanitarian space, including barring all use of armed protection.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, which was highlighted in the report as being particularly proactive and effective at communicating its impartiality, has experienced few acceptance problems in Côte d'Ivoire, said its communications coordinator in Abidjan, Kelnor Panglungtshang. "During the conflict there were some allegations made on one side or the other, but in general, we have good acceptance here, and we have been able to access people in need, save when direct fighting has barred access," he told IRIN.
Security in Abidjan has improved in most neighbourhoods, except for Yopougon, and Abobo, where Ouattara's FRCI military has reportedly been fighting a militia that helped bring Ouattara to power. Water [ http://www.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportID=92533 ] and electricity are still unavailable in some neighbourhoods, partly due to electricity cables having been destroyed, according to the electricity company.
"The humanitarian needs are still enormous," said Louis Vignault, spokesman for the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), which has appealed for US$30 million to respond to people's water, sanitation, nutrition and emergency education needs.
The ICRC, NGOs and UN agencies are stressing the need for medical supplies to re-stock clinics and hospitals that have been looted or destroyed. ICRC is providing medical kits for clinics and hospitals in Abidjan, and a further 17 clinics and hospitals in Korhogo, Bouaké, Man, San Pedro et Aboisso.