Press Briefing on Republic of the Congo

News and Press Release
Originally published
Press Briefing - 20000223
Since the beginning of the year, internally displaced persons in the Republic of the Congo had been rapidly demobilizing, resulting in expanded needs for humanitarian assistance during the country's post-crisis evolution, William Paton, United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for that country, told correspondents during a Headquarters briefing today.

More than 800,000 persons had become displaced in the affected interior in the South during the re-eruption of the country's civil war in December 1998, he added, but most had not benefited from humanitarian assistance during the past year due to a lack of security in the area. Most of the assistance given had been confined to the capital city of Brazzaville, to which people had been fleeing, and to the coastal city of Point Noire, which provided an enclave of security for more than 100,000 people.

The Republic of the Congo has been experiencing periodic outbreaks of civil wars since 1993, but during 1999 its President offered amnesty twice -- in August and November. That was followed by a ceasefire agreement on 29 December.

Mr. Paton said that tens of thousands of people had died and 60 per cent of food production had been destroyed during the conflict. Furthermore, 70 per cent of returnees were malnourished, 50 per cent of schooling had been halted and half of the medical facilities in the country had been destroyed. Since that was concentrated in the affected zone, those services were almost non-existent in the areas where the displaced persons had fled. However, positive aspects had been reflected by the declaration of amnesty and the ceasefire, along with the President's pledge to pursue an end to the conflict through dialogue with political opponents.

Several opposition leaders supported the mediation process and offensive action had ceased. Approximately half of the opposition, as well as the Government militia, were leaving the forests at the request of the national army commanders who, instead of pursuing their usual military activities, had been concentrating on ways to convince the militias to disarm. Consequently, there had been no battles since the beginning of the year and the opportunity to provide humanitarian assistance, particularly food and basic medical services, to displaced persons in towns near Brazzaville -- some two thirds of the southern affected area -- had suddenly arisen.

He said that, in normal circumstances, support for humanitarian efforts was contingent on speed and timing. There were annual funding cycles and it took time to support a peace-building opportunity. Meanwhile, the need to provide assistance to the Republic of the Congo had received very little support. In comparison with the rest of the world, displaced persons there had received the least amount of assistance per capita, because of insecure access and a lack of international interest that did not provide much scope for negotiating in humanitarian corridors. Most displaced persons in the Republic of the Congo had received no assistance. That was not the world standard when responding to the needs of large groups of displaced persons.

A consolidated appeal by United Nations agencies and several non-governmental organizations had only attracted $1.2 million in assistance. Core funds had been used by the Organization in establishing its programme there and about $7 million in food had been delivered. That amounted to about $10 per person. Usually, much larger sums were spent in similar cases -- sometimes hundreds of dollars for each person. The opportunity was being presented to meet the humanitarian needs of the displaced persons in the country and to diversify activities and support the basics of building sustainable peace. He was concerned that humanitarian efforts would not be able to counter the rapidity of events.

How much had been asked for in the consolidated appeal? a correspondent asked.

Mr. Paton said that they had asked for about $7 million for food and the same amount for non-food assistance. Moreover, they had appealed for almost $20 million in assistance for this year -- $17 million for displaced persons in the country and $2.5 million for refugees located in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Gabon. They had not envisaged the speed of events and would need to revise the appeal before the middle of the year, to reflect the increased opportunity to deliver basic emergency relief and to be able to support new needs for reintegration and peace- building.

The rate of demobilization had only increased in the last six weeks, said Mr. Paton, in response to a correspondent's question. It had begun before there was any agreement with opposition forces, as a unilateral government offer of amnesty, but had gained momentum since the November and December accords. Demobilization was at a very early stage, particularly in the interior. Therefore, he could provide neither numbers of persons nor information on the situation concerning arms.

Another correspondent asked whether the United Nations would be undertaking disarmament and demobilization. Mr. Paton replied that the Organization had been asked to assist with reintegrating demobilized militia members. A pilot project had already begun with a small group and plans were afoot to work with 500 to 1000 more soldiers, depending on resources. Limited pledges had been received from donors, but more funding would be needed to be able to demobilize more than 15,000 soldiers. However, the Organization was not involved in the actual demobilization process.