Pakistan: Government welcomes code of conduct for NGOs in quake-affected Bagh

ISLAMABAD, 13 June 2007 (IRIN) - The Pakistani government has welcomed the adoption of a pre-existing international code of conduct for NGOs working in disaster relief between a community group in quake-affected Bagh District and the government's district reconstruction unit (DRU), following localised tensions earlier this year.

"Whatever misunderstanding there may have been in the past is now properly resolved," Raja Naseem Khan, minister for reconstruction and rehabilitation for Pakistani-administered Kashmir, told IRIN from the provincial capital, Muzaffarabad.

Prepared jointly by the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Code of Conduct for NGOs in Disaster Relief is voluntary in nature, enforced by the will of the organisation accepting it to maintain the standards laid down in the Code.

On 9 June, the government's DRU and the Muthahida Awami Forum, a 33-member group of religious and community leaders in Bagh District adopted the long-standing code, adhered to by NGOs globally.

Earlier, the Muthahida Awami Forum had proposed a 17-point draft code of conduct for members of the humanitarian community working in the area, following what they claimed to be violations of Bagh's local customs and traditions by aid agencies working on the ground, particularly in the area of female employment.

Praise from UN official

Applauding the memorandum's signing, Andrew MacLeod, a senior adviser for the UN Resident Coordinators Office in Islamabad described the move as a "win win" situation.

"The difference now is that we have been able to educate the local community about the international code of conduct - and in return, they've been able to educate us about the peculiar requirements of customs and cultures in Bagh."

Thirteen of the 17 points proposed by the Muthahida Forum were already covered by the pre-existing international code of conduct which NGOs adhere to anyway, the UN official said, so adopting what was out there already had saved months of negotiation.

"This is a very good example of how you can take principles agreed at the international level and work out an application mechanism at the local level," MacLeod said, adding this could well prove a model for resolving similar local disputes elsewhere in future.

As for Article 5 of the international code of conduct which pledges to respect local cultures, MacLeod added that guidance notes as an explanatory memorandum were developed by the Bagh DRU to help clarify the local applicability of the clause.

"It's not for the UN or international NGOs to put a stamp of approval on someone's interpretation of what the culture and customs in Bagh are. It's up to the people of Bagh to determine that," he said.

And while conceding that there had been some resentment over a number of issues, including the employment of nonlocal staff, as well as the employment of women, in retrospect, there had been few problems with the thousands of international aid workers working in the area - a remarkable feat given the diversity of cultures and people coming into the area all at once, he added.

On 9 May, the UN suspended its operations to the area, following what at the time were perceived to be possible security incidents against members of the aid community, including the alleged torching of a local UN staff member's house - an incident later ruled as accidental by local authorities and the UN itself.

Forty-nine NGO and UN agencies suspended over US$82 million-worth of projects and activities in the remote mountain district devastated by the October 2005 quake that ripped through much of northern Pakistan - only to resume normal operations later in May.

"This was a premature reaction by the UN," Naseem said, adding, however, that following the signing on 9 June, the Pakistani government, alongside members of the local community, was ready to do its part to facilitate the efforts of aid agencies working on the ground.