GENEVA, 6 June (OCHA) -- The international ministerial conference on crisis management that the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is convening on 15 and 16 June in the Swiss city of Fribourg, will tackle issues such as lack of coordination and duplication of efforts in humanitarian activities in response to natural, industrial or man-made disasters.
Under the auspices of United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Sergio Vieira de Mello and Swiss Foreign Minister Joseph Deiss, who is hosting the Forum, ministers and senior officials from Europe and the Newly Independent States (NIS) will discuss remedies to solve current problems in emergency activities. High-level attendance is also expected from Canada, United States, Red Cross Movement, European Union, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and other regional intergovernmental organizations. The conference will propose a series of measures and strategies, which should become part of an action plan to be subscribed to by 51 governments and 37 organizations.
Lack of coordination among major regional actors has hindered many humanitarian operations during recent emergencies. Several studies show that relief assistance is often provided without prior consultation, and point to cash waste, unfinished projects, widespread delays and earmarked funds never allocated. In its communications to Member States, OCHA has warned that unless new policies are put in place, the effectiveness of humanitarian relief mechanisms will deteriorate further, more resources will be wasted and lives will be needlessly lost.
In 1999, 12 out of the 75 major catastrophes that occurred worldwide, hit Europe and the NIS countries. On a global scale, natural and industrial calamities affected 500 million people that same year, while almost 12 times as many people lost their properties or became refugees, according to United Nations estimates. The first five months of this year showed that there is a growing need for effective coordination and multilateral response to crises and disasters. The world experienced the devastating floods in Mozambique, while Western Europe was hit by Hurricane Lothar, which rocked people's lives and ravaged large parts of France, Germany and Switzerland.
Eastern Europe was hit by a cross boundary disaster of enormous proportion with the cyanide spill from the Romanian Baia Mare gold mine into a tributary of the Danube river, directly affecting health and environment of thousands of people in Romania and the neighbouring countries of Hungary, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Ukraine.
The OCHA is expecting even more people to be at risk of disasters in the years to come due to prevailing trends. An increasing number of citizens are moving towards larger densely populated and industrial areas. The increased complexity of industrial processes and the number of communities depending on nuclear power means that more dangerous substances are produced every day.
Concerned by natural catastrophes, people living in earthquake-sensitive regions or areas with volcanic activity do not show any sign of voluntary migration towards safer places. It is the density of the population that determines the potential magnitude of a disaster. Many states do not enjoy adequate domestic response capacity, and there is an increasing expectation among them that membership in international organizations is a guarantee for prompt assistance in times of crisis.
Humanitarian aid in conflict situations requires different solutions in consideration of the complexity of the situation on the ground. The experience in Kosovo, with the humanitarian agencies taken by surprise when NATO operations began, has dramatically demonstrated how important it is to plan and coordinate the emergency response among key players.
Whether a crisis is due to a natural phenomenon or to a conflict, it calls for a process of action and dialogue among those involved in humanitarian activities. While the policy framework, strategy and action plan to result from the Fribourg Forum can be facilitated by the United Nations, only deliberate commitment and coherent actions of the States concerned can make it work.
For more information, please contact: Donato Kiniger-Passigli (OCHA, Geneva): +41 22 917 26 53; or Marie-Marceline Kurmann (Swiss Department of Foreign Affairs): +41 31 323 15 13.
- UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
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