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Briefing to the Security Council on the situation in Africa: Humanitarian affairs in Somalia and Uganda

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Statement by John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator

Thank you very much, Mr. President, for this opportunity to brief the Security Council on my mission to Somalia and Uganda from the 11th to 16th May.

I visited Somalia to assess at first hand the humanitarian situation, and to discuss with the authorities the key issues of access, protection of civilians and security of humanitarian operations. The recent massive displacement has further compounded one of the most difficult humanitarian situations in the world, in a country affected not only by long-running internal conflict but also chronic food insecurity, alternating droughts and floods and endemic disease.

I visited Uganda to understand better and discuss with the government the challenges and opportunities we face in Northern Uganda in helping displaced people in camps, those moving back towards their homes and others already returning home, against the background of some optimism about the Juba Peace talks.

Mr. President,

My mission to Somalia was the first UN visit by someone at my level since the early nineteen-nineties. I had intended to spend two days there, first in Mogadishu, to discuss with the Transitional Federal Government ways to improve the humanitarian response, to see the level of destruction caused by the recent fighting, to visit IDP settlements, and to meet some of the war wounded; and second to visit newly displaced and rural communities in Jowhar for a first hand assessment of their conditions.

Unfortunately, a roadside bomb exploded a few minutes after my arrival in the Somali capital, killing three Transitional Federal Government officials. Two other roadside devices exploded shortly afterwards, while the Africa Union Mission to Somalia defused a fourth. All these bombs were on or near the routes we had planned to take.

I do not think that I - or the United Nations or the wider humanitarian community- was the prime target of these attacks. Rather, I suspect that they were aimed at discrediting any view that the conflict was effectively over. In any case, the bombs reduced my planned movements around Mogadishu and the resulting security and transport problems meant I was unable to go on to Jowhar.

Mr. President,

Let me take this early opportunity to thank again the Ugandan contingent of AMISOM for their professional help in accompanying my visit. It was encouraging that their presence in the streets seemed to be welcomed by the people of Mogadishu. This makes last week's loss of four Ugandan peacekeepers following a further road side bomb all the more tragic. I repeat my condolences to the Ugandan Government and armed forces and the families of the victims.

Mr. President,

As I told the Security Council on the 24th April, we believe that the intense and deadly burst of fighting in Mogadishu in late April not only resulted in hundreds of deaths and injuries, many of them innocent civilians caught in the cross fire, but also caused up to 400,000 inhabitants to flee the city.

While some return is taking place, mainly from the outskirts of Mogadishu, and mainly of people trying to re-establish their livelihoods because they have no assets and are living without support, the vast majority of those who fled have not yet come back to the city.

Factors inhibiting larger scale return include difficulties of movement, continued fear of violence, warnings by the TFG to long-standing displaced people in Mogadishu not to return to so-called public buildings, and the fact that many people from areas badly damaged by the fighting now have no homes to return to.

Many of those concerned continue to live in deplorable conditions in the open countryside, sheltered only by trees, with minimal or no access to food, basic sanitation, clean water, shelter, and medical care. One particular concern is the plight of pregnant women having to deliver without medical help. Meanwhile, over 30,000 cases of Acute Watery Diarrhea, and associated cholera, have now been recorded in southern Somalia, including almost 1,000 related deaths.

In late April, harassment and intimidation of humanitarian staff, closure of strategic airstrips and administrative directives by the TFG were greatly obstructing humanitarian efforts. Over the last few weeks, progress has been made in delivering assistance, thanks in part to increased cooperation with the authorities.

Around 290,000 displaced people have so far been reached with non-food items, while the health and sanitation response has involved support for hospitals, provision of medicines and chlorination activities. The World Food Programme and CARE have together distributed food supplies to around 180,000 people. However, the plain fact is that so far, assistance has not remotely matched the needs. There are pockets of South/Central Somalia which have remained inaccessible and obstacles to humanitarian access continue.

Unfortunately, piracy is also hindering the World Food Programme's ability to move food by sea, while private contractors hired by humanitarian agencies to deliver aid are having problems with land convoys. There are, for example, checks every 10 kilometres in some areas with so-called "taxes" of up to $100 per checkpoint.

During my visit to Mogadishu, I discussed with President Yusuf and Prime Minister Gedhi the urgent need to increase relief efforts, for example by establishing better mechanisms for liaison and resolution of problems between the authorities and the humanitarian community.

I also urged the Government to issue instructions to control actions of armed groups at checkpoints; to ensure that Visa, permits and customs problems were minimised; and to make clear publicly that all possible assistance should be given to agencies and non-governmental organizations engaged in providing humanitarian relief.

The President and Prime Minister assured me that they were fully committed to helping. However, our discussion was complicated by disagreement on the severity of the crisis. They suggested that only 30,000 to 40,000 people had been displaced by the fighting in Mogadishu, and that half of these had already returned to the capital. They also strongly underlined the need for relief organisations to cooperate more with the authorities and to relocate rapidly from Nairobi to Somalia.

In turn, I raised the fate of the approximately 250,000 long-standing urban displaced in Mogadishu, a significant number of whom are from the Hawiye clan, and many of whom have fled the city. IDP sites which were situated in areas of high-intensity conflict have been abandoned, while those IDPs who were living in public buildings are unable to return, given the Government's stated intention to repossess those buildings. The government has not yet suggested an alternative sustainable solution other than to suggest a return to the areas of origin.

Mr. President,

While I understand the government's need to reinstate public institutions it is imperative that alternative solutions are identified for this highly vulnerable segment of the population.

After the meeting with the Transitional Federal Government I was able to visit briefly a site where some of these IDPs have lived for up to17 years. The building, by pure chance the former British embassy in Mogadishu, currently hosts over 150 families, the majority of them pastoralists who lost their assets in the early 1990s and moved to the capital in search of work. As I walked through the narrow spaces between still incredibly makeshift huts built with scraps of material and sticks, I tried to imagine the daily life of the children following me and the future in store for them. Frnakly, not enough has been done to provide these people with basic conditions of human dignity.

Mr. President,

I told this Council on 24 April that I had been particularly concerned by reports of severe breaches of International Humanitarian Law during the recent fighting, with indiscriminate use of massive force in civilian areas, apparently by all sides. There have also been many reports of major human rights violations, including abductions and unlawful killings; and concerns over the apparent arbitrary detention, deportation, and disappearance of individuals.

When I raised these concerns, President Yusuf rejected any allegations of Transitional Federal Government involvement. He nevertheless accepted my proposal of a visit to Somalia by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to look into these claims. I hope such a visit can take place soon.

Mr. President,

During my short stay in Mogadishu I was also able to meet representatives from civil society, including elders and women's groups. They conveyed to me their concerns about intimidation of civil society and the local media. Several also expressed their conviction that the United Nations and the international community in general had abandoned Somalia and were not interested in the fate of the Somali people.

I assured them that this was not true and that my own presence in Mogadishu was a symbol of the UN's deep concern, political as well as humanitarian. Mr. President, we all have a responsibility to ensure that this is indeed the case, and not to turn our backs on Somalis in this latest hour of desperate need.

As I speak, UN and non-UN relief organisations are doing all they can to step-up further humanitarian relief. Besides the provision of emergency food supplies, UNICEF is targeting 180,000 people in South/Central Somalia with shelter and other non food items. UNHCR are aiming to provide emergency shelter, non food items and support to basic services for 90,000 people. I have already made clear that USD 10 million are available from the CERF for these and other projects. I urge other donors to increase their response also, including through support for NGOs working hard to increase their presence and activities in Somalia, some of them for the first time.

Mr. President, the biggest single contribution to humanitarian relief efforts would be the establishment of genuine stability, to enable people to return home freely and to begin to re-establish their lives. This cannot come from a military solution but from the inclusive political dialogue and reconciliation across the main political and other groups which the international community have been demanding. These efforts need to be redoubled, if there is to be any hope of a lasting peace, with the withdrawal of Ethiopian forces, and the full deployment of the African Union force. Otherwise, I fear, on the basis of what I saw and heard during my visit, that the chances of more long years of conflict, degradation and poverty are high. Meanwhile, it is of the utmost importance that the impartiality and independence of the humanitarian response be preserved and that the Transitional Federal Government and other Somali actors be fully supportive of it.

Mr. President,

I would like to conclude by expressing my appreciation for the efforts of United Nations and other humanitarian national staff in Somalia who, despite extremely difficult and dangerous conditions, continue to run vital operations. Many from Mogadishu have become IDPs themselves but, despite having to care for their displaced families, still travel for hours every day into the capital to carry on their work. It is mainly thanks to them that we are able to maintain at least some assistance to the Somalis in such desperate need.

Mr. President, let me now turn to Northern Uganda, and a more encouraging picture.

I have returned from my visit there with the belief that the Ugandan Government and the international community now have the opportunity, through support to the political process in Juba, continuing humanitarian aid and the transition from relief to recovery, to resolve one of Africa's major humanitarian emergencies; but that a major international effort is still required on all these fronts.

The situation in the conflict-affected districts of Northern Uganda s improving, as security has increased with the major decline in Lord's Resistance Army attacks, and as the efforts of the Ugandan Government and the international humanitarian community to help the displaced have borne some fruit. There is a degree of optimism in the air. Night commuting to avoid abduction by the LRA, once the most tragic face of northern Uganda, affecting over 20,000 children, has largely ceased. Nevertheless, there is a long distance still to travel and serious obstacles in the way.

1.6 million displaced people remain in camps, even though that number is significantly down from its height of 2 million three years ago. A recent UNHCR report shows that a number of displaced people are tentatively moving out of the camps towards their places of origin. Some have already moved back home permanently. But this movement is not yet massive or irreversible. In the Acholi sub-region, nearly three-quarters of the 1.1 million IDPs remain in their original camps. One quarter are now in new settlement sites nearer their homes, often commuting daily to their villages of origin. Only one percent or just over 7,000 have so far permanently returned to their places of origin. In the Lango sub-region, further from the sensitive border area, the situation is more encouraging. Only one quarter of the 466,000 displaced people remain in camps while the remainder--that is over 350,000 people - have already returned home. It is important that the process of return continues to depend on free and informed choices by the people themselves.

In Kitgum District in the Acholi sub-region, I visited the new Labworomor settlement site for those who have moved out of a large neighbouring camp and are moving towards their homes. The residents told me clearly that they would not feel safe enough to return to their homes finally until a final peace deal with the Lord's Resistance Army was reached, ending the 20-year conflict. Their desire for peace was strong and palpable. They were clearly following every twist and turn in the Juba talks with a mixture of anticipation and anguish. They also said that a full return would not be possible until there were basic services such as water, health care and education in their original home areas. I was given similar messages in the nearby Namokora IDP camp, home to some 17,000 displaced people, where I spent the night, after discussing the situation with camp elders around the traditional evening fire. They brought home to me their fears for their culture and their way of life if the conflict is not resolved soon, so that they can finally return to their normal lives.

Mr. President,

This situation, with most people still in camps, some in half-way house satellite areas and others already beginning to return home, presents us with a triple challenge - a challenge which I was able to discuss with President Museveni and members of his government. First, we need to go on providing vital humanitarian assistance to the 1.6 million people still in their camps. Second, those people who have either moved to new settlement sites or are commuting to their places of origin from their existing camp continue to need basic food and household items but also require access to services such as water and sanitation, health services and education in their new areas. Third, those who return to their homes require a basic support package for the early stages but more importantly need a large amount of development and reconstruction help to re-start their normal agricultural livelihoods, with reestablished infrastructure and social provision. These three phases will co-exist, often in close proximity, creating a complex situation which demands a flexible and highly coordinated approach. We must also take into account important and difficult issues such as land rights; the continued demobilization and reintegration of ex-combatants; the fate of extremely vulnerable groups such as the elderly, disabled and orphans, unable easily to return home; and the disposal of land mines and unexploded ordnance left over from the conflict.

Mr. President,

If the current positive trends continue, we can all see clearly the coming challenges and opportunities. We have to effect a seamless transition from relief to development, not something the international community has always been distinguished for. The Government of Uganda, with the support of the World Bank and the international aid community, is working up a "Peace, Recovery and Development Plan". This strategy, which should be implemented progressively, in parallel with the continuing humanitarian relief efforts, will need the full commitment of everyone if it is to succeed. We cannot afford to fail, and we will have no good excuses if we do.

None of this will be possible without continued generous levels of funding. In 2006 the Consolidated Appeal for Uganda was 90% funded. Worryingly, this year's Appeal is projected to be funded at only 50% of its $303 million target. The World Food Programme has already had to reduce its ration to IDPs from 60% to 40% of full requirements. I therefore urge all concerned not to relax their efforts and their provision of resources just at the moment when they are most needed.

Mr. President,

The success of the peace process is the immediate key to this opportunity. The Juba Talks, with the mediation of the Government of Southern Sudan and the facilitation of President Chissano, are beginning to produce some results. At the same time, we are all aware that the process is fragile and that the issue of the International Criminal Court warrants will have to be properly addressed in a way which satisfies the requirements of both peace and justice. No one is following this with more intense concentration than the displaced of northern Uganda, who want above all to see reconciliation and lasting peace. That was for example the clear message from a group of former child abductees I met, despite their appalling experiences.

For our part, the UN will continue to support the Government of Southern Sudan through the "Juba Initiative Project", helping in practical and political ways the Peace Secretariat and the Cessation of Hostilities Monitoring Team. I believe that these talks also deserve full support from the wider international community and from key regional governments. The stakes are high, both for Northern Uganda and for Southern Sudan.

Mr. President,

I also raised with President Museveni and the government the situation in Karamoja, in the north east of Uganda. The government are engaged there in a process of removal of the many illegally held weapons in this long-troubled region. This is, of itself, necessary and legitimate. For example, many displaced people in Acholi raised with me their rising fears of Karamojong cattle rustlers, responsible for several recent killings and violent incidents. However, there have also been many concerns about excessive use of force by the government and other human rights violations, for example as detailed in the latest report from Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. I urged the government to take these concerns seriously, and to step up their development efforts in parallel with the disarmament process.

Mr. President,

I have described today two very different situations, but both deserve close attention and help from the international community in general and from this Council in particular. In Somalia, the immediate humanitarian needs are huge and largely unmet so far. Little real improvement can be expected unless there is a satisfactory and fully inclusive internal political settlement. Otherwise, I fear the worst.

In Uganda, on the other hand, the UN and the international community, working closely with the Government of Uganda, have the chance to bring to a peaceful end one of the most intractable conflicts in Africa, and to make a real success of the return to their homes of the displaced people of northern Uganda. These people are poised between hope and fear: hope that the day of their definitive return home may be close, and fear that if the peace talks break down, renewed violence could again wrest this prize from their grasp. I urge all concerned to do what they can to ensure that this perhaps unique opportunity is not missed.

Thank you, Mr. President.

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
To learn more about OCHA's activities, please visit https://www.unocha.org/.