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Remarks by ASG/DERC Ursula Mueller: Einstein Humanitarian Dialogue 2019: The Age of Impunity- How to Uphold Principled Humanitarian Aid Today

News and Press Release
Originally published


Brandenburg Academy of Science and Humanities, Berlin, 3 December 2019

Question: Humanitarian space is important and endangered. OCHA has a role in monitoring and mapping access constraints, so I’m curious to hear how you see the restrictions humanitarians are facing regarding humanitarian access. And to understand how warfare is changing and whether that has implications for the challenges you are seeing.

Thank you to David Miliband and the International Rescue Committee, and thank you to Minister, Niels Annen. Thank you to the Brandenburg Academy of Science and Humanities. And I want to thank Germany, first for being one of the largest financial contributors to humanitarian action and the work of OCHA, and, second, for your strong role in promoting principled humanitarian action.

Let us start on a positive note. Today, there are more humanitarian organizations and workers operating in more and more places worldwide. The United Nations for instance, is present in remote and volatile places in Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and South Sudan, where we could not have operated 15 years ago. This is possible because we have shifted our approach to security from risk aversity to a strategy of mitigating risks and “staying and delivering.”

That being said, the environments in which we operate – including in armed conflict – are often extremely complex. As a result, gaining humanitarian access in these environments is often extremely challenging.

For a start, reaching remote communities is a major physical and logistical challenge. Take a country like South Sudan. A country with only 300 km of paved roads. The rest of the country is connected by dirt roads, which are unpassable seven months a year when it rains. Because of this, humanitarian assistance is mostly delivered by air at a significant cost.

However, the most serious impediment to humanitarian action remains the behavior of parties to conflict.

Belligerents’ little concern for the protection of civilians and their lack of respect for International Humanitarian Law are both the main cause of humanitarian need and one of the main reasons it is so difficult to respond to these needs.

In many conflicts, humanitarian and medical personnel are routinely attacked. Extortion, kidnapping and looting have become a daily occurrence. Other times, humanitarians are caught in indiscriminate or disproportionate use of force.

So far this year, the World Health Organization has verified 893 attacks against healthcare personnel or facilities, and 225 humanitarian staff have been killed, wounded or kidnapped.

In some contexts, we see entire populations being put under siege with no access to assistance.

Parties to conflict also resort to less visible methods. Bureaucratic procedures become access impediments when they generate significant costs, delays, restrictions, and are often administered arbitrarily.

In Syria, for example, aid convoys are frequently emptied of medical supplies.

In Afghanistan, medical facilities have been used for military purposes. In other countries, humanitarian workers are regularly questioned by State authorities as to why they are providing assistance to people in areas that are under the control of non-State armed groups.

Let me emphasize here that, when I say, ‘parties to conflict,’ I mean all parties – both States and non-State actors. We have to remember that in Syria, Yemen, South Sudan and elsewhere, State forces continue to be responsible for a large proportion of civilian casualties and impediments to humanitarian action.

Another major challenges lies in the fragmentation of non-State armed groups. The vast majority of contemporary armed conflicts are now between States and armed groups. In fact, according to the ICRC, between 2001 and 2016 the number of armed conflicts pitting States against armed groups more than doubled. And in the last seven years, more armed groups have emerged than did in the previous 70 years.

Why does this matter? This multiplication of armed groups means an increase in the number of parties controlling access to territory and people in need, and thus greater challenges to negotiate humanitarian access and build acceptance.

It is precisely in these contexts, that it is so important to preserve the ability of humanitarian actors to engage with all warring parties.

From Syria to Somalia, engaging with armed groups may mean engaging with groups labelled, by some, as ‘terrorists’. Some of these groups control access to millions of people in urgent need of assistance.

States have a responsibility to fight terrorism. At the same time, they have to ask themselves: should it be at the expense of the shared values that underpin humanitarian action? My answer to that question is a clear no. We need to promote principled humanitarian action, to prioritize the humanitarian imperative, and find a way to conduct legitimate counter-terrorism measures, so that neither undermines the other.

Question: We have the rules, the rules are good. OCHA plays a role in negotiating humanitarian access. It is a very complex task. How does OCHA react to difficulties that might be there? And what is the role of the Security Council in this? Are there any changes in the Security Council you would like to see?

UN General Assembly Resolution 46/182 adopted in 1991 established the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA, and the role of the Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC), who heads OCHA. The resolution also states that one of the responsibilities of the ERC is to facilitate humanitarian access through negotiations by obtaining the consent of all parties concerned.

These negotiations are needs-driven and based on the obligation of all parties to facilitate rapid, safe and unimpeded humanitarian access.

In most contexts, UN agencies and NGOs maintain direct contact with parties to conflict and negotiate their access directly because you need to build relationships and trust.

OCHA’s key role is to support them in their analysis and mapping of access, to make sure they understand the context and the constraints.

OCHA must also ensure that humanitarians define together a strategic and collective approach to access in these contexts. So, we coordinate public and private messaging so different organizations do not undermine each other.

In other words, OCHA’s role is that of a service provider to humanitarian organizations; an enabler and a convener.

When requested or when we have a comparative advantage, OCHA engages in negotiations with parties to conflict on behalf of the humanitarian community.

Recently in the CAR where there are 14 armed groups. I was able to meet with two of them to talk about the humanitarian principles, and to try to find a way to try to change their behaviour to enable humanitarian assistance.

OCHA negotiation roles include:

First, Negotiating humanitarian corridors, cross-border and cross-line movements and inter-agency convoys to highly insecure areas. For example, cross border food aid in Syria reached over 1 million people in September alone.

Second, establishing and maintaining deconfliction mechanisms; These are systems to exchange information between humanitarians and military actors, including on movements and locations, and to protect humanitarian staff and assets. In Yemen, for instance, our humanitarian notification mechanism facilitates delivery of the world’s largest relief operation.

Deconfliction relies on strong civil-military coordination, which OCHA provides in many crises. Third, we also work to administrative and legal issues hampering humanitarian assistance such as visas and customs processes.

Let me address the Security Council and what can be done. The global need for humanitarian action has increased substantially over recent years – and you will hear more on this tomorrow when the Global Humanitarian Overview for 2020 is launched in Berlin and four other cities around the world. Today, the number of people targeted for humanitarian assistance is three times higher than a decade ago. The vast majority of these humanitarian needs are in contexts of armed conflict.

The Security Council has long recognized the importance of protection of civilians and unimpeded humanitarian access. 20 years ago, the Security Council passed its first resolution on the protection of civilians and established the building blocks of the protection of civilians agenda. These are: compliance with international humanitarian law. The impact of fighting on civilians and civilian infrastructure such as schools and hospitals. Humanitarian access. Compliance with human rights and refugee law in armed conflict. And holding violators to account.

These same issues have remained the focus of the Security Council’s protection agenda ever since.

Whenever I or the ERC briefs the Security Council on Syria or on Yemen, there will be some kind of focus on protection of civilians.

The Security Council has also enabled – and should definitely do more – the environment for humanitarians to engage with all parties, including non-State armed groups.

However, let us not forget that regardless of a Security Council decision or resolution, all parties have an obligation under IHL to facilitate safe, timely, and unimpeded access.

On Germany’s role: I value the role of Germany on the Security Council as an elected member. Germany is the pen-holder on the humanitarian file for Syria. There is never a humanitarian solution to a political crisis. There are only political solutions.

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
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