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Remarks for the Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, Ms. Joyce Msuya at United Nations Department of Safety and Security Event, 29 April 2022


29 April 2022, Virtual
As delivered

Good morning, excellencies and colleagues,

It is a pleasure to be here with you at this timely event for security and humanitarian colleagues.

We welcome the focus of this shift on enabling operations even in volatile and dangerous contexts. For it is in these environments that most of our humanitarian work takes place and where most of our difficult challenges arise.

Today I will talk about how the humanitarian security context has evolved over recent years and some of the lessons we learned along the way, as well as make a few recommendations for the future.

Humanitarian organizations have learned a lot about security risk management over the years, and often had to learn the hard way.

For example, the attack on the Canal Hotel in Baghdad in 2003, which killed 23 people including the head of the UN in Iraq, marked a turning point for many humanitarians, as they realized they can be a direct target in conflict zones.

Since then, it has become increasingly dangerous to be a humanitarian aid worker. In the last 20 years, the number of major attacks against aid workers has doubled, according to monitoring from the Aid Worker Security Database.

Last year alone, 2,284 serious security and safety incidents affecting the UN and NGOs in 19 countries were reported. One hundred and sixty-six aid workers were killed. The majority of these casualties were national aid workers on the front lines and, as a result, those on whom we depend on the most.

These trends are painful reminders that while international humanitarian law is designed to protect civilians, including aid workers, in conflict situations, it can do so only when it is respected and implemented by parties to conflict.

But these numbers also tell another story. Twenty-five years ago, humanitarians were more likely to operate at a safe distance from the line of fire. But today, from Afghanistan to Yemen, hundreds of national and international aid agencies operate on the front lines of crises to try to reach people where they need us the most.

This is only possible with the security management support provided by UNDSS and its partners. We are immensely grateful for your close collaboration, as it helps us to find the right balance between protecting aid workers and staying and delivering to people in need everywhere.

Our approach to security risk management reflects many lessons learned over the years. Allow me to explore some of these issues and how they frame our collaboration, moving forward.

First, in humanitarian settings, acceptance underpins our security.

From the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Syria, community acceptance of a humanitarian presence is key to reaching people in need.

At UNDSS, they clearly recognize the links between acceptance and security. Indeed, acceptance features in the DSS Security Management Manual.

For humanitarians, obtaining this crucial acceptance involves building mutual trust with affected communities and local authorities – which may include both State and non-State actors and oftentimes armed groups.

Delivering quality, needs-based aid in a way that adheres to the humanitarian principles of impartiality, neutrality and independence is fundamental to build this trust.

And because of these principles, humanitarians will often need to distinguish ourselves from our sister agencies, who may have more political or security-focused agendas. But it is necessary to be – and be seen to be – neutral, independent and impartial both for the safety of humanitarian personnel and for the people we strive to serve. Linked to this, humanitarians seek a more nuanced approach to security risk management that takes into account organizations’ different mandates and roles.

For instance, a humanitarian agency in Ménaka, northern Mali, that is trying to protect civilians from harm amid violence will require a different kind of security risk management lens than a development or peacekeeping agency that is there for a different reason.

When the same security mechanism is applied to all, it can result in less humanitarian access instead of more, with aid groups limited to secured zones of towns and cities, even when they have built community acceptance to go farther afield.

This will make it more difficult or even impossible to assess needs where they are greatest or track the delivery of humanitarian assistance. It can also mean we inadvertently transfer risk onto local partners who deliver our assistance, compromising their security.

The shift in emphasis to risk management that UNDSS is making towards enabling more humanitarian action is therefore welcomed and timely.

This approach mirrors the UN’s Programme Criticality Framework, which we and our partners use to determine whether a risk is acceptable, based on how critical the UN programme is for people’s survival and well-being.

In Syria’s Aleppo, we applied the framework to guide our decision-making on delivery of assistance across multiple conflict lines to reach people in dire need.

In Ukraine, this framework has enabled humanitarian convoys to reach people trapped in Kharkiv, Sumy, Chernihiv and many other places with food, clean water, crucial medicines and essential household items.

And in Afghanistan, when multiple air strikes struck Kunar and Khost Provinces on 16 April, causing several civilian casualties, the UN again applied the framework and sent a team to the area the next day with cash assistance, food and other essential items for survivors.

Third, we have learned that in humanitarian settings, security management works best when it is adaptable. During the Iraqi Government’s operations to liberate Mosul in 2016-2017, the UNDSS- led humanitarian security cell provided OCHA with minute-by-minute updates of which routes were safe and other information required to minimize risk in an inherently risky situation.

As a result, humanitarians were able to stay and operate immediately behind the front lines of the conflict, and closer to the people who needed assistance.

Today in Ukraine, UNDSS is providing the same continuous analysis, which allows us to shift and adapt our ongoing response in real time. This has helped humanitarian agencies reach 3.4 million people, despite bombing and shelling, indiscriminate urban warfare and mine contamination.

This brings me to my final point. Humanitarian response is, by nature, a collaborative endeavour, and good security requires a system-wide approach.

UN agencies and NGOs face similar security challenges in conflicts and other insecure settings. Recognizing this, the UN and NGOs have adopted the Saving Lives Together framework, which focuses on sharing security information and analysis to manage the security risks we all share.

In many crises, including Syria, Ukraine and Yemen, OCHA manages humanitarian notification systems to enhance the protection of humanitarian personnel and their operations.

Crucially, this system is available, on a voluntary basis, to all actors across the humanitarian sector, including NGOs. Through the system, parties to conflict are informed of the location of humanitarian premises, such as warehouses, offices and field hospitals, and the movement of humanitarian personnel and goods into and around conflict-affected areas. Simply put, the purpose is to help them adhere to their protection obligations under international humanitarian law.

Though not a guarantee for security, this system has been highly effective in protecting humanitarian staff, including those in NGOs.

Before I conclude, I want to point to a factor that is crucial to the success of all of these approaches: it requires investment to get security risk management right.

Carrying out humanitarian operations safely in conflict zones requires extensive training and effective protective equipment.

UNDSS has seen very little increase in funding or staff for many years.

Investing in UNDSS, in the security of our staff and the protection of our programmes, is an investment in effective humanitarian response.

This investment needs to extend to national partners, whose security needs are not adequately factored into programme budgets. We need to address these gaps.

Our efficiency in conflict and crisis situations depends to a large degree on your security support. By helping to keep us safe, you have enabled us to help millions of people in some of the world’s most dangerous settings. I thank you for this support and offer you OCHA’s commitment to support you as you forge this new path.

Thank you very much.


UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
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