Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, Remarks at the Washington Humanitarian Forum: Unlocking Humanitarian Access

from UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
Published on 19 Sep 2019

Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington D.C. 19 September 2019

As delivered

Thank you, Steve. I’m honoured to be here at the first annual Washington Humanitarian Forum.

I am a great admirer and avid consumer of the excellent analysis produced here at CSIS.

Today’s report, Denial, Delay and Diversion, is very much in the mould, and I congratulate the Task Force, led so ably by Kimberly Flowers for doing such a fantastic job.

I also endorse what Senators Todd Young and Cory Booker have just said about why access to people in need must remain a core humanitarian, political and security imperative.

Thank you also to USAID both for its support of today’s event and its unfailing leadership in global humanitarian policies and programmes, including those of my own organization, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA – or OCHA).

Why is this report important? Because denial, delay and diversion are both the biggest reasons why there are more people now than ever before in need of humanitarian assistance and protection and why it is harder than it used to be to meet those people’s needs.

As the Task Force’s report clearly spells out, principled humanitarian action is under attack across the world.

Yes, but why is that the case?

Two big things, in my assessment, have happened. First, we have seen the emergence of globally interconnected terrorist groups who simply do not accept the norms and standards the rest of the world has adopted over the last two hundred years, but especially in the wake of the second world war.

And second, largely as a result of the current geopolitical reality, problems that 20 years ago would not have been allowed to arise - or would have been contained and then solved faster - are getting worse and dragging on.

States and others that once would have feared the repercussions of denying humanitarian access, now feel they can act with impunity. The increase in denial of humanitarian access is therefore a symptom of the fact that the world has a major accountability problem. I will talk about that more later.

So, denial, delay and diversion have, as the report insightfully observes, shifted from being an unintended consequence of conflict to a weapon of war used for political or military gain. The report is full of examples of that: the use of siege and starvation in Syria; garrison towns in north east Nigeria; humanitarian extortion in South Sudan; bureaucratic blockages in Yemen. And so on.

The report includes some important recommendations for how United States leadership can mitigate these challenges.

You are in a uniquely powerful position to make respect for international humanitarian law and principled humanitarian action a priority, as the report proposes.

You have a strong tradition as a champion of humanitarian action and of human rights. You are by far the largest contributor of funding to humanitarian appeals round the world. Though I am glad to say that your share of the burden is falling a little, as we become a bit more successful in persuading others to do more. Your combined military, diplomatic and economic power, and your global presence, reach and influence, together with your policy-making capacity still allow you to set the agenda. And you have given birth to many of the world’s leading and most respected NGOs, like those here today, which are on the front lines of response and delivering assistance. Unlocking access, and defeating denial, delay and diversion, is at the core of my and OCHA’s mandate.

What does it involve?

Well, it includes describing what is happening. It includes advocating for solutions in the Security Council, powerful capitals and elsewhere. It includes negotiating access with authorities and armed actors. It includes collecting data on access constraints. And it includes helping humanitarian organizations to take a strategic and coordinated approach to access. Today, I want to comment on the four areas in which the Task Force is making recommendations.

First, the proposition to elevate humanitarian interest and make access a foreign policy priority.

I obviously think that would be a good idea.

President Reagan famously described America as a ‘shining city on a hill’. For the millions of people across the world who are denied access to the most basic lifesaving assistance, the US will always be a country they look to for help.

Pushing for better humanitarian access is not only morally the right thing to do, it can also make us all safer, more secure and more prosperous.

My colleague and good friend Governor David Beasley – the head of the UN’s World Food Programme – recently observed that his agency was the first line of defence and offense against Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab, and ISIS. He tells a story of a woman who said her husband joined a terrorist organization because there was no food.

If humanitarian agencies can reach people in need, we can educate children, giving them a better chance of making a living as an adult, and arguably making them less susceptible to radicalization in future.

Humanitarian agencies can stop disease outbreaks and prevent them from spreading across borders - if we can reach people, treat them and give them the necessary drugs. I think the report has some good practical ideas for how to ensure that humanitarian access concerns are integrated into national security policy-making. Ensuring coherence between military, diplomatic and humanitarian actors within the work of government is critical.

Second, the report calls for policy-makers to strike a new risk balance between national security and humanitarian interests, including in counter-terrorism regulations.

We all agree on the need to deal with terrorism, and that sometimes that will require military action.

But there are some buts.

First, the need to deal with terrorists does not absolve anyone of their wider responsibilities. Look at what is going on in Idlib, in north west Syria. It is not acceptable to obliterate millions of civilians, many of them children, under the guise of dealing with a few thousand extremist supporters of Al Quaeda and associated groups. Second, it is now clear that some of the financial measures contemplated to deal with terrorist financing have unintended and damaging consequences for humanitarian action without materially contributing to counter terrorism objectives.

The recent debate over whether to add Al Shabaab to the Security Council’s list of prescribed organisations is a case in point. I can’t find a top-quality military or security analyst who thinks that would help the fight against terror. But it was clear to everyone that it would have undermined a humanitarian operation on which millions of people rely. The Security Council’s decision not to go down that path was an important one.

But that approach needs to be generalized. I note that the report calls for Congress to establish a humanitarian exemption from CT legislation for activities that are consistent with principled humanitarian action, indeed, citing EU and other legislation as models.

The report’s third set of recommendations are about harnessing the power of data to systematically monitor and document access constraints and increase the costs of access denial.

I couldn’t agree with you more on the need to develop a robust evidence base to better understand access problems and solutions.

My office, OCHA, currently monitors and reports on access constraints, as Steve mentioned, in 20 crisis countries. We use that analysis to underpin our negotiation and advocacy.

We have also rolled out a new methodology in South Sudan, Mali, Iraq and Syria, to not only identify access restrictions, but also understand their impact on needs and on humanitarian operations. This will help us take better informed decisions.

I want, by the way, to thank USAID for their support on this, both in funding OCHA’s access activities and in promoting this work with other donors and humanitarian partners.

Fourth, the report calls to bolster training humanitarians and donors and to develop new technologies to overcome access constraints.

I agree on the potential for new technology, whether it’s IT, mobile money, monitoring drones, new health products or a host of other options.

But I wanted to make a point about the importance of efforts governments and aid agencies have made in recent years to expand training of militaries – both State and non-State – in international humanitarian law.

These efforts work best when they show how the laws relate to local norms and values, and widely accepted standards of behavior.

And when they are followed up with programmes to integrate IHL into military doctrine, standard operating procedures and codes of conduct, which can have a ‘self-disciplining’ effect. The ICRC has many lessons to share from their work in this area.

Such training and related policies and frameworks must explicitly address measures to prevent the use of sexual violence especially against women and girls.

If we want such efforts to work, we have to show why complying with the law is in armed groups’ own interests, by highlighting the costs of violations but also the potential loss of strategic gains.

The Norwegian Refugee Council, and I think my distinguished predecessor Jan Egeland, who is now the head of the NRC will be here later in the day, has launched the first online course on humanitarian access – a useful tool for everyone in the humanitarian community.

And finally, I said I would return to the question of accountability.

In the early 1990s and early 2000s there were signs that the international community was making some progress on accountability. The establishment of the International Criminal Court and the emergence of the Responsibility to Protect resolution in the UN gave many of us hope.

Although the impunity we see in the world today is certainly disheartening, we still have to invest energy and resources into accountability tools and mechanisms.

Because one day, justice will come to the perpetrators of the horrific crimes we see around the world.

We need to continue to boost national capacity to carry out impartial investigations into allegations of violations.

At global level, the Security Council can play an important role, as demonstrated for instance by the international criminal tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

So can inter-governmental institutions like the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which brought us one step closer towards identifying perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks.

Let me leave you with one last point. Senators Booker and Young say in their letter opening the report: “We believe that the role of governments is, first and foremost, to protect their people.” That is clearly right.

And the converse is also true, that those most able to protect people are governments – not NGOs, or the media, or the Red Cross or the UN.

So, let’s make sure governments are never allowed to forget their responsibilities and have the capacities to live up to them.

Thank you very much.

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