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June 12, 2004

Aid Agencies Forced to Leave War Zones

by Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS (IPS) – As violence against civilians and humanitarian workers escalates in the world's politically troubled regions, the United Nations and major relief groups continue to shy away from countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) or to significantly downsize their emergency operations.

"We have no plans to return to Iraq," says Nathaniel Raymond of Oxfam America.

Despite the installation of a new interim government in Baghdad, the United Nations and international relief agencies are reluctant to return to the occupied nation, primarily because the security situation has worsened, not improved.

It has deteriorated to a point that Oxfam America has also disbanded its local staff in the nation, Raymond told IPS. "We don't have any presence in Iraq."

Some aid groups say also that the blurring of the line between military and humanitarian missions has put their employees at greater risk.

At a meeting in Geneva in May, Pierre Kraehenbuehl of the International Red Cross pointed out that aid work done by the military in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq was "endangering our acceptance and safety in many parts of the world."

The United Nations and virtually all of its relief agencies, including the children's fund (UNICEF) and the food program (WFP), pulled out of Iraq after two deadly bombings last year inside the UN compound in Baghdad that claimed the lives of more than 22 employees.

Currently, the world body is operating only with local staff in Iraq, while international employees work from neighboring Jordan and Cyprus.

"The so-called 'humanitarian space' is under unprecedented stress," says UN Deputy Secretary-General Louise Frechette.

"Emblems such as UN blue, the Red Cross and Red Crescent become high-value targets in efforts to drive them out or deny them their role as protectors and providers," she added in a speech to UN delegates last week.

Frechette said that conflicts are often followed by a security gap, or a rule-of-law vacuum, in which order breaks down and looting and lawlessness prevail, "disrupting or even preventing our work."

But she warned that the United Nations should not succumb to a "siege mentality." "People around the world have high expectations of the United Nations and its partners. Our collective raison d'être is to be there," and the world body cannot fulfil its humanitarian mission "from inside a bunker," said Frechette.

Not everyone at the world body agrees. In April the 5,500-member UN Staff Union adopted a unanimous resolution urging UN officials to take immediate additional steps to address "the serious flaws in the security management system."

"We are dismayed that Secretary-General (Kofi Annan) continues to send staff to Iraq (on short-term missions) despite the present highly volatile and insecure environment," the resolution said.

Still, the United Nations is expected to return to Iraq provided it receives strong assurances of security from both the new interim government in Baghdad and a proposed multinational force, which would be specifically mandated to protect humanitarian workers.

Outlining the growing risks, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a report released Thursday that attacks on civilians and humanitarian workers in conflict zones are growing.

Earlier this week 11 Chinese construction workers and their Afghan guard were killed on the outskirts of Kunduz city in northern Afghanistan. Annan described the murder of unarmed civilians as "outrageous and contemptible."

Personnel of UN humanitarian agencies and their partners in DRC have been attacked and their equipment damaged, forcing the suspension of most aid programs for some three million people in the region, he added. "This has compounded an already serious humanitarian situation."

Since 2003, 27 UN staff members have been killed, while more than 426 others have been assaulted, held hostage or otherwise harassed in a range of situations, including in Afghanistan, Cote d'Ivoire, DRC, Liberia, Iraq, the Russian Federation (northern Caucasus) and the Israeli occupied territories.

In his report, which alludes to rebel armies and some governments but names none in particular, Annan said that in 20 conflicts around the world, humanitarian access is either denied or obstructed for over 10 million people in need of food, water, shelter and medical care.

The worst affected are countries in sub-Saharan Africa and the West Bank and Gaza.

"In the occupied Palestinian territory, security constraints on humanitarian assistance for 3.5 million civilians have worsened following the construction of a barrier through the West Bank, which is having a profound humanitarian impact on civilians by separating Palestinian communities from their land, jobs and markets, and severely limiting their access to food, water and power supplies and essential social services, including schools and hospitals," the report said.

Catherine Cook, a senior analyst and media coordinator for the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP), said Israel is able to continue violating international human rights and humanitarian law in the occupied territories only because global politics permit it to do so.

"Powerful nations determine when and where human rights and humanitarian law will be enforced," Cook told IPS.

To date, she said, countries led by the United States and Britain have failed to take any meaningful action that would apply pressure on Israel to abide by its commitments to treat Palestinians according to international norms.

"There is much the international community can do to improve the situation. The question is whether they are willing to expend the political capital necessary to bring about change," Cook added.

"There are many options available, for example the United States could cut or place stricter conditions upon aid to Israel. The European Union could sever trade ties. But such actions are unlikely."

Annan's report also focuses heavily on the serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law in sub-Saharan Africa.

"The world watched the genocide in Rwanda with shock and disbelief," Reverend Gabriel Odima, president of the Africa Center for Peace and Democracy, told IPS.

"Today, the world is paying less attention to the ongoing massacre in the Darfur region of western Sudan, the atrocities in Northern Uganda and the killings in the Democratic Republic of Congo," he added.

(Inter Press Service)

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    Thalif Deen has been Inter Press Service's U.N. Bureau Chief since 1992. A
    former Information Officer at the U.N. Secretariat and a one-time member of
    the Sri Lanka delegation to the General Assembly sessions, he is currently
    editor of the Journal of the Group of 77, published in collaboration with
    IPS. A Fulbright-Hayes scholar, he holds a Master's degree in Journalism
    from Columbia University in New York.

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