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Thursday, September 29, 2022
VIENNA, Mar 11 2015 (IPS) - In the face of the growing number of crises taking place at the same time worldwide, humanitarian aid organisations – many of which have already reached their financial and logistic limits – are in desperate need of global coordination.
“We feel like we’ve hit the wall,” is how U.N. Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator Kyung-Wha Kang has described the dramatic situation.
This situation was the subject of the 3rd Vienna Humanitarian Congress held last week in the Austrian capital under the slogan ‘Humanitarian Aid Under Fire’.
Opening the congress, Annelies Vilim, Director of Global Responsibility, the Austrian platform for development and humanitarian aid, told participants: “Humanitarian aid is not an act of charity. It is a human right.“
In a world in which trouble spots and wars are on the rise, the question of how aid operations are carried out most successfully to meet the necessities of recipients is becoming increasingly relevant and, noted Vilim, at this moment millions of people are in desperate need of humanitarian aid.
Among others, the goal of the congress was to make humanitarian work more visible in these difficult times and to commit decision makers at all levels to value the importance of humanitarian assistance and cooperation.
Unfortunately, sufficient funding and clear structures are lacking and already inadequate contributions are under constant threats of budget cuts.
Host country Austria itself, for example, is no exception – an OECD study has shown that state spending in 2013 was only 1.3 euro per capita, 20 times less than the amount a country of similar wealth such as Sweden was paying.
“The world is facing drastic transformations and politics are not keeping up,” complained Yves Daccord, Director General of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
To address those challenges, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has launched an initiative, managed by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), to hold the first World Humanitarian Summit in May 2016 in Istanbul, Turkey.
It will bring together governments, humanitarian organisations, people affected by humanitarian crises and new partners, including from the private sector, to draw up solutions and set an agenda for the future of humanitarian action.
One issue that is certain to be on the agenda is the safety of aid workers. With 1.5 billion people living in conflict-affected areas, “we will unfortunately have to face more stories in the media about aid workers killed in the line of duty, of atrocities committed against innocent civilians,” said Kang.
In 2013 alone, 474 humanitarian workers were attacked, injured or abducted and 155 lost their lives.
Due to the difficult circumstances, Kang explained that humanitarian organisations are rethinking their strategies, especially in Syria and Iraq, and trying to include all stakeholders in a dialogue to obtain access to the people in need.
Controversially, this also means that for the sake of civilians, parties that are considered “terroristic” should also be involved in the process. Humanitarian actors legitimate this by upholding the principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and non-discrimination in regard to beneficiaries, and independence.
It is estimated that today over 30 armed conflicts are taking place worldwide, 16 of which are considered as wars with more than 1,000 victims each year. According to the United Nations, Syria, Iraq, South Sudan and the Central African Republic are ranked at the highest level of emergency.
The Central African Republic occupied some of the limelight at the Vienna congress in a panel discussion on humanitarian space and life and work in war. Two of the country’s religious leaders – Archbishop Dieudonne Nzapalainga and Imam Layama Oumar Kobine – spoke out about their fight for peace and disarmament.
Both argued that the civil war in their country was not a religious war. “Neither the Bible nor the Koran say that people should kill,” said Nzapalainga, explaining that five days after the beginning of the crisis in December 2012, religious leaders had come together to work collectively on an interreligious platform.
The problem, said the religious leaders, is that 75 percent of the country’s population is illiterate and therefore open to exploitation and recruitment by militant groups. This affects young people in particular and, because the state and government have ceased to exist, it is humanitarian workers who often fulfil the duties of the authorities.
Karoline Kleijer, Emergency Coordinator of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), described her experience of how life has become incredibly difficult for humanitarian workers in the country.
She described how shortly after arriving in the country in April 2014, armed forces entered a meeting of MSF staff and local community leaders that she was attending, opened fire and killed 20 people, including three MSF workers.
The incident had a huge impact on the organisation, she said, but despite all the difficulties “it did not stop us from working in the country. Since then, we have performed more than 10,000 operations and treated more than 300,000 people for malaria. We have delivered more than 15,000 babies and we have been continuing activities up to today.”
Although the principle that civilians have to be protected in armed conflicts and war and have a right to humanitarian assistance is embedded in the Geneva Convention, humanitarian workers have to take great risks to obtain access to the population in distress and, contrary to their neutrality, are becoming targets themselves.
“We hope that humanitarian workers will continue to take those risks, because we continue to take those risks in order to help the population in need,” said Nzapalainga.
Edited by Phil Harris
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