4 June 2010
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference by Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs

 

on His Recent Mission to Chad, Sudan

 


Stemming violence, boosting aid and building local capacity remained critical for the populations of Chad and Sudan, John Holmes, Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, said today at Headquarters following his return from a mission to the two African countries.


Mr. Holmes, who is also the United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator, said that deepening concerns included wide-spread drought in the region, the threat of aid dependency for long-term displaced populations, and the constant threat of renewed violence.


Having ended the mission last weekend and briefed the Security Council yesterday, he said that although relations between Chad and Sudan might have stabilized, the situation in eastern Chad — a region housing hundreds of thousands of refugees from Sudan’s Darfur region, the Central African Republic as well as Chadian nationals displaced by internal conflict — had not changed.  There was little prospect of refugees returning to Darfur until peace was achieved, though there was a possibility of the internally displaced going home if the basic conditions were established.


For that reason, there was still a need to continue providing assistance without creating a dependency syndrome, he said.  With regard to the recently authorized withdrawal of the United Nations Mission in Central Africa and Chad (MINURCAT), he said many in the humanitarian community would have preferred it to stay, but that was “water under the bridge” and they must adapt, adding that he had discussed with the Chadian authorities their plans to fulfil assurances to provide security in the area.


Turning to drought, he said that in Western Chad, along the Sahel belt, the failure of rains in late 2009 had caused a rapid rise in malnutrition rates, and there was a need to step up aid.  A related drought in Southern Sudan had caused a deterioration of the humanitarian situation, which was exacerbated by inter-group violence as well as threats from the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which had killed hundreds, displaced many more and disrupted agriculture.  Given the lack of Government capacity to deal with the situation and provide basic services, there was a need to “make sure it doesn’t turn into an actual catastrophe”, particularly in the context of the upcoming referendum on the region’s political future.


As for Darfur, he said little had changed since his 2009 visit there, shortly after the Government of Sudan’s expulsion of more than a dozen aid groups following the International Criminal Court’s issuance of an arrest warrant for President Omer al-Bashir on an indictment for war crimes and crimes against humanity.  Displacement, sporadic conflict, lack of access to certain areas and the kidnapping of humanitarian workers continued, he added.


He said the mechanisms set up with the Government to fill the gaps after the expulsion of aid groups had not been functioning in recent months, partially because of the elections.  Other problems, including difficulties in obtaining visas and permission to move around, had been discussed with the Government, with whom a stronger partnership was needed.  It was also necessary to empower the millions of displaced persons to take care of themselves, even while they remained in camps, through the proper investments, so as to reduce the risk of dependency.


Asked about the cyclone battering the Persian Gulf, Mr. Holmes said the damage so far was serious but not catastrophic, adding that the United Nations was monitoring the situation closely and stood ready to help if necessary.  It was difficult to connect such events with global warming, but the pattern suggested that scientists’ predictions were correct, he added.


On the underfunding of assistance to the displaced in Pakistan, he said he did not think the explanation lay in donor fatigue as such, but it was hard to know the reason why.  However, that story was no longer a media priority and the Government’s focus was on recovery, he noted.


The Under-Secretary-General defended decisions taken by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) during the conflict in Sri Lanka earlier this year, which had produced high civilian casualty rates.  Staff had been forced to withdraw from areas of fighting, but they had still provided assistance.  Displaced civilians had to be supported, even in closed camps, while pressure was put on the Government to improve conditions there.  Those had been difficult decisions to take, but they had been the right ones, he affirmed, agreeing, however, that there should be accountability for the death toll, about which OCHA had been very vocal during the crisis.


Turning to Gaza, he said OCHA had been looking into viable mechanisms to get more aid through, and was re-examining that question after the flotilla disaster.  One should not assume that there were easy answers, he cautioned, saying that if there must be restrictions, the listing of banned goods was preferable to the enumeration of those allowed.  “We don’t want to get into a bag-by-bag argument,” he commented.  He said OCHA would be happy to play a facilitating role if it was wanted and the right conditions were in place.


Asked about Somalia, he said some food aid was still getting in despite difficulties, even in the south-central area, where there was no general mechanism for food distribution.


In response to questions about alleged diversion of aid to the insurgent Al-Shabaab group, he said he would defer to investigations under way and the strong denials of the World Food Programme (WFP), but noted that those concerns persisted and discussion of the matter continued.


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For information media • not an official record