UN aid chief highlights ills caused by drought in Niger, conflict in DR Congo

John Holmes briefs reporters on trip to West Africa

7 May 2010 – The world still has time to avert catastrophe in Niger, where more than half the population have been hit by drought, while crucial humanitarian aid in the strife-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) could be harmed by a premature withdrawal of peacekeepers, the top United Nations relief official warned today.

Summing up his recent visit to the two countries at a news conference in New York, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes stressed the need for donors to step up to the plate in both – in Niger, where $130 million more are needed beyond $70 million already received to feed at least 7.8 million people, and in the DRC, where humanitarian aid is 73 per cent under-funded and the Government has asked for the withdrawal of UN peacekeepers in 2011.

“The situation is not yet disastrous or catastrophic,” he said on Niger. “However it’s six months at least to the next possibility of a harvest, assuming the rains are good and on time, which is a big assumption, and of course the situation could get much worse in that time, especially if we don’t take the right action to deal with it.”

The humanitarian community is better placed than in the last similar crisis in the impoverished West African country in 2005, even though the underlying situation is worse, because the alarm has been sounded earlier and the readiness is greater while, contrary to 2005, the new Government has taken “a refreshingly open and transparent attitude” instead of denying the problem and being reluctant to accept international assistance, he added.

“The Government has been totally open about the severity of the problem and the need for international help to deal with it and very cooperative with that international help as it arrives,” he said.

“I think we have a decent chance to avert a catastrophe if we act in time, if we scale up our capacity to deal with it as we are trying to do and if, crucially, we also have the resources we need from the donors,” he added, reiterating “a very urgent appeal to the donors to provide these resources now because then we can act in time.”

He also called for action to tackle “more energetically and more systematically” the underlying issues such as the effects of climate change – “you can see literally the deserts advancing, the sand dunes advancing” – and the need to invest more in agriculture and irrigation. Overall, 10 million have so far been affected by drought in West Africa.

On the DRC, where he expressed horror at the brutality of fighting forces in the three strife-torn provinces he visited – South Kivu, Orientale and Equateur – Mr. Holmes stressed that humanitarian needs remain very great, repeating concerns already voiced by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon over the Government’s proposed date of August 2011 for the withdrawal of the 11-year-old UN Mission in the DRC (MONUC).

“The humanitarian consequences of any future withdrawal of MONUC need to be fully taken into account in the discussions about the future of MONUC between the Secretariat and the Security Council and the Government of the DRC, because our fear is clearly that a premature or a poorly planned drawdown in areas where there are these security problems and major humanitarian needs could have a major impact,” he warned.

“Of course the humanitarian community will try to deal with these problems whether or not there is a peacekeeping force there. My point is that it may be much more difficult to do so in the absence unless substitutes are found in terms of state presence and other forces that are able to provide security.”

Over the past decade MONUC has helped restore a measure of stability and democratic process to a country torn apart by years of civil war and revolts that led to the greatest death toll since World War II – 4 million people killed by fighting and the attendant starvation and disease.

As he did at each stop on his visit to the DRC, Mr. Holmes expressed outrage at the continuing atrocities being committed. In South Kivu, where 600,000 people are still displaced, he cited the brutality of the rebel Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), as well by local armed militias and bandits, adding “and of course there are continuing abuses by the Congolese [army] forces themselves with their well-known lack of discipline to put it no stronger.”

Issues such as sexual violence “remain absolutely as bad as they’ve ever been in the past” from all armed groups, including the army, he said.

In Orientale there is a “continuing reign of terror” from the notorious Ugandan rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) – “killings, rapes, acts of brutality and mutilation, sexual slavery and indeed wholesale massacres,” he stressed. Some 300,000 people have been displaced and the number is still growing.

“We have to do something more about the LRA,” he said, citing the massacre of 300 people in December and reports of another 80 to 100 butchered in February. “Despite the attacks on them by the Ugandans and the Congolese forces and some successes there, this is only stimulating worse brutalities and attacks in some ways and therefore we need to find a solution once and for all to that.”


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