CAMEROON – The United Nations chief warned Friday that a “hurricane of humanitarian crises” around the world has left civilians in conflict areas paying the highest price and is compounded by a relentless wave of attacks on humanitarian and medical workers.
Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said humanitarian needs are outpacing the ability of the United Nations and aid organizations to meet them, “turbocharged by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“We are in uncharted waters,” he said in a speech to the U.N. Security Council read by Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed.
“The sheer scale of humanitarian needs have never been greater,” Guterres said. “The United Nations and our partners are seeking to reach 160 million people with assistance this year -- the highest figure ever.”
He cited Ethiopia’s Tigray region, Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria as examples of the “bloody surge in humanitarian crises.”
From Tigray, he said, the U.N. has heard “credible reports” in the past few months of executions of civilians, arbitrary arrests and detentions, sexual violence against children and forced displacement “on a massive scale.”
“In Afghanistan, brutal attacks killed at least 24 civilians, including five health workers, during just one week in June,” he said. “Civilian casualties in the first quarter of this year increased by 29% compared to last year; the increase for women was 37%.”
The secretary-general said in Yemen, at least five civilians are killed or injured every day on average, 20 million people are in dire need of humanitarian aid, and five million “are face-to-face with famine.”
And in last month’s attack on one of the largest hospitals in northern Syria, which killed 19 civilians including three children, one missile reportedly hit the emergency room and another hit the delivery room, he said.
Guterres urged the Security Council to take strong and immediate action to support its resolutions on protecting civilians, humanitarian and health care workers, as well as hospitals, schools, water facilities and other “humanitarian space.”
Around the world, he said, security incidents affecting humanitarian organizations including shootings, assaults, sexual violence, kidnappings and raids “have increased tenfold since 2001.”
In Tigray, 12 aid workers have been killed since the conflict started in November 2020 and many more have been intimidated, harassed and detained, he said.
So fair this year, Guterres said, the World Health Organization has recorded 568 incidents affecting the delivery of medical care in 14 conflict zones including shootings, shelling, threats, equipment removals, and the militarization of medical facilities causing 114 deaths of health care workers and patients.
The secretary-general said it is becoming more difficult to provide aid to people in need, citing restrictions imposed by governments or parties to conflicts on the movement of humanitarian goods, long visa and customs procedures, delays at checkpoints, and high taxes and fees on supplies.
He urged governments to “support aid rather than blocking it,” and to make sure their “counterterrorism operations do not undermine humanitarian operations.”
Guterres also urged an end to practices that “politicize humanitarian action” including frequent attempts to interfere in humanitarian organizations’ selection of aid recipients and aid partners, counterterrorism legislation criminalizing humanitarian and medical activities — and conversely politicians and military members portraying aid as part of their counterterrorism agenda.
He also urged action to foster greater respect for international humanitarian law including training militaries, to hold accountable those responsible for attacks on humanitarian workers and to ensure that governments protect the ability of aid organizations to engage with all parties to conflict, including armed groups.
The secretary-general called on the Security Council to “use its influence to ensure that attacks against schools and hospitals cease immediately, and that these facilities and their personnel are protected.”
Robert Mardini, director-general of the International Committee of the Red Cross, echoed Guterres’ concern at the increasing gap between humanitarian needs and the ability to respond "because of the compounded crises and overlap of armed conflict, the consequence of climate change (and) increase of COVID cases in many places from Afghanistan to Tigray.”
Humanitarian budgets are under increasing pressure, he said, “so we are dealing with these terrible dilemmas to be able to set priorities where the most pressing needs are.”
Mardini told the council meeting, which focused on protecting civilians and preserving humanitarian space, that humanitarian workers must be able to work in close proximity to those in need, and conflict-affected people and communities must be able to reach aid “in a safe and dignified way.”
When there is no humanitarian space, he said, there is “a dire lack of protection and assistance for those who need it most” and humanitarian workers are put “in mortal danger, far too many of them traumatized, missing, maimed or killed.”
He highlighted three ICRC concerns: the politicization and manipulation of humanitarian aid, countries insisting on armed escorts to ensure safety for those delivering aid often resulting in “less safety and more security incidents,” and “the growing negative impact of sanctions and counter-terrorism measures on humanitarian aid.”
Mardini said divisions in the Security Council, “notably on access to populations in need, are increasing suffering on the frontlines."
France's Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, whose country holds the council presidency and chaired the meeting, called the shrinking of humanitarian space “extremely worrisome.”
He said the Security Council must raise awareness and reiterate the principles of humanitarian law, including to armed forces that are parties to conflict and to armed groups.
The secretary-general said he has asked the new U.N. humanitarian chief to appoint a special adviser on the preservation of humanitarian space and access to strengthen negotiations on these issues.
Le Drian announced that during France’s presidency of the European Union during the first half of 2022 it plans to organize a humanitarian conference along with the European Commission.