FEATURE Away from the frontlines UN staff give a helping hand

But critical humanitarian work of a different kind is also carried out far away from the “frontlines”, in cities such as New York and Geneva, where vital policy decisions come together in meeting rooms and corridors, or in an office on the end of a telephone. Few know this better than Ivan Lupis. Until earlier this year, he served simultaneously as the desk officer for Myanmar and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) at the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Each country was, and still is, on the receiving end of international sanctions, and thus at odds with other UN Member States, which meant Ivan and his colleagues faced additional challenges in ensuring that humanitarian assistance reaches those in need. “It’s about walking a tightrope between all these competing interests,” Ivan says, explaining that Member States, advocacy groups and the UN itself often have different expectations about what the UN can or should do in providing aid to such nations. This was especially true in May last year, when Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar with such catastrophic effect that the death toll from the disaster is today estimated at nearly 150,000. In the immediate aftermath, as it became clear that the magnitude of the disaster exceeded the capacity of the Government to respond, some countries, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and pressure groups said that the authorities were not doing enough to facilitate relief efforts, and criticized the way that the UN was initially handling its response. But Ivan notes that for many pressure groups, their focus is almost exclusively on political issues; at OCHA, the primary concern must always be humanitarian. “We’ve always tried very hard – especially in Myanmar – to keep the political and the humanitarian efforts of the UN separate… Politicizing a humanitarian response in such a complex environment such as Myanmar doesn’t help the situation.” As with any other major emergency, OCHA’s response mechanisms had swiftly swung into place after the cyclone struck, with logisticians and other staff coordinating the overall relief efforts of the UN and its partners. But this time, with international tensions on the rise amid suggestions that the outside world should intervene and take over the relief response, Ivan and his colleagues in New York and Geneva had to call on their negotiating and consensus-building skills as well as they hit the phones and held meeting after meeting. “I think the majority of my time was spent on doing the behind-the-scenes advocacy and policy-shaping work and negotiating with key advocacy groups, Member States and other UN agencies,” he recalls, noting the delicacy of much of the discussions. John Holmes, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, and then Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited Myanmar to negotiate immediate access for international aid. One of the other results of those trips was the formation of the Tripartite Core Group, which brought together the UN, the Government of Myanmar and the Association of Southeast Asian nations (ASEAN) to spearhead the coordination of relief efforts in Myanmar’s delta region. “This is probably too early to tell, but it worked very well, and there are hopes in the region and within the UN that it could become a prototype or model for other disasters,” Ivan says, praising Myanmar’s neighbours for the bridging role they played. Ivan says he enjoys the political aspects of his work as he can draw from his own experiences in the field in the Balkans and elsewhere, working for the UN as well as Human Rights Watch, the International Crisis Group and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). “Having a wide breadth of experience in politically sensitive emergencies has really helped me shape my thinking… Myanmar is perhaps the most fascinating portfolio I’ve ever had in my career, with many levels of political complexities and nuances impacting your work and decision-making.” As the technical side of the humanitarian response to emergencies and crises becomes ever more systematized, Ivan says there will be an even greater need for humanitarian workers who have experience or knowledge in other fields, such as human rights and political affairs, to bring to policy-making. “We need people with good political radar, who know how to frame certain strategies, how to frame certain messages, how to feel the political temperature at Headquarters, and in the field, and have a good barometric reading of when to say the right thing, and when to press the right buttons.” 19 August 2009Humanitarian work typically takes place in conflict zones, or following natural disasters, or in remote areas where food is scarce and the need for immediate assistance is high. Grain sacks are hauled and distributed, life-saving vaccinations are given, and temporary shelters are found. read more

More than 50000 returning Afghan refugees benefit from UN shelter programme

This represents about 25 per cent of the more than 4.3 million Afghans assisted home by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) since the United States-led ouster of the Taliban regime at the end of 2001 – 3.4 million from Pakistan and over 865,000 from Iran.Of the more than 8,000 shelters planned in 2009, some 7,000 beneficiary families have been selected and construction is continuing, UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) spokesman Aleem Siddique told a news conference in Kabul, the capital, today.“As in previous years, UNHCR shelters in 2009 are implemented in provinces of high return and for those who are the most vulnerable among returnees and internally displaced persons (IDPs),” he said. “Getting shelter is one of the most pressing needs of returning refugees, along with land, jobs and security. Recognizing this, UNHCR has allocated a significant part of its budget to its shelter programme.”UNHCR’s re-integration programme will continue for the next two years, especially in the shelter sector. It will also continue supporting the Government-led programme to allocate land to landless returnees. 26 October 2009The United Nations refugee agency has nearly completed its shelter programme for more than 50,000 of the most vulnerable Afghan returnees this year, bringing to some 1.2 million those who have benefited since the re-integration project started in 2002. read more

UN lauds Afghan forum as important step towards achieving peace

4 June 2010The United Nations today congratulated the Government and people of Afghanistan as they concluded a three-day dialogue aimed at achieving peace in the country, calling it an important step in efforts to end conflict and restore stability. The Consultative Peace Jirga, which began in Kabul on 2 June, brought together some 1,600 participants, including 300 women, to chart the way forward in the country’s peace process.“This is a significant step toward reaching out to all Afghan people to promote an inclusive dialogue aimed at achieving stability and peace in Afghanistan,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement issued by his spokesperson.“The United Nations supports these national efforts to end conflict in Afghanistan, and remains fully committed to working with the Afghan authorities and people as they strive for a peaceful life,” the statement added. Both Mr. Ban and the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) congratulated the Government and participants on the “process and outcomes” of the gathering. “The participants of the Consultative Peace Jirga have committed themselves to move forward together and reach out to communities across the country,” the mission said in a statement.“It is essential that the momentum of this Jirga is maintained and utilized to take the next steps toward the Kabul Conference in July,” it added, referring to the major international gathering on the way forward for the country that is scheduled to take place in the capital.The July meeting follows the London Conference held in January, during which the Government and its international partners jointly endorsed a strategy of transition to greater Afghan responsibility for the affairs of the country. read more

UN agency coordinates transfer of nuclear waste from Serbia to Russia

22 December 2010The United Nations nuclear watchdog has coordinated a multinational project carried out by Serbia to move two and half tonnes of highly radioactive nuclear spent fuel to a secure Russian facility, where the material arrived today. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said it coordinated the removal of the material from a Serbian nuclear research reactor where it posed potential security and environmental threats.It was the largest single shipment of spent nuclear fuel made under an international programme to repatriate such material to the nations that originally supplied it, the IAEA said in a press release.The delivery of the spent fuel to the Russian facility ends the project to repatriate fuel from the Vinca Institute of Nuclear Sciences outside Belgrade, where the Soviet Union had built and fuelled a 6.5-megawatt nuclear research reactor in the 1950s.The project began in 2002 when fresh highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel was transferred to Russia. Today’s shipment consisted of over 8,000 spent fuel elements, including 13 kilogrammes of HEU.“This was a very complicated project. We had to involve governments, contractors, and non-governmental organizations,” said Yukiya Amano, the IAEA Director General. “It was a great success. It was a success story and we are very happy to continue to cooperate with stakeholders to repatriate highly enriched uranium,” he added.The latest fuel transfer began on 18 November, when 16 shipping containers holding the fuel were loaded onto heavy cargo trucks at the Vinca Institute.Using trucks and trains, the convoy traversed Serbia, Hungary, and Slovenia under heavy security before arriving on 21 November at the Slovenian port of Koper. There, crews loaded the containers onto a cargo ship which then began a three-week journey to Russia’s arctic port at Murmansk.Back on rails, the fuel moved to Russia’s reprocessing facility at Mayak, where technicians will separate the still-usable uranium from the spent fuel and store the remaining nuclear waste for future safe disposal.The IAEA has actively participated in efforts to repatriate research reactor fuel, including transfers from the Czech Republic, Hungary, Libya, Romania, and Viet Nam. In addition, the IAEA is supporting efforts to help nations convert their research reactors to use low-enriched uranium fuel. read more

Top UN official spells out priorities for better global health

“I see WHO catalyzing more effective development aid that builds the capacities for countries to move towards self-reliance. Countries want a hand-up, not a hand-out,” said Margaret Chan, the WHO Director-General, addressing the opening session of the 64th World Health Assembly in Geneva.“I see a WHO that continues to bias much of its work towards the many unmet health needs in Africa and beyond, and to the empowerment of healthy, well-educated, self-confident women and girls,” she said.Dr. Chan spoke of the need to gives a bigger say to the many partners working on global health issues and to encourage them to speak with a coherent voice to the respond to the needs and priorities of those receiving their services.“I see a WHO that pursues excellence, an organization that is effective, efficient, responsive, objective, transparent and accountable.“I see a new WHO that works with other sectors to address health risks that threaten the health and stability of societies, and a new WHO where all countries, small or big, rich or poor, come together to defend equity, social justice, and human rights,” said Dr. Chan.She said the recent achievements in global health are attributable to WHO’s collaboration with States, other UN agencies, various global health initiatives and funding mechanisms, civil society organizations, foundations, and the private sector.“But WHO has unquestionably shaped the health agenda and gathered the technical expertise and guidance that have paved the way for other initiatives to move forward towards their goals,” added Dr. Chan.Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the Director-General of the UN Office at Geneva, told the assembly’s opening session that meaningful progress on maternal health and women’s health can only be achieved through the broader issue of gender equality and women’s empowerment.He spoke out against cuts in health budgets as a result of the global economic downturn, warning that the reductions in spending on health care will undermine long-term development.“The WHO – with its extensive expertise in developing innovative financing mechanisms and establishing partnerships – has taken the lead in guiding countries in this regard,” said Mr. Tokayev.“Global health is one of the greatest challenges of our time, but also an area of opportunity with scope for solutions. Continued political commitment is indispensable if we are to translate the promise of technological and scientific advances into reality.”The World Health Assembly is the decision-making body of WHO and brings together delegations from all WHO Member States to determine the policies of the Organization and its approve proposed programme budget. 16 May 2011The head of the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) today outlined her vision for the agency for the current century, emphasizing the need to help Africa and other regions meet their health needs and ensuring that development aid is used to help countries move towards self-reliance. read more