Diplomacy is key to securing unimpeded humanitarian access
UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Valerie Amos:
UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos is not one to mince words. Amos, 58, spoke with Tempo journalists for nearly one hour at the UN offices in Jakarta last Wednesday, pointing out that diplomacy was a power that should not be underestimated, especially when negotiating access for aid agencies to supply food, water and medical aid to civilians in war-torn regions.
Amos visited Indonesia last week along with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and launched a package of disaster preparedness initiatives, to further strengthen Indonesia's response capacity.
Renowned for her international diplomacy skills, Amos is the first black woman to be appointed to the British cabinet when then-Prime Minister Tony Blair made her International Development Secretary in 2003, following the resignation of Clare Short. She then became the first black leader of the House of Lords, Britain's parliamentary upper chamber. She was appointed to the role of UN humanitarian chief in 2010. In her interview with Tempo's Gita Lal, Maria Hasugian and photographer Dwianto Wibowo, Baroness Amos spoke of the devastation she witnessed herself in Syria a little over two weeks ago, and why sometimes diplomacy does not necessarily work in securing access to conflict areas. Excerpts:
What is the purpose of your visit to the ASEAN nations?
We are looking at issues of preparedness. I visited Cambodia, Singapore, now Indonesia and then Thailand. Indonesia last year as chair of ASEAN was influential in some of the issues agreed upon toward the end of last year, particularly the final creation of the ASEAN Humanitarian Assistance Coordination Center. We have a strong partnership with Indonesia, and our Offices for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is here, where we work closely with the government on issues of building resilience within communities. I also spoke at the Jakarta International Defense Dialog on the role of the military in non-war settings. The military should play a key role when disaster strikes in terms of logistical support, and of life-saving operations.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon during his address in Jakarta stressed that conditions in Syria had become the world's most-troubling and most-concerning issue today for humanity. What was your visit to Syria like?
We know that a number of people fled across the borders into neighboring countries like Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan. I was in Syria about two weeks ago. In Damascus and in Homs. I visited a neighborhood called Baba Amr. This is a neighborhood that used to house up to 60,000 people. It is now completely deserted. Not a single building has been left untouched. We don't know where all those people have gone to. There were a couple of families salvaging their possessions. A few men on a street corner. That was it.
Those figures [of the dead] of 8,000 it comes from the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights. I have major concerns about what has been happening to people there. Where are they? We are receiving alarming reports that people wounded are not going to hospitals because they fear what will happen to them there. We know that when a city is in the midst of the kind of conflict that is occurring there, people will run out of water. And food.
There is of course the third element a clear political element that the UN, the secretary-general, with the League of the Arab States has appointed a joint envoy to work with Syria to negotiate a ceasefire.
How serious an impact can a UN Security Council statement of support make at this point, particularly if it is non-binding?
I saw for myself the impact that such a statement can make. I was very keen to get into Syria to talk to the government about what was happening. The government had said that they welcomed my visit, but it was very hard to actually agree on a date on when I could go in. I was in Lebanon, and then I went to Jordan, hoping that the government would agree. Nothing happened. They had suggested to me the possibility of going in on a particular day, then they did not come back to confirm that. At that point, the Security Council issued a statement, an agreed statement by all members of the Security Council that pressed the Syrian government to allow me in. After this statement was issued, we received a note from the Syrian authorities suggesting a day the following week. This statement had an absolute, direct impact. Anything that the Security Council says, one that is agreed by all members of the Council, has an impact.
Did you meet with the opposition in Syria?
When I was in Baba Amr, I was told that some people had fled from Baba Amr into an opposition-controlled area in another part of Homs. We tried to negotiate through the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, for me to go there. The negotiations went on for about an hour and a half. We then drove to that part of Homs and came to an opposition-controlled checkpoint. At that point, we heard gunfire. We do not know where it came from and the person at that checkpoint would not allow us to go any further. I don't know whether they would not allow us to go any further because of the gunfire, or because the results of the negotiations had filtered down to that particular individual. I was not able to actually speak to any members of the opposition there.
Do you think you can depend on diplomacy now for opening up unhindered humanitarian access in Syria?
One element that [UN-Arab League envoy] Kofi Annan will argue for is unimpeded humanitarian access. How that works, will be for me to negotiate. But he will make the call for that to happen. We need to do everything that is in our power and diplomacy is part of that. There are discussions going on at the UN in the Security Council, and at the General Assembly. I went to Syria. Kofi Annan has been to Syria. There are member states of the UN that are engaged in bilateral conversations with the Syrian authorities. All of this is absolutely important.
Diplomacy is a key element. This is why we have the United Nations to ensure that the kind of talking that needs to happen, is happening in different places for a number of different reasons. People in conflict zones want to be able to go back to their normal lives. This is what they want the international community to deliver.
What efforts need to be immediately taken to end the bloodshed in Syria?
The important thing about the work that we do is that it has to be impartial. We do not take sides. If there are people in opposition-controlled areas of Syria who need help, we will negotiate with those in the opposition-held areas to get in. If there are people who need help in government-controlled areas, we will negotiate with the Syrian government to attempt to get in. We don't make any comment on whether we prefer X or Y. It is the people that we need to get to they are the major concern.
We need to support Kofi Annan's efforts. In the meantime because I don't think that anybody exactly knows how long it might take to negotiate an end to the conflict we make everyone aware that ordinary people are suffering as a result of this. They are dying. We have to do everything we can to give them as much help and assistance that we can manage to do so.
How can diplomacy from your end help humanitarian efforts to reach disaster-struck regions like Haiti, Libya or Somalia?
The reason you can't get into a particular country is about the particular political dynamics in that country. We are trying to get access into South Kordofan and Blue Nile in Sudan. There are reasons why this has not been agreed. The Sudanese government has a concern about some of the history of engagement of humanitarian organizations going back many years. They feel very strongly that they are engaged in a conflict with a rebel group on their own territory. And that the fighting has to stop and that they have to reassert their authority. And they are also concerned about the relationship that they will have with their neighbors. This is their perspective. And it is not necessarily a perspective that I agree with, but it is their perspective and I have to work with the government to build a degree of trust to enable us to move on from that position.
If you look at what is happening in Syria, the context is different. This is not a country with the same kind of history of conflict, but the narrative of the government is very clear they feel very strongly that they are facing internal armed resistance, as well as resistance from some external forces. This is something that they believe they have to, as a government, deal with militarily. Again, this is a perspective that I not necessarily may agree with but this is the perspective of that government. There are times when our efforts to unlock that access either take a very, very long time or are just unsuccessful.
Last year in Libya for instance, I traveled to Tripoli and I was able to within a day, secure an agreement between the government and ourselves that enabled us to get into Tripoli. However, security was so difficult that again we were not able to get to all the places that we wanted to get into.
What did your talks with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem focus on?
Aside from requesting for unimpeded humanitarian access, I asked that we could conduct comprehensive assessments to find out exactly what had happened to people. What their needs were, and what we needed to do to be able to bring in supplies to those people. I asked for additional UN staff to be able to come in, for visas to be agreed. I also supported the call by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) for a pause in the area where there was fighting a two-hour pause to allow supplies to be brought in, and for the wounded to be brought out.
The government came back and said that they needed more time to respond to those proposals because they were so comprehensive. They said that they would lead an assessment mission which we could join, to enable us to get data. That mission left Damascus last Sunday [March 18]. And they have a number of places that they would like to go, to get a much better sense of what has happened to people. When they have completed, we will have a report about what we found.
No. 31/12, March 28, 2012
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