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NGOs call for separation of UN political, humanitarian roles

A displaced family in southern Helmand Province in May 2008.
(Abdullah Shaheen/IRIN)

Six international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) involved in development and relief activities in Afghanistan said in a joint press release on 29 June that the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) had remained "worryingly silent" about the worsening humanitarian crisis in the country, and that its coordination capacity was "extremely limited".

"Despite enormous challenges, the UN Mission in Afghanistan has not paid sufficient attention to humanitarian needs and the ability of agencies to respond," the NGOs' press release said.

However, UNAMA has rejected the criticism regarding its humanitarian performance. Aleem Siddique, spokesman for UNAMA in Kabul, told IRIN the mission had beefed up its humanitarian coordination capacity over the past year from two international staff in February 2007 to 16 in July 2008. He added that the mission hoped to again double the number of humanitarian staff over the next year to meet growing humanitarian needs.

"UNAMA has been one of the strongest advocates on both human rights issues and humanitarian affairs within this country. We reject any allegations that we have remained silent. We have and will continue to speak out without fear or favour to ensure the needs of Afghanistan's most vulnerable communities are met." Siddique said.


Photo: Akmal Dawi/IRIN
Aleem Siddique said that UNAMA had beefed up its humanitarian coordination capacity over the past year

Military involvement in aid delivery

NGO representatives who met John Holmes, the UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, during his four-day visit to Afghanistan 26-29 June, expressed concern about increasing military involvement in relief activities.

"International military actors' increased involvement in relief and reconstruction is further complicating the operational environment for NGOs, particularly in terms of security," said the NGOs, which included CARE International, Save the Children USA, the Norwegian Refugee Council, the International Rescue Committee and Mercy Corps.

At least 16 aid workers had been abducted and 12 reportedly killed in various security incidents over the past six months, the NGOs reported.

"Our principles prevent us from being agents for any armed parties to the conflict. Moreover, being perceived as such by communities, or any of these armed parties, is a clear threat to our security," Nigel Pont, the head of Mercy Corps, was quoted in the press release as saying.

The UN should ensure that military and civilian actors are clearly separated and avoid a "blurring of lines", the NGOs said.

UNAMA gave assurances that its activities were in line with international humanitarian law and that the world body was defending humanitarian impartiality.

"Clearly it is very important to defend the impartiality and the neutrality of humanitarian action," Holmes told IRIN in Kabul on 28 June.

Call for return of OCHA

UNAMA was established on 28 March 2002 according to resolution 1401 of the UN Security Council - initially to help implement the Bonn Agreement on transitional arrangements in Afghanistan and to coordinate all reconstruction and development activities in the country. Additionally, UNAMA is mandated to coordinate and lead humanitarian action. Its mandate follows the UN "integrated mission" approach.

But some aid agencies warn that UNAMA's political mandate has made it very difficult for it to work as an "apolitical coordinator" of humanitarian assistance.

To tackle the problem and also to better coordinate response to a "deteriorating humanitarian situation", the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) should re-establish an independent presence in Afghanistan, the NGOs suggested.

"OCHA is seen mostly as an independent office which has extensive experience in coordination, resource mobilisation and disbursement," Lex Kassenber, country director for CARE Afghanistan, told IRIN.

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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