In 1991, the UN General Assembly established the position of Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC) to pull together international efforts in response to major humanitarian emergencies all over the world. In keeping with the principle of International Humanitarian Law that relief operations should be conducted “in a humanitarian and impartial manner”, those appointed to fill the post of ERC between 1992 and 2006 came from Brazil, Denmark, Japan, Norway and Sweden.
In 2007, however, the present Secretary-General, Ban ki-moon, appointed British diplomat Sir John Holmes to the post and in 2010, he was succeeded by another British nominee, the former minister and ambassador, Baroness Valerie Amos, who has announced that she will step down in early 2015.
While both Holmes and Amos have approached the job with tremendous energy and commitment, it is widely acknowledged both within and outside the UN that the appointment of officials from one of the five permanent members of the Security Council (China, France, Russia, UK and US) has politicized the role and made it even more difficult than it already was for the UN’s humanitarian work to be seen as genuinely impartial.
In 2015, the UN, the Red Cross and international charities, under the overall leadership of the ERC, can expect to be confronted with an unprecedented number and scale of humanitarian emergencies. The Secretary-General has appealed for more than £10 billion for relief operations in 2015, by far the largest amount ever requested, to cope with emergencies that we already know about like Syria, South Sudan and the Central African Republic. More will inevitably be required as new emergencies occur.
The millions of people caught up in these disasters deserve to know that the person charged with leading the international effort to assist them inspires the confidence of governments and humanitarian organisations in every part of the world and can re-capture the UN’s reputation for impartiality in its humanitarian operations.
But the new ERC will also have another challenge. In 2016, the Secretary-General will convene a World Humanitarian Summit. This offers a unique opportunity to re-shape the fragmented and dysfunctional international humanitarian response architecture, to make it more supportive of home-grown efforts in affected countries. This is both an opportunity and a challenge, and the new ERC will have a critical role in preparing for the Summit, guiding its deliberations and turning its conclusions into practice.
In leading the search for an outstanding candidate capable of addressing this unique set of challenges, the British government has an extraordinary opportunity to show that it can rise above the narrow national interest involved in placing a British national in a senior UN position and can embrace the idea of finding the very best person, of whatever nationality, for this uniquely demanding and important job. In adopting this approach, the government will earn delighted appreciation far beyond the musty halls of the UN Secretariat.
Martin Barber is a retired senior UN official. He is the author of Blinded by Humanity: Inside the UNs humanitarian operations.