Security Council invites unprecedented briefing by NGOs and the Red Cross on the Great Lakes Crisis
by Humanitarian Practice Network February 1997

In an unprecedented meeting of NGOs and the Red Cross Movement with the UN Security Council on February 12th, CARE International, OXFAM International, Médécins Sans Frontières and the ICRC gave first hand accounts of the deteriorating situation in Rwanda, Burundi and Zaire.

Initiated by Chilean Ambassador Somavia in light of the worsening situation in the Great Lakes region, this historic February briefing sought to highlight three challenges confronting the humanitarian community in its efforts to bring assistance to those in need, stressing the need for political solutions: the absence of adequate protection for refugees, displaced and civilians; lack of access by NGOs to the vulnerable; and the widening regional crisis and need for a regional solution. There is a danger that the Great Lakes conflict will spread to other countries in the region.

As one of the agencies present said: “Agencies cannot solve these problems with biscuits, vaccines and water. People will continue to die and the war will continue to spread throughout the region unless the UN Security Council, Member States and regional leaders take decisive action.”

The overwhelming message from the NGO and Red Cross representatives was to press home the need for a political solution to the problem – as the Joint Evaluation of Emergency Assistance to Rwanda urged one year ago, humanitarian assistance cannot substitute for political action.

Where members of the Security Council failed to act in time to halt the genocide in 1994 – perhaps because, as one permanent member is known to have said “the information base upon which the Council takes decisions in this area is totally inadequate … a slender, tenuous database” – the same must not be allowed to happen in the face of the current escalation of conflict in the region.

A meeting with Kofi Annan, which he described as a ‘milestone’ in UN/NGO relations, gave some cause for optimism. Annan expressed his commitment to a regional settlement, and intention to put pressure on all sides to join negotiations and a political process – he will insist that help with the Zairean elections will only be on the basis of agreement to participate in a regional conference, and told the meeting of his plans to create a series of country special representatives under Sahnoun to drive the process.

However, the meeting with UNSC members indicated the unlikelihood that exceptional diplomatic pressure will be brought to bear in support of such actions. While not unexpected, this reinforcement of existing fears was disappointing in view of the size and complexity of the humanitarian crisis in that region. Some progress was made in highlighting situations of particular concern, such as that of Tingi Tingi (where it is estimated that 55% of under-fives have died), which met with an agreement by Akashi to raise the issue of extraordinary action with Mrs Ogata.