UN Emergency Relief Coordinator calls for humanitarian corridors to address worsening crisis

Jan Egeland (right), Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, addressing the Security Council at UN Headquarters in New York. (UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras)

At a Headquarters press conference this afternoon, United Nations top humanitarian official outlined his efforts to organize humanitarian assistance for the affected population in Lebanon, including requests for humanitarian access and a planned flash appeal for funding.

Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Jan Egeland, who is also United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator, told correspondents that with the humanitarian situation in Lebanon deteriorating “by the day and by the hour”, over half a million people, including internally displaced persons and refugees, urgently needed assistance now. That number was likely to grow dramatically. Too many civilians, including women, children and the elderly, had been killed. He was equally concerned over “the rain of rockets” into northern Israel, which was also causing civilian loss of life, he said.

The number one humanitarian problem was the lack of access for humanitarian workers, he continued. Therefore, yesterday, he had forwarded a formal request to the Government of Israel to grant safe passage –- so called humanitarian corridors -– for humanitarian supplies and workers to reach the beleaguered civilian population. He was asking for access along several routes, including a coastal road from Aarida in the north to Beirut, as well as movement of supplies from the entry points for sea cargo at Tripoli, Beirut and Tyre. He had also asked for the use of the Rafic Hariri international airport, in Beirut, for humanitarian purposes. Yesterday, his message had been handed over to the Israeli Ambassador at the United Nations. Today, he had asked the Lebanese Government for focal points, who would work with humanitarian workers now trying to set up an agreement in all its details.

Describing his plans, Mr. Egeland said that today he was leaving for Lebanon, where he intended to go to the affected areas. On Monday, he was going to launch a flash appeal for funding for the Lebanese civilian population from Beirut. He had already been in touch not only with traditional donor groups, but also with the Organization of the Islamic States and the Gulf Cooperation Council, asking them for generous contributions. At the end of the week, he intended to have talks on safe passage and humanitarian corridors with the Israeli Government in Jerusalem. He also hoped to go to Gaza, where the situation was not getting any better.

Asked if he would contact world leaders in search of assistance, Mr. Egeland said that his office was “reaching out to everybody to ask them to help facilitate this”. Diplomatic assistance was needed vis-à-vis the Israelis, as well as in dealing with Hizbollah and other “de facto” armed groups. To function, unarmed humanitarian workers should be respected by all armed actors. He was going through all the possible media in the region to appeal for respect for humanitarian law and protection of civilians.

In response to several other questions, he added that he was very optimistic that Israel, which had clearly stated that it did not wish to hurt the civilian population, would respond positively to his request. Israel had said that it would treat the request with urgency. However, Prime Minister Olmert’s announcement yesterday was “much more limited” than what Mr. Egeland had asked for –- it only involved a safe sea route from Cyprus to Beirut. While evacuations of non-Lebanese citizens were going on from several ports, the lack of a safe humanitarian route for the benefit of Lebanese civilians was a “serious mental blow to the Lebanese”. It was also important for humanitarian workers to be able to get in. At present, there was no safe humanitarian route into the country.

What was being done to get assurances from Hizbollah that it would adhere to the requirements for the provision of humanitarian assistance? a correspondent asked. Mr. Egeland replied that, at present, his Office had only indirect contacts with Hizbollah, but, of course, it was necessary “to reach out to them to say that they should not specialize in undermining the security of their own people, but enable the agencies to help the civilian population”. Hizbollah should stop its rocket attacks on Israel, and he hoped that the Secretary-General’s appeal for the cessation of hostilities would be successful.

Regarding the Beirut airport, he said that it was not functional at the moment. Provided humanitarian agencies were granted permission to use that facility as a safe passage route, it would be necessary to repair parts of it first. The agencies intended to bring in what Lebanon lacked at the moment: medical supplies, food, water and sanitation equipment, and “everything else from blankets to shelter materials”. While some of those supplies could already be found in Lebanon, they could not be moved at present. Thus, the airport would be used for the movement of goods not only into, but also inside, the country.

Asked if measures were being taken to protect the cities where war crimes may have occurred, Mr. Egeland said that the events on the ground were well documented. There was video and photographic evidence as to the attacks that had taken place. It was amply clear in Lebanon that massive damage had been done to the infrastructure, including schools, health facilities and power supplies. Also, as he had said on the Israeli radio this morning, he was seriously concerned over the rain of rockets over northern Israel, which was equally in violation of international law.

To a related question regarding the attack on a power plant in Gaza, he said that it had to be a violation of international humanitarian law, when a population consisting of 50 per cent children had no supply of electricity, including sewage pumping plants, which led to health problems. However, not being a lawyer, he was not sure if he could characterize that as a war crime. He would leave the task of “putting a label” on that event to the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour.

Regarding the situation in general, he cautioned the main actors in the region “not to do things today that they would live to regret”. It was in nobody’s interest to enrage the youth even more “to do desperate terrorist things in the future”, for example. It was heartbreaking to see how strongly the populations on both sides now supported the military route, while it was clear to the international community that there was no military solution to the crisis.

While many factors needed to be in place for the solution to be found, what was black and white now was, don’t target civilians, help us to care for the civilians, do not hurt children, neither directly, nor indirectly. Hizbollah, do not blend with the civilian population –- you hurt the civilian population, Israel, do not attack mixed targets, especially if it is clear that it will disproportionately affect civilians.

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