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Geneva: World Humanitarian Day panel discussion

21 August 2019 at 18:07 | 1332 views

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Sierra Leone’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Sierra Leone to Switzerland, the United Nations and other international organisations, Dr. Lansana Gberie, on World Humanitarian Day, August 19, participated in a panel discussion on the role of Women Humanitarians.

Dr. Gberie was invited to the panel by the Director General of the UN Office in Geneva and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The other panellists were two remarkable women, Ms. Melissa Flemmin, Chief Spokesperson of the UNHRC, and Ms. Adiba Quasim, a young Iraqi woman who survived atrocities by ISIS and has become an activist for peace, justice and rights for refugees. The discussion took place in a packed hall at the Palais de Nations in Geneva.

Below is Ambassador Gberie’s opening statement:

I’m very pleased to be invited to participate in this panel discussion on the role of Women Humanitarians. First because it is an opportunity for us to express appreciation for the critical role of the many dedicated women humanitarians who quite recently were at the forefront of the response to the deadly Ebola outbreak. I was in Liberia when that outbreak occurred, and I was struck by the purity of the dedication of female health workers, dozens of whom died trying to help others survived. The topic is more agreeable still because women are central to our governance efforts led by His Excellency President Julius Maada, both as leaders in Government and in Civil Society.

Let me attempt to answer the specific question posed to me, namely: “What have you seen as a man involved in the field that can help us understand better the condition of women in humanitarian situation?” I will do so by making a larger point about the work of humanitarians.

As you mentioned I worked first with an international non-Governmental organisation in a humanitarian situation, and subsequently as a United Nations civilian staff. In those situations, I saw firsthand the overwhelmingly important role that women humanitarians played. I saw that role in my own country, which hosted various kinds of UN missions from 1999 right on to 2014, from the peacekeeping phase to what was hoped to be the maturation of the peacebuilding phase. I saw it particularly closely in Liberia, where I worked for the UN. So permit me to concentrate my comments on Liberia.

The Liberian civil war preceded and actually helped trigger the civil war in own country, and lasted longer. The war-related destruction of Liberia was more comprehensive. During that war, women were particularly targeted for all kinds of terrible violations. Rape of women by the various militia groups, and sexual slavery as a routine violation, were extensively documented by the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in its report published in 2009. I suspect that partly for this reason, the United Nations made it a policy to place women in prominent positions in the mission. The UN also deployed a large contingent of all-female police officers from India and elsewhere. The idea was that the traumatised population should see women as authority figures, not as victims. Also, though this was not explicitly stated, it was clearly felt that women as prominent first responders might be more reassuring to a traumatised population than men, who had constituted the principal perpetrators of violations and atrocities during the war.

I believe that this worked in very important ways. Rape and sexual violence reporting increased exponentially, and this led to the setting up of a fast-track court to litigate offenders. It helped also that the first postwar President of the country, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, was a particularly strong woman. Women by no means constituted the majority of the humanitarians working in Liberia. Figures published by the UN in 2012 stated that of 1,664 civilians serving in Liberia as at 1 February 2012, 24 per cent were women. But so prominent and effective were the women, particularly in policing, that many Liberians might have been forgiven to conclude that women were dominant. They were a most reassuring and effective presence.
And here let me make a broader point. The media tends to amplify alleged violations by humanitarians. Stories about peacekeepers exchanging food for sex, about an Oxfam staff entertaining prostitutes in his home, tend to be seized upon and used to call into question the very idea of humanitarianism. Abuse of power and violations by humanitarians, where they occur, must be deplored and the perpetrators punished. But the very fact these stories become so quickly prominent is in a way an acknowledgement of the exalted role that humanitarians play: it is to say that we hold humanitarians to a higher morality.

The situation that humanitarian workers find themselves in is often physically, and perhaps morally, degraded. Health services are mostly nonexistent. When the UN deployed in Liberia in 2003, there was no electricity or running water. Violent crime was rife. The UN was aware before it sent staff there that they will “be exposed to a variety of considerable hazards and risks” – I am quoting from a report by its Secretary General. Even years later, in a report in August 2012, the UN Secretary General said the following: “Criminal activities and road traffic accidents continued to pose a security threat to United Nations personnel and property, especially in Monrovia. Since the beginning of 2012, one incident of armed robbery targeting United Nations personnel has been reported, in addition to 21 non-weapon-related crimes, including burglary, theft (of two weapons), robbery and assault. One international staff member, four national staff members, three military personnel and one police officer have died as a result of shooting, illness or accident.”

These attacks and deaths often go unreported: perhaps there is a feeling that since the humanitarians knew of these risks before they went in there, there shouldn’t be too much fuss about them. So let me leave you with one sobering set of statistics. In its 15 years in Liberia, 126,000 foreign soldiers, 16,000 police and 23,000 civilian staff were deployed. Of these, over 200 mostly civilian staff, a large number of them women – capable, conscientious people – died, sometimes in attacks, sometimes of what might be preventable diseases in a country where basic social amenities were either scarce or non-existent.

Let us celebrate their lives and sacrifices.

Dr. Gberie and Miss Adiba Quasim, from Iraq

The panelists

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