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"In crisis together - Journalism and Humanitarian work"; Address to the 11th New XChange Edition, by António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

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"In crisis together - Journalism and Humanitarian work"; Address to the 11th New XChange Edition, by António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

16 November 2012

Barcelona, 15 November 2012

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Ladies and Gentlemen,

The stories you tell also play a central role for the work of my own organization, and so please allow me to add a few personal remarks.

Today there are 42.5 million people worldwide who have become forcibly displaced. This number includes refugees, asylum-seekers, internally displaced persons and stateless people. Right at this moment, UNHCR is faced with four acute simultaneous emergencies in Syria, Mali, Sudan and the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. These events have driven over 750,000 people across international borders in 2012 alone, and displaced hundreds of thousands more inside their own countries.

The people UNHCR cares for are among the most vulnerable on earth, having been uprooted from their homes, their livelihoods, their families and communities. Your work as journalists matters deeply to them. You raise awareness of their plight and bring stories and images of their suffering - and their resilience - to the attention of the global public. And you help explain the conflicts, the poverty, the oppression and the environmental hazards that have forced them to flee. Last but not least, your drawing attention to the world's humanitarian crises - both recent and protracted - is an important component in our being able to marshal the support we need to care for their victims.

And because of this, our challenge as humanitarian organizations is to keep you, the media, "interested, passionate and concerned", as Lyse Doucet from the BBC recently said. The problem is, when your cameras go off so too does the attention, and sympathy and funds for the operation dwindle away. Where you and your colleagues are keeping the story alive, governments are under pressure to deliver a political solution and to support the victims. Where media attention drifts away, we are often faced with reduced resources and prolonged political inaction. On the receiving end of this are hundreds of thousands of refugees from places like Darfur, the DRC and Somalia, who are forced to linger in exile for years, with aid agencies struggling to meet even their most basic necessities.

But the role of the media goes beyond funding and public attention. Without journalists, many more human rights violations would go undetected all over the world. Journalists can do much to help promote respect for human dignity and freedom, and to spur governments, corporations and the international community to action.

And precisely because journalism matters, reporters often become targets. Many of them risk falling victim to human rights violations themselves, facing censorship, detention or even threats to their lives and health. Others cover conflicts and disasters from up close, far too often at greatest personal risk.

In this sense, journalists and humanitarian workers face similar dangers. One of the most difficult challenges in responding to today's crises is the shrinking of humanitarian space. There are three dimensions to this trend: the changing nature of conflict, the tougher line taken by some states on national sovereignty at the detriment of the protection of human rights, and a blurring of traditional distinctions between civilian and military spheres. Let me elaborate on the considerable risks this poses to humanitarian staff and media professionals alike.

Today's conflicts are fought by a multiplicity of actors, many of whom have no respect for the humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality and neutrality. In theatres of conflict today, one may find national and possibly foreign armies, ethnic- or religious-based militias, insurgent groups and bandits. All of these actors have been responsible for serious human rights violations and direct attacks against journalists as well as humanitarian staff. Since the beginning of 2011, some 120 journalists and 118 aid workers have lost their lives in the line of duty. 23 journalists and 13 humanitarian staff were killed in Syria alone.

At the same time, the respect for human rights and the protection of the vulnerable is losing ground in the agendas of several national governments. The freedom of the press is often among the first casualties. Similarly, a few states, for political reasons, have refused to allow humanitarian agencies in to assist victims of conflict. Others have expelled them, despite the adverse impact of such expulsions on the protection and assistance available to their citizens.

Finally, lines that used to clearly separate the civilian and the military spheres of international action are increasingly becoming blurred. The resulting confusion is cynically and brutally exploited by some belligerents to target humanitarian workers. Journalists on the front lines, who often must seek out the conflict rather than avoiding it, are even more at risk.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Today, the capacity of the international community to prevent and resolve conflicts is limited. We no longer live in the bipolar or unipolar world of the recent past, but we also do not yet have a structured multipolar system. The international community has always lacked an effective global governance system, but on top of that, power relations have now become unclear. In addition to this, a number of inter-related global trends are profoundly transforming the world we live in - from accelerated demographic, climatic, social and economic change, to a failure to address inequality and marginalization, and an ever-increasing competition for scarce resources.

Journalism matters in this rapidly changing world more than ever before. At the same time, the stories you set out to tell have become more and more complex, and the risks you are forced to take have grown. It is a duty for all of us to fight for the freedom of the press - a basic cornerstone of democratic societies that benefits no one more than human rights and humanitarian organizations like my own, and the people we are mandated to protect.

Thank you very much.