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Lessons learnt from the Burundi and Rwanda emergencies: Conclusions of an internal review process

Executive Committee Meetings

Lessons learnt from the Burundi and Rwanda emergencies: Conclusions of an internal review process

2 January 1997

2 January 1997

6th Meeting


1. This document represents the final stage of an internal process which examined the lessons learnt from the major refugee emergencies occuring in the Great Lakes Region of Africa during 1993 and 1994. This process began in early 1995 and interim reports were submitted to the June 1995 meeting of the Sub-Committee on Administrative and Financial Matters (EC/1995/SC.2/CRP.21/Rev.1 of 23 June 1995) and to the June 1996 meeting of the Standing Committee (EC/46/SC/CRP.28 of 28 May 1996). In October 1996 the Director of the Inspection and Evaluation Service reported to the Forty-Seventh Session of the Executive Committee on plans to prepare a detailed internal report on the Emergency, addressing, inter alia, management issues. This paper summarizes the main conclusions and recommendations of the internal report which brings together a number of related initiatives. The aims of this paper are threefold: to record the main lessons learnt at the time of the emergencies, both at Headquarters and in the field; to specify action taken since then to further improve UNHCR's emergency response capacity in light of the experience gained; and to make recommendations on those issues requiring further action. Broader coordination issues relating to UNHCR's cooperation with DHA and other agencies have already been addressed in the OECD/DAC Joint Evaluation of Emergency Assistance to Rwanda.

2. The refugee emergencies occuring in the Great Lakes Region during 1993 and 1994 presented the international community with a challenge almost unprecedented in recent history. A series of increasingly complex emergencies, following rapidly one after the other, tested UNHCR's recently strengthened emergency response capacity to the limit. According to one senior manager involved in the emergency response, by the time the massive influx into Goma took place in July 1994, UNHCR had almost completely exhausted its resources. UNHCR's response at that stage was regarded as "impressive" (OECD/DAC evaluation report) and is compelling evidence in support of UNHCR's Emergency Response Team (ERT) formula.

3. The process to review the lessons learnt, initiated by the former Central Evaluation Service in January 1995 and culminating in the present paper, has, however, identified a number of issues arising from the Great Lakes emergencies which require prompt attention to ensure that UNHCR is in a position to maintain its effectiveness and to respond appropriately to future large-scale and complex emergencies. Significant management weaknesses identified in response to the Great Lakes emergencies need to be carefully reviewed and addressed within the framework of UNHCR's current process of organizational and management reform (Project Delphi). Weaknesses identified in protection response during the critical early stages of the emergency, which, in turn, impacted negatively on the organization's ability to develop appropriate policy, also need to be addressed. The operational response, while generally viewed by others in positive terms, nevertheless requires further improvement in certain areas.


A. Management and Coordination Issues

4. A major deficiency identified during the Great Lakes emergency was the lack of a strong centralized regional approach to operations management. This stemmed from weaknesses both at Headquarters and in the field. At Headquarters, the operation was managed by a country-based structure which did not provide for a post of sufficient seniority to ensure effective coordination of operations at a regional level. At the field level, the Special Envoy appointed by the High Commissioner had neither the authority nor the staff to ensure a coordinated regional approach. These weaknesses were compounded by poor communications, weak information management and an excess of reporting and decision-making layers combined with a lack of clearly designated focal points for crucial areas such as logistics and staffing.

5. Another problem which also surfaced on repeated occasions in previous emergencies concerned the relationship between the Regional Bureau and the Division of Operational Support (DOS). The UNHCR emergency response capacity had been built up as a result of initiatives taken by DOS and the emergency response teams were principally staffed with and led by personnel from this Division, in particular the Emergency Preparedness and Response Section (EPRS), the Programme and Technical Support Section (PTSS) and the Supply and Transport Section (STS). The integration of emergency staff into existing Bureau and branch office structures has never been straightforward and led to serious tensions at the height of the Rwanda emergency. While the "situation approach" which forms the central thrust of the Delphi process is likely to obviate some of these managerial difficulties, there is a need to give further thought to the issue of emergency management as a whole, both at Headquarters and in the field. This would seem to be all the more important in the context of the change management (Project Delphi) initiative.

6. In particular, the role of EPRS, PTSS and STS in future emergencies has to be clarified. In doing so, the proven competence and experience of staff in these sections must be recognized and they should, on that basis, share in the responsibility of handling the operational aspects of an emergency, beginning with the contingency-planning stage. This cannot happen without the creation of an authority structure at Headquarters which will enable the sections concerned to work in close and harmonious cooperation with the relevant regional bureau. The establishment of the post of Assistant High Commissioner, with overall responsibility for operational matters, has been an important step towards addressing this structural problem at the senior management level. In addition, an essential element will be the creation, at field level, of a clear chain of command, with unambiguous roles and responsibilities. Proposals under Project Delphi, giving overall authority to directors of operations, will address this particular concern.

7. In view of the need for further discussion on these and related issues, the internal review recommended that a workshop be convened in order to examine the functioning of emergency management within the new organizational structure being set up as a result of the Delphi process. A review process has already begun and a workshop is scheduled for early in 1997.

B. Protection and Policy Issues

8. As noted in both of the earlier Conference Room Papers on this internal process to evaluate lessons learnt, emergency protection capacity has been identified as being one of the major weaknesses in the response to the Rwanda emergency. The exodus from Rwanda in 1994 presented UNHCR with a host of very serious protection problems, yet few of them were addressed in the early stages of the emergency. The refugee leadership was implicated in genocide, a situation of anarchy reigned in many of the camps and there was wide-spread intimidation and abuse of the rights of women and children. It should be recalled that the mid-1994 outflow from Rwanda into eastern Zaire involved the virtual transplantation of a political, social and security structure, a structure which survived intact with the support of the international community. Indeed, the control by former authorities over the general refugee population was reinforced in the early stages of the emergency by their involvement in commodity distribution. Reports submitted by the ERTs document the lack of sufficient senior protection staff in the area during the early stages of the operation. Protection problems were, as a result, inadequately dealt with and protection considerations were not given sufficient priority in the formulation of an overall policy, notably the issue of the exclusion of suspected violators of human rights.

9. Another serious weakness, despite UNHCR's long involvement in the countries of origin, was a lack of understanding of the social, cultural and political background of the refugees. A stronger protection presence in the field, combined with a better understanding of the refugees' background, would have had a number of beneficial effects, notwithstanding the extreme complexity of the problems involved. The protection needs of women and children would have been identified and addressed more swiftly, the search for credible interlocutors among the refugees would have been facilitated and the crucial switch from a food distribution system involving a frequently corrupt leadership to one more family-based could have been expedited. In particular, UNHCR would have been in a position to develop more rapidly a coherent policy to deal with the various disruptive forces active in the camps; these included former militia members, army contingents and government authorities many of whom may have been subject to the exclusion clause due to their involvement in the genocide. Finally, the viability of voluntary repatriation as a "quick solution" to the problem could have been more realistically assessed.

10. Considering the progress achieved in many technical areas of emergency response and the fact that protection is UNHCR's principal mandate, the lack of comparable advances in the field of protection demands urgent attention, especially as it had already been the subject of criticism in previous emergencies. The need for remedial action was raised in the early stages of the internal process to review the lessons learnt. While some efforts have been made to address this weakness, the review recommended that a strategy involving a variety of measures should be adopted without delay to ensure that the protection aspect of UNHCR's emergency response capacity is greatly strengthened.

11. In order to address this issue more comprehensively, UNHCR is now in the process of identifying measures to ensure the rapid deployment of suitably qualified protection staff in future emergency situations, particularly at the more senior level and to strengthen protection operations support to field protection staff. With regard to the general issue of exclusion, the Division of International Protection has recently issued internal guidelines on the application of the exclusion clauses. For practical guidance on dealing with excludable persons in refugee camps, the Division plans to develop in early 1997 concrete measures which may be taken in a range of possible scenarios as well as proposals for strategies to obtain the necessary international support.

C. Operational Issues

12. From the point of view of emergency assistance, a number of lessons can be drawn from the Great Lakes experience. Firstly, it is clear that UNHCR's emergency response capacity, spearheaded by the Emergency Preparedness and Response Section, the Programme and Technical Support Section and the Supply and Transport Section, and supported by stand-by agreements with fellow agencies, represents an important operational asset for UNHCR which should not only be maintained but further strengthened. The experience in the Great Lakes region demonstrated the soundness of the emergency response capacity which UNHCR had built up after the Gulf War and further consolidated as a result of experience gained in former Yugoslavia.

13. Nevertheless, certain weaknesses remain to be addressed. Two related technical sectors in which serious weaknesses were identified during the Burundi-Rwanda emergencies are logistics and telecommunications, both of which are fundamental to an effective operational response. These weaknesses point to the need for a particular focus on these areas, starting with the contingency planning phase, which should involve logistics and telecommunications surveys of the potential theatre of operations so that gaps can be addressed as part of the preparedness activities.

14. Another important lesson from the Great Lakes emergency operation is that emergency preparedness is a dynamic topic in a rapidly changing environment. It involves many sections within UNHCR and has increasingly important implications for inter-agency coordination. There is an urgent need to establish a framework for regular in-house consultation between the various players which will not only enhance preparedness but will also greatly improve effective cooperation between the sections concerned when an emergency occurs. The Great Lakes experience has shown how vitally important it is to establish good coordination right from the start of an emergency. UNHCR staff have the necessary knowledge and experience, and the ERT concept has proved to be the most effective way to get the right staff to the right place at the right time.

15. With respect to administration, it was found that efforts made by UNHCR in recent years to strengthen the administrative aspect of its emergency response capacity have been beneficial. The Guidelines for the Emergency Administrator were found to be of value and the early fielding of Senior Emergency Administrators (SEAs) and Emergency Finance and Administrative Assistants (EFAAs) proved to be of vital importance. It was found, however, that in major emergency operations, a sufficient number of senior administrators need to be deployed in order to cater not only to the establishment of new offices in emergency zones, but also to strengthen existing offices in the region and train new local staff.

16. As in previous emergencies, UNHCR had considerable difficulties in the Great Lakes region in finding sufficient experienced personnel to fill all vacant posts and replace ERT members upon the termination of their deployment to allow for sufficient overlap for briefing purposes. Too few senior staff members were willing to accept posts in remote and insecure duty stations. General service staff, who were able and willing to accept such posts, in some cases were prevented from doing so due to lack of seniority, and many newly-recruited staff members were insufficiently trained. This underscores the fact that while the ERT concept has been successful as such, the recruitment, training and deployment of staff for longer-term service in emergencies still requires further improvement. Additional efforts to enhance UNHCR's capacity to respond to emergency staffing needs, such as crash training programmes for new staff, career opportunities and rewards for general service staff who perform well in emergencies and additional incentives to induce senior staff to serve in emergencies, are recommended. The Division of Human Resources Management is currently reviewing these recommendations in the context of its continuing efforts to address the challenge of emergency staffing.

D. Conclusion

17. With the conclusion of the internal report on UNHCR's response to the Great Lakes emergencies, together with the concerted follow-up to its recommendations agreed by the Senior Management Committee on 12 December 1996, as well as UNHCR's involvement in the system-wide follow-up to the OECD/DAC evaluation, UNHCR feels that it has the necessary elements in place to further improve its response to refugee emergencies.