High Commissioner’s statement to the United Nations Security Council
Thank you, Mr President,
Our latest figures speak of 114 million refugees and displaced people around the world: 114 million!
This is surely a tangible but sometimes neglected symptom of the world’s current extreme disorder, and including this yearly discussion in your charged agenda, especially these days, is consistent with Brazil’s commendable attention for the plight of the uprooted, for which I thank you.
Forced displacement is also a consequence of the failure to uphold peace and security. And brutal conflict continues to be its main driver. The past three weeks have provided devastating proof that disregarding the basic rules of war – international humanitarian law – is increasingly becoming the norm and not the exception, with innocent civilians killed in unprecedented numbers: in the Hamas attacks on Israeli civilians and in the killing of Palestinian civilians and massive destruction of infrastructure caused by the ongoing Israeli military operation. As we speak, and as you know, over two million Gazans, half of them children, are going through what my colleague Philippe Lazzarini has called “hell on earth”. A humanitarian ceasefire coupled of course with substantive delivery of humanitarian aid inside Gaza can at least stop this spiral of death and I hope that you will overcome your divisions and exercise your authority in demanding one – the world is waiting for you to do so.
But one must hope that a ceasefire becomes the first step towards embarking again – finally! – on the path towards a solution. Over many years, including those in which I headed UNRWA, I have observed how solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was always described as ‘elusive’: but it has not been elusive; it has been repeatedly and deliberately neglected, cast aside as something no longer necessary, and almost ridiculed. Dealing with the chronic resurgence of violence, followed by temporary ceasefires, was deemed more expedient than focusing on a real peace; one able to provide Israelis and Palestinians with the rights, recognition, security, and statehood that they deserve. I hope that now, amidst the horrors of war, we can at least see how grave a miscalculation that has been. There will be no peace in the region, and in the world, without a just solution to the Israeli and Palestinian conflict, including the end of the Israeli occupation. I hope that the remarks by the Secretary-General here in the Council last week will help everybody reflect on the need to turn this somber page, difficult as it may be: because it is vital.
And the opposite is deeply troubling. While UNHCR does not have a mandate to operate in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (and let me pay tribute here especially to UNRWA, my former organization, and other humanitarian staff for their heroic work, and express my deepest condolences for the now 67 colleagues who have been killed), it is clear that this latest and deadliest round of violent conflict risks infecting the wider region and beyond with catastrophic consequences – including in places where UNHCR is very much present and working to help protect and assist the displaced and solve their plight.
The conflict in Gaza is the latest – and perhaps largest – piece of a most dangerous jigsaw of war that is rapidly closing in around us.
But we – you – have the responsibility to remember that it Is not the only one.
Look at Sudan: just six months ago governments and media were very focused on this situation as their citizens were being extracted from a war that erupted without warning and turned previously peaceful Sudanese homes into cemeteries. Now, fighting is growing in scope and brutality, affecting the people of Sudan, and the world is scandalously silent, though violations of international humanitarian law persist with impunity. It is shameful that the atrocities committed 20 years ago in Darfur can be happening again today with such little attention. As a result, almost six million people have been forced from their homes; more than a million have fled to neighbouring and often fragile countries – and some of them have already moved on to Libya and Tunisia, and are crossing the Mediterranean on flimsy boats towards Italy and the rest of Europe. I welcome the resumption of the Jeddah talks – and hope they will help at least reach a ceasefire soon.
Look at Lebanon – reeling from economic collapse in a country where one in four people is a Palestinian or Syrian refugee – a concrete symptom of not one but two unresolved conflicts at this tiny country’s borders.
Look at the Central Sahel, where amongst grave political instability the brutal violence which has terrorised civilians for years is rising again, increasingly driving people to Africa’s coastal states, which are rightly very concerned, against the background of a climate emergency that is relentlessly wreaking havoc across the poorest countries.
Look at the Democratic Republic of Congo, where one of the worst effects of modern conflict – horrifying violence against women – is so widespread as a tool of war to make the world almost numb to the reports received every day of more women and children raped, exploited, and killed – violence that drives people from their homes every day.
Look at Armenia, where 100,000 refugees fled Karabakh in a matter of days; the result of yet another unresolved conflict that had been allowed to simmer for decades.
Look at places like Central America and elsewhere, where we observe growing patterns of unresolved crises compounded by criminality, including by gangs that cause displacement – and where increasingly complex population flows now include also many arriving from Africa and beyond – a testimony to the globality of displacement and despair.
Each new crisis seems to push the previous ones into dangerous oblivion. But they stay with us. Look at Ukraine, where the plight of all civilians – including more than 11 million people forced from their homes following the Russian invasion – continues and is particularly acute now, as winter sets in again, as you have just heard. Their suffering must not be forgotten and this conflict, too, must be resolved with a just peace for the people of Ukraine.
Look at all these crises, Mr President. And let this lifelong humanitarian worker tell you that we need your voice to address each one of them. Not your voices. Your voice. Your strong, united voice, carrying the authority which the Charter vests in this Council, but which the world does not hear any more, drowned as it is in rivalries and divisions. From where I sit, this has become difficult to understand. As a believer in multilateralism, and in the role of the United Nations, I simply cannot accept it.
Humanitarians are being asked to pick up the pieces and help more people in more places. We are asked to keep going for longer and to try to hold more things together, while little political capital is spent on making peace.
Please rest assured that we won’t give up, even when it is difficult. Recognising the extraordinary burden represented by millions of Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries, for example, we continue to work with the Government of Syria in bridging the still wide gap of trust and creating conditions for refugees to eventually return voluntarily, in safety and in dignity.
This is why it is frustrating when we find windows for solutions, like for example in Burundi, and we do not have the funds to help people return home and restart their lives.
And there are different challenges as well – also a reflection of our unstable world: for example, in countries like Myanmar, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, where the combination of conflict, human rights violations and humanitarian challenges mean that delivering aid – indispensable to save lives – requires interaction with de facto authorities in fraught and often dangerous political contexts.
I appreciate the risks, and also the work done by the Council on humanitarian carve-outs, which I hope will continue. Because in these situations we need flexibility – from those in control of the territory first and foremost, but also from our supporters. The reality is that humanitarians are trying to pick up the pieces of the jigsaw also in these places – places where most governments find it too difficult to operate. We are engaging and therefore we are exposed. But we persist because the people cannot wait for a peace that is not pursued.
And on top of this, we are being asked to do more with less. Forgive me if I talk money – but I must, because humanitarian work needs resources. UNHCR alone urgently needs US$600 million before the end of the year, and prospects for next year are dismal, with big donors cutting aid and others – who could help – not engaging in multilateral support. UNRWA – whose crucial role is now clear to all – has been left chronically underfunded. The World Food Programme, UNICEF, and the International Committee of the Red Cross all face the same financial crunch in their humanitarian activities.
So we prioritise and reprioritise.
We cut rations, shelter, staff, hoping to maintain a lifeline to those in need. But in many places that lifeline is becoming thinner by the day.
Being alone, being exposed, being short of resources make me wonder for how much longer we can continue. Humanitarians are tough – but humanitarians, Mr President, are near breaking point. And what will you be left with, when they have to go?
The gravity of this moment cannot be overstated. The choices that the 15 of you make – or fail to make – will mark us all; and for generations to come.
Will you continue to allow this jigsaw of war to be completed by aggressive acts, by your disunity, or by sheer neglect?
Or will you take the courageous and necessary steps back from the abyss?