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Note on Safety of UNHCR Staff

Executive Committee Meetings

Note on Safety of UNHCR Staff

25 May 1998



1. The safety and security of UNHCR's staff continues to have the highest priority on the High Commissioner's agenda and within the Office as a whole. The killings, arrests, illegal detentions and of late, kidnapping of staff, continue to be the causes of grave concern. In the past year the High Commissioner has been in the forefront of efforts to address the issue of the security and safety of staff. These initiatives have resulted in action by the high-level meeting of the Consultative Committee on Administrative Questions (CCAQ) held on 9 February 1998, the ad hoc Inter-Agency meeting on security held on 17 to 19 March 1998 and the Administrative Committee on Coordination (ACC), which was also in March 1998.

2. The ACC, in endorsing the reports of the high-level meeting of the CCAQ and the ad hoc Inter-Agency meeting on security, reiterated the importance which it attaches to the issue of staff safety and security and reaffirmed once again its commitment to improve the security of staff members of the United Nations system.

3. The measures recommended by the ACC are broad in scope and their implementation will much improve the security and safety of staff in the field. It will also demonstrate that the Organization is fully committed to ensuring that staff operate in the safest possible conditions


4. The General Assembly, at its fifty-first and fifty-second sessions, adopted a number of resolutions (51/227, 52/126 and 52/167) regarding the need to respect the privileges and immunities of officials of the United Nations and the specialized agencies and related organizations, the protection of United Nations personnel and the safety and security of humanitarian personnel.

5. The kidnapping of the UNHCR Representative in Vladikavkaz, Vincent Cochetel, on 29 January 1998, marked a further serious deterioration in the security and safety conditions under which field staff often work. The abduction highlighted yet again the risks under which humanitarian personnel continue to try to fulfil their mandate, even in the most difficult of conditions. More than 100 days have now elapsed since the kidnapping and, as of 25 May, Mr. Cochetel is still held captive, despite interventions at the highest levels of Government. Diverse efforts to effect his release continue, but at the time of this report they had not been successful.

6. The General Assembly, in adopting resolutions 52/126 and 52/167 without a vote, clearly demonstrated its deep concern for the security and safety of humanitarian personnel. In doing so it called on all Governments and parties in countries where humanitarian personnel are operating to take all possible measures to ensure that the lives and well-being of humanitarian personnel are respected and protected.

7. There are a number of legal instruments under which the security and safety of officials of the United Nations system is guaranteed. These include the Charter of the Organization (Articles 100 and 105); the Convention on Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations; the Convention on Privileges and Immunities of the Specialized Agencies; the United Nations Development Programme Standard Basic Assistance Agreements and the Convention on the Safety of United Nations and Associated Personnel. Nonetheless, the security and safety of staff is still perilous in many areas of UNHCR operations.

8. In reviewing those countries where staff are seen to be most at risk, and in trying to analyse the reasons for this insecurity, one may ask whether or not the local authorities are aware of the range of legal protections under which United Nations staff work. In some countries, an accessibly packaged awareness programme on legal protections clearly would be useful. Certainly seminars for top government, senior police and military personnel, at both the national and local levels, could be conducted, re-emphasizing the importance the Office attaches to the safety and security of its staff.

9. Conditions in a number of UNHCR's areas of operations are such that the rule of law either does not apply or is applied in such a way that it increases the risks under which humanitarian personnel have to operate. In these circumstances, staff are subjected to stressful conditions on a continuous basis and the risk of cumulative stress disorders is very high.

10. The system-wide arrangements for the security and safety of staff in the field, as developed by UNSECOORD and detailed in the Field Security Handbook, are very comprehensive. In particular, the concept of the Designated Official (DO) and the Security Management Team (SMT), working together to further the security of staff, has been shown to be very effective, not only in times of crises, but also in the day-to-day management of the country security plan. Ideally, they will have participated in the preparation of such plans.

11. Included in the system-wide arrangements, and also detailed in the Field Security Handbook, is the concept of the Field Security Officer/Field Security Adviser. The Field Security Officer (FSO) is responsible for all physical measures related to crisis readiness and prevention at the duty station and is directly accountable to the DO. Further, the FSO is required to establish and develop excellent liaison relations, not only with national military and law enforcement agencies, but also with senior elements of local civilian authorities. Experience has shown that at those duty stations where good liaison relations exist, the security and safety of staff are significantly improved.

12. Field Security Advisers are also available in the United Nations system. At those locations where there is no full-time security officer, and in order to provide the DO, and others concerned, with on-the-spot advice, professional field security advisers may be designated by the United Nations Security Coordinator. The field security advisers will also visit field offices either on missions initiated by the United Nations Security Coordinator or at the request of the DO, to assess security requirements, or to provide support when necessary.

13. The security and safety of local staff is an issue of ever greater concern. In those areas of operations where the nature of the emergency has made it necessary to provide assistance over an extended period, local staff of United Nations offices may well be the most regular wage earners. As such, they and their families are more likely to be the victims of criminal activity. However, for those in high profile or sensitive posts, there is the additional risk of being targeted by more official elements in the local community, to provide intelligence information, amongst other things. Thus, protection and rehabilitation staff, as well as administrative, finance and personnel staff, may find themselves being approached to provide either information or jobs. Recent experience has shown that it is not only those in high profile or sensitive posts who may be at risk. Drivers, because of the fact that they are sometimes witness to events which may embarrass local officials, are also likely to become the focus of unwanted attention. The risks to local staff who have been arrested are considerable, and no effort should be spared in trying to establish access to them as soon as possible. This will, sometimes, require action at the local and national levels, and even from the entire common system of the United Nations.


14. UNHCR has unilaterally implemented two training vehicles targeted at improving the security of staff members. The first of these was a one-week Train the Trainers course, attended by all UNHCR Field Staff Safety Advisors (FSSAs), training them to teach the United Nations system Security Awareness training package. It is felt that giving the FSSAs these skills will significantly increase the number of training opportunities for humanitarian staff in the highest risk duty stations, notably those where UNHCR has posted FSSAs (the Great Lakes region of Africa, the former Yugoslavia and eastern Europe).

15. In addition, the High Commissioner has directed that prior to the end of 1998 all current and prospective Representatives and other senior officials will receive training on how to manage security for staff outside of capital cities. This two-day training programme, which covers the essentials of Security Management, is directed at senior managers who have staff in isolated areas. One session of this course has already been conducted in Mexico, and two others, one in Dubai and one in Bangkok, are scheduled for mid-June.

16. In addition to the two new training programmes mentioned above, UNHCR continues to provide a half-day security training session for all new staff at UNHCR, and is expanding security training for members of the Emergency Response Teams (ERT). The ERT training now consists of lectures and discussions, and a half-day field simulation exercise. In addition, and when possible, ERT members assigned to a mission are given a country-specific security briefing immediately prior to deployment.

17. Also, effective 1 January 1998, UNHCR extended Malicious Acts Insurance coverage on a 24 hour basis to local staff. This extended coverage was adopted by the United Nations common system on 1 April 1998, following the recommendation of the ACC at its meeting on 26 March in Geneva.

18. For the United Nations system in its entirety, the ACC has recommended a number of enhancements for staff security that are currently being studied and/or implemented by UNHCR. These are outlined briefly below.

A. Implementation within each organization of a single budget line/chapter to fund security expenditures

19. Human resources management, security and finance staff members are in the process of researching the most effective way to implement this recommendation.

B. Security training, on a mandatory basis, for all staff members at high-risk duty stations

20. UNHCR feels that the two UNHCR specific training programmes mentioned above are complimentary to this recommendation for security training, which will be administered by UNSECOORD. The latter is in the process of establishing training teams which will be deployed to all high-risk duty stations. Funding will be on a cost-shared basis amongst organizations and calculated on ACC personnel statistics for staff at these duty stations.

C. Establishment of a working group to review the operational capabilities of Field Security Officers

21. This working group is scheduled to meet in New York in late May 1998 under the chairmanship of UNSECOORD. It is expected that UNHCR, with its wide-ranging experience in the area of field staff security, will be a substantial contributor to this Working Group.

D. Establishment of Minimum Operational Security Standards (MOSS)

22. This recommendation by the ACC is one which must be urgently addressed, particularly by the front-line agencies - UNICEF, WFP and UNHCR - in close consultation with UNSECOORD. Experience in the field has shown that there is a great diversity of opinion on how the MOSS standards might best be defined, bearing in mind the need to be responsive to caseloads that, in many cases, have been abandoned by all but the humanitarian agencies. Achieving a balance between the need for responsiveness and the need to minimize the risks involved, particularly in those areas where law and order has broken down, and having this balance accepted by all the players on the humanitarian stage, will require great understanding on the part of all concerned.

E. Institution of security measures with regard to ensuring the security of locally recruited staff

23. UNHCR fully supports the existing policy outlined in the Field Security Handbook which deals with matters relative to the security of locally recruited staff. The Office is continuing measures started several years ago to integrate national staff into warden systems, to develop security planning activities, and to identify concentration points and relocation points. Steps have also been taken to ensure that those measures relative to financial assistance for locally recruited staff can be quickly and fully implemented, in the event of the sudden onset of problems requiring the temporary suspension of programmes and/or the evacuation or relocation of staff.

F. Establishment of a security trust fund by UNSECOORD

24. Despite the goodwill and understanding of all concerned, the implementation of urgently needed staff security measures continues to suffer from a chronic shortage of readily available funds. The approval by the ACC of the establishment of a security trust fund to supplement existing security funding mechanisms is timely. UNHCR will play its part in ensuring that member States are advised of the existence of this fund, and the need to make contributions to it.


25. In a number of areas of operations the arrest and detention of staff continues. In some cases access to them has been denied for various periods of time. In one still outstanding case, it has not been possible to visit the staff member despite the fact that he has been under arrest since 18 April 1998 and no charges have been brought against him. In fact, on 25 April 1998, advice was received that the staff member had been cleared from "any allegation" and would be released soon. At this time, despite repeated assurances about imminent release and interventions at the highest levels, the staff member is still incarcerated.

26. The ACC has considered the legal aspects of staff safety and referred the matter to the senior legal advisers in the United Nations system. These advisors met in Washington in January 1998. The ACC endorsed the conclusions of their meeting and requested them to continue to address the linkage between the physical safety of staff and the legal protection afforded by the various instruments dealing with privileges and immunities.


27. In reviewing the security and safety conditions in UNHCR's areas of operations, particularly in high-risk areas, such as those where the Malicious Acts Insurance Policy applies, there seems to be very little reason for hope that these country situations on the ground might quickly improve.

28. The staff of humanitarian agencies in many locations are working in circumstances and conditions where military or police commanders would be reluctant to deploy their personnel. The ongoing courage of humanitarian staff is well documented. They seldom, if ever, leave their charges until conditions on the ground become totally untenable. If the security of these brave people is to be guaranteed to the fullest extent possible, there is an urgent need to maximize the use of all possible assets, including funding, legal instruments, training, provision of all necessary equipment, advocacy at all levels, stress reduction techniques, increased staffing levels and enhanced inter-agency cooperation.

29. The office of the United Nations Security Coordinator (UNSECOORD) has continuously demonstrated the level of leadership and professionalism necessary to deal with the many crises that have erupted in the past. It should be acknowledged that their record of success is outstanding. UNHCR regards strengthening the role of UNSECOORD as critical to the process of ensuring the security and safety of United Nations staff in the future. With UNSECOORD's expertise and coordination capability, the maximum use of the assets mentioned above and the development of a set of minimum operational security standards to which all agencies agree, the risks inherent in providing humanitarian assistance can be managed effectively.