Humanitarian disasters can occur anywhere and at any time. No matter what the cause a flood, a drought, an earthquake or a conflict a humanitarian disaster means lost lives, displaced populations, communities incapable of sustaining themselves and great suffering.
In the face of disaster, the UN family of organizations supplies food, shelter, medicines and logistical support to the victims, most of them children, women and the elderly.
To pay for this assistance and deliver it to those in need, the United Nations has raised billions of dollars from international donors. During 1999, combined UN appeals raised more than $1.4 billion for emergency humanitarian assistance to some 26 million people. In 19971998, the UN assisted more than 51 Member States in their efforts to cope with more than 77 natural disasters and environmental emergencies.
Providing humanitarian assistance requires that the United Nations overcome major logistical and security constraints in the field. Reaching affected areas can itself be a major obstacle. In recent years, many crises have been aggravated by an erosion of respect for human rights. Humanitarian workers have been denied access to people in need, and warring parties have deliberately targeted civilians and aid workers. Since 1992, more than 180 UN civilian staff members have been killed and 178 taken hostage while serving in humanitarian operations worldwide. In efforts to prevent human rights violations in the midst of crisis, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has played an increasingly active role in the UN response to emergencies.
The UN coordinates its response to humanitarian crises through a committee of all the key humanitarian bodies, chaired by the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator. Members include the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Other UN agencies are also represented, as are the major nongovernmental and intergovernmental humanitarian organizations, such as the Red Cross.
The UN Emergency Relief Coordinator is responsible for developing policy for humanitarian action and for promoting humanitarian issues, helping raise awareness, for example, of the consequences of the proliferation of small arms or the humanitarian effects of sanctions.
People who have fled war, persecution or human rights abuse refugees and displaced persons are assisted by UNHCR. In 1999, there were some 22 million people of concern to UNHCR. The agency's largest operations were in western Asia (some 2.6 million Afghan refugees), the former Yugoslavia (some 1 million people in need) and the Great Lakes region of Africa, with some half million refugees.
Emergency food assistance is provided by WFP, which regularly supplies up to two thirds of world requirements. In 1999, WFP helped feed more than 86 million people in 82 countries around the world.
War and civil strife have separated an estimated 1 million children from their parents over the past 10 years, made 12 million more homeless and left 10 million severely traumatized. UNICEF seeks to meet the needs of these children by supplying food, safe water, medicine and shelter. UNICEF has also pioneered the concept of "children as zones of peace" and created "days of tranquillity" and "corridors of peace" to help protect children in war and provide them with essential services.
Disaster prevention and preparedness are also part of UN humanitarian action. In 1998, for example, UNDP established national capacitybuilding programmes for disaster management in 11 countries. When disasters occur, UNDP coordinates relief work at the local level.
UNDP also helps ensure that emergency relief contributes to recovery and longerterm development. In countries undergoing extended emergencies or recovering from conflict, humanitarian assistance is increasingly seen as part of an overall peacebuilding effort along with developmental, political and financial assistance. Palestine refugees
Relief work for Palestine refugees has been carried out since 1949 by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Today, the Agency provides essential health, education, relief and social services to more than 3.6 million registered Palestine refugees in the Middle East. A UN Coordinator oversees all development assistance provided by the UN system to the Palestinian people in Gaza and the West Bank. Office of the Iraq Programme
In 1996, pending fulfilment by Iraq of a number of Security Council resolutions, Iraq and the United Nations agreed on an "oilforfood programme" to alleviate the humanitarian impact of comprehensive sanctions imposed against the country in 1990. The Office of the Iraq Programme was established in 1997 to consolidate management of the programme which includes the sale of Iraq oil, processing of contracts between Iraq and its suppliers for the purchase of humanitarian supplies and observation of Iraq's distribution of those supplies.