Global Policy Forum

Security Council Consultation with Humanitarian NGOs


12 February 1997

On the morning of 12 February 1997, three NGOs gave an unprecedented briefing to members of the Security Council on the crisis in the Great Lakes Region of Africa. Oxfam, CARE and Medecins Sans Frontií¨res\Doctors Without Borders gave the briefing because of their deep involvement in humanitarian assistance to the war-torn region. The International Committee for the Red Cross also participated.

In this first-ever consultation with NGOs, the Security Council acted informally and according to a newly-devised arrangement known as the "Somavia formula" to enable NGOs with an active participation in conflict areas to brief the council. Following this formula, a variant of the Council's Arria Formula, the briefing did not take place in the Security Council chamber, but rather in another conference room at UN headquarters. The meeting was chaired by Yashushi Akashi, head of the Department of Humanitarian Affairs.

Amb. Juan Somavia of Chile, one of the Council's elected members and a longtime friend of NGOs, proposed the initiative, in which the council agreed to participate along with several other concerned UN policy bodies -- the Bureau (officers) of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and the bureaus of the General Assembly's Second and Third Committees. The process had its roots in earlier efforts of the Chilean ambassador. He has worked to create a dialogue with NGOs ever since he joined the council in January 1996. In April 1996, while serving as council President, Somavia spoke to a public meeting of the NGO Working Group on the Security Council on "Civil Society and the Security Council." In June he delivered the annual Gilbert Murray lecture at Oxfam in Oxford, England, on "The Humanitarian Responsibilities of the United Nations Security Council" in which he called for the Security Council to develop "a regular 'consultative window' through which to engage outside actors." In the fall he hosted a round table at the Chilean mission on UN humanitarian reform, bringing together humanitarian NGOs and UN delegates, including Security Council members.

At the historic 12 February briefing, David Breyer, Director of Oxfam UK, led the Oxfam delegation, while Dr. Jacques De Milliano, MSF President, led the delegation of Medecins sans Frontií¨res. Marc Lindenberg, Senior Vice President of CARE USA led the CARE delegation. About a dozen people participated from the NGO side, including several who had come specially from field operations in Africa. The meeting was attended by 27 delegations of member states, including the council's 15 members and 12 others from the bureaus. Secretariat staff also participated.

Amb. Somavia afterwards told Agence France Presse that he hoped for further such sessions because "the Security Council has to be informed as widely as possible" on complex peace and security issues.

After the briefing, the three humanitarian agencies held a joint press conference in which they "welcomed the historic opportunity." But they had strong words to say about the situation in Africa's Great Lakes region and the lack of response from the Security Council. They stated that: Since the beginning of the genocide in 1994 in Rwanda, the Security Council has consistently failed to abide by the Geneva Conventions and to take action to address the underlying causes of the conflict and to help find political solutions in the region. Humanitarian action has been used as a substitute for political action. Oxfam Director David Bryer said bluntly that during the past three years "we felt sometimes that we were a fig leaf" to cover the political inaction of the UN and its member states. The humanitarian agencies called for strong action to return the region to peace, including diplomatic and financial support, so that populations and aid workers could enjoy physical safety and security. In a joint statement, the NGOs said that: Aid agencies cannot solve these problems with biscuits, vaccines and water. People will continue to die and the war will continue to spread throughout the region unless the UN Security Council, member states and regional leaders take decisive action. Paul McCarthy of CARE Canada, one of those who attended the session, said that while council members expressed agreement that "a political resolution is required" for the Great Lakes crisis, the eventual outcome remained uncertain. "Whether they will go beyond platitudes I don't know," McCarthy said.

The meeting and the subsequent NGO statements were well-covered by the press, including such major outlets as the BBC, Agence France Press, The Guardian and the New York Times.

The Secretary General called for action on the crisis at a new conference the following day and the council passed a resolution shortly afterwards. But diplomats agreed that no substantial action would be envisaged "until France and the United States decide to move." The US Congress and the Clinton administration have been unwilling to spend funds on Security Council peacekeeping and other operations since the crisis exploded -- a factor widely blamed for the Council's inaction. On several occasions, former UN Secretary General Boutros-Ghali suggested peacekeeping missions, but due to US pressure the council regularly turned him down.

Whatever the outcome in this particular crisis, the meeting marks a turning point in the history of the Security Council and of the United Nations. While NGOs have long been active within the Economic and Social Council and also in relation to the General Assembly, the Security Council has kept them at a great distance. As recently as December 1996, the council rebuffed an NGO request for briefings. Few would then have predicted they would soon see a press release of the UN Department of Public information announcing that NGOs had "briefed the United Nations Security Council."

The 13 February meeting set in motion a series of innovations that opened up communication between NGOs and this high-level states-only conclave. Great credit is due to Amb. Somavia for leading this quiet revolution in international affairs. Nevertheless, there developed strong opposition to the "Somavia Initiative" both inside and outside the Council and the formula has not been used again. The next effort at NGO-Council consultation was undertaken by the Portugese in September 1997, using an arrangement that was closer to the classic Arria formula.

The Council continues to wrangle over whether consultations or briefings with NGOs should take place, and the answer has not been agreed. But Amb. Somavia's leadership and his initiative advanced the issue a long way. Even if the "Somavia Formula" is dead, the "Somavia Initiative" for NGO-Council dialogue is very much alive.

J. Paul


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