Without Security, Humanitarian Aid Risks Coming to a Standstill

USG for Security Portraits

Middle East, Ukraine, Sahel, Sudan, Chad, Haiti. There are many crisis zones. Humanitarian needs are increasing. Insecurity on the rise. And not enough resources.

It is in this context that Gilles Michaud, the United Nations Department for Safety and Security, and nearly 180,000 UN staff and 400,000 contractors work every day around the world to bring much-needed humanitarian aid to nearly 230 million people at risk in 70 countries in 2023.

While the motivation, commitment and optimism to see a safer world emerge are clear, the simultaneous and multiple crises call for a rethink of our global peacekeeping model.

Meeting with Gilles Michaud, Under-Secretary-General for Safety and Security of the United Nations

Interview by Mélanie Bénard-Crozat

Critical global situation

The situation in the Middle East and Ukraine is a major focus of attention for the United Nations Department of Safety and Security. “The Middle East is a complex crisis that particularly worries us. The impact of this conflict between the State of Israel and the Hamas movement could spread beyond the region, amplifying an already critical situation.” The UN called for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire, which was not obtained. But it also failed in its attempt to adopt a resolution calling for a truce. Despite that, “we remain committed. We have over 250 resources operating in the Gaza Strip, waiting for humanitarian aid to provide the necessary support to the local population. Nearly a million Palestinians are currently displaced from the north to the south. They lack food, drinking water, blankets, shelters, access to medical care…”

Southern Lebanon is also at a dangerous crossroads, with violent social repercussions. Add to this instability in Afghanistan, food insecurity in Somalia, armed conflicts in Ethiopia and Congo, unrest in Haiti… In the Sahel, the succession of military coups in Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso calls for great vigilance. “The UN is in a bad way. We need to work on the withdrawal of the MINUSMA,” while assuring the security of United Nations personnel after the withdrawal of the UN mission in Mali because “the United Nations will keep helping the Malian people through and with the government of Mali”, says the UN official calling for an institutional plan to set up a scheme to support the people of Mali.

In Somalia, the combination of the government’s offensive against al-Shabaab, with the support of bilateral governments and the withdrawal of the African Union forces, has led to a decline in peacekeeping capacity and “threatens the stability of security in Somalia for years to come,” warns Gilles Michaud.

In Sudan, a hotbed of permanent uncertainty for almost twenty years, it’s a powder keg that reawakens with every new coup. “The pressure exerted by Darfur on Chad is very strong. Refugees tell of ethnic massacres, clashes, daily violence, atrocities and displacement. On the ground, we meet basic humanitarian needs, as well as providing access to education for children. But what these people need is a sense of security to look forward to a possible future.”

Financing to Cope

All these problems fall under the authority of the UN, as do natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis… A series of crises that Gilles Michaud manages with a stagnating annual budget of US$300 million. “The need for humanitarian aid for populations in need is skyrocketing. Inflation is putting a strain on our budget. UN teams in the field take risks every day, but they can’t ignore the dangers they face,” says Gilles Michaud. Thus, for several months now, Gilles Michaud has been lobbying potential donor countries for special contributions to strengthen his teams, modernize technological tools and create a rapid response unit that can move at short notice to the world’s most at-risk areas, enabling UN teams to intervene more efficiently.

As a Canadian, he turned to the Maple Leaf country and other member States for an injection of US$15 million over two years to implement its reform program. For the time being, support from member states is not up to the challenge. 14% of the budget has only been reached for its project, while the UN plans to spend nearly US$52 billion on humanitarian support by 2023. Far from backing down in the face of adversity, the rapid response unit is already working in Jerusalem. “But any humanitarian program cannot be carried out without security. If it is no longer guaranteed, humanitarian aid risks coming to a standstill,” fears Gilles Michaud.

The Benefits of New Technologies

The success of the rapid action force, and more generally of UN-led missions, depends above all on anticipation. “We need to invest in new technologies and make the most of them. This includes tools for analyzing and contextualizing the data available today for a perspective of 3-5 years. These would be a valuable aid to informed decision-making. They would enable us to better plan, mobilize and allocate our resources, but also to adapt our approach in real time,” explains Gilles Michaud. Communication tools are also needed more than ever to ensure the fluidity of actions in the field.

Strengthen and Protect Humanitarian Resources

As soon as a new crisis breaks out, we have to call on resources already committed in one area to deploy them in the new hot spot. The situation is set to worsen if we add to the conflict situations the occurrence of natural episodes linked to global warming for instance. We therefore need to invest in recruiting and developing additional resources.”

A workforce that must also be protected to enable people to access much-needed aid. So, the man who used to put criminals in jail in his former life with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police must now “do business with them, because they have the power to grant access to our humanitarian partners.”

To this day, the UN’s work remains dangerous. “In recent years, the number of hostage-takings has increased 3-fold,” stresses Gilles Michaud before adding, “The UN is active in 125 countries, 40 of which are classified as high-risk areas.” Ensuring security “isn’t just about guards or fences, barricades and guns. It’s also about planning, analyzing the context, making sure we have the plans in place to be able to deliver the programs,” he adds.

Political Will for a Safer World

A firm optimist, Gilles Michaud calls for the respect of human rights and humanitarian law. “We need to strengthen humanitarian law and put greater pressure on governments to protect populations,” but also “to fight against disinformation and misinformation, which leads to the manipulation of populations and undermines the work of institutions such as the UN, to the benefit of groups whose motives are dangerous for global security.”

Reinventing the peacekeeping model and strengthening the UN’s mandate now seem unavoidable. But this will not happen without a collective, political and international response. “The increasing number of crises is not reassuring, but it in no way diminishes our motivation. When you’re out in the field, you’re struck by the extent to which people need the United Nations to help them. We have to take risks to save lives. We have a responsibility to protect people around the world. But also, to reinforce efforts to develop a stable and sustainable global security environment. We owe it to those who count on us. We have a duty to give them hope.”