Q and A with Humanitarian Superstar, Jan Egeland

In all the policy analysis around the World Humanitarian Summit, one thing that often gets lost is the stakes of this meeting. With an unprecedented level of humanitarian emergencies going on around the world, real results are needed. UN Dispatch talked with Jan Egeland, the secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council and special advisor to the Syrian peace talks on the issue of humanitarian access and the protection of civilian. As one of the largest organizations in the world working on the issue of displacement, Egeland is in a great position to explain what needs to come out of the summit, as well as what needs to be done now.

What should be the focus of the summit?

Many things, obviously, but to me there needs to be more focus on the people we are not reaching today. Of course we need better methods and better systems for all of the tens of millions we are reaching. We can do better work for them.

But there are millions we are not reaching. So today, for example, we issued an urgent appeal for 50,000 civilian inside of Fallujah. Today is their day of survival, we hope. Today is the day where they may be caught in a crossfire that will take too many lives of families, women, children – the most vulnerable of civilians in Fallujah. We, the NRC, are outside Fallujah in several displacement camps where 80 families have been able to come, able to escape Fallujah which is under the control of the Islamic State. But there are 50,000 civilians inside. And there is really no one, no humanitarian agency, no real witnesses except the people themselves there.

I think they are very much the example how protection is failing on our watch. I see there being more a protection crisis than an assistance crisis. Since I became the [United Nations] emergency relief coordinator in 2003, we organized work differently. The response capacity for assistance became better. Water and sanitation at that time was very bad. I remember children dying massively in Darfur, Sudan because there were no latrines, there was no water. Mothers would see their children dying next to a mountain of food sacks. Now we save more, we assist many more people, malnutrition is down, morbidity is down in most emergencies. But we are not reaching people in too many places because armed groups are denying us, because parties are systematically violating humanitarian law, and because governments are not helping us. So the bitter reality is that millions of people, hundreds of thousands of the most vulnerable are all on their own.

So today and yesterday I was speaking at these events where we push three P’s. First, protection. Second, humanitarian principles. We have a right and obligation to be where people need us the most and we need to be respected as impartial and neutral. We are not a party to this conflict. We are supposed to be in the middle of the conflict areas to help civilians. And thirdly, proximity. We need to be closer to those who need us the most. Too many organizations are not able to deploy to the deep field, where the needs are greatest. It is costly to do that, you need very trained people. My organization, we have maybe 40 to 50 people to just doing risk management, just to get our people to remote places in Afghanistan and areas that may be controlled by opposition groups.

And we need, finally to have donors, governments, everyone to understand that we are not part of any counterterrorism policy or counter violent extremism policies or any other policies that are deemed to be political or strategic or military. This is also routinely misunderstood by many. We need to be in areas where terrorist groups are in control. If we are not there, as we fail in many places because it is too dangerous, we are failing the civilians. Under the Islamic State, 5 to 7 million people live, including until today the people of Fallujah. Fallujah was a place where we were not able to go. We are not in Fallujah and the 50,000 people there maybe lose their lives because there are no witnesses, no one is there among them.


What are your expectations of the Summit? Given ongoing targeting of civilians, do you expect any real progress to happen here?

What happened this year is that it [the targeting of civilians] was lifted up to the Security Council level, that these last two years we haven’t seen such a deliberate targeting of hospitals, doctors, teachers and schools since the genocides of the mid-1990s. That was a period when I was in the Balkans and Central Africa. That was a period where they tried their utmost to kill civilians and to kill those who helped civilians. So we seem to be back to those dark days.

And I hear a lot of politicians saying they understand it, but I haven’t really seen that much progress. Hospitals were bombed in Syria in the last 48 hours, again. It is routine throughout this war that breadlines, schools, hospitals have been targeted. And it seems to be an effort to totally demoralize the other side, in contravention of international humanitarian law. So I hope things will happen but it is one thing to discuss it in Istanbul in a nice venue like this and it is another to get the armed men to change behavior.

What is your response to the most recent hospital bombing in Syria yesterday?

I’m outraged about what happened yesterday. The World Health Organization issued a strong statement this morning on that. Our colleagues in ICRC and MSF have said it’s unprecedented what has happened with the medical facilities in Syria. The notion seems to be that the doctor of my enemy is my enemy. Well it’s wrong. The doctor of my enemy is doing his job. Because wounded people, whether they are civilian or even combatants, are protected people. It’s one of the basic tenants of humanitarian law. It’s one of the few things we have been able to achieve at least 150 years of humanitarian law since the battle of Solferino which led to the start of the International Committee of the Red Cross. So we back to zero now in Syria and I’m outraged.

Who should act? The sponsors of the parties. So I can not understand that they continue sending arms, supplies, money to their side and the men and the divisions and the brigades and the militias and the armed groups that are doing those things.

Are negotiations on humanitarian principles and access with terrorist groups like the Islamic State possible given that even the UN has declared them to be a terrorist organization?

As a humanitarian I understand that some governments and the UN feels that they need to declare certain groups and organizations terrorists, and they have criteria for that. What I hope is they understand that I, as a humanitarian, need to talk to whoever is in control of civilian populations and I am willing to speak to anybody if it leads me to help the people who are in dire need in conflict areas– including the so-called terrorist organizations. We need to be able to speak to these people. The Islamic State has been a particular challenge because it has been very hard to get interlocutors into these areas. Many of us organizations who have worked in these areas have had many problems.

There seems to be a disconnect between how the lack of services for IDPs will eventually lead them to leave and become refugees. What explains this disconnect and what can be done to address it?

I think it is related to the point that the internally displaced in conflict areas  – Syria, Iraq, Yemen, northeastern Nigeria where we are also active – they are very hard to reach, it is very difficult to work there and it results in little attention. Also we, as the international community, ask for three times as much money for a refugee outside of Syria as we do for each displaced person inside Syria. And if anything I would say that the people inside Syria are in an impossibly worse situation even then the refugees outside. So we need to do much more closer to people’s homes, at the same time as we need to keep borders open.

I was able to throw in a final word at [yesterday’s] roundtable on displacement. I think I was the only one who said borders must be kept open. Borders are now not open. Borders are closing in the north of Europe, through Europe, around Europe, but also with governors in the United States, Gulf countries… Everybody is closing their borders really.

So the point is the internally displaced have no place to leave to, they cannot go out of their country, they cannot go to other countries and we have a very hard time getting enough resources to help them and to be able to reach them all inside the chaos where they are.

How do you feel about the commitments that have been made at the summit so far?

The commitments are great, most of them. I like the commitment that we would all do more to prevent violent conflict. The NRC documents the number of displaced in the world. We issued a report that found for the first time there is more than 40 million internally displaced. It was always below that number. Which means along with the refugees that UNHCR will document, it will be well over the famous 60 million figure, that is already a year old.

Nothing would lower this number more better than the end of violent conflict and the catastrophic failure of diplomats and politicians to prevent conflict and to settle conflict is the root of all of this. And I hear them all talking about that all the time, which is good. But conflict in Syria will not end tomorrow, nor in Iraq, nor in many other places. So in the meantime, we need to be better at keeping people alive through humanitarian relief.

Want to hear more from Jan Egeland? He came on the Global Dispatches podcast last year to discuss how he first become interested in global humanitarian issues.