CAIRO: Anne Cubilie, office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and Maher Nasser, director of UN Information Center in Cairo, held a joint seminar at the American University in Cairo on survivors of human rights atrocities and the role of the UN in the recent Lebanon crisis.
Cubilie approached the topic from a theoretical angle by presenting an essay on witnesses and survivors of human rights atrocities, including a case study on witness testimonials from female war victims in Afghanistan.
According to Cubilie, it is extremely important for victims of human rights atrocities to have their voices heard both in their own culture and in the international community.
Survivors of genocides and mass killings are stripped of their humanity and often become disenfranchised “living ghosts in their own communities, Cubilie argues. Their history and experiences tend to sometimes haunt the members of their own culture, which results in their own people avoiding their stories out of their own fear of being reminded of that awful episode in their own past.
Also, as spectators of atrocities that are heavily broadcasted in the press and media, it is easy to feel that “one already knows the story from the screen or from the paper, Cubilie continues.
This tendency of the general public can result in them forgetting about the actual witnesses and survivors of the event. Thus, we as spectators have the moral obligation of recognizing the survivors as human beings, each with their own personal stories.
In the fall of 2000 when the Taliban and Northern Alliance were still fighting fierce battles in Afghanistan, Cubilie traveled to the rural area of Badakhshan to speak to female survivors of the war, internally displaced persons and families of war victims.
Once the UN staff members were granted permission by the local commanders to speak to the people in Badakhshan, the women were very receptive to speak to the UN staff about their experiences during the war. Importantly, it was the first time for many of them to utter a word of their experiences during the war to anyone.
The most common question among the female war victims in Afghanistan was “why they had been forgotten about and why UN tanks didn’t come to save them.
Cubilie also stressed the importance of communicating basic information to the survivors of human rights atrocities in a clear manner.
The women in Afghanistan asked over and over “why they had been forgotten about and why no one came to help them, Cubilie says.
For example, while logistical problems are hard to understand for the victims, it might be the UN’s biggest obstacle to providing aid at times, especially to areas that are not easily accessible, she continues.
Following Cubilie’s presentation, Maher Nasser, director of the UN Information Center in Cairo since January 2006, spoke on the role of the UN in the recent Lebanon crisis.
It is important to remember that the crisis in Lebanon was a “crisis of protection and not a humanitarian crisis, Nasser argues. The people who lost their lives during the war were killed from bombs and shells, and not from hunger and disease, which are two of the main characteristics of a humanitarian crisis.
The UN acted in a quick manner in the crisis and immediately mobilized its agencies that were not present in Lebanon at the start of the war. In a matter of a few days, staff from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) arrived to help provide housing for the hundreds of thousands of displaced persons while representatives from the World Food Program (WFP) arranged food transports.
Members from the World Health Organization (WHO) and Unicef were also present in Lebanon providing medical and logistical help throughout the crisis. For example, UN staff provided all fuel transports to Lebanon, including the volatile southern region.
The UN served a protection function in Lebanon. “Our staff was witnessing the crisis, informed the media, which certainly had an effect on the world, Nasser argues.
Regarding selected damage, villages populated by Sunni Muslims or Christians have received very little damage in comparison to the Shiite villages, Nasser argues.
In the aftermath of the crisis, the UN is facing several challenges. One of the UN’s largest is the issue of leftover cluster munitions. Research conducted by the UN Mine Action Coordination Center shows that more than 520 sites in Lebanon were bombed with cluster munitions during the war.
Ninety percent of all cluster bombs used in Lebanon were dropped during the last three days following the UN cease-fire resolution, and each of them has a 30 to 40 percent chance of exploding.
The use of cluster bombs in Lebanon was heavily criticized by the international community during the crisis. Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, argued in an August press release that “the use of cluster munitions in or near civilian areas violates the ban on indiscriminate attacks, because these weapons cannot be directed at only military targets.
As a result, the leftover cluster bombs have paralyzed many areas in Lebanon. For example, in southern Lebanon, where 70 percent of the population relies on agriculture, most farm fields are inaccessible due to the risk of unexpected cluster bombs explosions.
Moreover, cluster bombs are often made in bright colors, which make them easily mistakable for toys. In Afghanistan, many children have died when picking up leftover cluster bombs thinking that it is a toy, Anne Cubilie adds.
In conclusion, Nasser argues that $1.1 trillion is spent on armaments in the world each year. The UN’s peacekeeping efforts amount to $5 billion. Thus, for every dollar spent on peacekeeping $200 is spent on armaments.
However, while many argue that there are more conflicts in the world today than before, Nasser believes that enhanced technology and new media outlets make the existing conflicts more accessible to the public.
“It is important to remember that the number of conflicts has not increased. New media and technology make the existing conflicts easily accessible to the general public, Nasser argues .