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Strengthening the Global Response to Humanitarian Crises

Emergencies, Poverty, Governance, Speeches, Africa, Central African Republic, Ireland, Global, 2014


Thank you for your kind introduction and words of welcome.


As we gather today on the 20th Anniversary of the Rwanda Genocide, please allow me to state at the outset, that my presence here is intended to signify the Irish government’s commitment to working closely with you as our partners to continue to learn the lessons from the failures of the humanitarian response to Rwanda in 1994 in order to strengthen the global response to humanitarian crises.

Never has this been more important as we face multiple, severe humanitarian crises threatening or affecting the lives of millions of people across the globe. As you know only too well, we are collectively responding to three, unprecedented ‘Level Three’ emergencies in Syria, Central African Republic and South Sudan, the most serious humanitarian crisis categorisation of the United Nations. Crises of this scale continue to overwhelm the humanitarian response system.


I have to start by saying that I have very vivid memories of Africa in April 1994. That month, I, along with the rest of the world, keenly watched images and reports from South Africa. There was tremendous excitement in the lead up to the first democratic elections in South Africa in which citizens of all races were allowed to take part.  

On Polling Day, April 27th, despite threats of violence, logistical challenges and administrative blunders, a celebratory mood dominated throughout South Africa. White and black made friends in the mile-long queues, waiting patiently from dawn to dusk, swapping stories and bottles of refreshments until they could cast their votes for a new future. It was as if there was never a more exciting place to be or a more vital time to be alive.

As these buoyant images of from South Africa filled our TV sets, very different pictures began to stream in from Rwanda, a country less familiar to us at that time  ––  images of slaughter, destruction and a mass movement of people.

The International community was apparently unable to stop the horrible events unfolding on the ground and the consequences of failing to heed the warning signs had, as we now know, devastating consequences.

Well firstly, we must never forget. And secondly, we must learn from the past and continuously adapt and change our policies, our practices and our behaviours so that we are better prepared to anticipate, prevent and respond to crises.

During the approximate 100 day period from April 7th to mid-July1994, an estimated eight hundred thousand Rwandans were killed. Over two million fled to neighbouring countries and half as many became internally displaced within Rwanda. Large numbers were physically and psychologically afflicted for life through maiming, rape and other trauma.

Ten years ago, on the 10th Anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide Former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan stated that ‘such crimes cannot be reversed. Such failures cannot be repaired. The dead cannot be brought back to life. So what can we do?’ 

Well firstly, we must never forget. And secondly, we must learn from the past and continuously adapt and change our policies, our practices and our behaviours so that we are better prepared to anticipate, prevent and respond to crises.

In your deliberations today on learning from the past and strengthening the global response to humanitarian crisis for the future, I would like to present three lessons that we as the Irish government have prioritised in our development and humanitarian approach and I hope these issues will stimulate debate here today.



We have learned that we need to focus development efforts on fragile states and situations.


We need to continue to strengthen the humanitarian response system.


We must prioritise Protection and Gender Based Violence as a core element of our life-saving response efforts.


Working in Fragile States and Situations

So, first, let’s look at why we need to work more in fragile states and situations, an issue prioritised by Ireland in our international development policy, One World, One Future.

Unfortunately, the international community largely operates on a model that is reactive and relies on humanitarian agencies to pick up the pieces of failed development and respond to crises rather than managing risk and underlying causes.

Much has been written about how the international community failed to take adequate notice of the underlying fragility and growing ethnic tensions in Rwanda in the years leading up to the genocide. So too today, even before the current crises erupted, the Central African Republic and South Sudan were two of the poorest and least developed countries in the world, facing a myriad of problems exacerbated by inter-communal tensions.

These crisis situations are the outcome of years and indeed decades of endemic poverty, under-development, weak democratic institutions and neglect by the international community.

However, countries such as South Africa, which I mentioned earlier, show that sustained efforts to build institutions that address the stresses and strains driving conflict can achieve results.  When supported, countries can find their own way out of fragility. Their paths are generally long and complex with many risks and reversals. But, the evidence is there that the international community can play an important role in supporting governments, the private sector and civil society in the long term transformation process out of fragility and conflict.

We must ensure that in responding to emergency needs, we work simultaneously in fragile states and situations to address the underlying causes and ultimately seek to build the resilience of very vulnerable populations. In mobilising funds for the immediate humanitarian response, we must also examine ways to ensure that we continue to support the people of the Central African Republic and South Sudan into the future.


Strengthening the humanitarian response

Secondly, allow me focus on what we have learned about the need to strengthen the humanitarian response system.

We cannot talk about this issue without reference to the seminal, multi-agency, multi-donor (including Ireland), Joint Evaluation of Emergency Assistance to Rwanda, published in 1996. This was pioneering work as it was the first significant experiment in undertaking a joint and critical evaluation in the humanitarian sector.

In relation to humanitarian response the Joint Evaluation found that although humanitarian action saved lives and fed the hungry, there was insufficient attention to the risks of negative impacts and the potential of humanitarian aid to exacerbate the drivers of conflict. Furthermore, it found that there had been shortcomings in the response by the humanitarian sector including weaknesses in: response capacity; coordination; the professionalism of some NGOs; and accountability mechanisms in the sector in general.

In response to the recommendations from the Joint Evaluation humanitarian agencies made significant improvements in the areas of professionalism, standards and accountability mechanisms such as the Sphere Standards and the Humanitarian Accountability Project.

More recently, the 2005 Humanitarian Reform and the current Transformative Agenda, have continued to build on this early work and have developed new approaches to working more accountably, predictably and effectively.

Ireland, I believe, has been a leader and champion of this reform process in both policy and financial terms. We have consistently funded the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund for early response, as well as the Common Humanitarian Funds in neglected and underfunded countries in need of humanitarian support.

In Irish Aid we have also comprehensively reformed our own internal mechanisms in order to better respond to humanitarian emergencies. We have put in place innovative, flexible and pre-positioned humanitarian funding mechanisms with you, our NGO partners.

Through the Irish Aid Rapid Response Corps, Ireland supports our UN Partners and immediately deploys highly-skilled personnel to a disaster zone within hours of a crisis.  In addition, Ireland currently pre-positions supplies of essential humanitarian relief items in the UN Humanitarian Response Depots (UNHRD) managed by the UN World Food Programme (WFP).

And collectively, we are doing better.  We can look at South Sudan today, where many of you work, as an example of dedication and innovation in protecting people. In spite of a tragically great number of people being killed in the conflict, many civilians are alive today because they have been provided with assistance and protection from the international community active on the ground – agencies who have found ways to stay and deliver. Conditions there are challenging and the situation remains volatile. But, for the moment, many people are safe and the international communality is doing its utmost to meet their needs while working in parallel to negotiate and promote a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

However, the extent and complexity of emergencies continue to pose significant challenges for the humanitarian response system. Also, new donors and partners are engaging, including the private sector. Therefore, we need to take stock of where we are in humanitarian reform, discuss the changing humanitarian landscape, share knowledge and best practices, and set a forward-looking humanitarian agenda.  The preparations for the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016 provide us with an opportunity to ensure humanitarian action is fit to respond to the challenges of the future.


Gender mainstreaming and Gender Based Violence


And thirdly, I want to raise the important issue of protection and gender based violence.

An estimated 500,000 women were raped during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. Compared to other conflicts, the sexual violence in Rwanda stands out in terms of the organised nature of the propaganda that contributed significantly to fuelling sexual violence, the very public nature of the rapes and the level of brutality towards the women.

In a landmark decision, the1998 International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda established by the United Nations defined rape as a crime of genocide under international law. 

As a result of our learning from Rwanda we are now more aware than ever that Violence Against Women and Girls is not just perpetrated by combatants but also by civilians. It is aggravated in all countries affected by wars and also natural disasters, drawing a link between the occurrence of sexual violence and significant uprooting of a society and the crumbling of social norms. Today we see how true this is in situations as diverse as Syria and the Philippines.

Despite this awareness, there is still a long way to go to ensure that every humanitarian response addresses gender, protection and in particular sexual- and gender-based violence issues.

Ireland has long prioritised the protection of women and girls in emergencies through dedicated policy, programming and advocacy efforts. Ireland affirms that the prevention of and response to violence against women and girls is in itself a life-saving action which needs to be an essential part of every humanitarian operation. 



Before I finish I want, on this important occasion to acknowledge you the practitioners, who with courage, professionalism and compassion have stayed the course, working and living in challenging and often remote areas with marginalised and vulnerable communities, including situations of conflict and famine. 

I want to acknowledge you the practitioners, who with courage, professionalism and compassion have stayed the course, working and living in challenging and often remote areas with marginalised and vulnerable communities, including situations of conflict and famine. 

You are on the ground providing early warning and supporting local and national efforts to protect human rights and stop problems and conflicts from escalating. You have made far-off countries such as Ethiopia, Rwanda, the Central African Republic, Somalia and Congo familiar to the Irish people, and this familiarity and connection has bred empathy and concern. 

Your work has inspired Irish people to respond generously and consistently to prevent and respond to humanitarian crises through public and private donations – from Rwanda 20 years ago to the Philippines, Syria, Somalia and South Sudan today.

Even in these difficult times we refuse to be defined by our economy and remain a people that care and continue to keep faith with the world’s poorest people.  Through this support from the Irish people and your action on the ground to prevent loss of life and human rights violations, we better ourselves and the world we live in. The Irish government will continue to work hand-in-hand with you towards lasting peace, development and human rights.

Let us ensure that the candles of remembrance burning over the next 100 days in Rwanda will serve not only as a reminder of the lives lost and traumas suffered as a result of the genocide, but also as a hopeful sign of the spirit and resilience of the survivors who have overcome so much since that terrible time.  As humanitarians however, let us also make sure that the candles remind us of our duty to maintain our commitment to constantly improve our effectiveness in what must be one of the ‘noblest of calls’ – that of saving and protecting lives, alleviating suffering and maintaining human dignity during and in the aftermath of humanitarian crisis situations.