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Anne Richards on Humanitarian Diplomacy in New York & Geneva
October 11, 2012

Humanitarian Diplomacy in New York & Geneva

October 11, 2012

A man at a podium speaks to a woman
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres and Assistant Secretary Anne Richards in Geneva

One of my goals as Assistant Secretary is to ensure that the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) practices what we call “humanitarian diplomacy.”  We use this term to mean that humanitarian issues are integrated into the diplomatic discourse that State Department leaders have with other countries and international organizations, including in private meetings and public remarks.  Especially as the United States is a top donor to international humanitarian efforts and helps to shape those efforts, we want other governments to realize how much Americans care about saving lives and helping people who have fled violence, conflict, and persecution.  Ideally, we want our efforts to inspire similar responses from other governments.  Fortunately, our bureau has many allies in pursuing this goal.  Senior officials at the State Department are quite comfortable raising humanitarian issues with foreign counterparts or inviting me along to meetings and encouraging me to speak up as part of a team approach to diplomacy.

The past two weeks have been a particularly hectic time in the conduct of humanitarian diplomacy, for I traveled to New York for the start of UN General Assembly meetings and then onward to Geneva, Switzerland, for the annual meeting of the UN refugee agency’s (UNHCR’s) Executive Committee.  In diplo-speak, I attended “UNGA” and “ExCom.”

The idea of meetings in New York and Geneva may conjure up images of genteel cocktail parties against a glamorously international backdrop; but the reality is what one colleague called “diplomatic speed-dating.”  Diplomats run from building to building in the “Turtle Bay” area of New York City where United Nations headquarters is situated in order to meet for 30-minutes with teams representing other countries or UN agencies.  These meetings require lots of preparation, being able to think on the fly, stamina, and comfortable shoes.

In New York, the visit of President Obama early in the week was the top attraction, but many other small and large meetings took place.  The presence of scores of heads of state and foreign ministers meant that security was beefed up, roads closed, and no one without the proper credentials could get close to the UN buildings.

The top issues that a small PRM team and I discussed were the major crisis zones involving large numbers of refugees and displaced persons: Syria and its neighbors, Mali and the Sahel, and camps in South Sudan and Ethiopia for refugees from fighting in Sudan.  The list, sadly, goes on and on, from people fleeing militias in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to refugee camps for Somalis in Kenya that are the size of major cities.

With the EU and its member states, we compared notes on crises and asked for continued donations to key UN agencies.  With countries that host large numbers of refugees, we reviewed our own contributions to humanitarian programs, pledged to stay involved and discussed possible solutions to crises.  We talked about migration trends with the Mexican Ambassador to the UN and, later, ran into UNICEF head Tony Lake.  A particularly important lunch hosted by Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman was devoted to conversation on ways to help Afghan refugees and a break-through “Solutions Strategy” to protect them.

Top UN leaders described their own efforts to coordinate complex programs and shoulder global responsibilities despite insufficient resources.  Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights Maria Otero held meetings with key UN officials along with Esther Brimmer Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of International Organization Affairs, Assistant Administrator for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Affairs Nancy Lindborg of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and me.  This meant that U.S. Government policy positions were delivered as clear, unambiguous messages.  The State Department’s regional Assistant Secretaries were also generous with their time and attention.  While passing through metal detectors and riding up elevators, I found myself exchanging info and catching up with colleagues, such as the Assistant Secretaries for African, European and Near Eastern Affairs.

After UNGA, I traveled on to Geneva, Switzerland, where we were able to cut back on mad dashes through city traffic and security checkpoints because most discussions took place in one location: the Palais des Nations.  Some rooms in the Palais have a view of Mont Blanc, but in room 3001, where we met with rotating teams of diplomats and aid workers, the walls were blank and the furniture utilitarian.  (Mercifully, our team in Geneva added a coffee pot which helped to stave off jetlag.)  We talked to Canadian and Australian counterparts about flows of refugees; we are the top resettlement countries – places where those for whom there is no place left to run can restart their lives.  We heard pleas for more help from governments struggling to host refugees despite the difficulties they have providing services to their own citizens.  And we were inspired by the example set by Somalia’s Mama Hawa, this year’s recipient of the Nansen Refugee Award.

Our delegation included seasoned colleagues from USAID and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.  Two members of our delegation were members of the public and represented coalitions of non-governmental organizations.  Dan Kosten of World Relief is the chair of the Refugee Council USA; Mary Pack of the International Medical Corps represented InterAction.

After two weeks of non-stop humanitarian diplomacy, is there any cause for optimism?  Maybe.  In Burma, the government is talking to ethnic minorities about reconciliation and has launched a Commission of Inquiry into recent violence in Rakhine State.  In Somalia, we are asking if peace can return to this battle-scarred country, in which case hundreds of thousands of refugees might return from overcrowded camps in Kenya and Ethiopia.  Ambassadors in Geneva lined up to praise U.S. efforts to find permanent homes for refugees from the Balkans wars of the early 1990s, thus bringing that long-running situation to a close.  And smart, activist UN leaders such as Under Secretary-General Valerie Amos, High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres and UN Population Fund Executive Director Babatunde Osotimehin work overtime to make the UN bureaucracy more efficient and responsive to the needs of vulnerable people around the world.

Why is it so important for the United States to lead humanitarian efforts?  Because the world listens to, and sometimes emulates, America.  I was told that when I spoke at the UNHCR ExCom plenary, you could hear a pin drop.  The delegations there from around the world wanted to know: what is on the mind of the Americans?  My remarks focused on women and girls, and this theme was then echoed back to us throughout the rest of the conference.

If the United States contributes to UN causes and appeals, other countries tend to contribute also.  If we resettle refugees successfully, other countries study our program and the list of countries that offer to take refugees grows.  If we stand up for women and girls, diplomats definitely take note and report back to their governments.  The proposals we endorse and the changes we seek may not happen overnight, but, in the ripples of comments and whispered asides and official remarks, there was evidence that our remarks and meetings were already having an effect.