Valerie Amos, undersecretary-general and emergency relief coordinator at the United Nations, joins Columbia University's George Rupp, to discuss the realities and challenges of humanitarian work around the world today. Amos notes that with half of the world's extreme poor living in fragile states, humanitarian organizations are increasingly tasked with handling crises resulting from deep political and economic troubles. She calls for increased implementation of international humanitarian law to hold UN member states accountable for their actions.
The Sorensen Distinguished Lecture on the United Nations was established in 1996 by Gillian and Theodore C. Sorensen to highlight the United Nations and offer a special occasion for its most distinguished and experienced leaders to speak to the Council on Foreign Relations membership.
Valerie Amos on the responsibility to protect:
“…it's been extremely difficult for the UN to really apply the principle of responsibility to protect because what you do have is governments which then claim sovereignty. …even after the whole development of the principle of responsibility to protect…nation states have become even more aggressive in their use of state sovereignty as a reason to prevent action being taken to protect civilians.”
Valerie Amos on the meaning of intervention:
“…when you talk about intervention, people always think it means boots on the ground; it means that you're invading somebody else's country. And that is not necessarily the question that I'm asking. I'm asking a question about an architecture that we already have, a body of rules and law that we already have that we are not holding ourselves accountable to. And I see this as a significant failure.”
Valerie Amos on the investment needed for prevention and resolution of crises:
“…without resolution to conflict, people will continue to flee brutality; and without early warning systems and risk mitigation measures, people will continue to suffer the impact of hurricanes, drought, floods and other natural disasters. Without investment in mitigation and other measures, climate change will deepen the impact of recurrent natural disasters.”
RUPP: Well, I'm very pleased, delighted to welcome all of you to this Sorensen Distinguished Lecture on the U.N. And Gillian Sorensen is here. I want to express appreciation from all of us to you, Gillian. Maybe you could even stand up.
I have the privilege of introducing Valerie Amos who will be our Gillian Sorensen lecturer. Valerie was born in Georgetown, Guyana. She went -- moved to the U.K. when she was nine years old and was educated in the U.K. I just asked her because her accent was so flawlessly U.K. whether her first language was also English -- British English -- and the answer is it was.
She's had a very distinguished career for more than 25 years in international relations in very senior leadership positions. Since July 2010, she was -- she has been the U.N. under-general-secretary for Humanitarian Affairs and emergency relief coordinator. For those of us involved in these sorts of events, we all -- we think of her as the head of OCHA.
She has also served as a U.K. high commissioner to Australia. She has served as well in the U.K. Cabinet as the minister responsible for international development.
A very distinguished career; lots more to it. You can read about it in your program.
I now have the great honor of presenting to you Valerie Amos who will speak for about 15 minutes after which she and I will have a brief conversation and then we'll open it up for your questions and comments.
Thank you very much for being with us.
AMOS: Professor Rupp, thank you very much, indeed. And thank you, everyone. Good evening.
It's a great pleasure to be here at the Council on Foreign Relations, an institution with I think has provided a platform for critical engagement and discussion into the pressing issues of our time -- global governance, conflict, peace, human rights and security.
And I'm particularly pleased to be joining a list of distinguished contributors to the Sorensen Lecture Series on the United Nations. The commitment of Ted C. Sorensen, a trusted advisor to President Kennedy, and to Gillian Martin Sorensen to the U.N. principles is invaluable. And this lecture series, I think, is critical because it gives the United Nations and its senior members an opportunity to reflect on our work, on our principles and the challenges that are facing us.
For me, this lecture comes at a particularly critical time when the world is grappling with a series of challenges which are bringing us closer together and also pushing us wider apart, and when we are seeking to redefine the role of the nation state, of governments and of the United Nations, given the complex set of challenges which are facing us.
This week alone, horrific events in France and Nigeria have led, for example, to searching questions about the nature of terrorism, security, freedom of speech and religion, the limits or otherwise of press freedom, tolerance, racism, inequality, the impact of social media and the Internet, the lack of connectivity between people and cultures and the quality of global leadership.
And it's clear that we do not have all the answers as we're dealing with phenomena which are very often outside our experience -- reports of a 10-year-old suicide bomber, a young girl; deliberate targeted killing of journalists, cartoonists whose job it was to challenge us to look at our world in different ways; and anti-Semitic attacks aimed at further fueling tensions between Jews and Muslims.
And in the midst of that hatred and brutality, an outpouring of global solidarity, even as citizens question themselves and their leaders about the kind of world we're living in and the kind of future we want to have.
Our world seems to be in turmoil. And nowhere is this more evident than in the work that I do in Humanitarian Affairs; so many contradictions played out daily as we see the impact of conflict and crisis on people's day-to-day lives.
I've often said in our work, we see the worst of humanity and the very best -- mindless violence, abuse, particularly of women and children, and in the midst of it all, people sharing what little they have supporting, protecting and helping each other.
Humanitarian work is under significant pressure as we face growing needs around the world. This year, 2015, 78 million people in 22 countries require urgent humanitarian assistance and we estimate that it will cost $16.4 billion for us to help them. That money will provide urgently needed shelter, essential health care, education, food. It will help people to survive.
But what it will not do is help people to rebuild their lives because without resolution to conflict, people will continue to flee brutality; and without early warning systems and risk mitigation measures, people will continue to suffer the impact of hurricanes, drought, floods and other natural disasters. Without investment in mitigation and other measures, climate change will deepen the impact of recurrent natural disasters.
The United Nations was founded to promote global peace and security, to protect people's human rights and to facilitate development. Every year, more is expected of the U.N. And yet, it is an organization which is limited not by the vision of its founders but by its members today -- 193 countries, each with different interests and perspectives reflecting the changes we have seen in the nearly 70 years of the organization's history.
The United Nations has needed to change as the world has changed and we have seen some significant successes. Just in my work, the United Nation provides food to 90 million people in 80 countries every year; vaccinates 58 percent of the world's children, saving 3 million lives a year; assists over 38.7 million refugees and people feeling war, famine or prosecution; keeps peace with 120,000 peacekeepers in 16 operations on four continents; fights poverty; helps to improve the health and well-being of 420 million of the rural poor and promotes and protects human rights through some 80 treaties and declarations.
But somehow we forget all that because we focus particularly, I think, on the political side of the United Nations -- the side of the United Nations which uses diplomacy to prevent conflict and assists some 60 countries a year with their elections.
But as with all organizations, with growth has come more bureaucracy, less flexibility. And we have seen changes in power dynamics between countries and regions reflected in the ways that issues are debated and discussed -- indeed, in the way that they are resolved.
And we see this, as well, in humanitarian work. More is expected of us than ever before. We're called on to provide life-saving assistance and protection of civilians, but we're not necessarily given the tools to do it.
Civilians are killed and injured in targeted or indiscriminate attacks in violation of international humanitarian law and often with complete impunity. I cannot remember the number of times I have reported to the Security Council and asked them to make strong statements, which they do, about what is happening in the world, but it doesn't necessarily change what is happening on the ground.
Eighty-two percent of the people who were killed or injured by explosive weapons in 2013, the last time we have figures, were civilians. Violence and other forms of persecution force an average of 23,000 people per day -- per day -- to leave their homes to seek protection elsewhere.
Too often, humanitarian organizations are called on to fill the glaring gaps that emerge when states neglect to fulfill their duty to safeguard their citizens. Think, for example, Syria or South Sudan; or where as a result of conflict, the state apparatus has become weak, fragmented or almost nonexistent, as in the case of Somalia or the Central African Republic.
Humanitarian actors are increasingly being called on to deal with the consequences of crises that essentially have their roots in a complex set of interrelated factors -- poor governance, political paralysis, underdevelopment, rising levels of poverty and inequality. And these dynamics in many countries are overlaid by the growth of terrorists and radical armed groups and challenges to democratization, which create further instability. Add to this mix climate change, environmental degradation, population growth in some parts of the world and the consequences of increasing levels of internal displacement and forced migration.
The average length of conflict-induced development is a staggering 17 (ph) years. Despite the economic gains we have seen in many countries, inequality is rising and poverty and instability often go hand-in-hand.
Half of the world's extreme poor live in fragile states. We're seeing a convergence of global trends which is increasing the risk of major crises, their scope and complexity.
Conflict and complex emergencies drove over 75 percent of humanitarian response needs last year and most of the conflicts we are responding to have implications far beyond their borders. The crises in Iraq and Syria, for example, have consequences across the whole of the Middle East and beyond.
The fall of Gaddafi in Libya led to major insecurity and spread of weapons across Western Central Africa, the impact of which is still being felt today. And in many of the conflict zones in which we work, there has been a manifest failure by political leaders to be inclusive in their protection of their people and to realize that state sovereignty is a responsibility rather than one of the spoils of being in power.
Humanitarian workers, because of the lifesaving nature of our work, need to be impartial; we need to be neutral. We have to be on the side of the people, not on the side of governments or armed groups where there is conflict.
This means that we operate in highly pressurized and political environments where attempts are made to use humanitarian action to pursue political or security ends. This has become more and more challenging as we have worked to keep humanitarian response separate from political imperatives in places like Syria, Iraq, Ukraine and Gaza.
We have a responsibility to be strong advocates for the people caught in the midst of conflict. And many governments don't like what we say. And we are constantly, literally and figuratively, under fire.
Working in conflict zones where international humanitarian law is flagrantly violated is dangerous. In 2013, violence against humanitarian aid operations hit an all-time high with 251 separate attacks in which 155 aid workers were killed and 134 were kidnapped.
But despite the continued danger, humanitarian groups continue to provide life-saving assistance to millions of people around the world every single day. And we do everything we can to ensure that we can continue to work.
We negotiate with governments and armed groups; we use those with influence over warring parties to help us gain access; we use the Security Council to push for resolutions which will make a difference. We have to be operationally effective and we have to be politically astute.
We have to be strong advocates, good communicators. We have to make the case, we have to raise the money. And crucially, we have to be good leaders, demonstrating impact and pushing for change.
The challenges facing organizations working in the humanitarian field is a microcosm of the challenges facing the entire United Nations. How do we live up to the values of the U.N. charter?
How do we safeguard human rights, protect civilians and help secure a more peaceful and a more just world? How do we promote more active global citizenship? And how do we help the people of the world to connect and see the value of inclusivity as well as of diversity and difference?
From our work, we know that the only way to break the cycle of violence which continues to threaten global peace and stability is for political actors to work with communities to find sustainable solutions to these crises. The need is greater than ever for states to live up to their responsibility to protect civilians from harm, and when states fail to do so for others, including multilateral institutions, to step in.
The tools available to the international community now appear extremely limited in light of the complex set of challenges we face. We need a stronger and, dare I say it, perhaps more interventionist global architecture to deal with the humanitarian consequences of conflict.
I recognize that this would come with major risks, given global power dynamics and other differences around the world. But I do have to say that after every crisis, we say never again, and yet, it always happens again.
We have a body of international humanitarian law which over time has given us the means to tackle the challenges arising from conflicts -- a set of rules. The problem is its lack of implementation.
We will, of course, continue to push for civilians to be protected in conflict, be it calling on U.N. member states to deliver on their duty to protect their citizens or highlighting to governments and militaries the devastating impact that the use of explosive weapons has on people living in densely populated urban areas.
Implementation requires stronger vision and commitment from governments and multilateral institutions, as well as from humanitarian agencies. It is also no longer acceptable that still less than half of 1 percent of all international aid is spent on disaster preparedness and prevention.
Finding the right approach to these and other challenges is a priority for the consultations leading up to the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, the first ever such summit which has been called for by the U.N. secretary general. At that summit, we will have a unique opportunity to reshape our approach to humanitarian aid, and indeed, the way that we do humanitarian business.
We all face a choice. We can continue to affect peaceful change or we can truly transform the way we approach complex problems in a way that better reflects today's reality. I think we should try to do the latter, for the sake of the millions of people around the world today who frankly deserve better from all of us. Thank you very much.
RUPP: Thank you.
AMOS: I hope that's not my phone.
RUPP: I'm sure you turned it off just as everyone else.
AMOS: I tried.
RUPP: Valerie, thank you very much for that accurate description of just how somber the current situation we all face is, and also the very upbeat portrayal of the humanitarian mandate that you have lived now for these multiple years. Thank you on both counts.
I share all of your hopes and aspirations for how we might be able to do better. But I -- I guess I'd like in a -- the couple minutes we have before we open up to questions to hear a little bit more of your experience down on the ground -- down to Earth.
You've had the really rare experience of being in a leadership position for an individual influential country, namely, Great Britain, and also in -- in your role, your very senior role at the U.N.
Maybe you could tell us a little bit about an example of a high point and a low point in -- in each of those involvements or ways in which the two roles are different.
AMOS: I suppose the thing that I -- I think is the lowest point for me, and many people tell me it should not be, is that I really feel that we have failed the people of Syria. I've been in this job for four years and Syria has really, I think, defined the time that I have been in this job.
And when I first visited Syria four years ago, I was trying to persuade the government that they had a humanitarian crisis on their hands as a result of the conflict. And at that time, we were talking about a million people inside Syria in -- in need of some form of humanitarian assistance. In just four years, that number has climbed to over 12 million.
I mean, we have watched that happen; we as a world have watched that happen. More than 3 million people have fled to neighboring countries. The -- the brutality, the level of brutality that people are facing is indescribable.
I have personally, and so have my colleagues, spent a huge amount of time getting aid. I mean, I think it's -- it -- what -- what humanitarian workers have been able to continue doing in Syria is absolutely extraordinary in the most difficult and dangerous circumstances. And we are feeding millions of people, getting health care to millions of people, but I still feel that we have failed because we have watched -- we have watched a country descend into -- into war and conflict and we haven't been able to stop it.
And I think I, with everyone in a position of some responsibility and authority, needs to take some responsibility for that, whatever I have been able to do. And people keep reminding me that I have been able to do a lot. So, I see that as -- I see that very much as a low point.
I think as a high point, I -- I -- in my career and in the work that I do, it is just the extraordinary people that I meet every single day. I mean, I've been to some of the worst places in the world -- Central African Republic, Somalia, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo. I've watched people fleeing violence; I've watched children on the brink of death in malnutrition centers. And yet, I've seen the extraordinary hope that people have that the world will help and support them and that they will come out of this.
And I've seen people want to help themselves from day one. I remember last year when I went to the Philippines within days of Typhoon Haiyan and Tacloban was absolutely devastated. There was hardly a building left standing.
And yet -- yet, people within hours were trying to find ways of creating, you know, shelter for their families whilst at the same time trying to find the bodies of those that were missing. I mean, and I kept saying, "This is a resilience that -- that we should -- a level of resilience that we should not expect people to have, and yet they do have it."
So, you know, this has been the most extraordinary job I've ever had, precisely because in the midst of utter devastation, people remain strong and extremely positive.
RUPP: Well, that's -- having shared with you going to all of those places you mentioned, I certainly agree with that. And I think it is a -- when people ask you, well, doesn't it get depressing, the response to that is the one you just gave -- is as awful as it is, there are people who are -- demonstrate the resilience and the -- and the will to not only help themselves, but help others -- that it brings out the best in people.
But let's go back to the low point, to Syria. As you know, the International Rescue Committee is involved in Syria and in all the countries surrounding Syria on all of the fronts that you mentioned.
And I -- it has -- the crisis has accelerated to a point where it is absolutely an incredible tragedy for all those involved. And we in the international community have watched it accelerate from a very small problem to now into the largest problem that the international community has faced in a long time.
You mentioned that -- that international relief and development organizations have to exemplify impartiality in the way in which their goods or services are distributed. You mentioned neutrality. You didn't mention independence, but I'm sure you agree operational independence is also critical.
Given the commitment to neutrality, in particular, how -- how do you think we can or should have been more effective in dealing -- we in the humanitarian community -- with the crisis in Syria?
AMOS: I think it -- I think it's not just a problem for the humanitarian community. I mean, I think that -- I think that is part of the problem. The big issue in Syria is that we have not managed to find a political solution to a major political crisis in -- in that country.
So, you know, humanitarian organizations and humanitarian workers have been doing everything they can -- so, working from inside Syria, working across borders from Turkey, Jordan.
I mean, there are some NGOs doing extraordinary work that have been working, particularly from Turkey, over many, many years, establishing relations with communities in the north of Syria that has actually allowed them to continue working there even now when those areas are under ISIL control. We don't know how much longer that will last but they're able to work there because the communities themselves want them to be there and are challenging ISIL as ISIL is trying to get those organizations out.
I think that there are -- you know, there were questions raised, for example, about the fact that the United Nations was working inside Syria, working with the government of Syria to get aid across conflict lines inside Syria. I absolutely defend the decision to do that because our job was to try to reach all Syrians in need of aid, and this is a government that still controls territory and still -- still -- still controls a security apparatus, for example.
We work with the government; we've worked with -- with armed groups. It's been a very challenging environment because of the proliferation of different armed groups on the ground.
Perhaps we could have pressured the Security Council earlier to get some of the resolutions that we did. But the -- the political differences, particularly between the permanent five of the Security Council, I think really led to a degree of fesses (ph) at the beginning of the crisis because there simply wasn't an agreed way of moving forward, even though I think on humanitarian issues, there was a sense in which everyone agreed that more needed to be done to deal with the humanitarian consequences of conflict.
RUPP: One of your comments just now you mentioned about the -- the growth of programs in -- in the United Nations and -- and therefore an increase in bureaucracy and a reduction in flexibility. That last comment about the difficulty in the response of the U.N. would call further attention to that set of issues. So, what's the long-term solution to that problem?
AMOS: One of the things that we're looking at in the run-up to this World Humanitarian Summit is essentially how do we do our business. Are we doing -- are we conducting humanitarian operations in the best possible way?
Should we be working with a wider range of partners? What is the -- what is the added value of U.N. organizations in these situations? How can you best support the local communities on the ground who are there and present and already have the relationship?
So, there are a big set of questions, I think, which we have to continue to ask ourselves about what we're doing, why we're doing it, what needs the support, if you like, of the multilateral system, as opposed to what can be done at the local level. And it's -- it's -- it's extraordinarily difficult in conflict situations. It's much more straightforward in a natural disaster situation.
But in a conflict situation where you have so many different individuals and organizations on the ground at war with each other, I think you need the United Nations and, as it were, the -- the independence of the United Nations system. But therein also lies some challenges, because of course the United Nations has, you know, it has a political dimension, it has a peacekeeping dimension, a development dimension, a humanitarian dimension; we are not always seen as neutral. We're not always seen as independent.
RUPP: Well, let's just -- and then -- then we will open up to others. But let's take one last example. We've all been struck with the Ebola crisis in West Africa. That's an example where the question of lack of flexibility or rigidity or organizational interaction can't help but arise. Could you comment on how -- give a grade to the international community on responding to Ebola, or international community and West African communities.
AMOS: I think Ebola is -- is probably the most complex coordination challenge that the international community has ever had to -- to face. Because this is not just a health crisis; this is a major economic crisis for the countries of West Africa. It's a major social crisis for those countries, as well, with some big questions and challenges around how communities traditionally operate.
We make lots of assumptions, I think, in the criticisms that have been made of the Ebola response about how we think health care is managed in those countries. These are countries that are post-conflict countries -- very poor infrastructure. In most of those countries, in the rural areas, people probably haven't even seen a clinic or a health worker.
So, to then suddenly try to put in place structures to help to deal with something as contagious as Ebola, particularly when you're saying to people that your traditional practices in terms of how you bury your dead can no longer be carried out, I mean, it is a -- it's a -- it's a huge challenge, not just for the U.N., but for the whole international community, and particularly for the governments of those countries.
I think we all accept that we were too slow in terms of bringing those coordination elements together. But the way that the health aspects of this kind of replicated themselves so quickly over time was something which I think surprised us all.
RUPP: OK, well, thank you very much for your -- your candor and your recognition that there are challenges yet to be addressed.
I would like to open it now to questions from the floor. When I recognize you, please stand. Say your name and any other identification you'd like to give and then put a question -- not -- not a speech, but a question would be good.
QUESTION: Jeff Laurenti (ph).
Thank you, Madam Under-Secretary-General, and then for your lecture, but even more importantly, for having been doing God's work, often at the gates of hell.
I was struck by a passing reference you made, quote, "We need stronger and, dare I say, perhaps more interventionist global architecture" in order to deal with the emergencies, humanitarian crises occasioned by conflict. And so, you have put something very big out there.
I wonder if you...
AMOS: In a very gentle voice.
QUESTION: In a very gentle voice.
I -- I wonder if you could suggest to us what you personally think that architecture -- what the pillars and walls or whatever of that interventionist architecture might be. How, in situations where you have had political kind of international unity -- Congo, Afghanistan -- would it have made a difference? And how, in situations where you haven't had unity among the Security Council members -- Syria or arguably Gaza -- would it make a difference to have a so-called interventionist architecture?
RUPP: Jeff (ph), I thank you for putting a question mark by the end of that.
AMOS: It's a huge question and I wanted to put it out there. And I don't have -- I don't have all the elements as to what the architecture might look like.
You know, a few years ago, we talked about the concept of responsibility to protect and what that might mean. And we haven't been able to deliver on that.
And it's -- it's partly because we -- you know, what I've seen in the time that I've been at the U.N. is -- and my colleagues at the International Committee of the Red Cross talk about this, too -- a more kind of aggressive use of state sovereignty by member states of the United Nations, basically to prevent things happening and to prevent the United Nations and the sort of multilateral system and others calling them to account.
And quite frankly, I -- I think that there is not enough calling to account; that you have states that sign up to a whole set of treaties, that sign up to the U.N. charter -- it carries responsibility with it. And there isn't -- there isn't sufficiently -- sufficient in my view accountability linked to that membership of the United Nations and that, as it were, almost passive acceptance of a commitment to the values of the U.N. charter.
So, you know, I don't know what the different elements of this might look -- but, I mean, I actually feel very strongly that we have a strong body of international humanitarian law which we are not putting into practice. I have on many occasions exhorted the Security Council members to recognize flagrant violations of international humanitarian law -- and they do, and then there is no action after that.
So, I ask -- so, I'm asking the question, in the modern world where we are proud of that international architecture, where we are proud of the Geneva Conventions, where we are proud of the progress that we have made -- and we have made progress; I mean, I think part of the problem is that we focus on the negative not on the positive, and we have made progress.
But at the same time, to -- to watch as, you know, millions of people are forced to flee as there is abuse on an unprecedented scale of girls and women in many countries across the world and action is not being taken in relation to this, I ask the question, should we not be more interventionist?
Now, when -- and I say there -- I say it because when you talk about intervention, people always think it means boots on the ground; it means that you're invading somebody else's country. And that is not necessarily the question that I'm asking.
I'm asking a question about an architecture that we already have, a body of rules and law that we already have that we are not holding ourselves accountable to. And I see this as a significant failure.
Within the United Nations ourselves, we have been doing some soul searching on the issue of human rights and particularly post what happened in Sri Lanka and criticisms that the United Nations did not sufficiently early raise the temperature and call the fact that human right -- major human rights abuses were being carried out in Sri Lanka. And it is -- it's caused us as United Nations to completely rethink how we do this.
And the secretary general and the deputy secretary-general is now leading something called the human rights up front agenda, which is about putting the recognition and -- and commitment to human rights, which is a founding element of the U.N. charter, front and center of our work. But it's not going to be enough for us to do that from an organizational perspective if our member states don't buy into this.
So, these are the questions that are -- that I'm -- that I'm asking. And yes, we need to market (ph) it (ph) we're (ph) associated with it but let's not have a whole 'nother big singing, dancing organization. Let's have some accountability, I say.
RUPP: OK, accountability -- that would be very helpful. Yes?
AMOS: That's classic British understatement from an American.
QUESTION: Thank you, George. My name is David Phillips with Columbia University.
A couple of your predecessors -- Jan Egeland, Sergio de Mello come to mind -- reinvented the role of emergency relief coordinator as the U.N.'s chief advocate. In light of your experience in Syria, do you feel that enough was done to name and shame countries on the Security Council who became accomplices to the human suffering? And is neutrality really a cherished principle, or does it merely contribute to the misery of victims?
AMOS: Well, whose neutrality? Can you say whose neutrality you're referring to? Because the neutrality that I'm talking about is the importance for humanitarian work of being able to engage with and speak with everybody.
QUESTION: So, I'm not thinking about the neutrality of humanitarian workers. I'm really thinking specifically about your neutrality and your voice and what you can do to mobilize the political will to take on those countries that become accomplices to crime.
AMOS: First of all, I think that -- that -- that part of my -- my advocacy, and in a way, I think that as this rather grand title I have as emergency relief coordinator, that part of that is actually about being on the side of the people who are facing these atrocities. And I've been very strong about that. I think that it is about taking sides but I think it's about taking the side of the people.
On the issue of -- of calling out and naming and shaming, this -- this gets raised with me frequently, particularly in relation to members of the Security Council. And one of the challenges I think that we have is with respect to the issue of humanitarian work, you very often find that the members of the Security Council are speaking with one voice -- I mean, you know, they have very, very similar views. What they disagree about is the political -- what is the political root that will actually have an impact on the work that I'm doing.
So, I rather famously once had someone say to me, "You should stand up every week in the Security Council and denounce Russia because of Russia's closeness to Syria." I had to actually disabuse them of the fact that that in relation to humanitarian issues, Russia had been extremely helpful to us in terms of the relationship that we were able to open up with the Syrian authorities to get access to -- to various places.
So, it is always more complicated than it appears on the outside because we're talking about -- we're talking political differences which have a significant impact on the humanitarian work. But in the work that I am doing and in the advocacy that I am doing, very often I am being helped by countries which, on the political side, have significant differences. So, that's where the challenge comes, in terms of that advocacy.
RUPP: Yes -- yes?
QUESTION: Hello, my name is -- I'm a journalist at the -- Evelyn Leopold -- a journalist at the U.N. who sits at Baroness Amos' feet.
AMOS: I hadn't noticed that before, but...
QUESTION: So, my question is how careful are you, since walls have ears, how careful are you when you brief the Security Council so that Syria doesn't take it out on W.P. or someone else who needs the government to deliver a -- and secondly, you said something about putting humanitarian issues first. I thought that's what the U.N. promised to do after Rwanda.
AMOS: Just on your -- just on your second point, I mean, I think that after Rwanda, after Srebrenica, after a whole variety of crises that we've seen in -- in the world, that member states of the United Nations have said never again, and yet, we have not managed to live up to that.
It was out of that that we got the whole issue of, you know, the responsibility to protect -- that where you had an issue in a country where civilians needed protecting, that somehow we would take a -- we would look at this differently. But we have not been able to deliver on that because of the importance within the U.N. of the issue of state sovereignty and, you know, as it were, noninterference in the domestic affairs of another country. And how you deal with that in a situation where civilians are behind attacked, brutalized and violated is difficult.
How careful I -- am I when I brief the Security Council? I think I'm extremely frank and upfront when I brief the Security Council in what are called close consultations because I think it's important that members of the Security Council who are reporting back -- ambassadors who are reporting back to their capitals hear from me what the reality is on the ground and what the implications of the actions that Security Council members and others take have on our work.
And I don't feel that I hold back. And I think if you speak to Security Council members, they'll -- they will probably agree with that.
RUPP: OK. Yes, Don?
QUESTION: Donald Shriver of Union Theological Seminary.
As we all know, when the U.N. started taking seriously the principle of responsibility to protect, it was often (ph) a real collision with the principle of natural sovereignty. What is your reading of the experience of the U.N. so far in undertaking responsibility to protect without merely engaging in further violent conflict with nationally sovereign governments?
AMOS: I think it's been -- I think it's been extremely difficult to -- for the U.N. to -- to really apply the principle of responsibility to protect because what you do have is governments which then claim sovereignty. And I think that even after the whole development of the principle of responsibility to -- to -- to protect, that actually nation states have become even more aggressive in their use of state sovereignty as a reason to prevent action being taken to protect civilians.
We saw this in Syria where we had -- we had to go to Security Council and get two resolutions to enable us to cross the borders from, for example, Turkey into Syria and also Jordan and Iraq into Syria across border crossing points, which on the Syrian side were not held by the Syrian government. And I don't think that the Syrian government has ever forgiven me; they see me as personally responsible for pushing the Security Council to agree those resolutions.
For me, taking an approach which is how best do we reach people across Syria who are in need of help and assistance -- that had to be the cornerstone of our policy. And Security Council members agreed with that. And that's why we got those resolutions passed.
And I think that there is a very odd thing happening, which is that on the one hand, you have governments at the United Nations that are pushing harder and harder the issue of state sovereignty whilst at the same time, their citizens are connecting through social media and the Internet and actually taking less and less notice of their governments.
So, on the one hand, you need governments to -- to put in place social programs, to -- to provide basic social services and so on, but very often you have their citizens that are feeling that their governments are becoming increasingly irrelevant. And how you deal with that contraction I think is also going to be a question for us for the future.
RUPP: Well, as we turn to another question, I can't help observing that as -- as much as you had words of praise for the international humanitarian architecture, there do seem to be some real problems that still need to be addressed. And maybe in your next career, you could work that out.
Are there -- I see a lot of men hands. Are there some women? Yes?
QUESTION: Hi, I'm Marcia Biggs (ph). I'm a filmmaker. I'm working on a story on the Yazidi community in Northern Iraq, targeted and attacked by ISIS.
I'm just wondering if you consider that an act of genocide and what the U.N. is doing to try to retrieve the estimated 3,000 girls that are still missing and widely believed to be used as slaves and sold throughout the region?
AMOS: There -- there are a number of minority communities that have been targeted that need support. There are -- there's contradictory information about numbers and who and where. And part of the responsibility, of course, we have as United Nations is to try and get as much data and information as we can so that we are operating on the basis of information that is as fact-based as possible.
In terms of the reported 3,000 girls that are reported missing, we don't have data that actually confirms that. I mean, there is a lot of data that shows that a lot of women and children, not just from minority communities, but -- from across Iraq, but also in Syria, have been targeted. There are widely different -- different reports about the numbers.
And what we can do from our work on the humanitarian side is to as much as possible get information and data from different communities and the different organizations that we are working with, from the Red Crescent societies that we are working with, with the Gulf (ph) charitable organizations and others that are there on the ground as to what they see and know so that as much as possible we can work to get those young women back.
AMOS: It's -- I cannot say whether those numbers are exaggerated. What I can say is that there are wildly different -- differing numbers about how many have disappeared.
In a way, you know, my perspective is one young woman disappearing is too many. So, you know, working to ensure that this doesn't happen, working to ensure that there is adequate protection for minorities, adequate protection for women and girls is the crucial element in all of this.
RUPP: OK, one final question. Yes? Yes? Someone needs to give you a...
QUESTION: Hi, my name is Alexandra Zevallos-Ortiz and I'm from Austria. I'm currently interning with IPS at the United Nations and I've got a question concerning the Syrian refugee crisis.
We spoke -- or we are currently speaking about a failure of Europe and United States, basically the Western world. And most part -- the highest number of Syrian refugees have fled to the -- to the neighboring countries.
I just wanted to know what's your position concerning the Gulf states. Why hasn't -- haven't they established a signal refugee camp within their own borders?
AMOS: First of all, I think it's important to recognize that in all of the neighboring countries -- in Jordan, in Lebanon, in Turkey -- the majority of Syrians are not living in camp situations. So, although there is a kind of focus on camps -- I mean, particularly in Jordan, and a focus on Zaatari Camp -- 75 to 80 percent of Syrian refugees in Jordan are not in a camp situation. The numbers are even higher in Lebanon. And again, the majority of refugees even in Turkey, which has (ph) set up a number of camps on the border, are not in a camp situation.
So, the issue is not should camps be established. The issue is are -- is provision being made to ensure that Syrians that are fleeing violence in Syria are able to go to other countries to be welcomed in those countries and to be safe and secure in those countries.
And what my colleague Antonio Guterres from the High Commission of Refugees is seeking to do is to make sure that the huge burden which is being place on particularly Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey where the majority of the over 3 million have gone -- in Lebanon, for example, over 20 percent of the Lebanese population is now made up of Syrian refugees. I always use my own country, the United Kingdom, as an example -- that would be the equivalent of 12 million people turning up seeking entry into the United Kingdom.
So, one, we have to recognize the support that those neighboring countries require. We also have to recognize that the majority of refugees don't actually want to go too far because they want to go home.
You know, they think -- you know, many -- many people that I spoke to in the first few days -- first few months of the conflict thought it wouldn't last very long and they would be back home by now. People are desperate to go home to rebuild their lives. That does not take away, I think, from the responsibility of countries across the world to recognize the major crisis that we are facing -- not just in Syria.
For the first time ever, the total number of displaced people and refugees across the world has topped 50 million people -- for the first time since about 1945; I shouldn't say for the first time ever. These are huge and significant numbers.
And I think in each and every country has a responsibility, particularly given that the burden's usually on the neighboring countries and usually those neighboring countries are themselves fragile. We all have a responsibility to look to ourselves to give what support we can.
RUPP: Well, please join me in thanking Valerie Amos for (ph) her (ph) time (ph).
AMOS: Thank you.
RUPP: Thank you all very much for coming.
AMOS: Thank you.