A UN Day 2011 message by Prof. Dr. Konrad Osterwalder, Rector, United Nations University (published, in slightly edited form, in the 24 October edition of the Japan Times newspaper)
We celebrate UN Day each year to commemorate the establishment of the United Nations on 24 October 1945. It is a day to reflect on how we, both individually and collectively, have benefitted from the existence of the United Nations and its efforts to keep peace throughout the world, develop friendly relations among nations, and improve the lives of everyone by promoting better living standards and human rights.
It is particularly in times of crisis that the full scope of the UN becomes evident. For many, when the United Nations is mentioned, they visualize a building in New York where the General Assembly and the Security Council meet, and where the Secretary-General has his office. But the United Nations is, in reality, a complex global system that encompasses six principal organs, fifteen specialized agencies, and a broad range of programmes, funds, commissions, and other entities.
Whenever there is a natural disaster or humanitarian catastrophe — for example, the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, the 2010 Haitian Earthquake, the continuing food crisis in the Horn of Africa or, nearer to home, the Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent tsunami of March 11 — the UN system springs into action to support and supplement relief and assistance efforts.
Whether the concern is health, hygiene, nutrition, shelter, education or economic recovery, the UN system is ready to assist. To cite just a few examples: A United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) team may be dispatched to the disaster area to support local emergency response operations and to advise on handling incoming international relief goods and services. The World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) can provide emergency food supplies and assist in food distribution to disaster victims. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) can, when requested, set up and maintain shelters and facilities for displaced populations, while the World Health Organization (WHO) helps to protect against the ravages of disease.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) offers both aid and education for children affected by calamity. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) helps to ensure that the post-disaster recovery process has a firm and stable footing. The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) oversees and facilitates the humanitarian and disaster-relief efforts of the UN system, while the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) typically is a key player in coordinating assistance by humanitarian agencies both within and outside the UN system.
And it is not just in the post-disaster phase that the UN system is active; the UN works to prevent or mitigate disasters, whether natural or man-made. This includes diplomatic efforts aimed at averting or resolving conflict, assistance in setting up early-warning systems that can alert at-risk populations to potential disasters, and action to address the threat of climate change (which may increase the frequency and intensity of natural disaster situations).
The concern of the UN about the Japanese experience of 11 March, and subsequent recovery efforts, was underscored by the visit of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to tsunami- and quake-ravaged area in early August. He came, he declared, to express “the United Nations’ solidarity for the government of Fukushima, and particularly for affected people in Fukushima”.
In my role as a UN Under-Secretary-General (and the highest ranking UN official based in Japan), I accompanied the Secretary-General as part of the official UN delegation that met with local students, displaced families and government officials. I was especially moved by our visit to an evacuation center that, five months after that disastrous day, still sheltered hundreds who had lost not only their homes but, in many case, their jobs as well, or had been bereaved of family members or friends. Like the Secretary-General, I felt admiration for the courage and persistence of those who had lived through the catastrophe.
This year, UN agencies in Japan are gathering in Sendai to celebrate UN Day under the theme “Recovery and Regeneration from the Great East Japan Earthquake: Messages from Tohoku to the World”. The event, held at Tohoku University, aims to compare the experiences of the disaster-affected areas of Japan with experiences from other UN disaster relief operations, in the hope of contributing to future disaster prevention and relief efforts at the international level.
Participants are sharing their own experiences and examining the disaster prevention and reconstruction efforts from multiple perspectives. Representatives from the private sector, non-governmental organizations, the Japanese Trade Union Confederation, local governments, academia and U.N. entities in Japan who collaborated in disaster relief activities are discussing the significance of partnership in such efforts. U.N. agencies and volunteer organizations also are providing informational resources and exhibits for attendees.
On this UN Day, it is appropriate that we pause to acknowledge the efforts and successes of the United Nations in disaster prevention and relief, and to reflect on its broader role of helping those in need.