In the Eye of the Storm

Red Cross Plays Key Role In Disaster-prone Region

Good morning everyone, and thank you all for being here at the ASEAN-ICRC [Association of Southeast Asian Nations-International Committee of the Red Cross] platform on challenges and humanitarian action in the ASEAN region. This event marks yet another opportunity for ASEAN to recognize the contributions of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the unique role it plays in the service of the region. The ICRC has been a crucial actor in alleviating human suffering in the aftermath of natural and man-made disasters in the ASEAN region. It is an honor to grace this event in partnership with the ICRC to launch the first in a series to commemorate the assistance rendered over the years and provide a platform for productive dialogue among practitioners, policymakers and think tanks in the region.

In line with the theme of this event, “Challenges and Humanitarian Action in ASEAN,” it is opportune to have a moment of introspection and have constructive discussions on how ASEAN may prepare itself to effectively respond to disasters in the region.

Association of Southeast Asian Nations Secretary-General Dato Lim Jock Hoi of Brunei arrives for a meeting in Brussels. AFP/GETTY IMAGES

ASEAN has been facing the changes in the humanitarian landscape in recent years. First, the ASEAN region is one of the most disaster-prone in the world, and extreme climate events are projected to increase in frequency and intensity. In 2018 alone, ASEAN saw a total of 424 disasters reported in the region, compared with 118 in 2017. Of these, ASEAN responded to 23 incidents, the highest frequency of disasters that ASEAN has responded to since the inception of the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance [AHA Centre]. Additionally, with the changing demographics of the ASEAN population, the number of economic losses and fatalities are bound to increase proportionally. We are facing the rising challenge of massive displacement of people due to natural disasters such as tsunamis and typhoons, secondary impacts such as dam collapse or dump site fires, and climate change impacts, including slow-onset droughts and floods. Disaster response and humanitarian assistance arising from natural disasters remain one of the fundamental challenges for ASEAN.

Second, in 2018, ASEAN leaders instructed the AHA Centre with the support of the ASEAN Secretariat to respond to humanitarian emergencies in Rakhine State, Myanmar [Burma], broadening the scope of work of ASEAN in humanitarian response. With that, the ASEAN Emergency Response Assessment Team has been deployed to identify areas for ASEAN to support the government of Myanmar [Burma] to facilitate the repatriation process.

Such recent developments stress the need for ASEAN to rapidly mature in our humanitarian response strategies to meet the needs of affected member states with heightened sensitivity, particularly when it involves conflict and security issues.

ASEAN must be ready to be the first and foremost support to any affected member state. As our closest neighbors, we must be able to rely on each other before seeking help from partners farther away who may not be able to lend their support expeditiously. Keeping the people-centered focus in ASEAN’s priorities, the needs of the ASEAN people must be the primary concern, including their well-being, safety and security and their social and economic health.

Understanding that no disaster impacts every community the same way, humanitarian efforts in all forms should similarly take into consideration the local context and localize efforts to tailor to  individual needs and respect the wishes of the affected states.

In spite of the hurdles, I urge participants of this dialogue to be optimistic in confronting these challenges. ASEAN already has institutional arrangements in place to respond to disasters, such as the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Disaster Management; the ASEAN Committee on Disaster Management, some members of which are present today; the ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response [AADMER]; the ASEAN Vision on Disaster Management 2025; and, of course, the One ASEAN One Response mechanism. ASEAN recognizes the cross-sectoral nature of humanitarian actions and that effective disaster response strategies would necessitate the involvement of other sectors, particularly at the strategic level.

Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Secretary-General Dato Lim Jock Hoi of Brunei poses with participants of an ASEAN-International Committee of the Red Cross platform on challenges and humanitarian action in April 2019. ASEAN

This may concern coordination, monitoring and policy development, as well as addressing emerging issues such as mental health. As such, ASEAN also has mechanisms for cross-sectoral coordination such as the Joint Task Force on Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief and Technical Working Group on Civil-Military Coordination. In addition to these, the AHA Centre as ASEAN’s coordination body and engine of AADMER stands ready to respond to any large-scale disasters in the region.

These ongoing mechanisms collectively lay the groundwork for ASEAN’s coordinated and comprehensive response to disasters in the region. Acknowledging the need for practical and flexible arrangements, ASEAN should place more focus on maximizing the existing mechanisms already in place.

However, governments cannot work alone in the cycle of disaster management and humanitarian assistance, whether it is in the stage of early warning, preparation, response or recovery. In my view, we need to advance the “ASEAN Way” toward a strong coordination mechanism involving key stakeholders, such as policymakers, industry players, academics and civil society. The AADMER Partnership Group, a consortium of NGOs (nongovernmental organizations), is an excellent example from which we have been able to mobilize resources and knowledge to support the implementation of the AAMDER Work Plan.

Nevertheless, ASEAN must not be complacent in our strategies and continue to nurture cooperative relationships with other actors in the region including international organizations such as the ICRC. The Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies are unique partners for ASEAN, strategically positioned with access to disaster areas that are inaccessible to other NGOs and in some cases even the United Nations. In 2017, under the chairmanship of the Philippines, ASEAN released a statement on its engagement with the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, recognizing the organizations’ work and contribution as first responders in disasters and their close collaboration with local authorities and communities. In late 2018, I met the president of ICRC, Mr. Peter Maurer, at the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, where he reaffirmed ICRC’s intention to expand relations with ASEAN. We value the continued partnership, cooperation and contribution of the ICRC to the ASEAN region.

As the ASEAN humanitarian assistance coordinator, I am thrilled to observe the sharing of ASEAN perspectives and the increased awareness of ASEAN’s overall response in disasters. With that, I also observed the changing paradigm of international response to regional and local response, whereby our regional organizations are now focusing more on education, awareness and capacity building of the National Disaster Management Organizations.

I also look forward to the presentations from our partners in the hope their ideas may enhance ASEAN’s response mechanism further.

Before closing my opening remarks, I would like to thank the deputy secretary-general of ASEAN socio-cultural community, Kung Phoak, and Mr. Alexandre Faite, head of ICRC for Indonesia and Timor-Leste, for their initiative in actualizing this ASEAN-ICRC platform. I commend ASEAN and ICRC’s existing cooperation and hope for continued engagement in the future. I wish distinguished guests a productive and meaningful discussion at the dialogue sessions today. 

Dato Lim Jock Hoi of Brunei, secretary-general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, delivered this speech in April 2019. It has been edited to fit FORUM’s format.

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