Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Interview: Michael O'Neill, Save the Children US

If you've done any aid work in conflict zones, especially on the safety and security side of the house, chances are you've run into Michael O'Neill, the Security Director for Save the Children US. In addition to having a tremendous amount of field experience, Michael has also been influential in advancing the acceptance of NGO security concepts and practices throughout the humanitarian community. He just got back from Beirut, where he was tasked with rapidly establishing basic security operating procedures and building an INGO security coordination presence. We asked him to share a few of his Lebanon experiences and insights with us.

First off, there were reports that getting into the country was a bit challenging. Can you tell us a little about that?
There were basically two ways into Lebanon: Syria and Cyprus. The direct road from Damascus to Beirut had already been compromised by aerial bombardment by the time we arrived. That left the northern route from Damascus through Al Aarida or Al Aabboudiye. Due to the uncertainties surrounding US relations with Syria and the extent to which the road routes would remain viable (given Israel's demonstrated willingness to target overland routes), we decided to enter through Cyprus. From Larnaca we gained passage on a small cruise ship that had been chartered by the Canadian government to evacuate its citizens from Lebanon. We waited for several hours on the jetty until the ship arrived, disgorged its passengers, resupplied and departed for the 7-hour trip back to Beirut. After a few weeks the Cyprus option disappeared as governments determined that they had evacuated all those willing to do so. So I departed Lebanon overland via the Al Aabboudiye border crossing. Since the ceasefire, I understand that commercial airlines have begun to fly into Beirut (or will do so shortly) and the UN has established a regular ferry service from Cyprus.
What were the major safety and security issues facing INGO assessment teams in Lebanon when you got there and through the ceasefire?
There was one dominant threat - IDF aerial bombardment. The Israelis targeted suspected Hezbollah strongholds in southern Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley and the southern suburbs of Beirut. In addition, they targeted infrastructure - roads, bridges, border crossings, power stations, etc. Just a few days before the announced cease-fire it seemed clear to all that the strategy, if it continued would eventually close off Beirut and preclude the evacuation route through Syria.

SC (Save the Children) teams going to the field were required to strictly follow movement procedures: travel authorization request, pre-departure security briefing, convoy, redundant communications (cell phone, sat phone), regular call-in & personal protection equipment (depending on location). All SC staff must attend the MAG landmine and UXO awareness training prior to going to the field.
How much security coordination was going on among the INGOs? I believe there were 100 international staff from the major INGOs in Beirut doing assessments of various kinds. Was there good information sharing?
From the second day I arrived (Aug 25) I met up with the UN security office and several security colleagues from IRC, IMC, CRS, Relief International and others. The UN at that point was not yet ready to coordinate with the NGOs as they had there own challenges dealing with the IDF and the security of UN staff and property (two days later they were directly impacted by the violent demonstrations outside the UN office in the wake of the Qana massacre). So the INGO security managers convened a meeting on our own and agreed to meet twice weekly. Within a week our group numbered nearly 20, we had developed a contact list, email network, regular meetings, and a WIKI site. By this time the UN had designated a representative to the group, so the coordination and information sharing improved accordingly.
What were your biggest personal safety concerns while you were in Beirut?
The greatest fear was being targeted by the IDF for aerial bombardment. According to our threat assessment if Hezbollah succeeded in reaching Tel Aviv with one of their long-range missiles, we felt certain that Beirut would be targeted for reprisal. The turnaround time for the anticipated counterattack we figured would be 30 minutes maximum. As such we established a location in the hotel basement for a bunker, worked with hotel staff to ensure that bedding and water were available, and conducted a walk-through with all our staff.
The U.N. had a large number of security officers present in Lebanon. How much were the INGOs relying on their security planning and information?
The UN was committed to submitting movement plans to the IDF for concurrence prior to moving anything. We chose not to follow this procedure. As mentioned above, the UN was pre-occupied in the early stages but after about week three were regular attendees at the INGO coordination meetings and sent out daily security sitreps.

The INGO community is hoping to develop a full-time security cell that will take up the logistical, communications and coordination functions of the current group and liaise with the UN security personnel. What form this might take is still under discussion, but member NGOs have already committed funds to get things started.
There were rumors that the Thuraya satellite phone system was being jammed. Did you encounter any communication difficulties?
We used Iridium with excellent results. Thurayas did not work in Lebanon or Syria it was reliably reported.
With the Israeli air strikes on the major transportation corridors, evacuation route options begin to get limited. How did you deal with this?
We established a convoy plan to head to Damascus via the northern route - even though we realized that route would likely be jammed with thousands trying to evacuate the same way - the only way or that the IDP might target bridges or the crossing itself thus eliminating this course as an option. So we developed a fallback plan where we would head 35 km east-northeast near Broummana, a Christian enclave we determined to be the least likely target of Israeli bombardment. There we would shelter in place and wait out the precipitating event (likely the bombardment of Beirut). Both options were part of our evacuation plan.
There were some reports of rising anti-American and British sentiment in Beirut. How much of an impact did this have on your security planning?
Right after the Qana massacre demonstrators in Beirut were quite vocal about their anti-UN and anti-US views. There were also reports of local NGOs and municipalities rejecting any assistance from US donors or those affiliated with the US. With the daily media broadcasts of innocent Lebanese civilians being killed, maimed and displaced by the unrelenting Israeli bombing of civilian targets and the perceived complicity of the US government in supporting Israel's aggression, many Lebanese felt aggrieved and abandoned by the West especially the US. The rhetoric was often passionate and critical of US policy, but none of our staff encountered any overt anti-US sentiment in Beirut. We remain vigilant to the potential for a surge in anti-US sentiment due to actions taken by the Israelis or US government, or a general breakdown in the ceasefire. My twofold recommendation to our program management has been: First, limit the number of international staff deployed, especially to those who will work and travel in the south of the country. Because local capacity is quite high in many of the professional areas that are likely to be required and the fact that SC has had programs in Lebanon for many years indicates to me that this shuld be the preferred course of action. Second, seek out Arabic-speaking, middle-east experienced candidates for the positions that are filled by international personnel.
What programs will Save the Children be implementing in Lebanon now that a ceasefire is in place?
Child protection, education and health seem to be the needs that we are in the best position to address. In addition to the main office in Beirut, we have established an office in Sur (Tyre) and will focus our attention in these areas working through local partners to support those Lebanese returning to their places of origin and the IDPs who cannot yet return. We expect to work through various local partners as the Lebanese civil society has proven well organized, efficient and largely effective - though divided by the same sectarian issues represented in the larger society.
What do you feel are going to be the major safety and security challenges as INGOs start programming in Lebanon?
Landmines and UXO have already claimed lives as the IDPs rushed to return to their homes once the hostilities ceased. This will be an enduring threat. According to the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) in addition to the landmines remaining from earlier conflicts in southern Lebanon, add 10-15% of the 3000 daily bombings, shellings, and bombardments during the 33 days of conflict. Of course, the ceasefire is still fragile and there could be a return to hostilities that will change the threat environment once again. We will continue to work with MAG, have our staff orientated to the landmine/UXO issues, and develop related messages into our education/protection activities.
Any "lessons learned" from the trip you'd like to share with other NGO security practitioners?
Getting the INGO security group activated early on was very important and will benefit the NGO community as organizations move further into the affected areas in the south. Having access to a WIKI site though useful, turned out to be less user friendly than necessary. Having someone on the ground to manage the site and the information would be very useful.


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