The HLCM Chair introduced the presentation by the USG, DSS by pointing out that since the “how to stay” approach was endorsed by the CEB in 2009, a lot has happened in the world.  He therefore welcome a reflection on the question of how the UN system may achieve an appropriate balance between carrying out its essential work in high risk environments and, on the other hand, preserve the safety and security of its staff delivering in those environments.

The USG, DSS highlighted how the UN system’s operating assumptions as well as the expectations of the UN system are changing and the corresponding implications this has on staff.  While 19 August 2003 marked a turning point for the United Nations in terms of security, it was difficult to pinpoint exactly when the UN system became a direct target.  Today, the organizations of the United Nations are targeted almost weekly, which impacts on their operations. 

In 2009, further changes came with the approval by CEB of the “how to stay” paradigm, entailing a risk management approach designed to enable the UN system to continue to deliver vital political, development and humanitarian programmes. Today, large scale operations are often sustained in very dangerous environments, including in active conflict zones. The imperative to forge ahead and protect human rights, as enshrined in the Rights up Front doctrine, was recently illustrated by the deployment, at the outset of the crisis, of human rights workers in the Ukraine.  The joint UN/OPCW mission in Syria, established in 2013, further demonstrated how UN personnel continue to work under very dangerous conditions.

The question raised in the DSS paper is whether the UN Security Management System is supporting Executive Heads, Designated Officials and other managers with the right tools to make the decisions they have to make, and if the security capacity is there to provide maximum protection for staff.  Organizations must consider the effects of post-traumatic stress, the need for psychological screening, the criteria to deploy and keep staff in hardship locations and the possibility to offer them options to be posted elsewhere.  After-care for families and survivors must be considered.  The expectations of staff must be managed to coincide with the change in the organizations’ assumptions about the need to continue operating in high risk environments.


The USG emphasized the high costs of security requirements to continue to remain in high-risk locations.  Yet, the call for no programme without security is not fully realized. 

UNDSS was commended for its paper, which generated a very robust and engaging discussion. There was general agreement that five years was a long enough time to have a fresh look at the “how to stay” principle, especially in the context of extreme and extended emergencies.  The Committee acknowledged the need for the UN system to examine different business models that could be applied in high-threat environments to minimize the risk to personnel. Another conversation and a new approach may also be needed about safety and security in duty stations like Nairobi, which are at neither extreme of the risk scale.

The Committee acknowledged the many initiatives taken by the UN system over the last three years, particularly with respect to support for family and victims. In 2010, an Emergency Preparedness and Response Team has been established by the UN Secretariat as a dedicated capacity to support staff.  Since that time, a robust counselling facility, coordinated through DSS’ Critical Incident Stress Management Unit (CISMU) has been put into place.  Further initiatives included the deployment of a medical emergency response team, streamlining processes to settle compensation claims more efficiently, the establishment of a UN memorial recognition fund, and support for educational assistance for surviving children.  Efforts were also made to build capacity and advocate for emergency preparedness and crisis response.  The UN’s Inter-Departmental Working Group on Survivor and Family support was working with DSS to see how together crisis intervention may be more efficient. 

Many participants highlighted that most safety and security related instruments and initiatives come at a considerable cost, often hidden as overhead costs. More transparency and engagement with Member States is needed to ensure that such costs are reflected as an investment to deliver the mandates that Member States give to the UN system.

Intersecting acutely with the concerns of DSS were the concerns of the Medical Directors Working Group. While recognizing the degree of robustness in place for security, the same robustness needs to be put into place to ensure adequate health care when things go wrong. High-risk missions should be operationalized with adequate mass casualty plans. Standards around medical care (including the standards of medical doctors employed) need to be integrated with safety and security standards.  An in-depth reflection is needed of how the UN system can save the lives of its staff, minimize disability and preserve the body and the psyche, including through adequate rest and recuperation cycles. Dialogue is needed about the nature of risks when personnel is operating in the middle of a war zone.

At present, gaps in the provision of service by the United Nations Medical Emergency Response Team (UNMERT) are being examined to see how more effectively UNMERT may be discharged, e.g. by establishing partnerships with local care structures.  Presently, UNMERT still needs 24-48 hours to deploy. In the meantime, medical counsellors and DSS’ Critical Incident Stress Management Unit (CISMU) are examining and beginning to measure mental health issues.

There was general agreement that the psychological dimensions are very important and need to be examined, including with respect to psychological screening and the ethical dilemmas that arise in the application of the Convention on Persons with Disabilities. 

It was proposed during the discussions that there be a closer look at how the UN system deals with perpetrators who commit acts against its staff as, at the very least, this is owed to the families. The use of the rule of law needs to be exercised, even by seeking a Security Council resolution in this regard. In this respect the USG, DSS noted that a recent decision by the Secretary-General called for a roster to be established to follow up on cases and how justice is followed through. 

A recurring theme that arose in the discussions was the perceived double standard in the consideration of the security of international staff and the security of local and national staff, with several organizations calling for more attention to be focused on the latter. This is particularly important for largely field-based organizations where often local and national staff are more exposed and face more risks than international staff.  Leaving behind a small international presence in any high-risk duty stations would represent a possibly effective solution to providing leadership to local and national staff. It was also proposed that the use of new technologies may be one way to lower the risk and that this should be explored.

The cost of doing business was also a recurring theme in the discussions. When the shift was made to “how to stay”, one of the principles was to identify the risks to operations and what mitigating measures could be taken, given the residual risks and programme criticality. Mitigating measures however generally cost significantly. In this respect, one organization highlighted the need to be conscious of today’s economic realities wherein Member States are looking to the UN system to do more with less.  Hence, the need for some innovative approaches was very compelling.  UNDSS’ commitment to carrying out a strategic review of its operations was also recalled, and it was stressed that such a review should go beyond the lens of cost-shared budgets.

The fragmentation of the present funding structures for security is also problematic, with some costs falling under operating costs while other costs being accounted for under overhead.  Higher transparency and visibility, as well as common approaches to showing security-related costs was called for, as this would lead to a better understanding by all stakeholders of the feasibility of performing in high-risk areas. 

Some experiences with ‘Statements of Employer Responsibility’ were presented, as a means to outline context-specific risk appetite, including the obligations, responsibilities and the corporate risk register for any mandated activities.   

While it was acknowledged that the “how to stay” paradigm was transformational, there were still difficulties with the determination of programme criticality. The role of UNICEF in leading the work on Programme Criticality was recognized. 

A significant proposal that emerged in the discussions was the suggestion that perhaps “how to stay” is no longer the right question to be asking and that consideration be given to fading it out and reframing the approach to “how to deliver’, which would also entail a review of business models, as well as an assessment of the impact of the move to the ‘how to stay’ approach.

Staff Federations welcomed the report provided by UNDSS as well as the intervention of the Medical Directors’ Working Group. They highlighted that staff members are subjected to an increased number of life-threatening attacks, and called for a full endorsement of UNDSS’ recommendations while stressing that adequate safety and security costs should be an integral part of any programmatic budget in the relevant duty stations. Staff representatives confirmed their willingness to contribute to further discussions with UNDSS, the HR Network and the Medical Directors Working Group, aiming at identifying the best course of action to enhance staff safety and security.

The Committee thanked DSS for the extremely thoughtful paper and for its work in support of the entire UN system. Appreciation was also expressed for the progress made on the human resources and medical side. 

There was agreement that a holistic examination of the programmatic need to stay and deliver should be conducted against the organizational imperative of duty of care for staff in high-risk environments. Noting the importance of ‘how to deliver’, strong support was expressed for HLCM playing a role in bringing the security, human resources, financial and medical streams together on these issues. 

The USG noted the difficulty in measuring the effectiveness of security measures.  However, since the ‘how to stay’ approach was adopted, better and more sophisticated risk management procedures were put in place and casualties remained constant or declined. 

The HLCM Chair expressed deep appreciation to UNDSS for having raised the issues outlined in the paper “Reconciling duty of care for UN personnel while operating in high risk environments”, which were both very timely and appropriate.  


The Committee:

  • Noted that the paper “Reconciling duty of care for UN personnel while operating in high risk environments” raised a complex set of issues, ranging from human resources policies,  funding matters, appetite for risk, use of common premises, consequences of security incidents, after-service care for survivors and families and follow up in terms of indictment and prosecution.
  • Agreed to establish a working group, to be chaired by the USG, DSS, with a Co-Chair to be selected among other HLCM members, to undertake a comprehensive review of the issues raised in the paper “Reconciling duty of care for UN personnel while operating in high risk environments”, and to report to  HLCM at its next session in October 2014.   The working group, which should be kept reasonably small, should include one representative each from the HR Network, the FB Network, and the Medical Directors’ Working Group, as well as one representative from two or three major field agencies, and one from a specialized agency. Representatives of the staff federations are welcome as observers.
  • Noted that due consideration should be given by the working group to reformulating the ‘how to stay’ principle in terms of ‘how to deliver’.