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Departing U.N. official questions progress

By Katya Lebedev, CNN
John Holmes is the U.N's. outgoing under-secretary-general and emergency relief coordinator.
John Holmes is the U.N's. outgoing under-secretary-general and emergency relief coordinator.
  • Holmes: Darfur, Kyrgyzstan, Colombia show result for this year "is depressing"
  • He calls for "prevention as well as mitigation"
  • His office has assisted in humanitarian crises from China to Haiti during tenure
  • Ban cites difficulty of protecting "all people from all threats at all times"

United Nations (CNN) -- In his final appearance before the Security Council, the United Nations' outgoing humanitarian chief questioned whether progress in protecting civilians has actually been accomplished.

"I fear all too little has changed for the better on the ground in recent years," John Holmes said Wednesday. "Civilians account for the vast majority of casualties in armed conflicts, especially in the internal conflicts, which are now the norm, and they are increasingly targeted by combatants and armed elements."

Holmes, the under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and the U.N.'s emergency relief coordinator, questioned the "credibility" of U.N. Security Council "pronouncements" made to protect trapped civilians in armed conflict.

Holmes is leaving after three-and-a-half years as the U.N. humanitarian chief. He is believed to be assuming a post with the British Foreign Office back home. His appearance Wednesday before the Security Council coincided with speeches on the protection of civilians in armed conflict.

Since he became under-secretary-general, Holmes and the U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, have assisted in humanitarian crises from China to Haiti.

"The Security Council has played an important role in expanding the weight of international jurisprudence," Holmes said. But he voiced skepticism about the organization's attempts to close the widening gap between "international rules and reality on the ground." He called for more "effective action on the ground to protect civilians" and urged for more durable solutions.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who appointed Holmes to the job, rebutted the criticism by pointing to the difficulty of protecting "all people from all threats at all times," even in times of peace, and stated that it is important that the United Nations "manage expectations."

Holmes described world trouble spots where citizens have been attacked. In Kyrgyzstan -- a multiethnic, landlocked nation in Central Asia that saw an outbreak of riots in April and where the official death toll from those riots is estimated to be 275 -- Holmes said the "real death toll may be much higher." He also used the examples of Chad and Gaza, which many of the Security Council members pointed to, to show the ineffectiveness and inefficiency of UN peacekeeping missions.

The concern for internally displaced peoples was also addressed. He said that in 2009, 6.8 million people were displaced within their own country by conflict, and he pointed to the conflicts in Darfur, Kyrgyzstan and Colombia to illustrate that the result for this year "is also, so far, depressing."

The members of the Security Council said they were pleased with Holmes' service. U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice praised his "rare and resolute determination to end the suffering of civilians under threat." The Mexican ambassador, Claude Heller, expressed his admiration of Holmes for representing the "best facets of the organization: the defending of human rights on the ground."

The low-key Holmes called for a change in the way the U.N. conducts peacekeeping and humanitarian missions. The British diplomat called for new solutions in which the peacekeepers would look to "prevention as well as mitigation."

The UN secretary-general, meanwhile, said that there was still "more the council can and must do."