Humanitarian action must not be a tool of political interests
18 July 2002
The UN has explicitly determined that humanitarian action should be integrated under a more complex political and social agenda. In our experience this means that coordinated action is all too often a tool for the co-option of humanitarian action in pursuit of political interest.
Dear Chairman, delegates, ladies and gentlemen
It has been ten years since Resolution 46/182 was passed, strengthening the hope for a strong, effective and coordinated international response to protect and assist people in crisis. This is an opportune time to take stock of what has been achieved and what has failed. Today, I wish to make three main points in that connection.
First the victims, the people for whom we are here today. Despite proclamations that humanitarian concerns are now squarely on the international agenda, victims of conflict and crisis are extremely vulnerable, and perhaps increasingly so, to violence, abuse and neglect.
If we look at the plight of war victims, refugees and displaced, their position has probably never been weaker, never so ignored. A clear indication of this has been the revelation this year that even employees of our own agencies who are supposed to be helping refugees could in fact be sexually exploiting them.
The weakness of refugees has also been highlighted by the tendency to portray and treat them as a threat to the neighbouring or host country. So the political responses mainly reflect not the obligation to offer sanctuary and protection but rather a desire to contain would-be refugees where they are, no matter how dangerous that place is. These policies of containment and non-asylum threaten the basic right of people to flee and be given refuge.
As conflicts continue to target civilian populations, forcible displacement, massacres and hopelessness are the result. International humanitarian law was created to protect and assist non-combatants in times of war and crisis, yet despite being invoked rhetorically by all sides, respect for its basic provisions is under threat.
Here, the "war on terrorism" raises concerns. Its political logic seems to imply that because the "terrorists" do not, by definition, respect international conventions, anti-terrorist operations may therefore have a freer hand. The struggle to uphold humanitarian law suffers as result, with disastrous consequences for the protection and assistance of civilian populations.
The pressure to subordinate the humanitarian cause to some over-arching goal is happening not only through UN operations, but in the strategies of the most powerful military actors, including in the war on terrorism.
This leads me to my second point that, while civilian populations continue to be crushed by violence and abuse, the international response to their plight has been far from consistent, and that politically-motivated military interventions have posed challenges to independent humanitarian action.
During the last decade, more often than not, victims of warfare have not been offered appropriate protection and assistance. The collective failure to halt the genocide in Rwanda still haunts us all, yet what about the neglect in the Congo, Sudan, Chechnya or, until last year, Afghanistan? In contrast, in contexts where political priorities were important, humanitarian concerns have justified and accompanied political, and even military, interventions. Somalia, Sierra Leone or Kosovo are all examples of such international interventions with a humanitarian component.
The growth, over the past decade, of peacekeeping operations in countries in conflict, has forced a much more direct engagement between the military, the local populations and humanitarian agencies. This has sometimes led to confusion about the political role of those forces or even confusion between peacekeepers and parties to the conflict.
What I think we should recognise today is that the pressure to subordinate the humanitarian cause to some over-arching goal is happening not only through UN operations, but in the strategies of the most powerful military actors, including in the war on terrorism. The SCHR (Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response) is very clear about the need to disentangle humanitarian assistance from politics by reclaiming both humanitarian space and the core principles of impartiality and independence.
It is worthwhile here to summarise the core principles that our group shares on humanitarian-military relations. Our commitment and accountability is to the people we seek to serve. The roles of the military and of humanitarian agencies are different. Impartial humanitarian assistance is a response to an urgent and inalienable right in itself, whereas peace-making or peace-keeping operations inevitably have a partial and political mandate. Which means - when coming to the central issue of coordination - that civilian, humanitarian organisations cannot operate under the command of the military.
The UN clearly has the responsibility to search for peace and to engage in political processes for conflict resolution. But it also has a responsibility to preserve a humanitarian space to address the need of people suffering, regardless of any other consideration.
This leads me to my third and final point, which is that coordination mechanisms must seek to preserve and reinforce the space for independent, impartial humanitarian action, rather than pursue a misguided search for integration and coherence.
I am not talking about humanitarian organisations acting in a vacuum but, during the last decade, it has become clear that coordination among humanitarian actors needs to be strengthened both to address the failure of political action and also to distinguish it from that action. We are therefore bound to be concerned when coordination is presented as an integrated approach, which seeks to merge the humanitarian with the political, military and economic agendas. Rather, we need to clearly reaffirm that, when people are suffering, the primacy of humanitarian imperatives over political aims must be defended.
So for us it is self-evident that coordination must address first and foremost the need for the humanitarian community, including UN-agencies and NGOs, to act in an efficient and complementary manner to reduce human suffering and enhance the protection of populations in danger. The primary challenge, thus, is "internal coordination" between humanitarian actors.
And this means horizontal coordination among independent actors rather than coordination by command or control. There is a continuous call for more coordination by UN agencies, and this call always focuses on – and sometimes even criticises - NGOs as if we were a major reason for failure. We have a recent example in Angola, where MSF has been accused of lack of coordination mainly because it worked independently when UN agencies, led by OCHA, were largely inactive in addressing a massive crisis.
With the support of member states, the UN seeks a model of coordination that is centrally controlled and managed through financial dependence. It is possible that this model could work, if the UN system were to lead by example and put the resources of humanitarian actors solely at the command of humanitarian objectives. But that has not been the guiding principle.
The UN has explicitly determined, for instance in the Brahimi report, that humanitarian action should be integrated under a more complex political and social agenda. In our experience this means that coordinated action is all too often a tool for the co-option of humanitarian action in pursuit of political interest.
For example, in Sierra Leone, the presence of aid agencies in the RUF areas was one of the tools used in the UN peace-keepers’ struggle with the rebels. If this pattern continues, independent civil agencies will inevitably resist any attempts at coercive coordination because such coordination denies our mission and our reason for existence.
Today we want to look back at those ten years since the wish was expressed to strengthen coordination mechanisms. We know a lot more now about how to act meaningfully to help people in need. There are a range of interventions that can make a real difference to people’s lives and hopes. Effective action depends on good information, sufficient resources, capacity and coordination. The effort to achieve that is the spirit that motivates our presence today.
Yet we also want to raise our concern. The UN clearly has the responsibility to search for peace and to engage in political processes for conflict resolution. But it also has a responsibility to preserve a humanitarian space to address the need of people suffering, regardless of any other consideration. Our main concern must be to meet that need. Coordination is a means to that end, not to some other goal.
This speech was presented at the United Nations on July 18 on the tenth anniversary of Resolution 46/182 that created the current mechanisms for the coordination of humanitarian action.
The Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response (SCHR) is a coalition of nine of the largest international humanitarian organisations. The member groups are Oxfam, Care, Save the Children, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC), World Council of Churches, Caritas, Lutheran World Federation and Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF).