By nature, humanitarian action is embedded in politics.
The fundamental concept of humanitarian action - that ordinary people must be spared undue violence and assisted in times of conflict and crisis, in an independent and impartial way - requires political support to exist.
These humanitarian principles are set out in the Geneva Conventions.
Yet, more and more, the same powers that have enshrined humanitarian principles into law are subverting them: they are cloaking their political agendas in humanitarian language and co-opting the humanitarian ideal into the service of other causes, whether peace, democracy or the fight against terrorism.
The consequences of this seemingly benign trend are not benign at all: humanitarian workers cannot do their jobs and people do not get the aid they need. It is not only political powers that bear responsibility for this. Many humanitarian organizations have themselves been complicit, either voluntarily or involuntarily, by failing to articulate, defend and act on the core humanitarian principles to which they adhere. MSF has seen the negative effects of this on civilians in need in Angola, Afghanistan and, most recently, Iraq.
Angola - a deadly "coherence" In early 2002, thousands of Angolans died when the humanitarian response that could have saved them was slowed by political calculations. For four years, humanitarian assistance had been confined to provincial capitals controlled by the government, reaching only a fraction of the population in need.
The death of UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi in February 2002 led to a ceasefire between UNITA rebels and the government in April. Vast areas of the country that had been under UNITA control or contested by both sides (the so-called "gray zones") opened up, revealing hundreds of thousands of starving and sick civilians.
Tens of thousands of surrendered UNITA fighters along with many thousands of dependents, in similarly bad condition, streamed into "Quartering and Family Areas" (QFAs) around the country. There was an acute emergency situation in almost all sites, with close to one million people in urgent need of help.
MSF teams mobilized, and dramatically scaled up nutritional and medical programs in April and May. The massive needs certainly outstripped the organization's capacity; complementary interventions, particularly general food distribution, were urgently required. The Angolan government showed criminal neglect in not beginning an emergency intervention itself and failed to call on others to provide assistance.
The response by the UN agencies and other organizations was woefully late and insufficient. The World Food Program actually reduced the number of beneficiaries for May and June because of supply problems, and UN agencies only started assessing the dramatic situation in the QFAs in early June.
Why was this so? When UNITA collapsed in early 2002, the UN sought to participate in the transition to peace, envisaging a role for itself particularly in the demobilization and disarmament process, the monitoring of human rights and the oversight of eventual elections. Yet the Angolan government remained highly skeptical of the UN, blaming it for UNITA's failed demobilization in 1994, which had led to a resumption of hostilities.
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Many humanitarian organizations have themselves been complicit, either voluntarily or involuntarily, by failing to articulate, defend and act on the core humanitarian principles to which they adhere. MSF has seen the negative effects of this on civilians in need in Angola, Afghanistan and, most recently, Iraq.