In the shadow of just wars

This presentation will aim to give an overview of humanitarian intervention over the last five years.

Western states conducted three military interventions in conflict-ridden countries between 1999 and 2000 (Kosovo, East-Timor and Sierra Leone) in the name of the defence of collective security and human rights.

This predilection for military action, in defence of 'values' as much as interests, received fresh impetus since September 11 2001.

A combination of universal humanist morality and national security has been given as justification for the US-led intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq.

We are invited to believe that ethics and politics have become reconciled on the initiative of a handful of 'avant-gardist' states that now consider the defence of fundamental liberties throughout the world as an essential component of their national interests.

At the start of 2002, Paul Wolfowitz, US Under-Secretary for Defense, said: "If people are really set free to run their countries as they see fit, we will be dealing with a world very favourable to American interests."

These developments might appear to offer hope to populations subjected to the most violent forms of oppression.

At last the wishful thinking appeals of humanitarian organisations calling on politicians to 'shoulder their responsibilities', abandon 'realpolitik', and put an end to massive human rights violations seem to have been heard.

Then by the US, conscious of its 'manifest destiny' and determined, through the 'war on terrorism', to export the doctrine of human rights and 'free-market democracy' - by force of arms and disregarding international law if necessary.

In short, we are supposed to witness the blooming of a universal moral conscience that mobilises the energies of all towards the continuous improvement of the global human condition - under the banner of the UN for some and the US and coalition forces for others.

The most relevant questions from a humanitarian point of view are:

To what extent has the proliferation of so-called 'just' wars and the recent enthusiasm for ethical and humanitarian values benefited populations exposed to mass violence?

And what has been the practical international reaction to the most serious crises of the last five years stemming from the discourse of a 'right to intervene' and the 'War on Evil'?

Médecins Sans Frontières has tried to answer these questions by reviewing lessons learnt from the most severe crises of the past five years, including Angola, Sudan, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Advocates of a new political order - like those who defend the existing one - do not deny that some people are sacrificed, but justify it in the name of a better future or the preservation of the benefits of 'civilisation'; 'you cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs'. The logic of a culinary recipe ultimately dictates the premature extinction of a part of humanity.

Humanitarian action, as we understand it, challenges the logic that justifies the premature and avoidable death of a part of humanity in the name of a hypothetical collective good.

'Are all these deaths really necessary?' This is the question we systematically address to political powers.

In other words, humanitarian action is primarily dedicated to those whose right to survive clashes with the indifference or open hostility of others.

Consequently, if humanitarian action is to be consistent, it will inevitably clash with the established order.

The international community of states cannot ignore contemporary armed conflicts

Their international ramifications are amplified in this period of history that is marked by the rapid growth of all kinds of international exchange - human beings, ideas and goods.

International interventions are multiplying in response to these wars, and play a leading role in the regulation of conflicts and their human consequences.

The end of the Cold War revived the idea of an international political system capable of anticipating wars, conducting negotiations, mediating between belligerents, and sometimes imposing peace and justice by force. In four years, from 1988 to 1992, the United Nations launched as many international military operations as it had done in the preceding four decades.

This tendency has continued. International military interventions are becoming more numerous and ambitious, yet this form of international reaction to major crises still represents the exception rather than the rule.

When considering the use of force by an international coalition on territory belonging to a sovereign state and its consequences for humanitarian action, three types of intervention stand out:

Intervention: The use of armed force against one of the parties to the conflict followed by international stewardship of the 'liberated' territories. It is conducted under the banner of collective security and universal morality in a context - with the exception of Iraq - of massive violence against civilian populations. An intense humanitarian performance that legitimises the war and sidelines the crimes committed during its prosecution accompany these operations.

Involvement: Diplomatic and humanitarian involvement, which formally addresses humanitarian, concerns while subjecting aid operations to a political agenda (usually a partisan policy aimed at confining the conflict within acceptable limits).

Abstention: Characterised by international indifference to the extreme brutality of certain conflicts. This equates to issuing the principal belligerents with a licence to kill.

These three types of international reactions to crisis have all a significant but different impact on relief agencies performances and affected populations survival.

It is a reality that most relief agencies are under the control of the most powerful states either directly (bilateral cooperation, national red crescents or red cross societies) or indirectly (U.N humanitarian agencies, private organisations controlled through financial grants and ideological proximity of their leadership with powerful states and international organisations leaders).


The post-Cold War military operations launched in Kurdistan (1991), Somalia (1992) and ,to a certain extent, in Rwanda (1994) and Bosnia (1995) were manifestations of the resurgence of the concept of a 'just' war conducted by the most powerful actors on the international stage in the name of a hypothetical universal morality and collective security.

This 'right to intervene', suspected since its inception of being a moral front for the defence of the interests of the most powerful, is now being extended in the name of the 'global war on terror'.

Originally intended to put a rapid end to massive violence inflicted on civilians, international involvement has veered towards 'preventive war'.

The operations undertaken in Kosovo, East Timor, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, and more recently Iraq, are typical of this new messianic interventionism.

Operations of this nature combine military, psychological, diplomatic and economic action with assistance to populations within a vast network that humanitarian organisations are expected to join if they wish to receive institutional funding.

Most of these operations were mandated or approved by the United Nations. They ended with the international armed force controlling all or part of the territory of a sovereign state.

The partial success of the interventions in Kosovo, East Timor, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan is derived from the significant reduction in the mass violence suffered by civilians and the limited harm inflicted on non-combatants, and the populations' support for the overthrow of the governing regimes.

The American military campaign against the Taliban regime provides a particularly interesting example of the way 'just' wars are engineered, and the consequences of this illusory concept.

The damage included:

  • the partial or total closure of the borders of Pakistan and Iran to prevent refugees escaping the war
  • blockage of food aid in Uzbekistan for several weeks
  • use of troops disguised as humanitarian aid workers
  • US air strikes on the premises of humanitarian organisations
  • misdirected US air strikes resulting in the death of at least 1,000 civilians
  • US use of cluster bombs which, when unexploded, pose the same threat as anti-personnel mines
  • and the massacre of hundreds of prisoners of war in the north. Unlike earlier interventions (Kosovo, Timor, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan), the invasion of Iraq was not decided in the context of massive violence against the population. The official reason was the need to disarm Iraq and thus prevent the possibility of Al-Qaida gaining access to 'weapons of mass destruction'.

    It is not the role of humanitarian actors to judge the relevance of the US-British thesis. Humanitarian action is peaceful by nature but not pacifist.

    It is the manner in which force is deployed rather than the resort to force per se that is of concern to humanitarian actors. There are very few exceptions to this rule but they include genocide, in which ends and means merge.

    The conduct of military operations in Iraq raises a number of questions in this respect.

    It cannot be denied that effective measures were taken to spare the Iraqi population. The US-British offensive did not result in massive casualties or provoke a massive exodus and a major health disaster.

    But we must also stress the limitations, the preventive machine-gunning of any individual who might have posed a threat meets the criteria defining war crimes in its targeting of civilians and its disproportion to the feeble resistance offered by the enemy.

    Similarly, the use of cluster bombs in urban zones refutes the professed desire to spare civilian life.

    The reluctance of Washington and London to discuss publicly these issues of probable war crimes indicates the point to which questions of the war's legitimacy override criticism of its conduct.

    The presentation becomes more sophisticated when the occupying power's responsibilities to the population (security, water, food, shelter, health care) are transformed into 'humanitarian aid' through the magic of the world's most powerful propaganda machine. Farce turns into deception when we learn that this peculiar form of 'humanitarian aid' is to be financed by Iraqi oil revenues.

    The ridiculous finally gives way to the sinister when bureaucratically-induced delays in the restoration of public services - essential in the aftermath of war - deprive the wounded and sick of medical care, thus aggravating the crisis in a society that is expected to feel liberated by the transition from a totalitarian regime to a foreign military dictatorship.

    In these contexts broad access to funds from major aid donors, at least in the initial phase of military intervention, is guaranteed to aid agencies ever sensitive to the preservation and growth of their budgets.

    Media coverage of abundant international aid being dispensed to victims of an 'evil' enemy makes it easier to forget the human cost arising from the use of force and the political repercussions of violating state sovereignty.


    The second form of international reaction equally displays a formal preoccupation with the human cost of the crises under consideration.

    In 2001 North Korea, Sudan and Angola were the sites of the three largest UN assistance programs. Despite this massive humanitarian presence, the human cost of these crises remained high.

    In Angola, 3 million people trapped in the rebel zone received no assistance at all between 1998 and 2002, and tens of thousands died of starvation, disease or the violence directly inflicted by combatants of all sides.

    In Sudan and North Korea famine killed hundreds of thousands of civilians even though huge quantities of food aid were distributed.

    In all three countries, international engagement took the form of a partisan involvement with the objective of containing the crisis within certain limits that would not challenge the interests of the most powerful states.

    The engagement benefited one camp and disadvantaged the other, but the 'international community' stopped short of offering its favoured party the critical support of military intervention.

    So-called humanitarian aid is so well adapted to the containment policy that it becomes its principal instrument.

    It matters little whether the powerful states favour an opposition party (the opposition to the Islamist regime in Khartoum), a party in power (the MPLA in Angola) or an internationally consensual political option like 'soft landing' in North Korea, the last Stalinist totalitarian regime.

    International aims are more concerned with containing the crisis, preferably within existing borders, than with bringing it to a rapid conclusion by a concerted military campaign against one of the protagonists.

    Under these circumstances, the deployment of aid assumes greater importance and visibility because it is aimed at smoothing away the disastrous image of an international political system that is unable to prevent massacres, famines and epidemics.

    In many ways crisis management takes the form of a gigantic 'humanitarian' aid program organised in such a way to primarily serve the interests of the parties favoured by the major powers.

    Extensive media coverage of the operation serves to allay public anxiety while civilian populations are in fact left to their executioners.

    In such situations aid is often abundant but inaccessible to those who most need it (as in Angola and North Korea) or becomes an important resource for local participants in the conflict through massive and institutionalised misappropriation (as in Sudan).

    Endangered populations are thus deprived of vital aid while their tormentors profit from it.

    When an aid operation works to the advantage of a totalitarian regime, as it does in North Korea, it contributes to the maintenance of a system in which terror and extreme privation provoke the death of millions.

    Several million people are thought to have starved to death under the yoke of the Pyongyang regime in the late 1990s, during which time the regime was benefiting from one of the largest food aid operations ever mounted.

    The tens of thousands of refugees driven into China by poverty and hunger attest to the slow destruction of part of the population because it was denied access to existing international aid. This did not stop Mrs Bertini, executive director of the World Food Programme, from presenting the operation as an 'absolute success' that averted famine in North Korea.

    It is not difficult to see why the tens of thousands of refugees present along the Chinese border are ignored by the international community. They do not conform to this image of 'absolute success', and are therefore condemned to persecution by the Chinese police and forced repatriation to the Korean gulag.


    The recent revival of international activism in response to crises should not obscure the fact that the principal form of international reaction to conflicts with the most civilian casualties (Algeria, Colombia, Chechnya, Democratic Republic of Congo) is to refrain from military intervention or to become involved in a marginal way.

    Because the violence suffered by populations is not considered an international political issue, the belligerents and local powers are free to practice every conceivable kind of cruelty and are de facto delivered a license to kill by their international partners.

    In such circumstances international humanitarian action is reduced or is non-existent and has little impact given the large needs due to the prevalence and intensity of physical and social violence.

    The lack of international concern over the brutality of these conflicts makes it impossible to create the climate necessary for the respect of non-combatants (civilians, wounded soldiers and prisoners) or ensure an effective distribution of aid.

    Worse still, the belligerents are often in a position to misappropriate, by violence, international aid resources which are then used to further violence.

    Chechnya provides a good example of this abstention policy.

    International reactions to the Russian federal army's campaign in Chechnya is the perfect illustration of the abstension.

    All means have been used but this conflict has never been put on the agenda of the U.N Security Council.

    Meanwhile, Moscow forces stage deadly attacks on Russian soil and attribute them to terrorists; razes Grozny, the Chechen capital; bomb the country's inhabitants; rape and slaughter thousands of men and women; engage in the traffic of the living and the dead.

    Since 1994 at least 100,000 people are estimated to have been killed, and 400,000 displaced, out of a pre-war population of one million in this small republic, and all with the silent consent of the UN Security Council.

    We cannot ignore the fact that there are conflicts in which mass violence is a secondary issue in negotiations between international bodies and belligerents.

    Some belligerents seem to benefit from a kind of limitless tolerance. But it is probably in the Great Lakes region of Africa that the laissez-faire attitude to mass violence has reached the most dramatic levels since the 1990s.

    As the past decade in the Democratic Republic of Congo illustrates, the 'victims of no importance' in this conflict can probably be counted in millions.

    Over the past decade, the total of deaths represents more than one tenth of the population of Burundi, Rwanda and the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

    Conclusion: a brief plea for an art of living

    Free of the illusion that humanity is inexorably progressing toward an ideal society, the humanitarian actor can actively resist the very human temptation to accept the death of part of our global community so that the 'common good' may prevail.

    The repeated failure of aid operations is due in great part to this 'alliance' - which, in reality, is the submission of humanitarian concerns to political agendas.

    The reasons for this alliance, which each year deprives hundreds of thousands of people of life-saving aid are:

  • economic (access to government funding for aid agencies),
  • ideological (the attraction of a hypothetical universal morality);
  • bureaucratic (the aid system's defence of its own interests and sub-culture).

    But all these factors contribute to aligning humanitarian action on the political axis and deflecting it from its responsibility - to save as many lives as possible.

    When humanitarian aid operations lose sight of their objective, they are not only ineffective for people in need, but they become embroiled in the production of political violence and exacerbate the human consequences that they are by duty supposed to relieve.

    Given the power and violence of some political protagonists, the struggle is unequal and defeats are frequent for humanitarian action that is peaceful by nature.

    No illusion of a future ideal society will change this fact. But humanitarian action can still oppose the elimination of part of humanity by acting independently, on its own agenda, based on peoples needs.

    More independent from powerful states, humanitarian action could be more efficient.

    The food crisis in Angola in 2002 provides an example. Médecins Sans Frontières did manage to save 20,000 from starvation through massive relief operations.

    But tens of thousands died of starvation because for world 'leaders', UN humanitarian agencies, Red Cross societies, the majority of NGOs, and the media, the emergency was, at that time, elsewhere.

    As I speak today, hundreds of thousands of people in Darfur remain without humanitarian assistance. It has taken the international community months to acknowledge that a conflict was even happening in Dafur because the priority was to engage the Government of Sudan in a peace process.

    Meanwhile civilians in Darfur were targeted, thousands have died and hundreds of thousands forced from their homes.

    Médecins Sans Frontières is providing assistance to both refugees that have crossed into Chad and internally displaced in Darfur itself. Yet despite the increased media and political attention generating greater access, the humanitarian assistance reaching Darfur remains completely insufficient to meet the needs.