War on terrorism and humanitarianism

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, and now more than ever.
A global "war on terrorism" was quickly announced after the massacres took place in New York and Washington on September 11 last year. In a few weeks the US government managed to create a worldwide alliance to fight terrorism, and this "new war" became the main focus for the time to come. The consequences of this war, however, went far beyond toppling the Taleban regime and hunting down al-Qaeda terrorists. One obvious consequence of the US-led attack on 'terrorists' has been the effective green-light given to other governments and regimes engaged in their own domestic 'counter-terrorist' actions, particularly where these actions relate to Muslim minorities. The political logic of the 'war on terror' seems to imply that because the "terrorists" do not, by definition, respect international conventions, anti-terrorist operations may therefore have a freer hand. A culture of near-total impunity has developed where transgressions of international humanitarian law are overlooked by western governments and the media, as long as they are carried out by 'allies'. We noted with equal dismay the lack of respect of international humanitarian law when the Israeli military were preventing all forms of humanitarian assistance or evacuation of wounded during their campaign in the Jenin refugee camp earlier this year. When 'allies' in the 'war on terror' fail to uphold international humanitarian law and nothing is said about it, what lessons are being absorbed by the 'terrorists' and regimes engaging in civil wars? 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, and now more than ever. MSF has over the past year witnessed and reported the plight of war victims, refugees and displaced in the Mano River region in West-Africa, in Western Upper Nile Province in Sudan and in Angola. In many contexts round the world, conflicts continue to target civilian populations, and forcible displacement, massacres, massive exploitation and hopelessness are the result. In Angola, for example, both the government and UNITA performed bloody atrocities against the civilian population, deliberately violating International Humanitarian Law, yet the international community has done nothing to address these violations. Far from being subject to investigations into their reported war crimes, the Angolan government will next year have a seat on the UN Security Council. The clear message here is that prosecutions for violations of international humanitarian law clearly do not apply to the victors. Civilians’ vulnerability has not only increased due to the weakening of international humanitarian law. The independence of humanitarian action is also at stake.
Instances like the U.S. bombing of ICRC warehouses in Kabul, the dropping of cluster bombs into heavily-populated areas (leaving behind a legacy of unexploded bomblets that indiscriminately injure civilians), unacceptable damage during the Tora Bora bombing, hidden under the word "collateral", are violations of international humanitarian law and must be opposed, irrespective of the cause that is being pursued. We feel also that an independent investigation is warranted into the possible war crimes carried out by the northern alliance forces in Afghanistan, backed by the Western coalition - both in Mazar-i-Sharif where a prison mutiny was crushed by air strikes killing several hundreds prisoners of war - and in Kunduz where hundreds of combatants were massacred last autumn after surrendering. If not, the lack of such action will further undermine the respect for International Humanitarian law and make the protection of non-combatants much harder. Civilians’ vulnerability has not only increased due to the weakening of international humanitarian law. The independence of humanitarian action is also at stake. In the wake of the launch of "war on terrorism", there has been an increasing tendency to subordinate humanitarian action to political agendas and military strategies. Humanitarian action is more and more seen as an integral part of an overall strategy. Since the very beginning the Bush administration has argued that the anti-terrorism campaign was "being fought at home and abroad through multiple operations including diplomatic, military, financial, investigative, homeland security and humanitarian actions". British Prime Minister Tony Blair has gone even further in speaking of a "military-humanitarian coalition". We are vigorously opposed to this. Mixing military and "so-called" humanitarian interventions may in the end endanger effective aid to civilians. Once the two have been mixed together, who will be able to tell the difference? How can civilians trust humanitarian aid to be independent? Our teams in Afghanistan have time and again the last year observed military personnel from the international coalition force in civilian clothes with concealed guns, driving civilian cars. We have also met other Special Forces in civilian clothes carrying guns, who claimed they were on a "humanitarian mission". International media attention to humanitarian issues was always notoriously fickle and patchy. But at least sometimes we achieved success, and the world would heed the suffering of people in places such as Africa. It is now nearly non-existent, certainly in the anglo-saxon media, unless a link can be made to the war on terror.
If armies engaged in the fighting are involved in delivering humanitarian assistance, it can be regarded by their opponents as an act of war. Civilians will in the end suffer if humanitarian action is seen as partisan, and aid, and aid workers, can easily be targeted. Humanitarian aid promotes a concern for humanity and dignity in times of violence. This relies on a respect for the impartiality of aid agencies, and their independence from the pursuit of military causes. This is a precondition for being able to give aid solely based on needs. The politicized and militarized "humanitarian" concept which now is increasingly emerging, is not what has been described in the Geneva conventions where humanitarian action is required to be neutral, independent and impartial. We have also observed, with great concern, the reduction in media space and attention to those foreign stories which do not have a direct link to the war on terror. Even before September 2001 we admittedly struggled to convince media of the importance of covering stories outside their nations direct geo-political sphere of influence. International attention to humanitarian issues was always notoriously fickle and patchy. But at least sometimes we achieved success, and the world would heed the suffering of people in places such as Africa. It is now nearly non-existent, certainly in the anglo-saxon media, unless a link can be made to the war on terror. Despite the witnessing the worst mortality and malnutrition rates for years in Angola in Spring 2002, for example, media coverage of this situation was extremely difficult to attain, as is coverage of the human cost of the continuing conflict in Democratic Republic of Congo, or Burundi. Clearly, resources and focus are elsewhere. In stark contrast to the crassly insufficient level of Western political and financial commitment to global deprivation, it was telling to observe after September 11th, that it was entirely possible within a matter of weeks to mobilize a worldwide political coalition and billions and billions of dollars to fight al-Qaeda and the Taliban because they were considered to be a common threat. Lack of financial resources was not an issue, there was only the question of political will.