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Section Three International Aid


Researcher at MSF-Crash, François Jean died on December 25th 1999. He wrote numerous books and articles, some published in Revue Esprit. He worked particularly on Afghanistan, Caucasus, North Korea and analyzed the evolution of humanitarianism without compromise.


Life, Death, And Aid

Originally published as the introduction to Life, Death, and Aid: The Médecins Sans Frontières Report on World Crisis Intervention, Routledge/Hachette 1993

The United Nations, powerless during the Cold War as a result of the superpower hostility that essentially restricted its role to development aid, has now been given a real ability to take initiative and is looking to develop its capability for emergency interventions in crisis situations.

The end of the Cold War raised again the idea of an international system based on shared values, administered by international institutions, and defended by democratic countries. Wars are no longer considered inevitable. In the face of the increasing number of crises, the international community is regularly called upon to encourage negotiations, to interpose itself between factions, and to assist people at risk. Although for years the great powers were vilified for exacerbating and protracting conflicts throughout the world, today all hopes are pinned on their involvement.

A New Role for the United Nations

The United Nations’ return to center stage, symbolized by the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Blue Helmets in 1988, can be seen in the frenetic increase in its activity. In the four years from 1988 to 1992, it has carried out more operations—13 in all—than in the preceding 40 years and the number of Blue Helmets has increased from 10,000 to 52,000. Since then, the United Nations has continued to grow. By June 1993, the number of Blue Helmets had increased to 75,000, mainly owing to the intervention in Somalia, and no month goes by without a new operation starting up—in Rwanda, Georgia, Tajikistan, or South Africa.

This boom in UN activity is in striking contrast to its past inertia. East-West confrontation paralyzed the Security Council for 40 years and prevented the implementation of the collective security system provided for by the San Francisco Charter. The United Nations could not do much about the new conflicts springing up in the shadow of superpower rivalry. It was limited to intervening at the fringe of conflicts, in what was to become known as “peacekeeping.” This improvised mechanism, which was not foreseen under the charter and which Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld described as “chapter six and a half,” bridged the gap between Chapter VI, dealing with the peaceful resolution of conflicts, and Chapter VII, covering a whole range of constraints to be used if peaceful methods failed, ranging from economic sanctions to the use of force.

The essential elements of peacekeeping—the agreement of opposing sides to the deployment of Blue Helmets and the nonuse of force, except in the last resort and in case of self-defense—clearly reflected the constraints involved in playing the Cold War game. This meant, in effect, the deployment of observers or neutral forces between the warring parties, providing they had agreed to suspend hostilities in the first place. Essentially, this did little more than preserve the status quo and win time until a political solution, however unlikely, could be found.

Today, the observers have become players. The permanent members of the Security Council, who used and abused their right of veto for four decades, have finally begun to collaborate in the spirit of collegiality laid out in the charter and are ready to play the game of multilateral diplomacy. The number of interventions has increased, as has the diversity of UN missions. As a result, peacekeeping has become a hazier concept, now covering a whole range of activities from mine clearing to organizing elections, demobilizing and disarming combatants, repatriating and reintegrating refugees, training police forces, defending human rights, and rebuilding ruined economies.

The operations in 1990–91 in Angola, El Salvador, and Cambodia were among the first illustrations of this newly extended field of intervention—albeit improvised in a way that has characterized peacekeeping since its inception. It is obvious, however, that these recent interventions have broken away from the traditional recipe based on the deployment of Blue Helmets with the agreement of the combatants following a cease-fire or peace agreement. UN operations no longer aim solely at maintaining the status quo, as can be seen in its 1992 interventions in Bosnia and Somalia. Concern for stability has not diminished—indeed, it is stronger than ever—but it is accompanied by a more dynamic interpretation of the role of the United Nations, as it is entrusted not only with peacekeeping as such but also the protection of humanitarian aid operations. The United Nations’ role has never been so important—nor has it ever been so controversial.

Sovereignty and Intervention

Against this new background, the foundations of the United Nations appear all the more anachronistic. One of the major problems is that the UN intervention system is based on the sovereignty principle. Chapter II(7) of the UN charter stresses that a country’s internal affairs are its exclusive concern. Although civil wars and internal strife account for most present-day conflicts, the charter does not touch on internal problems. As a result, the mechanisms for collective security are, in principle, applicable only in international conflicts.

Today however, this supremacy of the nation-state, which was reaffirmed at the end of World War II, strengthened during the decolonization period, and frozen by East-West confrontation, has become outdated. The end of the Cold War has had the dual effect of questioning the Yalta world order, sustained by the ideological blocs, and the principle of territorial sovereignty enshrined in the treaty of Westphalia.

The idea of the nation-state was already put into question in the ’70s, before the fall of the Berlin Wall began to show its first effects. The Helsinki Agreements eroded the principle of sovereignty by turning human rights into an issue of supranational concern. Many countries had long lost faith in it anyway, their authoritarian rulers having discredited it beyond redemption.

Since then, it has continually been challenged. As the economies of the world have become increasingly integrated, so too have many other spheres, such as the media, the environment, migrations, and humanitarian aid. Even the most repressive states have lost the ability to control the circulation of people and ideas. By contrast, the United Nations’ respect for sovereignty makes it look like a bastion of tradition.

The human rights movement at the end of the ’80s prompted further attacks on sovereignty. The idea that regimes can commit large-scale human rights violations with impunity had become unacceptable, as was evidenced by UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar at the end of his term of office, who claimed there was “an irresistible change in public opinion” in favor of the defense of human rights, which must prevail both on our borders and in international law. His opinion was reiterated by his successor, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who also believes that “the time of absolute and exclusive sovereignty is over.”

Respect for sovereignty remains all important, but in some instances calls for the protection of victims seem to have been heeded. Seen from that angle, there are common interventionist overtones in Security Council Resolution 688 condemning Iraq’s repression of its civilian population—and insisting that humanitarian organizations have immediate access to them—Resolution 770 on the protection of humanitarian convoys in Bosnia, and, finally, Resolution 794 on the use of force to restore security for aid operations in Somalia.

Each of these three resolutions on Iraq, Bosnia, and Somalia are landmarks in the recent history of international intervention. While self-defense used to provide the only justification for intervention in an internal conflict—the Tanzanian intervention in Uganda and the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia were presented in 1979 as a reply to outside aggression—humanitarian concerns are now put forward as the one key reason for intervention. Resolution 688 on Iraq was a first in that it considered the repression of a civilian population a threat to international peace and security in the form of the mass exodus of refugees into neighboring countries.

In Resolutions 770 on Bosnia and 794 on Somalia, which opened the way to interventions authorizing the use of force, in conformity with Chapter VII of the charter, it is the crisis itself that was described as a threat to peace and security. Although the UN troops in Croatia took on a conventional peacekeeping mission—in fact guaranteeing the status quo in areas captured by Serbs—those who were finally deployed in the open war of Bosnia, after much procrastination, were called on to use “all necessary means” to protect humanitarian convoys.

Similarly, in Somalia, the United Nations went from sending, almost discreetly, 50 observers and 500 Blue Helmets with the warlords’ consent, to the non-negotiated deployment of 2,500 extra troops. This was followed by the landing of 30,000 GIs authorized to “employ all necessary means to ensure security for humanitarian aid operations,” and finally, to the high-handed takeover of the country by 28,000 Blue Helmets, ready—and often willing—to use force. The operations carried out in 1992 demonstrate the emergence, still hesitant and cautious in Bosnia, but more obvious and aggressive in Somalia, of new kinds of intervention that are further removed from the traditional principles of peacekeeping.

At Pains to Handle Internal Crises

Despite these recent developments, caution remains the rule. The Security Council is still reluctant to consider even large-scale humanitarian violations as threats to peace and international security. However, decades of Cold War constraints and strict observance of noninterference alone cannot explain the present inability to act. The international community has obvious difficulty in acting in internal crises, usually quite complex and not susceptible to resolution by outside intervention. The United Nations can certainly play a vital role as arbitrator and guarantor when the warring parties agree to negotiate peace, but in the absence of such an agreement, outside intervention can become part of the problem as much as it can bring a long-term solution—as was the case in the Congo from 1960 to 1964 and Lebanon from 1982 to 1984, where the international forces rapidly became parties to the conflicts.

The international community is confronted with three types of crises: wars of aggression (Kuwait), large-scale human rights violations and repression of minorities (Burma), and the total collapse of law and order (Somalia). In none of these cases are there any easy answers, but the United Nations is aware it must be ready to commit itself to the long and painstaking search for long-term solutions.

More importantly, the United Nations is obviously at pains to catch up with an ever changing, seemingly chaotic world, where institutions are crumbling, armed forces are splitting up into factions, and conflicts are tearing entire countries apart. Deprived of their former Cold War backers, both government forces and guerilla movements in today’s war spots are increasingly left to fend for themselves and forced to fight over the scant resources available. Obliged to depend on their own strength, they have to find new, and often brutal, ways of procuring weapons and consolidating power.

The majority of wars today have become “privatized” concerns, financed by looting, racketeering, and trafficking. The striking feature common to most present-day crisis situations is self-perpetuation of violence. It is true that the end of the Cold War opened new opportunities for negotiated solutions, but it has also lessened the possibilities for powerful countries to exert real pressure on the warring parties. Moreover, as trustworthy representatives and leaders are harder to find on the scenes of today’s conflicts, it is all the more difficult to impose respect for international law. Laws that cannot be enforced only pave the way for lawlessness. To add to this atmosphere of fragmentation, member countries are not respecting their financial commitments to the United Nations as they can no longer see any direct return on their investment.

How Best to Intervene?

Whatever the difficulties in intervening, the United Nations is faced with an irrepressible demand for action, but many questions remain open as to how best to intervene. No doubt, the one condition for success is early involvement. In this regard, the developments of the past years reveal large gaps in the international community’s ability to curtail the spiral of violence at an early stage before it spins entire societies into self-destruction. In the absence of international involvement, the Liberian conflict developed over six months into a frenzy of violence and massacres before a regional force intervened. In Somalia, the international community took almost two years to react, after having left the country prey to violence and starvation. In the former Yugoslavia, the European Community hesitated, leaving the field free for the aggressors to pursue a policy of terror and “ethnic cleansing” in the heart of Europe. From the Caucasus to Tajikistan, from Zaire to Rwanda, the so-called policies of prevention are in fact mainly reactive and, more often than not, too late.

Consequently, the most pressing question too often concerns that of the last resort solution—military intervention. Although stepping in without the agreement of the warring parties is becoming more and more common, the United Nations is still ill prepared to deal with the situation. Its ill-defined mandates and blatant shortcomings in coordinating various national contingents have seriously damaged its credibility and weakened the deterrent effect of the armed forces placed under its banner.

The UN aid agencies, too, have to improve their operational efficiency. Despite vague attempts at reform, the United Nations continues to be governed by inertia, lack of accountability, sometimes even outright incompetence, which has diminished its ability to respond, especially to emergencies. Above all, improved coordination between the different UN bodies is long overdue. The machinery is grinding to a halt as the myriad UN agencies continue to function autonomously like private fiefdoms while the United Nations has to juggle peacekeeping, emergency relief, and long-term recovery programs all at once. In fairness however, the United Nations’ ability to intervene ultimately depends on the political and financial backing of the member states, particularly in the West. Boutros-Ghali is probably right in saying that what cripples the organization most is too-high expectations.

In the post–Cold War world, it is the countries of the West, led by the United States, which find themselves, by default, guarantors of the world order, although they are reluctant to act as an international police force. In the Gulf War, the United Nations launched its biggest operation since the intervention in Korea to reestablish Kuwait’s international borders, yet the coalition forces did nothing to defend the Shiites or the Kurds when they were violently suppressed by Baghdad. It took the mass exodus across the frontiers of neighboring countries to provoke an international intervention, which turned out to be little more than an after-sales service forced on the participants in order to safeguard the image of a “just war.” It responded to public emotion and removed the threat of a massive influx of refugees into Turkey.

This half-hearted commitment to the Iraqi Kurds illustrates the firm resolve of UN member states to maintain the status quo. Faced with many crisis situations throughout the world, democratic countries are torn between defending human rights, i.e., contemplating intervention, and their reluctance to run the risks involved. The Security Council reflects the way the balance has tilted when it churns out resolutions without giving itself the means to enforce them.

The developments of the past two years have shattered all illusions of the coherent system of international protection that was supposedly heralded in Iraqi Kurdistan. More calls for help can be heard from oppressed people and minority groups, but Western countries have neither the financial and military clout, nor, above all, the political will to impose a new world order based on respect for human rights. The international community’s response will only be prompted by political interests, media visibility, and the sustained pressure of public opinion.

In short, Part One of Life, Death, and Aid examines the four levels of international involvement in crisis situations: complete absence from the scene of forgotten tragedies, intervention by regional powers, peacemaking missions, and military interventions on humanitarian grounds.

1. Nonintervention

For over a year, the highly publicized UN operations in Bosnia, Somalia, and Cambodia have overshadowed the lack of commitment to many other countries torn apart by war. Admittedly, these countries are not totally forgotten as humanitarian organizations and UN agencies struggle to bring aid to people at risk despite insecurity and political obstacles. More often than not, international intervention is restricted to timid diplomatic overtures in these countries and, eventually, to economic pressures, but this does not guarantee genuine access to victims or an end to human rights violations. In Sudan and Afghanistan, the international community failed miserably to ensure that regular aid reached the threatened populations because it lacked real political commitment. Sudan, however, remains the harshest illustration of what amounts to “non-assistance to populations in danger.”

2. Regional Intervention

The United Nations has been faced with so many requests for help over the past few years that the secretary-general has been trying to encourage a more significant role for regional organizations in putting UN resolutions into force, in accordance with Chapter VIII of the charter. However, the problem has been to find credible partners. Many regional organizations are limited by a lack of ability, resources, or political cohesion from taking part in peacekeeping operations. An example of this was the powerlessness of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) to deal either with the Somalia tragedy or any of the other recurring crises on the continent. However, the Organization of American States (OAS) and the European Economic Community (EEC) have demonstrated a degree of cooperation with the United Nations, albeit with limited success, in Haiti and the former Yugoslavia.

Regional interventions have an obvious advantage in that they bring together the countries directly concerned and most likely to intervene; but their interests may not be purely altruistic: they do not always wait for the United Nations’ invitation before interfering with their neighbors’ problems. Syria intervened in Lebanon in 1976 under the guise of the “Arab Dissuasion Force” and, by playing a role akin to a pyromaniac fireman, succeeded in strengthening its grip on the country until its role was legitimized by the Taif Agreements. In 1971 India intervened and precipitated the secession of its Pakistani rival by taking advantage of the large-scale human rights violations in East Pakistan and the arrival of millions of refugees across its borders. India, again, benefited from its regional supremacy in 1987, when it intervened in Sri Lanka, on the pretext of bringing humanitarian aid to the Tamils. As for Vietnam’s intervention in Cambodia in 1979, it put an end to the Khmer Rouge campaign of extermination, but in essence it ensured Hanoi’s domination of the Indo-Chinese peninsula.

There are many such ambiguities in the regional interventions launched over the past years. In Tajikistan, Russia, which controls the only organized armed forces in the republic, can hardly qualify as a peace guarantor as Moscow played a determining role in the communists’ return to power. Ironically, Russia was readily given its peacekeeper credentials by an international community unwilling to get bogged down in the forgotten conflict. The deployment of a “mixed intervention force” in Ossetia and Abkhazia can hardly hide the central policing role played by Russia in the Caucasus conflicts. Here, Moscow has taken on the dual role of referee and player in its efforts to maintain its influence in the region, while looking for international backing.

Finally, Nigeria, which is the main backer of the West African intervention force in Liberia, argues, with the United Nations’ blessing, that peace can only be attained by the use of force. Famine relief operations are hampered in the process, but then aid is in turn accused of hindering “peace efforts.”

3. Peacemaking Operations

The end of the Cold War has opened up the possibility of resolving conflicts born in the shadow of superpower rivalry at the end of the 1970s. But these conflicts have deep local roots, structured around war economies that tend to perpetuate themselves, roots that go deeper than political and ideological differences.

In Central America, southern Africa and Southeast Asia, the former superpowers are involved in peace negotiations with UN help, with the special role of supervising their application in the field. In El Salvador, Angola, Cambodia, and, more recently, Mozambique, the United Nations has intervened to guarantee cease-fires, oversee disarmament, repatriate refugees, organize elections, and rebuild infrastructures, etc. The success of such large-scale operations requires reliable support from member states at a time when the United Nations is in serious financial difficulties. It also requires effective coordination between the individual, but necessarily interdependent, partners in these complex operations.

However, the principal problem relates to the difficulty in turning a diplomatic agreement into a political process. In this sense, with the exception of El Salvador, the United Nations has always behaved as if its only objective was to organize the elections on a fixed date. Successful peace-making requires a much broader interpretation of the UN mandate, as Angola and Cambodia have learned to their cost.

4. Military Interventions with Humanitarian Aims

Further up the scale of intervention, humanitarian considerations have been pushed into the foreground in order to justify armed intervention in the face of a repressive regime (Iraq), a state under attack (Bosnia), or a collapsing system (Somalia). At first glance, there is no reason not to welcome this new international willingness to intervene, but putting good intentions into effect is a tricky task. Intervention in internal conflicts, without the agreement of the opposing sides, means that the international force can either favor negotiations at the risk of being taken hostage by one side or another, or it can opt for force and risk becoming yet another party to the conflict. The operations launched in 1992 are evidence of the difficulty of such interventions, characterized as they are by impotence in Bosnia, where humanitarian aid has done more to help than to hinder “ethnic cleansing,” and by aggression in Somalia, where it was soon sidelined by sheer military might.

In both cases, the problem has been exacerbated by the absence of a clear political objective. In Bosnia, the humanitarian effort initially served as an alibi for the West’s standoff in the face of aggression before becoming another, more perverse, argument against military action, which might endanger troops deployed in the field. In Somalia, the use of force in a political vacuum made humanitarian aid one of the first casualties of war. In order to achieve a quick military victory over the Somali factions, the Blue Helmets have cast aside all pretense of impartiality and independence, attacking hospitals and aid organizations. In doing so, they have discredited the entire international relief effort.

This peace enforcement mission, the first ever for the United Nations, throws a particularly harsh light on the contradictions between the restoration of peace, which supposes a clearly defined political strategy, and humanitarian aid, which demands strict neutrality. We hope that the UN impasse in Bosnia and Somalia will force a much-needed political debate on the principles and workings of future international interventions.


Europe, Refugees, and War

Originally published in Le front du refuge. Réfugiés, exilés, demandeurs d’asile: citoyens? ed. Dominique Nalpas, De la Démocratie, Bruxelles, 1994, p.97-112

With the world in its present state of upheaval, refugees are a tragic personification of global turmoil. Their plight speaks to wartime conditions eaks to wartime conditions everywhere, to famine or oppression that throws millions of uprooted persons onto the highways of exile. However inaccessible the country, however obscure the conflict, floods of refugees inevitably bring it into view of the international public. In 1992, once more, hundreds of thousands of Somalis, Sudanese, Tajiks, Burmese Rohingyas, Serbs, Croats, Bosnian Muslims, and more brought the number of refugees throughout the world to 18 million, according to current censuses; in the same year the number of persons displaced within their own country rose to 20 million.

Developments over recent months constitute a scathing rebuttal to the once fondly held notion that the Cold War’s end could offer a solution to the persistent question of refugees. In 1989 the collapse of the Berlin Wall under the pressure of asylum seekers fostered hope for a solution: the end of totalitarianism seemed to proclaim that Russians, Poles, or Romanians eager for freedom would have merely to knock at the door of Western countries. Likewise, the end of East-West antagonism held out the possibility of resolving conflicts ignited in a climate of ideological confrontation and dangled the hope that millions of refugees stagnating in camps since the 1970s would return to their countries of origin.

For a brief period even the concept of “refugee” seemed to become indistinct. Overlooking conflicts in the Southern Hemisphere, Europe suddenly viewed all of its Eastern neighbors with apprehension. Red Army tanks were soon displaced on the short list of collective fears by the specter of a vast migration of the suffering that, in the fall of 1990, looked to be a veritable tidal wave. In an overwrought media environment, the figure of the migrant replaced that of the dissident in the Western imagination, and the right to circulate freely, long upheld by democratic nations, yielded to the fear of invasion. But in short order the nations of Europe would be confronted with the tragic reality—mass exoduses provoked by war and peril. Somalia, Burma, and especially the ex-Yugoslavia would abruptly remind the public that, behind the nightmare fantasy of Europe submerged in a wave of immigration, real tragedies were taking shape amid rising religious and ethnic identification, aggravated animosities, and an explosion of nationalist sentiment.

In their violence and agitation, these wrenching identity-based cleavages mark the collapse of two orders: the Communist system to the east (imposed) and the new world order (abortive). The set of problems posed by refugees changed after the dissolution of the Eastern bloc and the break-up of Yugoslavia. It would have been startling if this overall phenomenon—at the nexus of border controversies, conflicts, and migration flows—had been unaffected by resurgent nations, seething unrest amongst minorities, or decaying economies. Far from subsiding, conflicts are growing in number—far from dropping, the number of asylum seekers increases with no end in sight. Suddenly, the reality of forced exoduses is once again part of the landscape of migration—an imposing part that presently defies solution by European refugee policy, posing fresh questions for the system of international refugee protection.

The Three Ages of Refugees

The international system for the protection of refugees came into being after the Second World War with the signing of the 1951 convention on the status of refugees and the creation of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The convention defined as a refugee any person who, “…owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country….” This definition, based on an individual-case approach focusing on discrimination or persecution, was very much a reflection of Europe’s preoccupations at a time when it was still experiencing the ripple effects of Nazi oppression and already menaced by the Soviet system. In fact, by the start of the 1950s, the majority of the nearly 30 million persons displaced by the war had already been resettled, Europe had been permanently divided into two opposed blocs, and, in the Cold War context, refugees were seen in the same light as dissidents. Most refugees were fleeing totalitarian regimes and seeking asylum in democratic countries. The preferred solution at the time was permanent resettlement in Europe or the United States with legal rights and a status similar to those enjoyed by nationals in the host country. Asylum policies in Western countries were all the more generous because refugees were viewed positively in the context of the Cold War. They were “choosing freedom” and assimilated easily into their host countries because the countries they came from were of the same cultural fabric. Up until the end of the 1950s, in fact, the refugee problem was for the most part an intra-European question, consisting primarily of East- West migration. The 1951 convention—ostensibly universal—in reality applied only to Europe. It was not until 1967 and the New York protocol that the mandate of UNHCR extended to the rest of the world.

Starting in the 1960s, the wars of liberation and internal conflicts within the newly independent African and Asian states touched off large flows of refugees. After these decolonization movements, UNHCR, together with other UN organizations and the World Bank, turned its attention to the third world and had to adjust to a new reality of predominantly South-South migration flows and mass exoduses triggered by war and insecurity. In contrast to the dissidents from beyond the Berlin Wall—victims of repression who appeared at the doorways of Western nations on an individual basis—Southern Hemisphere refugees were collectively fleeing conflict situations and widespread disturbances and usually sought temporary refuge in a neighboring country. For this reason the UN General Assembly expanded the UNHCR’s mandate to allow it to deal with large-scale exoduses, and the definition of refugees as persecuted individuals was broadened, de facto, to include collective victims of violence.Aristide R. Zolberg identifies three categories of refugees: the activist, pursued by reason of their political activities; the target, persecuted because they belong to a particular group; and the victim of violence, fleeing war and insecurity. Only the first two categories are formally recognized in the 1951 definition. Aristide R. Zolberg, Escape From Violence (Oxford University Press, 1989). This broadened definition was to a certain extent formalized in the Organization of African Unity convention of 1969 (OAU convention) and in the 1984 Cartagena declaration granting refugee status to any person fleeing war and insecurity.Article I, paragraph 1 of the OAU Convention defines “refugee” in the same way as the 1951 convention, but paragraph 2 stretches the definition to include “…every person who, owing to external aggression, occupation, foreign domination, or events seriously disturbing public order … is compelled to leave his place of habitual residence in order to seek refuge in another place outside his country of origin or nationality.” The Cartagena Declaration is still more explicit; it stipulates that the definition of refugee should go beyond the elements contained in the 1951 convention to apply to “…persons who have fled their country because their lives, safety or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violations of human rights, or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order.” The international community’s response to the great third world migrations was primarily of a humanitarian character in the form of aid to refugees, grouped in camps and waiting for the situation in their countries of origin to improve enough to allow for their safe return.

The problem of Southern Hemisphere refugees, long eclipsed by the figure of the dissident, was not truly brought home to the Western public until the end of the 1970s, when the lengthening shadow of the Cold War began to reach the third world. The episode of boat people signaled this change in perception. The flight of the Vietnamese, even more so than the Bengali exodus widely covered by the media in 1971, seemed a revelation: Southern Hemisphere refugees, abruptly captured in the news spotlight, sprang into Western public awareness. Media coverage, combined with vivid memories of the Vietnam War and, in the United States, a special sense of responsibility, lent this drama an iconic dimension. On TV screens across the globe, boat people became emblematic victims—victimized by war, by totalitarianism, by pirates, by the China Sea, etc. There was an outpouring of sympathy together with an unprecedented response on the part of Western nations. The boat people were welcomed with open arms, and Southern Hemisphere refugees assumed a prominent place on the international agenda. That the boat people’s exodus took place in a context marked by the end of détente, heightened East-West tensions, and a mounting number of “peripheral” conflicts made the response that much more intense. From Afghanistan to Central America, in Southeast Asia and the Horn of Africa, millions of refugees were suddenly present to attest to the brutalities of war and the deep hardship experienced under communism. These refugees acquired political significance and a positive aura in the climate of an ideological about-face prevailing at the time—typified by the substitution of the image of “freedom fighter” for that of the guerilla fighter in the Western imagination. As a result, UNHCR found itself enjoying increased funding, and Western countries launched an increasing number of initiatives in camps set up on the borders of conflict-ridden countries.

Then the Cold War receded into the past, the “Vietnam Syndrome” faded, the intensity of emotion wound down … The boat people lost political significance, symbolic weight, and media presence.On the historical evolution of these representations, see François Jean, “Le Fantôme des Réfugiés” [The Phantom of Refugees], Esprit (December 1992). They are now treated on an equal footing with the Albanian boat people sent back into hardship by the Italian authorities or Haitians escorted back to dictatorship by the US Coast Guard, in disregard of principles enunciated in the 1951 convention on refugees. The end of East-West confrontation also illuminated the dubious aspects of keeping refugees in camps that had gradually come to be “humanitarian sanctuaries, and a factor in the perpetuation of conflicts.”Jean-Christophe Rufin, Le Piège Humanitaire [The Humanitarian Trap] (Hachette-Pluriel, 1993). In the camps, guerilla forces gained political legitimacy via their influence over refugee populations and a financial base by means of the aid pouring in, as well as a ready supply of fighters. In time, the chronic, persistent nature of the camps and the prospect of an indefinite prolongation of the humanitarian status quo would prompt new questions regarding to what extent any solution could be found, apart from direct assistance.

Such questions gained urgency as South-North migrations joined those East-West and South-South migrations that were then drawing the vast majority of refugees and still do today. Indeed, since the start of the 1980s, Western countries have had to face steadily growing streams of asylum seekers. Between 1983 and 1991 their number in western European nations went from 70,000 to 550,000. To be sure, of these hundreds of thousands of persons who, in a time of restrictive immigration policy, appear every year at Europe’s borders, far from all are accorded refugee status. In France, for example, where the number of asylum seekers went from 22,000 to 46,000 between 1983 and 1991, the number of refugees accepted annually has remained virtually the same; the acceptance rate went from over 70 percent to under 20 percent during that same time period. Similarly, these asylum seekers represent only a slight portion of the millions of refugees accepted into camps by Southern Hemisphere countries. Nevertheless, the major increase of asylum seekers in Western countries has provoked far-reaching changes in policy. The certainties of the Cold War have yielded to deep anxiety amid upheavals around the world and fear of migrations. Gone are the days when refugees voted with their feet: their flight—viewed only yesterday as a paean to freedom—is now perceived as out of control. The refugee question, at one time the cornerstone of human rights, is now seen from the perspective of migration pressures, and policies established in recent decades are now in the process of being drastically modified.

From “Lasting Solutions” …

Both the scale of these migrations and the growing number of asylum seekers have prompted a reexamination of the refugee question. The chronic, persistent nature of the camps demonstrates the inadequacies of aid policies in Southern Hemisphere countries, and host country reticence signals the limitations of resettlement policies in Northern Hemisphere countries. Since the beginning of the 1980s, the emphasis has been on “underlying causes” and on “lasting solutions” that could be brought to bear on the issue of refugees.Contemporary thinking on the causes of refugee flows has been heavily influenced by the publication of Sadruddin Agha Khan’s report for the UN Human Rights Commission: Study on Human Rights and Mass Exoduses (UN, 1981). The aid-resettlement combination that for more than three decades formed the core of refugee policies has now been replaced by new buzzwords: “prevention” and “repatriation.” But, beyond concerns about assistance and protection, the question of causes and solutions itself raises the issue—a political one—of what position the international community should adopt towards repressive regimes and internal conflicts that inspire the principal refugee flows. There can be no doubt, in fact, that social conflicts in the modern world have been internationalized—for no other reason than the migrations they trigger—and that they call for collective solutions. It is every bit as clear that the international community’s involvement as an honest broker and guarantor is a vital factor in controlling the violence spreading across the world today—and that any international intervention, if it is to be credible, presumes a degree of political will that is highly unlikely, save in exceptional circumstances. Behind a façade of all humanity united around human rights values, lent credence by the notion of an “international community,” states continue to promote their own interests and to defend their sovereignty tooth and nail. In theory, at least, this conflict between “what the public conscience demands” and the principle of noninterference in a state’s domestic affairs is more apparent than it is real: Resolution 688 on Iraq establishes a link between domestic repression and international security based precisely on the threat of refugee flows. But this newly lawful type of intervention does not constitute a policy and has not been easy to put into action.

In recent years the United Nations has backed a growing number of efforts to find solutions to conflicts and enable displaced and refugee populations to return to their countries of origin. In Namibia, El Salvador, and Cambodia, hundreds of thousands of refugees have been successfully repatriated under the aegis of the UNHCR. But while, in Namibia and El Salvador, the repatriation process was eased by the warring parties’ willingness to limit their rivalries to the political sphere, in Cambodia it is happening in an atmosphere of uncertainty: the United Nations is powerless as long as the Khmer Rouge refuses to honor the 1991 Paris accords. In Angola as well, the inability of the international community to guarantee true disarmament by the two warring parties opened the door to the violent contestation of election results and renewed war. And in Afghanistan the fall of the Najibullah regime was not enough to restore peace. To be sure, hundreds of thousands of Afghans, refugees for many years in Pakistani camps, have returned home. But they have been replaced by thousands of others fleeing the fighting in Kabul, and tens of thousands of Tajikis have become stranded in northern Afghanistan while trying to escape the war and repression ravaging their country. Afghanistan is a remarkable example of self-perpetuating conflicts, born in the shadow of the Cold War, that have assumed a life of their own amid widespread indifference.

As if these conflicts were not enough, new wars are now breaking out, triggering the flight of hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced persons. In Liberia in 1990, the delayed intervention of a West African buffer force could not prevent the conflict from deteriorating or the exodus of more than 200,000 refugees to neighboring countries. And in Somalia the recent intervention of Western forces could not erase the fact that for a full two years running this country had been abandoned to itself and the law of the gun, causing hundreds of thousands of refugees to flee to Kenya, Yemen, Ethiopia, etc., and millions more to be uprooted inside the country—adrift amid war and famine, searching for the means to survive and some degree of safety. As for the ex-Yugoslavia, European indecision has allowed the conflict to reach unimaginable dimensions. Unable to take a clear stand during the initial fighting in Croatia and Bosnia, Europe relegated itself to the status of impotent bystander while a strategy of territorial conquest and ethnic cleansing generated mass civilian displacement and deportation. The dilemma was particularly acute because population movements were not merely the consequence of war—they were the objective. In short, the conflict stems from a policy of terror aimed at provoking the flight of undesirable groups in order to “cleanse” ethnically mixed regions and to rule over homogeneous territories. As this horrifying scenario of butchery plays out, the Serbs are driven by an implacable determination, Muslims are cast out onto the highways, central Bosnia has become a cage in which uprooted populations shuttle endlessly back and forth, and Europe is today confronted with a flood of refugees.

… To Containment Strategies

Europe’s cravenness in the face of the Yugoslavian tragedy illustrates the reluctance of Western countries to involve themselves in internal crises and the problems of minority populations. The end of the Cold War has reopened the question of how “internal” policy and “foreign” policy interact, and states are struggling to orient themselves to deal with borders they seek both to breech and—still more—to preserve at one and the same time. The refugee question is a revealing one, in this respect. It lies at the nexus of upheavals that trouble the planet: it takes root in wrenching internal cleavages that undermine existing political arrangements and emerges along with new migration flows that make a mockery of borders and territories. It is revealing, as well, because states have, for the most part, responded with avoidance, seeking more to safeguard themselves than to intervene. The preventive policies so much discussed at the moment are, in fact, essentially defensive. Instead of acting at the source, Western countries are trying to dam up the flow.

The example of Iraq offers a singular illustration of the international community’s concern to avoid any new refugee problem, even if it has meant offering protection—only too temporarily—to repatriated groups within their own countries. Even though Iraq was thoroughly defeated and under international supervision, coalition forces stood by as Kurdish and Shiite uprisings were bloodily put down. But the spectacle of an entire people overrunning TV screens and the borders of neighboring countries provoked a crisis intervention by the West. Behind a humanitarian façade, and with neat effectiveness, the main aim of this intervention was to persuade afflicted Kurds to keep away from the Turkish border and return home by offering them temporary protection and humanitarian aid in northern Iraq.

The international response to the Kurdish exodus is probably the consummate example of a new three-part policy of containment based on repatriation, security zones, and humanitarian aid. Ideally, repatriation is probably the best solution, since it is true that indefinite residence in camps is neither humanely acceptable nor politically desirable. But the situation in the country of origin needs to be conducive to the refugees’ return, and the international community must assure itself that it is conducted in dignity and safety. From this point of view the growing acceptance of repatriation to countries at war or under repression, such as Haiti or Burma, raises critical questions that are not likely to be resolved by ephemeral security zones or the provision of temporary aid.

The transition to a political approach, which implies a search for lasting solutions, has in practice meant sticking strictly to humanitarian measures repackaged to appear as intervention. All indications are that the “intervention” so much discussed at present has consisted of moving refugee camps back inside crisis-ridden countries into zones neutralized by an international presence and sustained by aid convoys. This is why the UNHCR’s mandate was enlarged de facto, allowing it to intervene in conflict-ridden countries to support a repatriation process or deliver aid on-site to displaced populations about to pour over international borders. This new policy is beginning to be widely applied, from Iraq to Sri Lanka to the ex-Yugoslavia, but nowhere have its effects been ambiguous to such a degree as they have in Bosnia. The Yugoslavian conflict has precisely demonstrated that humanitarian activism is no substitute for political will. Throughout the war in Bosnia, European nations were content to protect relief convoys, never taking any sort of action likely to put an end to the massacres, deportations, or detention camps. The international community, unable to meet its political responsibilities at the outset of the Yugoslavian conflict, put itself in a position where it could do no more than offer humanitarian aid as an appendage to ethnic cleansing, since it later rejected its obligations to asylum seekers under the pretext of not wishing to facilitate this despicable process … Under cover of European outrage at the Bosnian tragedy, the entire humanitarian movement is now enabling a fresh evasion. Creating security zones and organizing relief convoys cannot become an alibi for the refusal to grant asylum to population groups most at risk.

Protecting the Right to Asylum

The ex-Yugoslavia has cast the submissiveness of European nations into unusually stark relief. It also constitutes a moment of truth for refugee policies because, once again, the victims of war are stranded at Europe’s borders. For the first time since the Second World War, Europe finds itself directly facing a mass exodus of refugees: since the outset of the conflict in Croatia and Bosnia more than three million people have been displaced by fighting or ethnic cleansing, and nearly 700,000 refugees have found asylum in other European countries, primarily Germany, Austria, and Hungary. Thought to be limited to the Southern Hemisphere, the problem of war refugees is once again knocking at Europe’s door in an atmosphere stamped more than ever by insularity and dread of migrations.

The lack of eagerness on the part of Western nations to welcome, on their soil, civilian populations detained in camps, whose “discovery” in July 1992 had nonetheless inspired outrage amongst the international public—whose liberation, moreover, had been declared an “urgent priority” in August 1992 at the London conference—furnishes evidence for the exceptionally critical issue of the gap that exists between proclaimed values and political skittishness. The liberation, negotiated in September by the International Committee of the Red Cross, of 6,000 detained people packed inside camps in conditions that truly defy the conscience of Europe, had to be delayed because too few host countries came forward. Indeed, it was not until December that the offers of 22 countries could meet the needs of this singularly threatened population. For its part, France—faithful to its reputation as the “land of asylum”—extended offers of temporary asylum to 385 detainees along with their families. But at the beginning of February only 219 of them had actually found refuge in our country, due to the slow acceptance process. Meanwhile, in Croatia and Bosnia two-thirds of the detainees due to be freed continued to face the privation, abuses, and executions that are the common fate in Yugoslavian detention camps …

The reluctance of European nations to offer even temporary asylum to several thousand persons whose survival is directly threatened offers troubling evidence of the insular sentiment currently prevailing in Europe. Conflating refugees and migrants, European nations are trying to deter asylum seekers from knocking at their doors by employing an increasingly restrictive interpretation of the 1951 convention. As a result, the harmonization of refugee policies, a vital step in creating a European space free of internal borders, is evolving in a way detrimental to the right of asylum and the founding values of the European democracies. But in addition to a general toughening of the rules of admission, the Schengen and Dublin Conventions—much like the 1951 convention—continue to ignore the crucial problem of war refugees. In truth, massive, unregulated exoduses of war victims fit awkwardly with European policies for the planned reduction of migrant flows; states are in dread of any unpredictable expansion of their international commitments.

With spreading violence on their borders, the nations of Europe are attempting to fend off asylum seekers. Existing international legal instruments acknowledge the right to seek asylum, but impose no obligation on states to grant that right. At the most, the 1951 convention establishes the principle of non-return of refugees to their own countries “where their lives or their freedom would be at risk.” Thus arose the problem, about a decade ago, of “de facto refugees” in Europe—refugees not formally recognized as such, but who nevertheless may not be returned to war-torn countries. The crisis in the ex-Yugoslavia further exposed the ambiguities of European policies, and many countries temporarily suspended the examination of asylum requests for persons native to Bosnia, Serbia, or Croatia. This freeze in proceedings underscores the absence of a formal legal framework to deal with the problem of war refugees within Europe. Generally speaking, the nations of Europe have been content with widely varying, ad hoc responses to the issue of war refugees. Some treat them as legal refugees, others as humanitarian cases. France, for its part, has yet to formulate a policy on the issue of refugees from the ex-Yugoslavia, apart from declining to forcibly return those who have managed, in spite of all obstacles, to reach its territory. The Interior and Social Affairs Ministries have, to be sure, published announcements of visa waivers that authorize three-to-six month stays, renewable. Still, refugees are tolerated for humanitarian reasons alone, living in the most precarious circumstances imaginable, their fate hostage to discretionary decisions by the authorities.

Towards a Policy for War Refugees

The ex-Yugoslavian conflict gives fresh urgency to the task of establishing a legal framework built on European consensus together with an institutional mechanism for responding to the problem of war refugees. The mass flight of war victims towards Europe’s borders ought to galvanize legislators and politicians on an issue of vital importance to the European Community’s future. The goal, in any case, is not so much to lay the foundations of a new system of protection as it is to harmonize and codify existing practices, and offer relief from insecurity by according legal status to persons who are fleeing violence, seek refuge in Europe, and cannot be returned to their countries.

The question of a legal framework could, in theory, be resolved using existing legal instruments. Indeed, as victims of persecutions “based on … their religion or their nationality,” many Bosnian refugees who were victims of ethnic cleansing perfectly fit the criteria of the 1951 convention. But the mood of insularity currently prevailing in Europe is hardly favorable to an expansive interpretation of the convention and still less to the creation of new legal instruments that might account for populations victimized by violence or new forms of collective persecution. The most realistic solution would be to preserve the 1951 convention as a foundation and supplement it with a regional legal instrument with an expanded definition that would include de facto refugees or war refugees, similar to the OAU convention for Africa or the Cartagena declaration for Latin America.Regarding this point, see the recommendations of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), Working Paper on the Need for a Supplementary Refugee Definition (Rome, November 1992).

Simultaneous with this expansion of the definition of refugee, the goal would be to establish procedures for determining refugee status that are consistent with circumstances of mass exodus triggered by conflict situations and widespread disturbances. All generous refugee policies do, in fact, combine an unrestrictive admission policy, based on honoring the right of asylum, with a sorting process that advocates for refugees and migrants. In the current context of identity-based tensions, restrictive immigration policies, and a growing number of population movements, criteria should be found to protect those most at risk. This problem—a highly sensitive one over the past decade due to an ever more restrictive interpretation of the concept of persecution that is contrary to the spirit, if not the letter, of the 1951 convention—is especially critical with respect to war refugees who do not necessarily fit individual criteria and may be clogging proceedings for status determination. The individual-oriented mechanisms established in Europe in the 1950s are truly ill suited to deal with the large-scale migrations generated by conflicts today. Here again, Europeans could draw lessons from experiences in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, where the prima facie procedure affords collective recognition of refugees when mass arrivals do not allow for a case-by-case status determination.

Faced with an increasing number of conflicts at Europe’s borders, many countries are thinking of granting temporary status to war refugees on a collective basis. The UNHCR is not opposed to this, provided they are treated in a manner equal to that of other refugees and consistent with the rights guaranteed by the 1951 convention. Faced with the largest exodus of refugees in Europe since the Second World War, states cannot go on indefinitely dealing with the problem in a provisional fashion—which they characterize as “humanitarian.” They have a duty to formulate a clear policy and fulfill their obligations as signatories of the 1951 convention. Their first obligation is to honor the right to asylum. The second is to implement procedures for status determination that are rapid, fair, and suitably adapted to the circumstances of mass migrations. The third obligation is to treat war victims humanely and to guarantee them asylum, assistance, and protection until circumstances have sufficiently improved for them to envision returning, in complete safety, to their country of origin.


Humanitar an Action and Politics:
A Marriage from Hell

Originally published in Croissance, No. 367, January 1994

After the fall of the Berlin Wall the right of intervention was propelled into the foreground. Jeers or applause?

A conversation with Mario Bettati and François Jean

Mario Bettati is Professor of International Law at the Université de Paris II, Panthéon-Assas. Among his writings is Le Devoir d’Ingérence [The Right of Intervention], with Bernard Kouchner, published in 1987 (Editions Denoël). François Jean is Head of Mission at Médecins Sans Frontières. He has just edited Face aux Crises [Life, Death, and Aid] (Hachette Pluriel), which discusses the increasingly blurred line between humanitarian action and politics.

Mario Bettati, you helped introduce the notion of the right of humanitarian intervention, which has recently come under scathing criticism. Aren’t you a bit disappointed in your offspring?

MB: Not at all. People who attack the right of intervention are going after the wrong target. They wrongly confuse what is properly the scope of humanitarianism and what is properly that of politics. Now that the fall of the Berlin Wall has deprived political leaders of any overarching policy doctrine, there is an unfortunate tendency to seek refuge behind a façade of humanitarian action, and too often this becomes a substitute for real diplomatic reflection. Of course I disapprove of this. But I will go on making the case for the right of intervention—because it works. UN member states are looking upon it with increasing favor, and the principle of unimpeded access to victimsThe legal term corresponding to the media-favored “right of intervention” appears more and more frequently in the texts of resolutions.

François Jean, the right of intervention is, in a sense, what the “French Doctors” have been seeking for 20 years now. You’ve just published a very disapproving book on the subject. What is your disagreement with the right of intervention?

FJ: We’ve never claimed any sort of right of intervention for the international community. What we have been adhering to, for 20 years in the field, is a duty to provide care. The right of intervention is a completely different issue. There was a period of euphoria after the fall of the Berlin Wall: the renewed activity at the UN Security Council had convinced us that mass killings under cover of national borders could no longer occur, and that an international system for protecting populations in danger was being established … Today, in hindsight, the right of intervention appears deeply ambiguous and expedient, because it is so selective. Governments only apply it where there is political advantage, media focus, or public pressure.

MB: I regret that the way the right is being exercised doesn’t reflect advances in the law. But just because a law is not implemented doesn’t mean it isn’t there. It just indicates that current sanctions regimes are flawed.

All the same, would you agree with François Jean that the right of intervention is being implemented in a way that varies according to circumstances?

MB: Yes, of course. But, again, this has nothing to do with humanitarian action. We should point the finger at those who don’t apply the principle of unimpeded access to victims often enough—political leaders.

FJ: We aren’t criticizing these legal advances. And we’re only too happy to see the UN member states recognize a concept of international society that is based not on power relationships alone but also on values, and not just on national sovereignty but on human rights as well …

Still, you write that in Somalia humanitarian action is being stifled by the military. Why?

FJ: The right of intervention presupposes action by states—which by nature promote their own interests. So, when governments intrude on humanitarian terrain they undermine the fundamental principles that have always allowed nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to function since the beginning: independence and impartiality. Also, when it is exercised, the right of intervention creates a dangerous conflation between humanitarian action and politics. We waved the flag of humanitarian action both in Iraq and Somalia so we could intervene militarily. Now, in Somalia, we have the perverse effects of this blurring of roles right before our eyes: it only resulted in reducing the space for humanitarian action, because the Somalis have consistently lumped NGOs together with the UN army that landed under the humanitarian banner. From the moment the Blue Helmets really became a party to the conflict, NGOs have been targeted in the same way as the military by General Aidid’s militia and other clans hostile to the intervention. On the whole these developments represent an extraordinary setback, in our view, for the notion established by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) of a neutral space open solely to independent, impartial organizations. That isn’t to say there is no role for governments to play at all, especially on the political and diplomatic levels. It is up to them to exert pressure to end human rights violations and foster negotiated solutions. It is up to them to back up peace accords with military force, as in Cambodia or El Salvador. The international community also needs to be involved financially to enable relief operations for threatened populations. Look how weak the response was to the recent crisis in Burundi that generated 600,000 refugees and tens of thousands of displaced persons! But, first and foremost, NGOs really have to be allowed to intervene as the independent and impartial humanitarian actors they are. Because they are the ones best equipped to gain access to the victims.

So, do we really need a new law? I’m not so sure, especially when I see international forces in Somalia openly flouting the humanitarian law they are supposed to be enforcing, by firing on civilians or the offices of organizations—the AICF, in the present case. Instead of creating a new law that is deeply ambiguous, it would be better to request that states observe existing law—the Geneva Conventions.Completed and revised in 1949, the Geneva Conventions concern the treatment of the wounded, the sick, and prisoners of war as well as govern the protection of civilians during times of war. They specifically prohibit the taking of hostages, summary executions, and torture … Persons protected under the conventions must have access at all times to the assistance of a protecting power (a neutral government charged with safeguarding their interests) as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross. Deportations or population transfers are prohibited.

MB: You criticize military interventions for humanitarian purposes. But who fed Sarajevo? The UN High Commissioner for Refugees did. The NGOs all do a magnificent job, but it’s nothing anywhere near what the UN agencies do. And who does the dirty work? The Blue Helmets. Isn’t that a form of military action? How can you criticize them? I’m not disparaging what the NGOs do, but why pick a fight with governments that intervene in the humanitarian sphere? There’s plenty of room for everyone—unfortunately.

As for the Geneva Conventions: I teach them and I support them. But they’re no panacea … What do the Geneva Conventions cover, anyway? They don’t protect the right to live. They regulate how the killing is done. They don’t prohibit assaults or injuries; they make rules for how to treat the injured. They represent the minimum required, nothing more. You’re outraged that Blue Helmets fired on the AICF’s headquarters in Mogadishu. That was unacceptable, of course. But let’s keep some perspective. Between the moment the allied troops landed in Normandy in June 1944 and their entry into Berlin in May 1945, didn’t a few shells fall on churches, hospitals, or schools?

François Jean, why are you championing such immoral conventions?

FJ: I’m somewhat mystified. Mario Bettati devotes a great deal of energy to promoting the rule of law, yet he doesn’t really take the Geneva Conventions very seriously. As imperfect as they are, these minimal rules need to be observed, especially by a UN army intervening for supposedly humanitarian reasons.

MB I absolutely agree. But only if we are clear that this problem is limited to southern Mogadishu. So let’s not pass judgment on the entire UN operation in Somalia based on that one instance! In the French sector, where our contingent negotiated the militias’ disarmament, everything has gone quite well.

FJ: That’s right, the problem is limited to the Somali capital. But I think it’s a characteristic example, because blunders of this kind are inherent to any military operation that defines itself solely on a humanitarian basis. We’re dealing with a political void in Somalia. The factions haven’t been disarmed, and at no time have initiatives been taken to resume the dialogue or to try to begin a process of national reconciliation. Now, if we want crisis management to remain a viable option—if we don’t want humanitarian intervention to be written off once and for all—then we need to learn from what happened in Mogadishu.

Mario Bettati, you acknowledge that blurring the line between humanitarian and political-military action is a dangerous thing. How can it be avoided?

MB: The media holds the solution, but it is tyrannized by the ratings. The media and humanitarian representatives both end up distorting the message to contend with an erratic public opinion. Victims’ statistics are exaggerated—there is verbal inflation. You can’t say “massacre”—you have to say “genocide.” It’s circus-humanitarian, and we all get caught up in it. Humanitarian action has become a consumer product. “They’ve touched our hearts, so let’s pay …” We’re all individually responsible.

Is that really the basis of the conflation of political-military action and humanitarianism?

MB: Yes, because political authorities are tempted to borrow legitimacy from humanitarian action and turn it to their own ends. You know, it’s not political authorities I’m endorsing; it is state-led humanitarian action in cases where I think it’s more effective than private-sphere humanitarian action. No NGO can mobilize and deploy Transalls. People often claim that if it hadn’t been for state-led humanitarian action, a Western military intervention would already have occurred in Bosnia—even that humanitarian action is responsible for perpetuating the war. It’s like saying opening your umbrella makes it rain … The way things are going they’ll soon be criticizing humanitarian action the same way they used to criticize charity—“charity doesn’t equal justice.”

FJ: That’s right—humanitarian action has become a consumer product like any other; a fashionable notion everyone uses for their own purposes. This is exactly why we need to make a real effort to better define the sphere of humanitarian action. If we don’t, it is doomed to become a sort of catchall where political leaders—who are having more and more trouble defining their own foreign policy goals—can offload their responsibilities.

Is it possible, ultimately, for ethics to play a role in international relations?

FJ: I wouldn’t offer an opinion on what is or is not ultimately possible. But our role as humanitarian actors is to prod the politicians, to urge them on. And to promote our ideas in such a way that governments will take other dimensions into account besides mere power relationships. But we’re not under any illusion. Politics has its own rules—we see ourselves as rebels more than anything else, gadflies. We don’t believe in happily ever after.

MB: I think ethics always influences diplomacy and international law. But it operates by a geological clock—very slowly. Adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Paris on December 10, 1948, didn’t spark a movement on December 11 to democratize the planet. The treaties implementing it were passed in 1966; they took effect in 1976, and the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. I think the humanitarian movement, in the end, will change international law. In particular it will supplement the Geneva Conventions, which make humanitarian intervention conditional on a government’s consent. The fact that the United Nations keeps reiterating the principle of unimpeded access to victims in resolution after resolution will allow us to do without a government’s approval if need be.

So, on the whole, a sort of worldwide awareness is emerging?

MB: Ten years ago no one was talking about humanitarian action at the United Nations—neither in the General Assembly nor in the cafeteria … Now it’s all they do talk about. The success of the ethical values of humanitarian organizations has made everyone realize that the international community can impose minimum standards and that certain things will not be tolerated. Still, just because we’re sending in ambulances doesn’t mean we can fail to point out the real political dilemmas in Bosnia or that we can afford to botch the analysis of the situation in southern Mogadishu. Solid gains have been made: today no government opposes the principle of unimpeded access for medical convoys. Which is not the same thing as unimpeded access for armored divisions, I agree. Some 60-odd Security Council resolutions reiterate that principle.

FJ: It’s clear a worldwide awareness has emerged over the past several years, rooted in a new perception of problems around the world and a consensus on what is unacceptable. But there have never been so many atrocities committed as there have since this new trend of humanitarian law began. Because there’s a contradiction between, on the one hand, real advances happening at the level of international institutions and, on the other, the weakening of the nation-state. Yes, more and more resolutions are passed, but they have hardly any effect on the ground. Legal frameworks collapse and armed groups splinter and divide—in order to enforce the law you still need responsible interlocutors who can be held to the commitments they’ve made. Well, they are getting harder and harder to find.

MB: I’m not denying the reality of facts on the ground. But that in no way condemns every effort at formulating laws and standards. The rise of Stalinism and Maoism and all the third-world dictatorships occurred in the years following the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So that means we shouldn’t have adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

FJ: I have the feeling that NGOs have always been willing to infringe upon the law. Which is not to say they disregard it: it helps hold some of the interlocutors to their commitments. But we’re helpless against armed gangs. The repressive state is fading away, but at the same time so is the state’s ability to govern.

MB: That’s the main thing. For a long time we thought the major threat to human rights was a too-strong state. But there’s another threat out there: the absence of the state.

Interviewer: Sandrine Tolotti


Compromised Humanitarian Action?

Originally published in Panoramiques, No.15, spring 1994, p.123-129

Nils Andersson: Two Security Council resolutions have introduced a new concept—the right of humanitarian intervention. Security Council Resolution 688, adopted April 5, 1991, allowed humanitarian teams to enter Iraq to provide relief aid to Kurdish groups, and 794, adopted December 3, 1992, requested that “all necessary means”—including military—be utilized to allow relief operations to proceed in Somalia. The duty to provide humanitarian assistance is undisputed. Should the right of humanitarian intervention be viewed the same way?

Francois Jean: Personally, I’m not so sure these two resolutions confirm the emergence of a “right to humanitarian intervention,” because it seems to me this right is being exercised in a highly expedient manner, totally contingent on individual circumstances. On the other hand, these two resolutions clearly mark a real departure on two levels. First of all, they expand the United Nations’ system of collective security to include internal crises—until now the system had only been applied in cases of international conflict. They also cleared the way for interventions of the type defined in Chapter VII of The UN charter, which authorizes the use of force in the event of a threat to international peace and security. For the first time, really, a link has been established between events occurring within the borders of a nation-state, in cases of massive human rights violations, and international peace and security. Resolution 688 on Iraq establishes this link based on the danger of influxes of refugees over international borders, and Resolution 794 on Somalia characterized the Somali tragedy itself as a threat to peace and security. Also, and this is the second major feature of these resolutions, it is striking that in both cases humanitarian concerns have been singled out as justifying international intervention to deal with a repressive regime or a failed nation-state. Resolution 688 expressly stipulates that humanitarian organizations be granted immediate access to victims of repression, and Resolution 794 authorizes international forces to utilize all necessary means to establish secure conditions for humanitarian relief operations. In Iraq, just as in Somalia, humanitarianism is the key argument for intervention. This fact brings two thoughts to mind—one fairly optimistic, the other a bit tinged with skepticism.

It seems to me that this emergence of humanitarian concerns as a justification for and a goal of intervention by the international community is a result of deep, underlying changes in the international scene. The collapse of totalitarianism marked the triumph of liberal democracy, the only political system which treats people as ends in themselves. The human rights “revolution” at the end of the 1980s reflected the emergence of a new global awareness based on a new sense of the problems the world faces and a new consensus concerning the limits of what is acceptable. National sovereignty is still the norm, but it can sometimes be contested by virtue of fresh aspirations that place human dignity at the heart of international politics. This concept of international order, centered more on values than on power relationships and more on people than on nations, is gathering momentum despite hesitation in diplomatic circles.

Having said all that, and this is my second comment, it doesn’t necessarily follow that intervention has become the rule and that it will no longer be possible to slaughter on a massive scale under cover of one’s own borders. Behind the idea—to which the notion of an international community lends legitimacy—of a harmonious world consensus based on humanist values, nation-states still act according to self-interests and defend their sovereignty tooth and nail. It would be mistaken in theory and unwise in practice to imagine that Resolutions 688 and 794 will amount to the first draft of a new system for protecting population groups in their own countries. Mistaken in theory, because nations intervene not as part of some campaign for universal solidarity but out of a sense of their own self-interest. Unwise in practice, because any international intervention, if it is to be credible, presupposes a degree of political will that is unlikely except in extraordinary circumstances. In Iraq in 1991 it took a sense of responsibility on the part of the West along with an entire nation running amok on TV and overrunning the borders of neighboring countries to provoke an international response. But most of all it required a demonstrable self-interest on the part of Western countries. The international intervention was not so much a case of spontaneous involvement as it was the completion of a service contract, in extremis. Its purpose was to preserve the image of a just war and avert a fresh refugee problem by encouraging threatened Kurds to return home with the offer of protection—only too temporary—in northern Iraq.

Similarly, the “humanitarian intervention” in the ex-Yugoslavia served essentially as an alibi to camouflage the West’s acceptance of aggression and present the illusion of international engagement … Politicians have always been tempted to clothe themselves in the mantle of morality, to disguise their interests—or indifference—behind a seamless façade of good intentions. The current outpouring of speeches on intervention—or rather the recent outpouring, since it has barely been mentioned for several months now—is little more than a new instance of this old temptation. In short, of course we’re more than happy with emerging demands for solidarity in our own societies. But let’s not be under any illusion; TV-conditioned emotions are quite often fleeting. And we should make no mistake; this celebrated right of intervention is going to remain expedient and selective—contingent on political interest, media exposure, and the pressure of public opinion.

NA: According to an interview with Rony Brauman, president of Médecins Sans Frontières, the toolbox of international law includes several provisions on the protection of civilians in time of war. Unlike ad hoc resolutions, these provisions have a binding effect on those governments that have ratified them. So one of the effects of these recent resolutions is to weaken humanitarian law instead of reinforcing it.

FJ: That’s obviously an important underlying question, given this spreading notion that from now on the international community will be resolved never again to tolerate massive human rights violations. What legal instruments are available? Basically the UN charter and the Geneva Conventions. The UN charter is, to say the least, ill suited to deal with present-day issues: it refers only to international conflicts and wars of aggression waged by conventional armies. It makes no mention of the internal crises and civil wars that constitute most of today’s conflicts. But in practice there have been developments on the ground that have had the effect of eroding the principle of sovereignty we were just speaking of, permitting UN interventions in internal crises under certain circumstances. Then there are the Geneva Conventions and the additional 1977 protocols concerning non-international conflicts. Do we need to develop new legal instruments? Personally, I don’t think so. To me, the Geneva Conventions seem quite well suited to present-day crises; they deal fully with our own concerns regarding the protection of civilians and non-combatants and respect for humanitarian workers. The problem is that too often the conventions are not applied, even though the signatories are committed to “observing and enforcing the observation” of the core principles of international human rights law. So the goal, in my opinion, is not to develop new legal instruments but to strengthen existing law by enforcing it, in a manner consistent with what the signatory governments themselves have committed to.

Unfortunately that’s not happening, and one gets the impression that the Geneva conventions are increasingly being ignored by the very parties meant to be enforcing them. Unfortunately, if a law isn’t used, it gradually falls into abeyance. The conventions are in no way strengthened by all the resolutions now being passed—these seem more like ad hoc gestures meant to convey the impression of responsiveness and commitment. Montesquieu said, “Useless laws make necessary laws weaker,” and unfortunately this idea very much applies to the current situation. Bosnia is a good illustration of a crisis where the core principles of humanitarian law are trampled underfoot every day, in spite of a deluge of Security Council resolutions. Throughout the war in Bosnia, Western countries never made the slightest move to halt the massacres, deportations, or internment of civilians in camps. The West remained passive until August 1992, when the camps were discovered and the public outcry forced them to react. But repeated resolutions had no effect, and the belated creation, in May 1993, of the first international war crimes tribunal since Nuremburg in no way alters the situation: nothing is being done to halt the abuses against civilians, and the absence of funding leaves the impression that this is essentially a cosmetic measure.

Not only do ad hoc resolutions that authorize international intervention to deliver aid to victims fail to strengthen existing legal instruments—they can also be fraught with consequences for compliance with humanitarian law. In Bosnia and Somalia, for example, international forces—not content with failing to enforce the Geneva Conventions—openly flout them. In fact, in both cases, the Security Council resolutions are restricted to the protection of convoys and relief teams; they are silent regarding the protection of victims. Far worse, the Blue Helmets’ conduct frequently runs counter to the core principles of humanitarian law. In Bosnia, for example, the United Nations negotiated prisoner exchanges—although the Geneva Conventions affirm the principle of unilateral, unconditional prisoner releases. As a result the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was reduced to impotence, since there was always a better deal to be had from one “humanitarian” actor or another … The situation is even more serious in Somalia, where international forces openly trample on the Geneva Conventions. UNOSOM Blue Helmets seem to be above the law: they enjoy total impunity and apparently place no limits on the use of force. So they have not hesitated to attack hospitals or the offices of humanitarian organizations, in flagrant violation of Geneva Convention provisions. Similarly, the excessive use of force has created hundreds of civilian victims since the intervention began—although humanitarian law expressly provides for the protection of civilian populations in conflict zones.

NA: It would be interesting to discuss the impact, positive or perverse, on the respective countries and peoples involved when the right of humanitarian intervention has been asserted, as in Iraq, Somalia, or the ex-Yugoslavia—or where the United Nations and the international community remained more or less silent, as in Burma, Sudan, or Georgia.

FJ: You raise two basic issues there: one is nonintervention, and the other is the impact of intervention when the international community does decide to become involved in internal conflicts. The decision not to intervene goes to the issue of selectivity we were speaking about earlier. This is the point of view that says we need to be able to distinguish the forest from the trees; Iraq and Somalia remain the exception, and many crises involving massive abuses arouse no reaction whatsoever. The tragedies in Sudan, Burma, or Afghanistan, for example, meet with nothing but indifference on the part of the international community. For our own part, we try as much as we can to keep these forgotten tragedies from being buried in obscurity—unfortunately without much success. For example, for a year and a half we tried in vain to draw the attention of the international community to the tragedy unfolding in Somalia. It took until 1992 for Western countries to finally focus on that shattered country which, in the meantime, had plunged into severe famine. Clearly, with tragedies of this magnitude, the international community’s involvement is indispensable in meeting the needs of threatened population groups.

Still, this doesn’t mean we believe military intervention is a desirable thing, because an intervention of that kind poses enormous problems. The first problem is the difficulty of intervening in internal crises, magnified by the fact that the United Nations is still ill prepared for this kind of intervention. As you know, throughout the Cold War, the United Nations intervened only in the context of what is called peacekeeping, the basic principles of which are the consent of the warring parties and the nonuse of force. The need now is to go beyond these parameters, which were perfectly suited to the zero-sum game of the Cold War but no longer correspond to what is required for interventions in civil wars. These interventions are not at all straightforward; they raise a number of issues. We could start off by asking ourselves to what extent outsiders can provide solutions to internal conflicts if the warring parties themselves aren’t ready to seek a negotiated way out. But apart from that underlying issue, these interventions pose two types of problems.

The first problem concerns the United Nations’ capacities for intervention in internal conflicts. Intervening without the acquiescence of parties during a full-blown crisis is obviously of a totally different nature than deploying Blue Helmets between warring parties that have agreed to suspend hostilities. At a time when there are more and more interventions under the authority of Chapter VII, the United Nations needs to adapt itself to the new rules of the game. The operations launched recently in Bosnia and Somalia did, in fact, reveal serious flaws in terms of how mandates are defined, the rules of engagement, the chain of command, and coordination between the various contingents.

In addition to those military aspects, it is also clearly essential that we improve coordination between the different elements of the UN system. This issue, which unfortunately is not a new one in an organization with a great many specialized agencies that enjoy extensive autonomy, and often operate virtually like fiefdoms, is an especially urgent one for the ever larger and more complex operations currently being mounted. Further, the United Nations needs to build up its operational capacities in order to intervene effectively in emergency situations. At a moment when “emergency” seems to have become the new watchword, UN agencies must adapt themselves to contexts in which there are often no government interlocutors and which involve extreme danger and chaotic developments on the ground. These current crises represent a true challenge for the United Nations; it needs to be more flexible and adaptable in order to respond to the needs of population groups in crisis zones.

The second problem goes to the difficulty of coupling humanitarian with military-oriented approaches in operations that blend peacekeeping and emergency relief. Somalia has thrown a particularly harsh light on the perverse impact such interventions can have. While the initial objective was to establish secure conditions for humanitarian relief operations, the international intervention actually exacerbated tensions and added to the dangers for humanitarian workers. In limiting themselves to the logic of war making, the Blue Helmets became one of the participants in the conflict, undermining the principles of neutrality and impartiality that are key to creating an atmosphere of trust with warring parties and preserving access to the victims. The military escalation in Mogadishu is fraught with consequences for future efforts to conduct relief operations. Humanitarian organizations—now associated in the minds of local residents with a military force described as humanitarian—are the victims of this confusion, and their opportunities for action are sharply curtailed.

Unfortunately Somalia is not the only instance in which the blurring of the humanitarian and the political has reduced humanitarian space. This issue is of primary concern for us; it underscores how urgent it is that we reflect upon our principles, in a time when the humanitarian field is ever more crowded with new actors.

NA: In cases where the United Nations and the international community do not intervene, does that handicap your ability to deliver aid—and, on the other hand, when there is humanitarian intervention by the international community, does that increase the resources available to you?

FJ: In spite of the problems and the perverse impacts I just mentioned, we need the international community and the United Nations. Not for our protection—more often than not the results of such protection are mixed or even counterproductive—but to respond to the needs of population groups. Alone, organizations like MSF quite clearly do not have the capacity to deal with very large-scale crises. In situations like Somalia last year or, for a number of years, Sudan, the needs are so great that it calls for resources well beyond those available to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). If you take Somalia, for example, we tried to respond to the food crisis, which was acute even in early 1992, by establishing nutritional centers. But setting up centers like these makes no sense unless an overall system of food distribution is operating at the same time, and we didn’t have the capacity to launch an operation of that scale. Fortunately the ICRC was able to mount an enormous food aid operation, but despite all its efforts it couldn’t meet the entire range of needs, given the climate of insecurity that prevailed. In the United Nations’ absence, the few organizations present in Somalia at the beginning of 1992 had to try to cope by launching aid programs disproportionate to their means. Clearly, the involvement of UN agencies was vital at that point. They alone had the resources to head off the rush towards the precipice, and their absence had serious consequences for the affected population groups, as the secretary-general’s representative Mohamed Sahnoun made clear.

This is the issue. It’s not about our programs, which we always have the resources to implement. But in acute crises these programs make no sense unless they are part of the kind of large-scale relief operations that, given the dimensions of the needs, only the UN system can conduct. It is clear NGOs and the UN agencies are genuinely complementary. The problem in Somalia is that this complementariness couldn’t come into play until the fall of 1992, though by then it was already too late, and the country had been beset by famine for six months. Fortunately, this situation isn’t the norm, and in many cases the combined efforts of humanitarian organizations and UN agencies make it possible to avert disasters.

On the whole we have good relations with the UN agencies, be it with the High Commissioner for Refugees, with whom we have a special relationship, UNICEF, or the World Food Program. Naturally these relationships vary depending on the personalities of officials on the ground and the operational capacities of the different agencies.

NA: Where NGOs intervene they need to understand the territory, the people, the mentalities, habits, traditions, customs, etc. In countries where the United Nations has exercised the right of humanitarian intervention, do its workers always take sufficient care not to “damage the self-respect of the peoples” they are helping or aiding?

FJ: At times some of the very sizeable operations tend to deploy like enormous machines, crushing everything in their path. Again, Somalia is a caricatured example of the lack of respect some workers have for the societies where they’ve been brought to work. Some statements early in the intervention conveyed the image of a country that was a kind of no-man’s-land roamed by bloodthirsty, drug-addicted hooligans. I’m not denying that Somali society had been profoundly de-structured by war and famine or that the violence had reached levels seldom equaled—but to go from that to such a caricatured depiction … this profound ignorance of Somali society and utter incomprehension of the dynamics of the crisis probably had a lot to do with the escalation of violence later on—as if merely killing a gang of delinquents could be the solution to an upheaval of this magnitude …

I shouldn’t generalize, but it really must be admitted that the personnel, both military and civilian, of international operations are not always respectful of the peoples and local traditions, as demonstrated by the behavior of certain contingents of Blue Helmets in Cambodia. For our own part we are quite sensitive to this issue, for two reasons. The first has to do with what “makes us tick”—a humanitarian commitment that is fundamentally connected to concern for others and respect for human dignity. It’s inconceivable to us to see a victim we are delivering aid to as no more than a digestive apparatus. The people we deal with are people we want to work with and have a give-and-take with. We want to help people in times of acute crisis reestablish their capacities for choice. We don’t see them simply as people getting handouts—nor would we presume to work out for them what their goals should be as a society. The second reason goes to the need to understand, in order to act. We do not intervene inside some philanthropic bubble but in complex societies that have histories and are dense with conflicts and power relationships. If you are going to be able to assist the victims in these crisis zones, where aid is usually a resource to be battled over by the warring parties, it is vital to have a good understanding of the dynamics of the crisis and the strategies of the different actors in order to prevent the aid from being diverted from its intended targets.

Having said that, I don’t believe NGOs have a monopoly on this sense of solidarity or this understanding of societies. Many UN officials share the same concern for the societies in which they work. The problem is that the cumbersomeness of the process, the weight of the bureaucracy, and the focus on governments as interlocutors sometimes cuts UN personnel off from the realities on the ground. And the hasty recruitment—especially in very large-scale operations—of poorly trained personnel, more focused on their “per diem” than on the fate of the populations they are supposed to be helping, often breeds indifferent or contemptuous behavior.

NA: So, there’s always the ability to intervene when the United Nations doesn’t do so directly, but in particularly severe circumstances, UN intervention becomes necessary and indispensable. This brings to mind something that could be said of the UN machine as a whole: there is much to be criticized, but nonetheless it remains indispensable. So it’s not a question of writing the United Nations off, but gaining more insight and considering how to enhance its role and mission. In the charter’s preamble it says, “We the peoples”—in reality the peoples are absent, for the most part. Do you think NGOs are, or can be, one vehicle of communication for “We the peoples”—a moral force in the UN machine—precisely where diplomacy, cynicism, and state-to-state politics are most dominant?

FJ: I do think that NGOs and the initiatives that flow from them are in a sense a reflection of the autonomy societies possess; they also embody a demand for solidarity that is surfacing in many societies now, voicing it across national borders by bringing individuals or groups from different cultures and backgrounds together in common projects. There has been a lot of discussion about the phenomenon of globalization in the spheres of economics, finance, and the media. This phenomenon is just as apparent in the field of international relations. It is manifested in the appearance of new actors and the building of new networks that play an increasingly important role parallel to the traditional, state-to-state channels. The growing role of NGOs is one of the best examples of these changes. It is an indication of the gradual erosion of the nation-state, long considered the lone actor on the international scene. At the time the United Nations was created, immediately after the war, the nation-state was the fulcrum of the international scene. The centrality of the state was later reaffirmed—and virtually worshipped—during the period of decolonization. This was perfectly understandable in a period marked by the emergence of new nation-states eager for recognition, aspiring to take their place on the international stage. But the international scene has undergone profound transformation since then, and the United Nations is still to a great extent stuck in traditional patterns. It needs to evolve and reshape itself to a new reality that no longer turns on state-to-state relations alone.

True, UN authorities too often tend only to deal with government interlocutors and are too accommodating to existing regimes on the assumption that it isn’t their role to take on member states. It’s time for the United Nations to evolve, to reckon with the new aspirations the public is expressing, and to work closely with the new actors now coming onto the international scene. The United Nations is an indispensable organization: it’s an irreplaceable forum for public discussion. In a time when international interventions in crisis zones are more and more numerous, it is a source of authority in crisis management and of legitimacy for those interventions. Likewise, in the area of aid, the United Nations has an essential role to play due to the very substantial financial and operational … resources at its disposal. So it’s not a matter of questioning the United Nations’ usefulness. But it is nevertheless vital that it adapt itself to current developments, that it rid itself of inflexibility, and that it be more responsive to what societies are saying. From that perspective I believe NGOs need to prod the United Nations and motivate it in the direction of greater openness. And it is up to us to urge the United Nations to reflect upon its own principles, at a time when humanitarian action finds itself increasingly compromised by new actors with claims to intervene in crisis zones.


From State-to-State to Transnational:
The Role of Non-State Actors in Conflicts
(The Case of International Humanitarian Organizations)

Originally published in Recherches et Documents, No. 5, June 1998

Conflicts in the Aftermath of the Cold War

The analysis of conflicts today has been liberated from the heavy ideological shackles of the Cold War. For a period of 30 years, so-called “low-intensity” conflicts were indeed interpreted through an analytical grid that recast them as marginal manifestations of the confrontation between East and West. Today’s conflicts are no longer perceived simply as more or less exotic replicas of the dominant Soviet-American encounter. They can be seen for what they really are: conflicts in which the dynamic of violence is, by and large, locally determined. Obviously, external factors were long overestimated—particularly the East-West dimension; by now the complexity and diversity of conflicts must be readily apparent to all. But it would be regrettable if, in reaction, these conflicts were now perceived as unique phenomena, irreducible and disconnected from international dynamics. The issue that is truly before us today is how to revitalize conflict analysis.

If the current dominant narrative is to be believed, conflicts have become more numerous in recent years, bloodier, more anarchic, more irrational … Some observers, for lack of any broader explanation, are inclined to replace the old “ideological” reading with an “ethnic” one that relates back to the concept of atavistic violence. Others rush to fabricate a new monolithic framework out of this uncertainty: the violence—which they believe has become an uncontrollable global phenomenon—is now a generally diffused peril, they say, ever changing yet ever the same. The terms “criminalized guerilla fighter” and “transnational mafia” are attempts to restore a coherence and unity to this menace, believed to be approaching from the Southern Hemisphere.

Naturally, such reclassifications invite deep skepticism. Researchers have neatly demolished the ideological construct of a global peril adopted by certain global security professionals after the end of the East-West confrontation.Didier Bigo, “Grands Débats Pour un Petit Monde” [Big Debates for a Small World], Cultures et Conflits, no. 19/20 (winter, 1995). The chaos-and-barbarity narrative deserves skeptical treatment as well. In contrast to widely held belief, the number of conflicts has not appreciably increased since the end of the Cold War.R. Williamson, “The Contemporary Face of Conflict,” Annual 1995, Jane’s Intelligence Review. Likewise, there is nothing to support the notion that contemporary conflicts are now bloodier than was previously the case. To be sure, the Rwandan genocide and the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia exacted a heavy human toll, but it was not an unprecedented one, as attested by the genocide in Cambodia and the civil war in Uganda during the 1970s. This impression of barbarity is no doubt partly rooted in a heightened sensitivity to the question of human rights. Conflicts, no longer interpreted through the prism of East-West confrontation, appear to have lost all meaning and are now seen mainly from the perspective of their human consequences. There is an impression of irrationality that stems from focusing solely on the overall impact conflict has at the societal level—the economic, human, etc., dimensions—while neglecting to analyze the entirely rational interests, goals, and strategies of groups involved in the dynamic of violence.David Keen, “A Rational Kind of Madness,” Oxford Development Studies, vol. 25, no. 1
(February 1997).

But it is not the fashionable narrative of the moment that must be reexamined and challenged—rather it is the conventional frames of reference we use for analyzing conflict. The intellectual framework of neorealism—with its primary emphasis on the centrality of the state, a binary system of confrontation, and rigid distinctions between internal and external—seems powerless to explain contemporary forms of conflict. In many cases the weakening of the state leads to a diffusion of violence and new linkages between state and non-state actors, who in turn, some believe, reproduce certain of the state’s characteristics. Analyses in terms of the differing force capacities of warring parties in a given piece of territory are becoming less and less relevant as well. This binary emphasis, which in part relates back to the ideological alignments of the warring parties and particularly the external support mobilized in the context of a two-super-power confrontation throughout the Cold War, no longer corresponds to the more splintered, fluid, volatile conflicts of today. The fragmentation of armed movements, the increasing number of entrepreneurs of violence, and the formation of networks that to a large degree extend beyond the borders of conflictual spaces—all of these are generating highly diverse forms of cooperation or confrontation that no longer wholly conform to the traditional model of confrontation between a state and an armed opposition movement. Finally, the eroding concept of sovereignty, along with the consolidation of networks that defy borders and territories, is enabling new transactions among local and international actors. The process of globalization, for the most part fully achieved in the economic and financial spheres, now embraces communications, migration, humanitarian aid, environmental protection and waste disposal, criminality and security, violence and diplomacy, and more.

These developments are not unique to conflict situations; they point to the emergence of a new reality that is global yet at the same time fragmented. Today, states are at a loss to deal with overwhelming developments that challenge them at their core: they are unprepared for the profusion of identity-based demands or for internal disturbances and civil wars that undermine existing political frameworks. They are helpless, as well, to cope with a set of new migration streams spreading across the globe and skirting traditional forms of regulation. War is not a hiatus in the “development process”;Mark Duffield, “Complex Emergencies and the Crisis of Developmentalism,” in Linking Relief and Development, IDS Bulletin, vol. 25, no. 4 (October 1994). nor is it a radical departure in the process of globalization. It is an outgrowth, under varying circumstances, of strategies of mobilization and confrontation that, however out of step they may be with the market-democracy model, are nonetheless open to interaction with the outside world. In many cases the political economy of a war is not so different from that of the regime it threatens to topple. In African countries dependent on exports of a small number of raw materials, war merely recycles—sometimes even reinforces—time-honored practices by which these resources are appropriated for private use by a few political actors with connections to international middlemen in the parallel economy. Moreover, in certain cases such as Burundi (ivory and gold) and certainly Sierra Leone (diamonds), the causes of war are rooted in overheated competition between different networks struggling within the state to appropriate these export revenues.William Reno, Corruption and State Politics in Sierra Leone (Cambridge University Press, 1995).

But to an increasing extent the state is not needed for purposes of appropriating a country’s wealth. During the peak years of “Greater Liberia,” Charles Taylor established a form of political rule that eclipsed the national framework and linked up directly with the world market. Liberia offers a good illustration of the transition from a neo-patrimonial approach, focused on conquering the state and seizing the whole national “pie,” to that of a trading-post economy based on transactions with foreign companies.William Reno, “Reinvention of an African Patrimonial State: Charles Taylor’s Liberia,” Third World Quarterly, vol. 16, no. 1 (1995). See also “War, Markets and the Reconfiguration of West Africa’s Weak States,” Comparative Politics (July 1997); “African Weak States and Commercial Alliances,” African Affairs, no. 96 (1997). There is little need here to theorize about states supposedly slipping back from dependence on their own resources to dependence on foreign companies and international aid. The conquest of power and its perquisites is always a key goal for most rebel leaders, and, generally speaking, any situation will remain deeply unstable as long as this issue remains unresolved. Nevertheless, new decentralized modes of cooperation with international non-state actors are enabling some armed movements to build in power and gain access to the world market. In the case of Liberia, revenues gained by the NPFL [National Patriotic Front of Liberia] from the extraction of natural resources (iron, wood, rubber, etc.) with the aid of foreign companies reached as high as $400 to $500 million at the start of the 1990s. Likewise, in Angola, the resources UNITA [National Union for Total Independence of Angola] obtained between 1992 and 1996 from mining and selling diamonds have been valued at $1.5 billion. And in Zaire, foreign companies, particularly American (American Mineral Fields, etc.), did not wait for the fall of Kinshasa to sign operating agreements with Kabila, the rebel leader.

These developments highlight the importance of transactions between local and international non-state actors in a crisis context, where the state is weak. Far from a hiatus or a fleeting anomaly in a linear process of development, war may be a form of response to the problem of globalization and the state. It may contribute, as Charles Tilly would argue, to the process of nation building or to the weakening of the state instead. It might also be one of the ways access is opened up to transnational networks. In any case, it points to the emergence and consolidation of new economic processes as well as new political and societal actors. Among the latter, non-state actors are playing an ever increasing role: political-military movements, military-economic entrepreneurs, “informal” traders, multinational companies, nongovernmental organizations, the media, etc. It is important, therefore, to try to better understand their strategies, their interactions with the state and with civilian populations, their role in the dynamic of violence, and, most important, in terms of transactions and dynamics of cooperation now materializing between actors on the local and international levels.

The fostering of linkages between the local and international spheres is one seldom-studied area where non-state actors play a significant role. Even excluding the many types of international networks—criminal rings (arms, drugs …), support networks, diasporas, etc., which armed movements establish or exploit to mobilize foreign backing and resources, the international actors ever more numerous in crisis zones are having a rising impact on the dynamics of conflicts in so-called Southern countries. In terms of economics, generally speaking, there are two main forms of linkages with the international sphere: business and aid. In both cases the state’s role is beginning to diminish in favor of private actors. For business, the importance of international companies has long been acknowledged; in some countries they now assume even executive functions such as security. With respect to aid, the last 10 years have been marked by rapid, profound change in the international system of cooperation established at the end of the Second World War as well as during the period of decolonization.

The object of this paper is to study these developments, so keenly impacted by the waning role of the state and the expansion of private international networks, and to analyze their impact on conflicts that are no longer state-to-state, nor even truly intrastate. For this purpose I will focus on humanitarian aid, which in the course of the last decade has become the principal form of international involvement in conflict situations—in any event those that represent no major strategic interest for the major powers (Africa, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, etc.). First, I will describe how forms of international intervention in countries at war have been transformed. Then I will examine the processes of subcontracting aid and security now at work in crisis situations. Finally, I will attempt to analyze the impact of the increasing presence of international non-state actors in conflict-ridden countries on the dynamics of violence. Does this presence contribute to the weakening of states, the fragmentation of political interactions, and the proliferation of entrepreneurs of violence? Does it favor the formation of networks that transcend conflictual spaces? Does it encourage the supplanting of traditional, state-to-state circuits by new, private transnational networks?

Political Support for Humanitarian Aid

Modes of international intervention in internal conflicts have significantly changed in the past 10 years. Until the end of the 1980s, the superpowers were politically involved in “peripheral” conflicts and provided major support in the form of arms and financing to states or armed opposition movements. The end of the Cold War triggered a drastic reduction in international support channeled to the protagonists of conflicts. With the passing of East-West confrontation, the superpowers largely turned their backs on internal conflicts, which were no longer of any apparent importance internationally. Gone are the days when the United States or the Soviet Union supported either the state or the armed opposition in conflicts generally perceived as peripheral manifestations of the Cold War. External support, where it continues, comes, for the most part, either from regional powers or those that have taken their place, as in Afghanistan or the ex-Zaire. Even in “strategic zones,” Western initiatives are mostly political or diplomatic in nature and represent no real commitment, as illustrated by the United States’ comparatively rapid recovery from its failure in Iraqi Kurdistan or the reticence in responding to the turmoil in the ex-Yugoslavia and the deteriorating situation in Algeria—regions nonetheless considered crucial for western European security. This is all the more true for regions more distant, where benign neglect seems to be the rule.

But, while the former padrones no longer support their “clients,” Western nations remain involved in conflict situations, if only as providers of relief aid. Even excluding “military-humanitarian” interventions, there has been a growing tendency for states to intervene on a humanitarian level, especially in crises now devoid of strategic interest. Emergency relief has now taken the place of both political support (typical of the Cold War) and of development aid (now largely out of fashion). There has been an appreciable increase in the share of “humanitarian aid,” or of “emergency aid,” as a part of overall Official Development Assistance (ODA), which has experienced a net decrease since the end of the 1980s. According to the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the share of “emergency assistance” (not including emergency food aid) went from 1.35 percent to 5.75 percent of ODA between 1980 and 1993.The trend is similar for bilateral aid; the portion dedicated to emergency aid went from 1.5 percent to 8.27 percent between 1982–83 and 1993. In 1993 the emergency aid portion of ODA was 12.18% for Germany, 17% for Holland, 12.38% for Great Britain, and 9.55% for the United States. In the European Union (ECHO), as well, there was a 6.6-fold increase in emergency humanitarian aid between 1990 and 1994, from about 120 to more than 760 million ECUs. Since 1994, funding for humanitarian aid seems to have leveled off, and the aid market is starting to expand into another area: conflict prevention and resolution. Donors, seeking cheaper, more rapid solutions to conflicts, have increased their support for organizations engaged in “parallel” diplomacy. But funding for such initiatives is still in its early days, and in many cases humanitarian aid remains the major external resource still injected into conflict situations. Since the start of the 1990s, humanitarian aid has been the West’s response of choice to political crises in so-called Southern Hemisphere countries.

State involvement in the humanitarian sphere is contemporaneous with the end of East-West confrontation. The collapse of totalitarianism has ushered in the triumph of “humanitarianism,” which promotes the illusion—lent credence by the notion of an “international community”—of all humanity finally reconciled with one another around a renewed consensus on what will and will not be tolerated. This humanitarianism is itself a symptom of disarray in the presence of a perceived “new international disorder” and is nurtured by the pervasiveness of television, which favors an instant, emotional, and ahistorical response to reality. It is proof that governments in democracies cannot remain deaf to demands from their own societies for solidarity during crises covered by the media. Western engagement is the outcome of a panoply of motives ranging from humanitarian concerns to political considerations, including “image-building strategies” as well as the exploitation of humanitarian action for political ends. Decisions to intervene emerge from an increasingly complex process that is as much symbolic and financial as it is strictly political and is determined, in the end, by interactions among the media, public opinion, political rulers, and nongovernmental and intergovernmental organizations in the democracies. States are still the major financial donors and as such retain a central role in relief operations, but they are not always pivotal players in a sphere that does not systematically reflect political considerations. In the past few years humanitarian aid has, to be sure, become a significant instrument in the foreign policies of Western nations. Still, many interventions are only remotely connected to strategies for extending influence or defending national interests—or even to coherent aid policies. Generally speaking, we have gone from state support—direct or indirect, covert or acknowledged—of states or guerilla movements, to humanitarian aid that at times is undertaken with no specific policy objective and is increasingly implemented through non-state channels that themselves have no political agenda.

As humanitarian aid has evolved, the aid system itself has undergone a profound reorganization, as demonstrated by the increasing power of non-state actors and the radical transformation in how emergency aid is implemented, as it reaches inward from the periphery to the centers of conflicts.

The Increasing Power of Non-State Actors

The early 1990s were characterized by a shifting of development aid, in large part channeled through the framework of state-to-state relations, towards humanitarian aid which increasingly came to be implemented by private actors—nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).John Borton, “Recent Trends in the International Relief System,” Disasters, 17 (3) (1993).

There has been a fundamental reorganization of actors in the sphere of emergency aid over the past 10 years: despite the arrival on the scene of state humanitarianism, national entities—apart from “military-humanitarian” interventions—play little more than a secondary role in implementing relief operations; the field is dominated by the presence of multilateral organizations and, most important, the increasing power of private actors. The role of NGOs in implementing international aid has evolved considerably over the past 10 years. Apart from their own private funds—often considerable—raised among the general public, they are also channeling an increasing share of government funding from donor nations.According to the World Food Program (WFP), NGOs share of food aid has increased significantly over the last 10 years or so, from 9.76 percent to 20.96 percent between 1988 and 1994.According to the OECD, NGOs raised roughly $8.3 million in 1992, representing the second largest source of financing for ODA in net terms—behind bilateral aid but a good deal more than the UN system.This relies, admittedly, on partial, mostly incomplete data in categories that are somewhat poorly defined or which various sources define in different ways—“emergency aid,” “humanitarian aid,” “NGO,” etc. Moreover, these figures are based solely on government funding channeled through NGOs and do not include the often appreciable private funding these organizations attract. Research is needed to better evaluate, for each crisis, the volume of funding raised and basic categories of usage (food or other material aid, transport, local expenditures, local employees, services, etc.). The problem in obtaining trustworthy, comprehensive data is partly due to the complexity and fragmentary nature of the system of emergency aid; more than anything else it reflects the comparative absence of transparency in the international aid system where, despite the vast sums involved, accountability is still a relative concept. The trend is especially conspicuous in crisis situations: according to ECHO, from 1990 to 1994 between 45 and 67 percent of funding for emergency aid came from NGOs.

In beneficiary countries, these changes appear to have jeopardized the state’s role as the exclusive channel of access to resources from abroad. Traditionally, the state was the prime beneficiary of international aid. This was especially true for bilateral and multilateral development aid, which was, and essentially still is, managed by beneficiary-state authorities, with the attendant risks of sustaining ruling power clienteles and raising the stakes for conquering the state apparatus and getting a piece of the national “pie.” Since the 1980s, these state “networks” have been largely short-circuited as development aid has diminished in favor of, first, structural readjustment strategies that in many cases led to partial privatization of public services;Béatrice Hibou, “Capital Social et l’État Falisficateur” [Social Capital and the Fraudulent
State], in J.-F. Bayart, S. Ellis and B. Hibou, La Criminalisation de l’Etat en Afrique [The Criminalization of the State in Africa] (Complexe, 1997). later the emphasis moved to emergency aid increasingly channeled via private entities. This bypassing of the state, inspired by policies promoting economic privatization and support for “civil society,” is especially conspicuous in the sphere of emergency aid, which by its very nature calls for rapid distribution to needy populations and is also highly vulnerable to manipulation in conflict situations, where it represents enormous spoils for warring parties. In the mid-1980s certain donors such as the United States indicated their desire to establish, if not an exclusive, then at least a privileged relationship with NGOs to implement relief operations. This was later extended to the majority of donor nations, European countries chief among them.

No longer is the state the preferred channel for international aid in conflict-ridden countries. But this reexamination of the role states play has not meant their exclusion from the networks of emergency aid, for three reasons.

First, for beneficiary countries, states remain the preferred interlocutors of the international community and cash in on, often quite lucratively, granting relief agencies the opportunity to intervene in zones outside state control.For example, until relative parity was achieved in Sudan in 1993, three-quarters of the aid funneled into the country was distributed within government zones, despite extensive needs in zones controlled by the SPLA. See Millard Burr and Robert Collins, Requiem for the Sudan: War, Drought and Disaster Relief on the Nile (Westview Press, 1995). Weakened though they may be, states retain significant assets that allow them to turn relief operations conducted in their territory to their advantage. Despite the need for impartiality, aid providers, particularly UN intergovernmental agencies, are in fact often straitjacketed by political constraints that force them either to bow to pressure from national authorities or, in the absence of any serious needs assessment—or out of concern for “neutrality”—to implement relief operations in conflict zones solely on the basis of equal distribution among the warring parties. This dictate of balance clearly is a significant factor in the expansion of the aid market, especially given that the interests of local ruling powers and the institutional needs of aid agencies—in terms of media visibility and the volume of relief provided—frequently coincide. At the end of the day, when humanitarian aid is distributed, it must be negotiated through, and monitored by, local rulers, national authorities, and armed movements, and this unquestionably contributes to the politicization of aid.

Second, donor countries have not remained passive. Western countries have gradually moved into the humanitarian sphere, which initially had come into being on an independent basis. As principal donors, states play a key role in decisions to intervene and, with legitimate reason, seek to make humanitarian action work in their interest. Humanitarian action is a weapon in a state’s arsenal, as demonstrated once again by the United States’ and France’s maneuverings during the Zairian crisis of the winter of 1996–97. And intergovernmental entities in the UN system still play a central role in coordinating relief. With the emergence of “state humanitarianism,”As demonstrated by France’s appointment of a Secretary of State for Humanitarian Action in 1998 or the creation, in 1992, of the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO) and the UN’s Department of Humanitarian Affairs (DHA). there seems to be a new willingness among some donor countries to intervene on the ground in media-covered crises in an effort to heighten their visibility by implementing their own relief programs.Some donor nations are beginning to field operations units. After the relief operation for the Kurdish Refugees in April-May 1991, the British international aid agency (ODA) created Disaster Relief Teams, which intervened in Iraq and later in Bosnia. ECHO has an operations wing as well, the European Community Task Force (ECTF), which directly executes certain European relief programs in Croatia and Bosnia. This new activism on the part of government aid agencies is still in its early days, but the growing power of ECHO is testimony, in the European context, to the presence of new donors in the now highly coveted humanitarian arena.

Finally, the reorientation of emergency aid mechanisms in favor of private actors has its ambiguities: the label “nongovernmental” is a poor descriptor given the diverse nature of interactions between NGOs and civil or military state actors. The increasing share of government funding in NGO budgetsFunding from governments represented 1.5% of NGO budgets in 1975, 35% in 1988, and most likely over 50% today …; in Antonio Donini, “The Bureaucracy and the Free Spirits,” Third World Quarterly, vol. 16, no. 3 (1995). raises fundamental questions about the status of these organizations; some remain autonomous actors inclined to formulate their own strategies, while others are no more than subcontractors for donors, pure and simple.Michael Edwards and David Hume, “Too Close for Comfort? The Impact of Official Aid on Nongovernmental Organizations,” World Development, vol. 24, no. 6 (1996). This growing dependence of many NGOs with respect to government funding is even more problematic, because in certain situations a supply-side economic dynamic is materializing that offers an incentive for donor countries to intervene for political or media-related motives.Rony Brauman, Humanitaire, le Dilemme [The Dilemma of the Humanitarian Movement] (Textuel, 1996). A complex system of delegation and subcontracting is gradually taking shape, embracing a multitude of governmental, intergovernmental, and nongovernmental actors.

Nevertheless, state-to-state channels are now being exploited by parasitic new actors and networks that transcend them and jeopardize their existence. In 10 years, generally speaking, we have gone from a state-to-state system, essentially organized around political considerations, to a more open dynamic based on complex interactions among a variety of actors with highly diverse—if not contradictory—perceptions, modes of intervention, organizational cultures, and political, social, and economic goals.

“Internalizing” Humanitarian Aid

During the 1970s and 1980s humanitarian aid was nearly non-existent in full-blown crisis situations. Western countries, even those that most actively supported warring parties politically and financially, maintained a prudent distance from conflict zones; any direct intervention on their part, even in the guise of humanitarian aid, would have been perceived as interference and triggered an immediate response on the part of the states concerned or of their patron superpower. UN entities, for their part, were in the main committed to “development” programs. They recoiled at the notion of involving themselves in full-blown crisis situations. In addition, their adherence to the principle of sovereignty, called for in the UN charter and scrupulously respected by the international organization, made it impossible for them to intervene in internal conflicts without the consent of the respective national authorities. As a result, up until the early 1980s the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was, in spite of its self-imposed limitations, the only organization actually present on the ground. At that time a new generation of non-state actors—personified in France by the “sans frontiers” movement—began to breech the principle of sovereignty and intervene in conflict-ridden countries.Mark Duffield and John Prendergast, Without Troops and Tanks, Humanitarian Intervention in Ethiopia and Eritrea (The Red Sea Press, 1994). Such organizations were fairly rare, however, and until the start of the 1990s, contested zones of sovereignty, not to mention “rebel” zones, were virtually beyond the reach of international aid.

In the 1970s and 1980s, therefore, the often sizeable aid mobilized by Western nations and channeled via governmental, intergovernmental, or nongovernmental organizations was kept out of conflict-ridden countries and for the most part distributed in refugee camps.Afghanistan is a case in point: while aid distributed in refugee camps valued $400 million a year on average during the second half of the 1980s, aid funneled into the interior of the country during the same period by organizations operating across the border illegally amounted to only $20 million a year. See H. Baitenmann, “NGOs and the Afghan War, the Politicization of Humanitarian Aid,” Third World Quarterly, 12 (1) (1990). During the 1980s, in an atmosphere of ideological about-face—as illustrated by the substitution of the image of “freedom fighter” for that of the guerilla fighter—Western nations further increased their support for refugee camps set up on the borders of conflict-ridden countries. This humanitarian aid—distinct, in theory, from political and military aid and distributed to armed movements through separate channels—had a sharp impact on war economies. In many cases refugee camps became “humanitarian sanctuaries”Jean-Christophe Rufin, Le Piège Humanitaire [The Humanitarian Trap], J.C. Lattès (1986), (reedited, Hachette-Pluriel, 1993). and contributed to the perpetuation of conflicts; many armed movements accumulated political legitimacy in camps by way of their influence over refugee populations, secured an economic base via the international aid that poured in, and gained a source of fighters. Afghan or Pakistani refugee camps, the sites controlled by the “contras” in Honduras or the Khmer Rouge on the Thailand border—or, more recently, the Rwandan refugee camps in Tanzania and Zaire—are all good illustrations of how armed movements exploit refugee aid.On the Khmer refugee camps in Thailand, see William Shawcross, The Quality of Mercy (Touchstone Books, Revised Edition November 1985).

The situation has evolved a great deal since the early 1990s: humanitarian aid, which played only a marginal role and was distributed only along the periphery of conflicts, now plays a central role at the heart of a conflict’s dynamic. As the importance of humanitarian aid in crisis situations increases, a profound transformation in the process of distribution is also occurring: it is spreading inwards from the periphery towards the center of conflicts. With the end of the Cold War, humanitarian aid is no longer distributed only in refugee camps: it is increasingly being channeled to the interior of conflict-ridden countries, into the heart of combat zones. To be sure, the overall situation is not radically different, if only because refugees continue to flee countries in crisis and “humanitarian sanctuaries” are still a pressing issue—as the case of the Rwandan refugee camps demonstrates … Still, the rigid separation between combat zones located inside countries in crisis and sites where aid is distributed, in border regions, is beginning to disappear, and the aid system is increasingly operating deep within conflict zones. This process of “internalizing” humanitarian aid is linked to two kinds of factors.

To begin with, states now have broader latitude for intervention in internal conflicts in which “ideological” readings, highly valued during the Cold War, have yielded place to “ethnic” readings, which are politically benign and supply moral incentive for outside intervention. In addition, the United Nations, long paralyzed by the East-West confrontation, has become a vehicle of hope for many and has attempted to play a role in “peacekeeping.” The euphoria was short-lived: the hazards experienced in “peacekeeping operations” underline the difficulty of international interventions in internal crisis situations. As for “military-humanitarian” interventions, these continue to be pursued on a selective and expedient basis, depending upon media visibility, political significance, and the pressure of public opinion. Six years after the intervention launched in northern Iraq and four years after the Somali fiasco in 1993—the high-water mark of “humanitarian intervention”—the hesitancy of Western nations to confront the crisis in Kivu is confirmation of their increasing reluctance to become involved in full-blown crises of no obvious political importance. Despite their mixed record of success, these interventions have, nonetheless, gradually accustomed state and international actors to the notion of intervening in countries beset by conflict.

Acceptance of the principle of national sovereignty remains the norm, but it is now undergoing a complex process of redefinition and at times, in crises focused on by the media, is contested out of a concern to protect threatened populations. As a result, an increasing number of states have had to resign themselves to authorizing humanitarian operations within their territory, including conflict zones. The rapidly increasing number of relief programs based on the concepts of “humanitarian corridors” and negotiated access is evidence of this change. Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS), launched in April 1989, was the first relief operation UN agencies implemented in conflict zones to be based on a negotiated accord between the two warring parties. This new type of operation, which was reproduced in 1990 in Angola, 1991 in Iraq, 1992 in Bosnia, and elsewhere, constitutes a legitimization—made official in the course of innumerable UN Security Council resolutions—of the kind of cross-border operations in zones of contested sovereignty that until now had been conducted only by NGOs. UN agencies, which traditionally had only intervened after the conclusion of a cease-fire or the signing of a peace accord, are now increasingly involved in crisis areas.

Up to that point UNICEF had been the only UN program which, as per its mandate, was permitted to intervene in zones of contested sovereignty without the prior agreement of national authorities or in countries where the government had not been recognized by the international community, as was the case in Cambodia between 1979 and 1992.


This inclination to intervene in the heart of crises is reinforced still more by changes in refugee policy over recent years.François Jean, “Le Fantôme des Réfugiés” [The Ghost of Refugeeism], Esprit (December 1992). Refugees, who possessed political significance and a positive connotation during the Cold War era, are now viewed as undesirables. As a result Western nations try to avoid new refugee flows across international borders. For this purpose the international “community” tries as often as possible to keep displaced populations within crisis-ridden countries, in zones protected (theoretically) by an international presence and supplied (in principle) by relief convoys. The main aim of Operation Provide Comfort was to persuade suffering Kurds to stay away from the Turkish border and return to their homes by offering them temporary protection and humanitarian aid in northern Iraq. Together with the Bosnian intervention, this was a remarkable example of the new three-part policy of containment—or even push back—based on repatriation, humanitarian corridors, and security zones. From Iraq to Yugoslavia, including Rwanda, this new policy is coming more widely into practice. No longer is humanitarian aid distributed only in refugee camps on the periphery of conflict zones. Increasingly, it is dispatched within crisis-ridden countries, in the heart of combat zones.

This “internalization” of international initiatives means that humanitarian assistance is now being implemented in the midst of a conflict dynamic. It is true primarily in a financial sense, because this is quite often the only remaining resource still infused into internal conflicts that no longer inspire any real interest on the part of foreign powers. This is true in a geographic sense, as well, because the model of “humanitarian sanctuary” is yielding more and more to that of the “security zone.”

The Role of Humanitarian Aid in Conflict Dynamics

The developments broadly outlined above have introduced a situation utterly unique in the history of warfare—conflict zones permeated by a multitude of international organizations. The status of these organizations is highly diverse—governmental, intergovernmental or nongovernmental—and quite often fairly ambiguous: “military-humanitarian”; governmental, but without precise objectives; private, but dependent on government funding; non-state actors involved in diplomatic processes … These are organizations that engage not only in humanitarian action but also in areas such as peacekeeping, promoting human rights, conflict prevention or resolution, and more. They attract considerable amounts of funding, and their presence alone changes the nature of the game by introducing new factors. Humanitarian action is not merely a resource to be exploited by warring parties. It also serves as a constraint for all the parties to a conflict: it opens the dynamic up by depriving states of some of their prerogatives and establishing new linkages with the international system, and it reconfigures this state of play in the course of complex interactions built up between humanitarian actors and political-military movements or military-economic entrepreneurs. Clearly these are the dynamics we need to understand as we go back and examine each of these arenas of conflict.

Even if we exclude “military-humanitarian” interventions, humanitarian action is now part of the landscape of conflict—part of the dynamic of violence.

Mark Duffield, “NGO Relief in War Zones: Towards an Analysis of the New Aid Paradigm,” Third World Quarterly, vol. 18, no. 3 (1997).

Despite the decline—and it has been a steep one since 1993, the high-water mark of “humanitarian intervention”—in international initiatives to offer relief and protection to civilian populations victimized by violence, it is rare for countries to openly oppose international relief operations. The case of Algeria is unique in this respect; it is a rare example of a conflict inaccessible both to humanitarian organizations and the international media. It is all the more atypical in that Algeria’s civil war is playing out near Europe, pulling together all the elements (Islamization, terrorism, potential migrations, etc.) that have fueled the rhetoric of the “Southern Hemisphere threat” since the beginning of the 1990s … Yet no Western country or humanitarian organization will take the risk of intervening. In addition to the issue of noninterference—the traditional objection, endlessly reasserted in this case by punctilious officials—the intense climate of insecurity has discouraged any international presence for a number of years. Such a situation remains the exception, however, as demonstrated by the contrary example of Russia. In spite of the country’s long tradition of inaccessibility and government paranoia, the Kremlin and the army were obliged to tolerate the presence of non-state Western actors (journalists and humanitarian organizations) during a war of secession on the Russian Federation’s own territory. While foreign governments—with the exception of one mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe—and UN agencies were kept away from the conflict, portrayed as an internal Russian issue, the ICRC and a few NGOs were nonetheless able to operate deep inside conflict zones. The intervention was not without its difficulties, to be sure. Relief entities had to overcome all kinds of obstacles and faced overt political obstruction François Jean, “The Problems of Medical Relief in the Chechen War Zone,” Central Asian Survey, vol. 15, no. 2 (1996). before critical security issues (murders and kidnappings) forced them to leave the country. Nevertheless, the fact that they were able to intervene at all in such a context demonstrates how hard it has become for governments to oppose granting humanitarian actors access to conflict zones.

Gone are the days when adherence to the principle of sovereignty or respect for a state’s desire to prohibit any aid inside “rebel” zones made access to conflict-ridden countries impossible or confined the aid market to the precincts of the ruling powers, as in Afghanistan, Sudan, or Angola. Still, humanitarian organizations are continually hampered by political obstacles and security constraints. Oversimplistic explanations ought to be avoided in this regard: when humanitarian actors encounter difficulties, it is not always due to a set purpose—still less a strategy—to keep them away from conflict zones. Even in countries where deliberate political obstacles are obvious, such as Algeria or Russia, the critical security problems that confront humanitarian organizations seem rather to stem from a loss of control by the state, an increasing number of militarized actors, and spreading violence. It is all the more difficult in the case of countries like Somalia and Liberia, where the state has collapsed and armed groups have splintered, to speak of an intentional approach or deliberate strategy, at least not at the national level. Nevertheless, manipulating the security environment is, for certain groups in certain regions, a way of regulating the activities of international actors. In some cases, and particularly in areas with heavy international presence, strategies have focused on dealing with the problem a foreign presence poses.

The African Great Lakes region, the object of humanitarian overinvestment in recent years, provides a remarkable illustration of how local actors adapt their strategies. It is a particularly stark one, as well, because it had a clearly defined, limited focus—the “humanitarian sanctuaries” established in July 1994 along the Rwandan border. The November 15, 1996 attack on the Mugunga camp and the later return of hundreds of thousands of refugees to Rwanda played a decisive role in the cancellation of the military-humanitarian intervention in Kivu, which was being discussed at the time in international forums. Clearly the dispersal of the camps, which had been financed with humanitarian aid for the previous two years and had become rear-area camps for ex-FAR [Armed Forces of Rwanda] members, was in itself a goal for the new Rwandan authorities. Still, the possibility cannot be ruled out that the attack was part of a strategy explicitly aimed at preempting and preventing international intervention, as some of Paul Kagame’s statements have in fact have implied.“The Great Escape,” Economist, November 23, 1996; “Rwandans Led Revolt in Congo,” The Washington Post, July 9 1997. If that was the case, we witnessed a remarkable instance of Rwandan rulers assimilating the humanitarian question into their strategy. In the few years since the wave of interventions at the beginning of the decade, some local actors appear to have mastered the syntax of “international community” action well enough to be able to discreetly pull the plug on an intervention sequence—to the great satisfaction of some Western countries reluctant to involve themselves or willing to let a power struggle play itself out … Obviously in the case of the ex-Zaire, the specific issue, regardless of the humanitarian trappings, had more to do with the problems of the military intervention than those of the relief operation. In this respect it more closely recalls the October 1983 attacks perpetrated in Lebanon to compel the departure of the multinational force than it does the murder, ordered in certain Russian or Chechen circles, of six ICRC workers in Chechnya in December 1996—most likely aimed at forcing out the international presence prior to the oncoming elections. The difference was that, in the case of Zaire, the “rebels” did not go after the international actors. They “resolved” the humanitarian question that was the stated reason for the intervention—the protection of refugees—in order to deter a nascent international intervention. Nevertheless, the November 1996 events in Kivu showed that local actors can learn from ongoing events: at a time when it appears difficult to overtly oppose international initiatives seeking to protect and deliver relief to threatened populations, they have been able to adjust their strategies and retake the initiative.

Such cases remain the exception, however, if only because they feature a dominant state actor pursuing a coherent strategy. In the majority of crises the security environment is manipulated on a sporadic and selective basis. The parties to the conflict seek not to prohibit the presence or operations of international organizations on national territory as a whole but rather to deter them or, on the contrary, to encourage them to intervene in such-and-such a region, depending on the political configuration and power relationships at the local level. Any international intervention in a conflict situation inspires innumerable, highly diverse, and sometimes contradictory initiatives to hinder relief or exploit it, avoid an international presence or facilitate it, maintain a barrier or connect to the international system, and so on. These various competing strategies between armed factions, which international actors do not observe passively and which largely transcend conflict-ridden countries, play out in pursuit of the economic, as well as the political and symbolic, spoils of aid. Generally speaking, the strategies of local actors can be classified in two main categories: those centering on the economic resource represented by humanitarian aid and those concerning the international presence in conflict zones.

The Privatization of Public Services

The relative impact of aid as an economic resource depends on the extent of donor involvement and the volume of aid, as well as on the economy of the country where it is deployed and the nature of the crisis. A distinction can be made between long-term conflicts, where the society has been profoundly de-structured and aid is just as vital a resource for the warring parties as it is for the general population (particularly African conflicts), and situations in which aid is one resource among others—whether in acute crises (Bosnia, Afghanistan, Peru, etc.) or periods of “transition” (Cambodia, Iraqi Kurdistan, etc.). Still, even in Africa there is a clear east-west cleavage between countries long-dependent on external assistance (Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Mozambique) and countries that possess raw materials for export (Sierra Leone, Liberia, the ex-Zaire, Angola). Beyond such general distinctions, the impact of aid as a resource clearly depends on local circumstances: aid is all the more vital as a resource when it is deployed in conditions of scarcity or isolation, such as when civilian populations are cut off or under siege.

In any event, aid represents a significant resource that political and economic actors seek to appropriate and exploit for their own objectives. States and armed movements employ a wide variety of tactics to turn the aid windfall to their advantage, from taxation to intimidation and coercion. Even in a weakened condition, states possess important assets that enable them to reap advantage from relief operations conducted on their territory. Some administrative functions—setting exchange rates, for example—generate sizable commissions, and state control over structures of access to the international channels where goods and services circulate yields substantial import-tax revenues. In many conflicts, therefore, armed movements vie for control of cities, ports, and airports—or the creation of new facilities—which permit them to bypass the state’s monopoly on dealings with the outside world. Apart from taxation, a variety of forms of coercion and intimidation also exist, from the diversion of funds to plunder, including protection rackets.Stephen Ellis, “Liberia 1989-1994; A Study of Ethnic and Spiritual Violence,” African Affairs, no. 94 (1995). Such practices enter in at every stage in the chain of aid delivery and are especially predominant in “insecurity zones,” which afford excellent opportunities of this kind, exploited by armies and armed movements alike. Practices of intimidation and coercion do not target humanitarian aid alone; they focus most heavily on civilian populations. In the new war economies, the delivery of humanitarian aid constantly replenishes the feeding ground for such abuses, allowing warring parties to sustain themselves with commissions or by diverting resources.

However, in spite of the violent nature of these types of efforts to seize the windfall of external aid, war economies do not operate on the basis of abuse and coercion alone. In many cases armed movements—though they may not correspond to the traditional model of guerilla fighters in service of the common good—do enjoy a degree of legitimacy that may base itself on mobilization along political, ethnic, or religious lines. Some movements may reinforce this legitimacy by their capacity to provide social services, or at least a social safety net, to civilians under their control as compensation for material exactions or rights abuses in the form of forced conscription or labor.François Jean, “Aide Humanitaire et Économie de Guerre” [Humanitarian Aid and the Economics of War], in Économie des Guerres Civiles [The Economics of Civil Wars], eds. F. Jean and J. C. Rufin (Fondation pour les Études de Défense, Hachette-Pluriel, 1996). Humanitarian aid becomes a major resource, in this light, because it legitimizes protection rackets and, consequently, the power of states and armed opposition movements.

Charles. Tilly, “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime,” in Bringing the State Back
, eds. P. Evans, D. Rueschemeyer and T. Skocpol (Cambridge University Press, 1985).

While this legitimizing function is often more important than the social objective, strictly speaking, international aid supplies do give warring parties the means to offer services to the civilian populations in areas they control.When hostilities were renewed in Angola in 1993, for example, humanitarian aid made it possible to keep minimal public services up and running, both for the government side—then engaged in economic reforms that called for deeply reduced social expenditures—and for UNITA, which suffered serious financial setbacks after foreign support, South Africa’s in particular, had been cut off. See Alex Vines, ed., Angola: Arms Trade and Violations of the Laws of War since the 1992 Elections (Human Rights Watch/Africa, 1994); and Alex de Waal, Humanitarianism Unbound? African Rights, discussion paper no. 5 (1994). In weak or weakened states such as Afghanistan, Somalia, Liberia, or Bosnia, or in zones controlled by armed movements such as southern Sudan, northern Iraq, or the Angolan interior, aid entities help to preserve or reintroduce minimal public services and institutional capacities by providing employment for the educated and helping to keep some social services functioning. In so doing they contribute to maintaining or reestablishing the rudiments of civil administration—but on a decentralized, even incoherent basis, because their activities cover both guerilla zones and zones controlled by internationally recognized authorities. In this respect humanitarian action is actually neutral in impact. Depending on the circumstances, the configuration of the conflict, and the actors’ strategies, it may help to strengthen a state or the reverse—it may weaken a state when it supports the social initiatives of factions that attempt to set themselves up as rival states by assuming responsibilities traditionally discharged by central authorities.

How extensive an impact humanitarian aid has, in this respect, largely depends on how an organization operates its relations with civilian populations and the political agendas of the protagonists in the conflict. In Somalia and Liberia, for example, many factions appear not to have tried to utilize aid resources to enhance their own legitimacy. But in most conflicts armed movements do attempt to exploit external aid to consolidate their power, using strategies with varying degrees of sophistication. The least-organized movements are satisfied with authorizing an NGO to operate on their territory, simply claiming its achievements as their own and taking credit for them to burnish their reputations among civilian populations. From Sudan to Afghanistan, there is no doubt that building a hospital or a clinic enhances the prestige and influence of the local boss, who can boast the ability to tap the windfall of external aid for his people’s benefit. Beyond traditional, clientelist strategies or symbolically appropriating international aid, the better-organized movements—or those more focused on their relations with civilian populations—seek to build legitimacy and secure their influence over civilian populations by rebuilding administrative capacity and implementing redistributive policies.

Often these initiatives come wrapped in humanitarian packaging—most armed movements in fact have a humanitarian wing. These NGOs, created by political-military movements, are part of the remarkable abundance of local NGOs currently operating in Southern Hemisphere countries. But in countries beset by conflict, this movement by political-military actors into the humanitarian sphere is not, in large part, internally motivated; it often occurs in response to the expectations of actors within the aid system, where current rhetoric promotes “civil society,” capacity building, and supporting local NGOs. Donors are reassured by this façade of neutrality, and armed movements are in a better position to garner international funding. In some cases local NGOs truly have the ability to act and possess some degree of independence from ruling powers. In others they are mere humanitarian “window dressing,” wholly subordinate to military authority, as is the case in southern Sudan or Sri Lanka. In the conflicts in Lebanon and Eritrea during the 1970s and 1980s, or those continuing now in Angola or in Sri Lanka, some armed movements have sought to arrogate the state’s functions to themselves, setting up civil administrations to provide minimal social services with respect to education and health or to ensure the distribution of supplies to the neediest. At times the rough outlines of a movement towards privatizing “public services” through an aid process based on the donor–international NGO–non-state local actor triangle begin to emerge; this further weakens states already struggling to cope with the loss of their monopoly over violence and raising revenue.Mark Duffield, “The Emergence of Two-Tier Welfare in Africa: Marginalization or an
Opportunity for Reform?” Public Administration and Development, vol. 12 (1992).

These developments reflect underlying changes readily discernible at the international level. All indicators are that we are witnessing the internationalization of a parallel system of social welfare. In Western nations the welfare state has given way to increasingly privatized social protections, mixed with specific government measures—largely charity oriented—for those left behind. Likewise, in Southern Hemisphere countries where economic liberalization has been fostered by structural adjustment policies advocated by the International Monetary Fund, the social-welfare component is in large measure entrusted to NGOs. In crisis situations this trend towards internationalization is still more pronounced. The responsibility for implementing a minimal safety net for those most at risk is increasingly subcontracted out to a myriad of international institutions, humanitarian organizations, and local associations.François Jean, “L’humanitaire Irresponsable?” [Is the Humanitarian Movement
Irresponsible?], Agora, no. 36 (fall 1995).

But states do not always remain passive spectators of developments such as these, which weaken the bonds between government and the governed in favor of armed movements that use humanitarian action to build up their societal support and legitimacy. Some governments persist in asserting sovereignty over their national territory as a whole by assuming responsibility for public services even in contested zones of sovereignty. In Sri Lanka the government continued to pay civil servants and to finance schools and hospitals on the Jaffna peninsula between 1990 and 1996, a period when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) nonetheless ruled alone in that part of the country. In other countries, national authorities are trying to thwart the mounting influence of Western NGOs. In Sudan, for example, the government is trying to promote and sustain Islamist NGOs such as Da’wa Islamiya and the Islamic Relief Agency (IARA) in order to increase their control over both Western-NGO activity and the civilian populations in zones retaken by government forces.Jérôme Bellion-Jourdan, “L’Humanitaire et l’Islamisme Soudanais” [The Humanitarian
Movement and Sudanese Islamicism], Politique Africaine, no. 66 (June 1997). In short, in some cases governments attempt to reoccupy the public/social sphere that had to some degree slipped from their grasp and to reassert their authority. In Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Rwanda, the policies of the new authorities show a clear intent to limit the role of international NGOs and confine it to a framework determined by government authorities. What makes this development noteworthy is that the leaders of these three countries emerged from armed movements that acquired a good deal of experience with NGOs over years of war. Now in power, they appear to have studied the impact of humanitarian aid well and have adapted their strategies accordingly in order to regain the initiative.

Parallel Diplomacy

The growing presence of international actors in arenas of conflict has profound implications with respect to image building, legitimacy, and public support at the international level.

Since its beginnings, the humanitarian movement and the media have been in close, symbiotic association with each other, from the creation of the Red Cross at the end of the 19th century at the time of the first communications revolution (press-telegraph-railroads) to the triumph of humanitarianism at the dawn of the era of instant information. During the Biafran conflict at the end of the 1960s, humanitarian action spread to the third world at the same time as televisions began to spring up in European living rooms. At each of these stages the media’s evolution has paralleled the ascent of the humanitarian movement. The humanitarian project needs the media in order to focus the public’s attention and mobilize support; the media relies on humanitarian actors when it covers peripheral crises. The presence of humanitarian organizations on the ground facilitates media coverage of a conflict, providing journalists with logistical facilities and news sources, as well as witness-interpreters of the same nationality to help them connect with TV viewers.Rony Brauman, “Comment les Médias Viennent aux Crises ?” [What Makes the Media Cover Crises?], in Populations en Danger 1995 [Populations in Danger 1995] (La Découverte, 1995). By virtue of its links to media and public opinion, the humanitarian movement has a vital potential influence on a conflict’s visibility and how much interest it attracts. The more highly organized armed movements are fully aware of this and have long sought to induce, or at the very least assist, humanitarian organizations to set up operations in territories under their control. In the 1970s and 1980s, many armed opposition movements such as UNITA [National Union for Total Independence of Angola] in Angola and the FPLE [Popular Front for the Liberation of Eritrea] in Eritrea guaranteed the security of humanitarian organizations. Throughout the Cold War the alliance of the stethoscope and the camera characterized the humanitarian movement and undoubtedly allowed some movements in search of international recognition and legitimacy to gain visibility, mobilize political and financial resources, or build support networks in Western countries.The case of Commander Massoud in Afghanistan is an excellent example in this respect.

But the impact of the humanitarian movement is not limited to this “megaphone effect”; the movement also influences the intensity and the interpretative slant of the spotlight it shines on a conflict’s protagonists. Indeed, many humanitarian organizations pursue an active policy of bearing witness to crises—to the point, at times, of denouncing local authorities. Bolstered by their media intermediaries and the public’s response, the positions taken by humanitarian organizations often have an important influence on how conflicts are construed and warring parties perceived. The events of the past 20 years—from the exodus of the Vietnamese boat people to the Rwandan genocide, as well as the Afghan, Ethiopian, and Bosnian wars, among others—offer eloquent testimony on the impact of humanitarian involvement on evolving perceptions in Western countries and its role in mobilizing public opinion in democratic countries. In this respect, Biafra is clearly the foremost example of the impact of humanitarian aid in terms of recognition as well as international mobilization in aid of an armed movement—all the more remarkable in that, when Biafran leaders failed to sell their cause to the international public, they tried compassion, peddling their victims instead.Rony Brauman, L’Action Humanitaire [Humanitarian Action] (Flammarion, 1995).

Emerging from the Cold War, this “strategic victimhood” is more of an issue than ever. With the East-West confrontation at an end, the defense of human rights has taken the place of ideological orientation, the consequences of human conflict have returned to the foreground, and the humanitarian card is more of an asset than ever for processes of legitimacy building centered on victims. As humanitarian organizations strive to focus attention on overlooked tragedies, defend threatened populations, and denounce rights abuses, political-military forces—deprived of their traditional sources of support—have had to adapt to the new language of international relations in order to garner support and consolidate power. From Sudan to Afghanistan, states and armed movements seek to exploit the fate of civilian populations either to lure or latch onto international assistance, to legitimize themselves or discredit their adversaries, and more. Many varieties of strategic victimhood are practiced in arenas of conflict, some more sophisticated than others, but the better-organized groups with the most access to the outside world have known how to mobilize humanitarian aid and rhetoric in service of their objectives. Nonetheless, the maneuvering is not completely confined to warring parties trying to exploit aid. It reflects complex interactions based on confrontation, cooperation, or manipulation among local and international actors. And this web of strategies is, naturally, part of an overall dynamic that unfolds in space and time, repeatedly shifting as information circulates, elicits responses, modifies perceptions, produces unintended consequences, etc., at the global level. Positions and practices need to be continually readjusted in response to these dynamic interactions. Some humanitarian organizations, alert to practices of exploiting and manipulating aid, closely reexamine the impact of their own activities and try to modify their methods of intervention so as to limit its perverse effects. Likewise, some actors understand the limits of humanitarian action and have responded by moving into the political realm to challenge local authorities, call for international intervention, or participate in diplomatic initiatives.

Humanitarian organizations do not limit themselves only to facilitating media coverage of conflicts or raising international public awareness concerning the fate of civilian populations and the rights abuses they suffer. They are increasingly becoming policy advocates. And players in conflicts—political-military leaders or military-economic entrepreneurs—are well aware of this. Having courted and protected humanitarian actors throughout the Cold War, having used victimhood strategies to exploit their concern for threatened civilian populations, these actors now increasingly view them either as allies or enemies—political actors likely to exert influence over international decisions (particularly regarding international interventions)—as evinced by the proliferation of kidnappings and murders of members of humanitarian organizations in the past few years. This is an oversimplified picture, of course: it is no new thing for humanitarian organizations to be involved in lobbying policymakers … Nevertheless, in recent years they have grown far closer to official policymakers and have a significant influence, at times, on highly political issues such as decisions about whether or not to intervene. Humanitarian actors are playing a growing political role, and local rulers are ever more aware of the symbolic, economic, and political stakes involved in humanitarian action. This is so because a) conflicts stripped of strategic import for Western countries are increasingly perceived in terms of a humanitarian narrative, b) with political and financial support no longer available to warring parties, humanitarian aid is often the last remaining external resource to be infused into conflict-ridden countries, and c) humanitarian action is sometimes the West’s only response to political crises.

This increasing involvement on the part of humanitarian actors in policymaking with respect to conflicts reflects two kinds of processes at work. The first of these new developments is that, within the UN system, the boundaries between the domains of humanitarian action and international security have begun to dissolve. This greater permeability is partly a result of a heightened awareness of the question of human rights, as I’ve mentioned previously. Gone are the days when massive human rights violations were considered to be strictly an internal, state matter. In certain cases with a high media profile, the eroding of the principle of sovereignty and a concern for stability have prompted the UN Security Council to expand the collective security system to include internal conflicts. Resolution 688 of April 5,1991, on Iraq established a link, for the first time, between events taking place within a state’s borders—in the event of large-scale human rights violations and the threat of refugee flows across international borders—and international peace and security. It launched a long series of resolutions reflecting humanitarian issues, justifications, and sometimes even objectives. The humanitarian label has become a stamp of legitimacy for every political-military act or semblance of action. As a result, humanitarian organizations are increasingly associated with policymaking. This trend is especially pronounced within the UN system, which, despite its state-to-state character, is one of the principle forums for interaction between governmental and nongovernmental actors.

The much commented-on participation and influence of NGOs at international conferences in Rio, Beijing, and Istanbul are but the tip of the iceberg in this regard.Marie-Claude Smouts, “La Construction Equivoque d’une Opinion Mondiale” [The Ambiguous Construction of International Public Opinion]; Sophie Bessis, “Les Nouveaux Enjeux et les Nouveaux Acteurs des Débats Internationaux dans les Années 90” [New Issues and New Actors in International Debates of the 1990s], Tiers Monde, no. 151 (July-September 1997). While there are few formal procedures or institutional frameworks that provide for NGO participation, a great number of informal channels have gradually been established that enable private actors to interact with political authorities at the United Nations. The “traffic” of humanitarian issues coming before the Security Council has therefore been greatly augmented over recent years.Antonio Donini, op. cit. Humanitarian organizations provide member states with information from the field on crises and track the council’s deliberations closely. Likewise, the delegate from the International Red Cross in New York meets monthly with the council president, representatives of the principal. And humanitarian organizations have regular access to the secretary-general. In many cases humanitarian actors become policy advocates and, in crises that possess no major strategic import, may have significant influence in decision-making processes. Member state representatives cannot ignore their close links with the media and public opinion, and UN entities are continuously engaged in cooperative dealings and interactions with NGOs.Moreover, the potential role for humanitarian organizations in conflict resolution was explicitly acknowledged by Boutros Boutros-Ghali, then-UN secretary-general. In his 1992 book, Agenda for Peace, he cited “humanitarian diplomacy” based on the idea that humanitarian aid could provide leverage for the return to peace.

These interactions are not confined to UN headquarters in New York; they are part of a vast web of relationships spun between conflict-ridden countries and Western capitals. Indeed, NGOs are increasingly consulted and given heed in Western countries, owing to their knowledge of the terrain and their proximity to civilian populations in conflict zones. This is already a well-established trend in the United States, where humanitarian organizations—American and non-American alike—have long engaged in intense lobbying of policy makers. They frequently testify at congressional hearings and are given access to the State Department to press their points of view on crises they are intervening in. These practices are spreading in European countries as well, where NGOs have increasing access to policymaking authorities. Moreover, while these consultations remain informal in most instances, they sometimes involve institutional entities in charge of coordination and planning. France’s Secretary of State for Humanitarian Action and Human Rights National Advisory Commission, the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO), the UN’s Department of Humanitarian Affairs and High Commissioner for Human Rights all represent new bridges between humanitarianism and politics. In conflict-ridden countries, as well, contact is rapidly increasing with embassies, which frequently consult humanitarian organizations active in zones of heightened sensitivity. The same is true of the increasingly numerous “special envoys” in crisis areas, who are in continuous contact with private actors possessed of experience in those zones. And armed forces on peacekeeping missions in conflict areas have created divisions for civil affairs—the better to manage their multifaceted interactions with humanitarian actors. The boundaries between humanitarian action and politics have grown progressively indistinct as these interactions continue to accumulate; as states move into the humanitarian sphere, private actors increasingly become part of political processes.

Alongside the mounting influence humanitarian actors exert on policymakers, a “parallel diplomacy” conducted by private actors has emerged in recent years. This expansion of the diplomatic arena is one of many profound changes occurring in diplomacy; chief among these is a greater diversity of negotiating channels (as demonstrated by Jimmy Carter’s mediating role in Haiti, the Oslo process, and the negotiations over the Sudanese conflict in Addis Ababa under the aegis of the InterGovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and an ever growing number of official mediation efforts (as occurred during the Great Lakes regional crisis, where 10 special envoys were sent representing the United Nations, the Organization of African Unity, the European Union, the Arusha group, the United States, etc.).Likewise, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN secretary-general’s special representative in Burundi, estimated that some 70 delegations had passed through the country between November 1993 and January 1995. In the latter context the opening up of the diplomatic arena to include private actors constitutes a new phase, reflecting the aid market’s expansion to include markets for conflict mediation, resolution, and prevention: in light of the recurring nature of humanitarian interventions and the hazards of peacekeeping operations, some donors are searching for quick fixes that promise to prevent conflicts—cheaply and discreetly—from escalating.The principal donors in this area are the United States, the European Union, the Scandinavian countries, and Japan, as well as some large American foundations. It relates back, as well, to internal changes in humanitarian organizations that intervene in conflicts. Faced with the human consequences of crises and the limitations on what their interventions can achieve, some organizations are searching for ways to alleviate the causes of conflicts. A growing number of humanitarian organizations—human rights entities, journalists’ and church associations—have broadened their range of intervention to include conflict prevention, conciliation, or resolution at the local level, as well as lobbying at the international level. At the same time specialized organizations have rapidly grown in number over the past 10 years (the Community of Sant’Edigio, the Carter Center, International Alert, the International Crisis Group, etc.). These NGOs sometimes find themselves acting in quasi-official roles. They are seated alongside other players at negotiating tables, have direct access to policy makers and the international media, have significant resources at their disposal, etc. Nevertheless, with the exception of the Community of Sant’Egidio’s success in Mozambique’s peace process,Cameron Hume, Ending Mozambique’s War (United States Institute of Peace, 1994). this infatuation with parallel diplomacy has not yielded convincing results up to now. The earliest analyses of initiatives of this kind reveal a mixed record, to say the least.Barnett R. Rubin ed., Cases and Strategies for Preventive Action (New York: The Century Foundation Press, 1998). The case of Burundi, which over the past three years has served as the preferred testing ground for this kind of approach, is instructive: a profusion of contradictory, polarizing initiatives in the short term further fragmented the state of political play and provoked disarray, encouraging manipulation of all sorts. Local actors adapted to the new institutional landscape, playing one strategy off another while exploiting many of their interlocutors’ inconsistencies and absence of long-term vision. Each Burundian political faction found temporary allies among outside interventionists, who themselves became part of the problem in an atmosphere of media one-upmanship and competing strategies of victimhood.Fabienne Hara, “La Diplomatie Parallèle ou la Politique de Non-Indifférence : le Cas du Burundi” [Parallel Diplomacy, or the Politics of Non-Indifference: The Case of Burundi], Politique Africaine no. 68 (December 1997). Didier Bigo, “Grands Débats Pour un Petit Monde” [Big Debates for a Small World], Cultures et Conflits, No. 19/20 (winter, 1995).

Be that as it may, the rise of parallel diplomacy is an illustration of how private actors are appropriating prerogatives heretofore wielded by states alone. Both in the diplomatic and civil service spheres, the changes unfolding in arenas of conflict are proof of the weakening of the state and the burgeoning role of non-state actors. Humanitarian organizations, to be sure, are not the sole private international actors intervening in conflict-ridden countries. They are but one example of the emergence and activity of transnational networks that largely transcend the borders of conflictual spaces, profoundly affecting the dynamics of violence.


Humanitarian Acton:
Image, Perception, And Security

Lisbon, Portugal; March 27-28, 1998

Principles for Humanitarian Action

Looting, kidnappings, murder … For some years humanitarian organizations have faced mounting dilemmas when intervening in conflict situations. The (still unresolved) issue of the protection of victims has been compounded by the problem of security for volunteers and the national and international staff of relief organizations. The present forum on security comes at just the right moment, therefore, and I’d like to thank the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) for offering an occasion to have a dialogue and reflect upon this issue that is so central to our concerns.

I’ve been asked to speak to the issue of guiding principles from the viewpoint of a nongovernmental organization, following up on the ICRC’s presentation, and I’ll be happy to do so. But first I’d like to frame these security issues in context. I will not discuss the real or alleged ways in which conflict situations have changed—this is a subject in itself, and it would take me far afield from the present topic. What I am going to look at instead, if only briefly, is how the system of aid has evolved over the course of the past decade. This is highly important, I believe, because the increase in security incidents has occurred in the context of a very rapid increase in the number of international actors present in conflict zones.

I’ll begin by briefly describing developments in the system of aid over the last 10 years or so, highlighting what I think are the most relevant aspects for problems in security.

Then I’m going to address the topic of principles that guide the activities of humanitarian organizations, not just in terms of general philosophy, but trying to look at how these principles are expressed in concrete ways.

Redeploying Aid

Aid is now being redeployed, very broadly speaking, in two ways. There has been a substantial increase in government funding in the area of humanitarian aid and a growing role for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in its implementation. At the same time aid distribution is spreading inward from the peripheries to the centers of conflict zones.

Rapid and thoroughgoing changes have occurred in the dynamics of international aid over the last 10 years. As a result, development aid, pledged mainly within the framework of state-to-state relations, has given way to humanitarian aid, which is being implemented more and more by private entities, the NGOs.

All sources point to a significant expansion of humanitarian aid in proportion to total government-funded development aid, which has been on the decline since the end of the 1980s. In the case of ECHO alone, one of the largest donors in this field, the volume of emergency humanitarian aid grew sixfold between 1990 and 1994. Even as funding from governments appears to have stabilized or even decreased slightly since 1994, humanitarian aid seems to have become Western nations’ response of choice to political crises of minor strategic significance.

The second major trend in this respect is that funding by governments, often substantial, is increasingly being channeled via private entities. Here again, to give only one example, ECHO directed at least half of its funding, on average, to NGOs between 1990 and 1994.

Of course this very rough outline needs to be qualified and fleshed out. Without going into too much detail, I’d like to add at least three caveats and point out a few recent developments.

  • First, UN organizations remain very important actors and play a central, coordinating role at the nexus of politics and humanitarian action.
  • Next, states haven’t ceased to be active. They have increasingly come to occupy the humanitarian arena, which had initially come into being independent of government involvement.
  • Finally, the expanding share of government funding in NGO budgets raises fundamental questions as to the status of these organizations. Some remain autonomous entities that tend to formulate their own strategies while others have become subcontractors for donors.

In addition, new entities are now emerging and attracting donor interest and support—organizations specializing in conflict prevention or resolution, as well as local NGOs.

I won’t elaborate on these developments or comment on them. What I’d like to emphasize here is that humanitarian aid is now being channeled through a complex system of delegation and subcontracting that involves a multitude of governmental, intergovernmental, and nongovernmental entities.

In 10 years, generally speaking, we have gone from a state-to-state system, essentially grounded in political considerations, to a more open dynamic based on complex interactions among a number of actors with highly diverse, if not contradictory, perceptions, modes of intervention, organizational cultures, and political, social, and economic goals.

Alongside this institutional and political transformation—and this is the second point I wanted to make in this brief description of how the system of aid is changing—humanitarian aid is also becoming “internalized.” By this crude term I mean the expansion of aid distribution from the periphery inwards towards the center of conflicts.

In the 1970s and 1980s humanitarian aid was almost nonexistent in conflict zones. For a series of reasons—Cold War constraints with respect to national sovereignty—the United Nations and individual states, even those most deeply involved as political and financial supporters of warring parties, did not undertake humanitarian intervention in countries at war.

Only the ICRC and a few NGOs intervened in nations in conflict. These organizations were more or less the exception, however, and the bulk of aid was delivered in refugee camps on the periphery of conflicts.

Since the early 1990s the situation has changed considerably. A whole set of factors upon which, again, I will not elaborate here—the erosion of the principle of sovereignty and new policy on refugees designed to avoid new refugee problems as much as possible while delivering aid to internally displaced populations in crisis-ridden countries—have led to an increasing number of humanitarian interventions in conflict zones.

These interventions may take different forms, but the increasing number of “military-humanitarian” operations such as Provide Comfort, Restore Hope, and, particularly, relief programs based on the idea of negotiated access such as Operation Lifeline Sudan have in a sense legitimized and institutionalized relief operations previously conducted only by NGOs in zones of contested sovereignty.

As a result, states and UN agencies are now to be found alongside NGOs in countries beset by crisis, sometimes in military roles. Humanitarian aid is no longer distributed only in refugee camps at the periphery of conflicts; it is now conveyed into countries in conflict by a multitude of international entities that at times intervene deep within combat zones.

These developments, which I’m afraid I have outlined here much too briefly, are creating a situation utterly unique in the history of warfare—conflict zones permeated by a multitude of international organizations.

The status of these organizations is highly diverse—governmental, intergovernmental, or nongovernmental—and quite often fairly ambiguous: “military-humanitarian”; private, but dependent on government funding; non-state actors involved in diplomatic processes, etc.…

These are organizations that engage not only in humanitarian action but also in areas such as human rights, peacekeeping, conflict prevention or resolution, etc., and are often directly or indirectly involved in the political decision-making process.

Finally, these organizations attract considerable funding in conflict situations, where humanitarian aid at times is the last remaining resource Western nations will provide.

Humanitarian actors themselves sometimes find it difficult to orient themselves in this complex institutional environment, one that continually reconfigures itself in a somewhat confusing manner. This confusion is all the more understandable because it is abetted, consciously or not, by the deliverers of aid themselves: state actors who often claim the mantle of humanitarian action with the greatest conviction without stopping to consider their political responsibilities and humanitarian actors who, with the finest intentions in the world, at times turn into policy advocates and thereby add to the prevailing ambiguity.

In circumstances such as these it would be astonishing if local actors perceived humanitarian entities in an accurate way. And how humanitarian entities are perceived by local political-military leaders and their populations is clearly one of the key questions of the moment. It is a fundamental question for the future of humanitarian action. It is a central question, as well, when we reflect upon the security problems we now face.

In the absence of in-depth surveys in the major crisis zones, the question remains unresolved. But the impressions we have been able to gather on the ground would indicate that, at best, humanitarian organizations are viewed as importers of all-terrain vehicles—at worst as a new affluent class. Likewise, everything leads one to believe they are perceived either as agents of their governments or of the West—in any event as actors with political agendas and influence.

Part of this perception may be rooted in the trouble local actors sometimes have distinguishing among various entities—between state actors (civilian or military) and humanitarian actors—something that has occurred in certain zones exposed to large-scale international intervention—Somalia, for example. Paradoxically, at a time when political crises are seen more and more as complex “humanitarian emergencies,” humanitarians themselves are increasingly perceived as political actors … As a consequence it isn’t clear that military protection would enhance security for humanitarian aid workers—on the contrary, it could very well cast doubt on their independence and impartiality and diminish their capacity to intervene. It is essential for humanitarian actors to remain identifiable as such and to differentiate themselves as much as possible from political, and especially military, actors.

But it is doubtful whether this alone would solve the problem. Because it’s not simply a matter of blurred boundaries. Conspiracy fantasies or theories notwithstanding—and sadly these are all too widespread in countries beset by conflict—at the end of the day warring parties do, in fact, have a broadly realistic appreciation of what humanitarian aid entails. They are not wrong, in any event, to view us collectively as having a political role or political influence.

The issue is not reducible to blurred boundaries alone—the real question is how international relations are being transformed: the expanding role of private actors, the increasing complexity of decision-making processes, and so on. I won’t go into the changes currently unfolding in the international system; nevertheless it is clear that private entities are becoming ever more involved in political decision making. The heavier flow of humanitarian issues coming before the Security Council, to cite only one example, is an obvious sign of this.

Humanitarian organizations have political influence—there’s no point in concealing it. We are better off recognizing and accepting it while attempting to better define our role, to work out more clearly what our responsibilities are. If we are to do this, we should first of all clarify our relationships with other actors in the relief system, both government and nongovernmental. This means reinforcing the ways in which we coordinate, the different areas in which we are complementary, and, most important, the dynamics at play when organizations of different types interact. Then we need to go back and reevaluate our practices, our methods of intervention, and our relations with populations. And this involves rethinking our activity and what our responsibilities are.

To illustrate a few of the issues we face I’m going to return to the idea of advocacy, which Madame Bonino very rightly emphasized just a moment ago.

Nowadays all humanitarian organizations, even those most committed to the idea of neutrality, engage in advocacy vis-à-vis political decision makers. But the term advocacy can apply to very different approaches, from bearing witness to promoting policies.

Some organizations believe it their duty to expose and even to denounce a political authority when they witness, or are sole witnesses to, rights abuses. Others try to lobby decision makers in favor of this or that policy and set themselves broader objectives, such as conflict prevention or resolution.

All of these approaches indisputably have political implications. But this doesn’t necessarily mean they are part of a political project. What distinguishes humanitarian actors from political actors is that they are motivated by the victims’ interest, not by political objectives.

The victims’ interest is a key concept for humanitarian actors. But, again, it is a highly imprecise one that poses pitfalls for many. Too often one hears NGOs profess themselves to be the victims’ representatives—this sort of claim to solidarity with a “brotherhood of victims” is, frankly, pathetic, even disturbing. Because it smacks of the very appropriately condemned “victimist” strategies used in some conflict zones by political-military leaders with a political or institutional interest in perpetuating the status of victims as victims.

The victim’s interest rests squarely in no longer being a victim. Actions that are in the victims’ interest are those which enable victims to escape that condition or that do not worsen their situation, in any case. The victims’ interest might just as well call for dis-involvement as it does action, for either discreet silence or open denunciation, for politics or for humanitarian action. It cannot be defined in a general way, only case by case, in terms of a given situation and the opportunities it presents for action.

In any event, this is a basic issue that is a good example of how general concepts need to be re-clarified over and over again and that principles have no value unless they are continually reinterpreted in light of the issues we face on the ground when we intervene.

Having said that, I’d like to apologize in advance because I’m about to use some big words, in abstracto. I’m now going to address the question of principles, but given the format of this presentation I won’t be able to tie them into concrete situations or problems to the extent I would wish. It goes without saying that I’m speaking to this issue from the point of view of one nongovernmental humanitarian organization; I speak on behalf of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

Guiding Principles of Action

What are the principles that should guide us in this complex institutional environment, particularly in societies where we intervene?

Of course no principle, no philosophy for action, no individual behavior, even, can guarantee acceptance—much less protection. We obviously need to be wary of idealistic thinking here. It will never prevent raiders from attacking members of relief organizations or political-military leaders from targeting humanitarian organizations in order to deter, pressure, or manipulate them.

Nevertheless, it is important to think principles out—for starters because it is essential in and of itself, especially in an increasingly perplexing time such as the present. Provided, naturally, that principles should be treated not as abstractions but as the materials for critical thinking.

Also because adherence to certain principles of action—not by expressing them as generalities but by routinely factoring them into decisions and actions on the ground—may perhaps allow us to better orient ourselves and establish more clearly defined relationships with local and international actors.

So I’m going to quickly outline the principles we think are important. I’ll be fairly brief because I believe it is difficult, perhaps even fruitless, to speak of principles in the abstract. They have to be tied to experiences—something that isn’t easy to do in the few minutes I have remaining.

So I’ll just describe a few concrete applications of principles relating to the issue of security we are discussing here today.


I’ll begin with neutrality, which will allow me—and this won’t surprise you—to offer a point of view different from that of the ICRC. And I’m raising the issue specifically in order to rule it out as a principle for action.

MSF has had many discussions on this topic over a number of years, without coming to any definitive conclusion. Still, a lot us do agree it does not involve any kind of absolute dictate or principle. Of course we fully believe that, in the majority of conflicts, we have no business taking sides with this or that belligerent party. This doesn’t mean we can remain neutral or silent when confronted with genocide or an oppressive regime. So for us neutrality is something that varies according to the situation, not a guiding principle. Or, if it is a principle, it is a passive one, not a principle of action …

In contrast, we see impartiality as an essential principle in humanitarian action. It posits that a wounded soldier, a combatant not involved in combat, if only temporarily—in short, a man, woman, or child in need must be assisted without discrimination. Being impartial, then, means assisting any person in need according to their need, without regard to race, religion, nationality, or political affiliation.

On a concrete level this means assessing needs in a fully independent manner and monitoring how aid is distributed in order to ensure it isn’t diverted from its targets and that it truly reaches those for whom it is intended. Naturally, needs assessment is not the be-all and end-all; it needs to be paired with a more comprehensive analysis of the causes of the target population’s deteriorating situation, particularly to determine whether it is the result of any strategy on the part of political authorities, as may be the case, for example, when famine has been induced or is being sustained.

Whatever the cause, an independent assessment of needs and strict monitoring of aid distribution are vital for delivering assistance impartially. As I have described it, this obligation of fairness is very different from the notion of even-handedness between parties that can be dictated by a false conception of neutrality.

Human Concern

Humanitarian aid aims to preserve life in dignity and respect; it attempts to deliver aid in a time of crisis and to give back to people their capacity for choice.

In other words, in contrast to development aid, humanitarian aid does not seek to devise any sort of project for society or spark some bold transformation of a way of life. Nor does it claim to offer comprehensive solutions to conflicts.

By putting it in these terms I mean to emphasize that humanitarian action is rooted in a humanist ethic. It intervenes on a human scale. But, again, humanist principles are nothing but abstractions emptied of meaning if they do not translate into behavior, ways of being and doing.

From this perspective, admittedly, we face a lot of issues because the aid system has evolved significantly. It now attracts substantial resources. This infusion of wealth and goods, apparently free of charge in a context of extreme scarcity, amounts to a kind of symbolic violence that in itself is a source of tension. This is not without consequences for humanitarian organizations, especially in full-blown crisis situations.

Also because certain types of interventions, certain mechanistic practices focused on technical efficiency alone, can at times breed attitudes of arrogance and contempt.

Respect for human dignity is at times not too compatible with mass-oriented operations. The “assisted populations” and “vulnerable groups” frequently referenced in the jargon of relief workers are not, it must be remembered, clusters of physiological organisms. Humanitarian action has nothing to do with some sort of veterinary compassion. The concern for others that guides us applies to human beings, not to digestive apparatuses.

In many situations we may need to be able to abandon certain technocratic ways of operating, certain stereotypical, large-scale types of operations, certain methods of population “management.” At times we may have to be able to resist pressure from financial donors and—always—our own organizational cultures.

It is time to reopen the dialogue, to recover a responsiveness and sense of closeness in our relations with the individuals we are helping, those we work and interact with.

In this regard—and returning to the question of security—it might be helpful to recall that the quality of our relationships with local staff clearly is an important factor in how well we understand their societies and, it goes without saying, the quality of information and assistance they can provide us in case of difficulty.


For us, independence is a core principle, which many of the others depend upon. It has come up throughout this brief outline I’ve been giving: independent needs assessment, independence with regard to financial donors and our own institutional interests, free and open dialogue with individuals, and so on.

Independence is not a principle to be proclaimed: it is not an institutional position to take with respect to financial donors or a moral stance to assume in dealing with political-military warlords or military-economic entrepreneurs. Independence is a way of relating to authority, one that is by definition antagonistic.

By putting it this way I do not mean it is aggressive; I’m speaking of the tension inherent in all relations between citizens, or associations of citizens, and authority. This tension is all the more acute in full-blown crisis situations. In such cases it is no longer mediated by delegation or consent. It is often aggravated and gets expressed through force or constraint.

In these highly politically charged crisis situations involving rights abuses, “victimist” strategies, and the exploitation of aid, humanitarian organizations must continually negotiate, resist, maneuver, refuse, condemn, and so on.

Tensions run high in conflict situations, and how we deal with authority is extremely critical for organizations attempting to deliver aid impartially. In certain situations one has to be able to say no and go public with bad news.

Dealing with political authority is problematic in Western countries as well. States, and by extension financial donors, act (legitimately from their point of view) according to their national interests, though they may not be impervious to the calls for solidarity emerging within their own societies.

Humanitarian organizations, whose intentions are profoundly different, are obviously under no obligation to always respond to appeals from states.

Too often, unfortunately, humanitarian actors go along with the policies of donor nations, at the risk of seeming to be associated with governments. The fact that their organizational cultures very often adapt easily to the role of subcontractor makes this easier.

Here again the politics of supply, which creates a framework whereby programs are judged by the funding they can attract, does not always reinforce decisions that might follow from an independent assessment of the situation and of opportunities for intervention.

But independence is neither a rhetorical posture nor a moralistic formula to be invoked against authority. It requires critical reflection, and this has to start with ourselves.

At minimum—and MSF is not exempt from this criticism—humanitarian organizations are frequently not vigilant enough. They are lacking in critical spirit, in the capacity for self-questioning. Too often they reflexively adhere to fashionable clichés, all the more willingly because their institutional interests frequently coincide with the prevailing winds. Self righteous rhetoric, good intentions, and moralistic posing can become a kind of ambient background noise, dulling our vigilance and deadening our awareness of our responsibilities.

As MSF found in Ethiopia and in Rwanda’s refugee camps, and as other humanitarian organizations have experienced on other occasions, it can be very costly—in terms of image, funding, institutional relationships, and relations with authorities—to depart from lukewarm consensus and adopt a critical stance. But, then, independence has its price …