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"Humanitarian Action in Conflict Situations"

Speeches and statements

"Humanitarian Action in Conflict Situations"

9 January 1998
Introductory Remarks by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Panel Discussion organized by the Institute of Policy Studies, the Singapore Red Cross Society and the Society of International Law, Singapore.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am pleased to be with you this morning and I am grateful to the organizers of this panel discussion - the Institute of Policy Studies, the Singapore Red Cross Society and the Society of International Law - and to Ambassador Tommy Koh, for inviting me, and for accepting my proposal that we discuss humanitarian action in conflict situations.

Much has been said and written about this theme, but I believe it still deserves our attention - certainly, much remains to be done about it. Humanitarian agencies, including UNHCR, are increasingly compelled to work in conflict situations, and this is an issue of great concern to me and to all those who deal with humanitarian matters.

As we speak, the staff of UNHCR and other UN and Red Cross agencies, and the personnel of many NGOs, are trying to protect and assist civilians across the muddled lines of various conflicts. The geographical scope of this type of humanitarian action spans different regions: from Afghanistan to the Great Lakes Region of Africa, from Colombia to Sri Lanka, from former Yugoslavia to Northern Iraq, just to mention a few examples. Since 1992, 139 civilian staff members of the United Nations have lost their lives in the service of victims of conflict. Since 1994, there have been 36 cases of kidnapping or hostage-taking among UN staff. Countless more have been killed, wounded or kidnapped in the NGO community.

Humanitarian action has always been linked to conflict. Until recently, and with the notable exception of the ICRC, most humanitarian agencies did not work in conflict situations. UNHCR, for example, operated on the fringes of conflicts, in areas - usually in countries of asylum - where people took refuge waiting for such conflicts to be resolved by political and military actors. It was relatively easy for humanitarian work - inside or outside conflict zones - to be perceived as neutral.

Those were the Cold War years, during which, as the Economist wrote recently, a "frosty clarity" prevailed. This is particularly true for refugee work. Not only were UNHCR and its partner agencies kept away from the heart of conflicts, but also their actions matched the geopolitical environment. Refugees crossed international borders which were also ideological boundaries. Polarization made political solutions difficult to achieve. Therefore, neutral, uncontroversial humanitarian action was needed to keep the victims alive.

Then the Berlin Wall came down. In humanitarian terms, the crisis in Northern Iraq, less than two years later, was a turning point. The Kurds brought a new dimension to the concept of displacement. They did not cross an ideological line - they fled an internal conflict, and they fled in a massive manner. They took refuge in areas where assistance was difficult and costly, and, more importantly, where certain countries viewed their presence as a potential trigger of further conflict. The interest of the international community was to bring them back. This coincided with the restrictions and limitations imposed upon Iraq following the Gulf War, and an international military intervention to protect returnees, their host communities, and humanitarian agencies assisting them, was made possible. Operation Provide Comfort gave rise to the illusion that in the New World Order there would be space for a New Humanitarian Order.

This illusion was short lived. The Gulf War had been a serious conflict, but its elements, and the interests at stake, were rather clear. In the early nineties, the end of Cold War polarization resulted in countless internal conflicts - confused, violent, in which human displacement was not only the consequence of conflict, but sometimes its objective. In Somalia, the international community thought it would rapidly replicate the relative success of Northern Iraq. Troops sent in to support humanitarian agencies found themselves - gravely unprepared - mired in a civil conflict of unforeseen complexity. Rightly or wrongly, they were perceived as taking sides. Casualties among the soldiers not only made the humanitarian mission unsustainable, but also created resistance in the public opinion of western States against further military interventions in crisis situations, particularly in the key country, the United States.

The failure in Somalia affected all subsequent attempts to mobilize military support to humanitarian action. In former Yugoslavia, a conflict of particular violence and complexity, it was only its proximity to the West, and the horrors of Srebrenica, which convinced western countries to dispatch troops with a more decisive mandate than UNPROFOR's, and to compel the warring parties to discuss peace at Dayton - and this, three years after the conflict started. In Rwanda, UNAMIR was withdrawn after the killing of a number of soldiers, at the very time when a multinational force was most needed. The international community is increasingly reluctant to intervene in a significant manner - that is, by sending armed forces - to help victims of conflicts, if and where such conflicts are ongoing. Interventions, when they occur, are usually constrained by limited mandates. This has very negative consequences in humanitarian, but not only humanitarian, terms.

The successive crises in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa are an example of this failure to implement the "New Humanitarian Order": the withdrawal of UN troops from Rwanda in April 1994 coincided with an explosion of genocidal violence, which killed hundreds of thousands of innocent victims. In refugee camps in Eastern Zaire, armed elements and political extremists could not be separated from genuine refugees, because the few troops the international community was willing to send for a short period provided only logistical support to relief operations. In November 1996, a Security Council resolution supporting the dispatch of troops to help protect refugees in the embattled areas of Eastern Zaire was not implemented - the flight and death of thousands of unprotected refugees in the rainforest, which is recent history, is the result of that failed intervention.

True, the situation in the Great Lakes region has been and continues to be exceptional. However, it indicates in a dramatic manner that humanitarian action alone cannot resolve fundamental social and political problems. When refugees and other victims of conflict are in life-threatening situations, humanitarian agencies must stay and continue to work: saving lives is the fundamental obligation of humanitarian action. But if this happens in a situation of conflict, we have to leave unarmed humanitarian staff facing security risks so grave that governments are not even prepared to expose to them their military forces. Moreover, the inability of humanitarian agencies to deal with problems of a military nature - for example the presence of dangerous extremists among assisted refugees in Zaire and Tanzania - means that they can even unwittingly compound these problems, be identified as party to a conflict, and eventually become the scapegoat for the inability of political actors to resolve such conflict.

Like all of us, I hope that in due course, from the turmoil of this transition period, a new balance of forces will arise, resulting in renewed stability and in the establishment of effective peace-making and peace-building mechanisms. We should not forget that these are eminently political processes, and that humanitarian or military responses, or a combination of both, are meant to cure the symptoms of conflicts, but cannot alone remove their root causes. In the meantime, however, I believe that we must prepare ourselves for several years of conflicts similar to those which we have seen in the last decade. Some of them will force people to be displaced, and humanitarian action will again be necessary, often across conflict lines. There will be pressure on UNHCR and other agencies to intervene, but there will be reluctance to support their intervention with military force.

Under these circumstances, some humanitarian actors say that we should refuse to intervene. I rather believe that we should rethink international security support to humanitarian interventions. There are many aspects to this very complex and politically charged issue. For the sake of our discussion, I will limit myself to two main observations.

My first suggestion is that we should start thinking of security support to humanitarian action in a more diversified manner than simply as the short-term deployment of large and expensive military contingents. What we are increasingly looking at is a ladder of options, which also includes - for example - the utilization of civilian police, armed or unarmed. Another option is to utilize UN guards, as we did in Northern Iraq. A third option is a combination of national forces under the control or supervision of a small international contingent, as we tried ourselves in Eastern Zaire when all other attempts to obtain a multinational force to maintain law and order in the refugee camps failed. Ideally, of course, there should be an internationally agreed mechanism to activate one or the other of the proposed law enforcement arrangements. It should become possible to intervene rapidly and efficiently, through the establishment of an emergency fund and the identification of stand-by human and material resources ready to be deployed at short notice. Setting up such arrangements on a regional basis, as ECOWAS has shown through a combination of military and political intervention in Liberia and Sierra Leone, can be very useful. I am following with interest the on-going consultations on the creation of an African rapid-deployment force.

My second observation is that in "normal" situations, humanitarian work is carried out under the umbrella of national law enforcement mechanisms. It is in conflict situations, or in situations of implosion of national structures that these mechanisms may collapse as seen in Somalia in 1993, or in former Zaire in 1996. Then the international community should consider deploying forces to fill the "law enforcement gap" so that affected civilians can be protected and assisted. In so doing, both the financial and political constraints of countries offering support and the need for humanitarian action to be neutral and non-violent should of course be considered.

But it is much more important that external interventions aim primarily at rebuilding national law enforcement mechanisms, and at making them sustainable through the provision of training, funds and equipment. Capacity building should be aimed in particular at restoring the two key elements needed to enforce law: an effective national police force and a fair, well functioning judicial system. It is precisely this capacity building element that is often missing in the planning and implementation of security support to humanitarian operations. Yet, this element is clearly essential, for at least two reasons: because it can constitute a measurable objective, even in terms of timing, for the deployment of support forces, thus limiting the risk of "mission creep"; and because it provides a constructive value to external interventions, making them more useful and acceptable to the countries where they occur.

Let me conclude by saying that we remain realistic in our expectations. Mobilizing security resources in support of humanitarian action will continue to be difficult. What we request from governments, though, is to go beyond the very understandable, but rather short-sighted consideration that soldiers losing their lives in support of humanitarian action in far away countries will cause political damage at home. The time has come to break the "Somalia syndrome", while building on the lessons and mistakes of Somalia and of other experiences. Let us not forget that globalization is not limited to the economic sphere. Humanitarian crises are almost invariably a result of conflicts. As such, exactly like financial crises, they are no longer limited to one country, nor even to a region. Their potential for spreading insecurity is very real, as the crises in former Yugoslavia and Central Africa have shown in recent years. Intervening to bring protection and relief to the victims is of course a moral issue at its core, but can also have a strategic value in preserving regional and global stability.

Thank you.