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"On the Humanitarian Frontlines: New Challenges of Refugee Work"

Speeches and statements

"On the Humanitarian Frontlines: New Challenges of Refugee Work"

8 November 1999
Lecture by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Arco Forum on Public Affairs of the J. F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

The debate on "humanitarian intervention"

Colleagues, students,

Ten years have passed since we hoped to enter an era in which conflicts would be addressed and contained by effective international responses. Ten years have passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and my Office - the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees - continues to pick up the broken pieces of violence and war. We knew, of course, that there would be no quick fix - that a time of uncertain transition would begin. But the transition does not seem to end. No satisfactory conflict resolution system is available either at the international or at the regional level. Today's wars kill and displace civilians with particular viciousness. They linger, unresolved, just to explode again with renewed violence. They are fluid and unpredictable - and there is no predictable, flexible response mechanism to contain them. They are rooted in deep ethnic, social and economic divisions within communities, and in the weakness of governments - and no systematic, substantial efforts are made to reinforce governments and to create more equal and harmonious societies.

Instead, "intervention" has become the flavour of the day. "Intervention" is what the international community - political leaders, the media, the academics - are chiefly talking about when discussing how to address crises. Also, intervention as a response to conflicts, and humanitarian action to help the victims of these conflicts, are becoming almost inextricably linked - in fact, "humanitarian intervention" has become a big soundbite in the current political jargon. Throughout the Kosovo crisis, it was not uncommon to hear that NATO was a "humanitarian" organisation. And I have recently heard somebody say that we went from fighting wars to facing "complex humanitarian emergencies".

It is true that the sight of terrible human suffering, especially on TV screens, did indeed contribute to trigger many interventions of this decade - Operation Provide Comfort to rescue the Iraqi Kurds after the Gulf War; the ill-fated Somalia expedition; the many efforts deployed during the wars in Croatia and Bosnia; the ECOMOG interventions in West Africa; and, this year, Kosovo and East Timor. Governments, bent on convincing their parliaments and citizens to send peace-enforcing troops on dangerous missions, have insisted on the "humanitarian" character of such endeavours, which made them morally compelling, and difficult to object to.

Without any doubt, this bears witness to the progress of a collective humanitarian conscience in today's world. This said, I would like to express three serious concerns.

First, I fear that if intervention is conducted exclusively - or mostly - as a reaction to moral indignation, only "visible" tragedies will benefit from the active involvement of the international community; only those crises which are strategically or geographically closer to the industrialized world, or that are so big and dramatic that they cannot be ignored, will be tackled. In other words, the attention that we devote to situations such as in Kosovo will continue to be disproportionate - in relative terms - to any effort made to resolve other problems, especially in Africa - think of Angola, Congo, Sudan or Sierra Leone - but also elsewhere - think of Afghanistan, or the Caucasus region.

Second, I am worried that if we have to wait for humanitarian catastrophes to trigger international responses, we shall make little or no progress on the road to concrete, viable and predictable conflict resolution mechanisms in the sphere that matters, which is the political sphere, because by the time crises develop into "humanitarian catastrophes", the only responses available to decision-makers - the military, armed responses - will put the international community into the strait-jacket of the intractable problems that UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has described so eloquently in his address to the General Assembly this year: conflicting strategic interests; lack of resources; and even more crucially, the issues of intervention vs. sovereignty, and of the legitimacy of intervention.

Third, has "intervention" in itself been effective? Let us look at the outcome of some of the recent crises - in this respect, the vantage point of the UN refugee agency is very revealing. True, some conflicts have ended, especially among those which had started during the Cold War - in Central America, for example; or in Mozambique. This is certainly positive, although much more the result of negotiations than of "intervention" as such. But if you take a close look at new crises, those for which interventions were made, you will note that most of them have not been resolved. The plight of the Kurds continues. In the former Yugoslavia, four years after Dayton, more than 1.5 million people still live away from their homes - particularly in Bosnia and in Serbia. In Liberia, peace is at best fragile. It is certainly not a tangible reality for people in Sierra Leone, not to mention the powderkeg of Central Africa...

My central question is, therefore - why put all of our cards on military intervention? And, in particular, why must we wait until intervention is - indeed - a compelling humanitarian necessity? Why must we wait until human suffering (or rather, the suffering that we watch on TV) becomes so intolerable, that in order to put an end to it, we must risk upsetting the fragile web of international relations - that very web that we should be carefully preserving to maintain peace and security in the broader context? Why, to stop violence and killing, must we resort to interventions that will inevitably cause so much "collateral damage" - to other human beings, to stability, to international relations at large? Why is the debate on "intervention" focusing so much on its humanitarian justification?

Conflict resolution, rather than "intervention"

We must look back, I believe, at what happens before we reach the stage of intractable dilemmas. As an example, let us look at a situation in which the international response has been so large and conspicuous that it has become the controversial symbol of the good and evil of "humanitarian intervention".

Nobody can deny that NATO action in Kosovo has ended the repression of the ethnic Albanians in the province. Those who have returned - the majority - are facing many difficult problems in an environment that is physically and economically destroyed, at the onset of the harsh Balkan winter. However, they do not have to face the harassment and intimidation of security forces and paramilitaries. This represents a sea change from the situation of last year.

Military intervention in Kosovo may have also shown the resolve of a group of powerful countries to address at least some of the situations in which human rights are violated, and civilians are targeted. But it has not resolved all the problems. And other problems have been created. I will not elaborate on the political "collaterals" of intervention - in terms of international relations, regional stability, and economic consequences. But I would like to stress two points.

One is that the harassment, murder, expulsion and flight of non-Albanian minorities from Kosovo, have neither been prevented, nor stopped, by the intervention; this is in stark contrast to one of the declared purposes of NATO action: to preserve the existence of a multi-ethnic society in Kosovo. The other, of a broader nature, is the unresolved question of the status of the province. Until the latter issue is decided, it will be difficult to build any administrative and governing capacity in Kosovo, thus delaying sine die its social and economic development, already severely stunted by repression and war.

But Kosovo is not only challenging us because it is an "unfinished job". To draw lessons for the future, it is also worth looking back at the various steps of international involvement. For many years, the Kosovo question caused only occasional concerns outside the region. It moved to the centre of international attention with the increase in tension, from early 1998. After the escalation of violence and growing population displacement throughout the following summer, there was probably one last chance to reach a durable peace, without irreversibly affecting ethnic coexistence in the province: this was during the period following the Holbrooke/Milosevic negotiations, the withdrawal of some Serbian forces, and the decision to establish an unarmed, civilian verification arrangement - the Kosovo Verification Mission. The KVM was a means to buy a negotiated arrangement. By then, however, ethnic relations had deteriorated to a point where much stronger international commitment would have been necessary to bring them back to a reasonable level of normality.

More - I believe - should have been done to find a political solution, and, above all, to develop a ceasefire mechanism strong enough to verify violations on both sides, and translate verification reports into concrete political pressure both on the Yugoslav federal authorities, and the KLA. The deployment of the KVM was slow: By the end of 1998, in spite of many appeals - joined by humanitarian agencies - it had not reached the level foreseen by the Holbrooke/Milosevic agreement. Many governments hesitated sending their citizens to a relatively dangerous area, although no KVM staff was killed in Kosovo. After that brief window of opportunity, and the failure of further political negotiations, military intervention became almost inevitable - and with it came the intractable dilemmas, the inevitably controversial choices, the collateral damage, and new or unresolved problems.

It is of course difficult to analyse such very recent history. But I wish to insist on one point. The examination of what was done - or insufficiently done, or not done at all - in October 1998, may well be the central point in any evaluation of the intervention in Kosovo. There is always such point, in any crisis. Often, interestingly, that point corresponds to the decision - or rather the lack of a decision - to intervene more robustly when the aim has been to contain, rather than to stop, conflict. Another situation comes to mind: Rwanda, in April 1994, when the decision - understandable, but fraught with incalculable consequences - was made to withdraw peacekeepers, thus leaving genocidal forces completely free to unleash their criminal plan. And I could give other examples. Containing is of course extremely dangerous, and has to be done on the ground - unarmed humanitarian workers know this very well, by the way, since they are usually in the field in these circumstances.

As the head of a humanitarian organisation, I am certainly not in a position to judge political decisions that were made in respect to the Kosovo crisis during the period leading up to the air intervention in March 1999. But everybody knew that reaching the point of military intervention meant having to activate air attacks - an option far less risky than ground invasion, in terms of soldiers' lives. This, in turn, entailed leaving Kosovo to those who wanted to cleanse it from ethnic Albanians.

When this happened, UNHCR was faced with a huge, unmanageable refugee outflow, and the world's attention concentrated on the refugee crisis. A new humanitarian dimension was added, indeed, to NATO's intervention - but in response to a refugee crisis that had developed after the intervention had started. The military became providers of assistance - this was essential, given the size of the refugee outflow, although the confusion in roles created problems for humanitarian agencies. Perhaps decision-makers hoped that the intervention would have a successful outcome in a shorter period of time. But could a stronger, more decisive, more coherent political approach have avoided the so-called "humanitarian" intervention, the massive refugee flow, and perhaps the reverse ethnic cleansing which is now pushing tens of thousands of new refugees out of Kosovo?

And we should also look beyond Kosovo, and beyond the Balkans - a region where, after all, the international community is still prepared to spend a lot of political energy and material resources. What about the Lusaka agreement, which is supposed to end war in Congo? What about the Lomé agreement, which has - to a certain extent - stopped fighting in Sierra Leone? In both cases, my Office is very interested in seeing the ceasefires become lasting peace, because on this development depends the return of hundreds of thousands of refugees. In both cases, I am very worried that insufficient resources are being deployed by the international community to ensure the success of the agreements - in terms of political pressure, support to peacekeeping arrangements, and development aid to back up peace-building. Once again, we may lose the window of opportunity painfully created by political negotiations, conducted mostly thanks to the efforts of some bold African leaders. Once again, we may be confronted with fresh catastrophes - like the exodus of Rwandans in 1994, or the massacres and mutilations of civilians in Sierra Leone in 1998 - compelling the international community to make the hard, damning choice between a military intervention fraught with political risks and grave physical dangers, and an abstention which will once again signal the victory of brutal force over political dialogue and negotiation.

I am not - and I wish to stress this point - I am not arguing against the use of military force, whenever it is absolutely necessary to pursue clearly agreed upon political objectives. But I am against limiting our options primarily to military measures, and - I should add - I am of course against the disproportionate use of military force, which worsens the inevitable collateral damage caused to civilians.

There is an ideal scenario: dialogue and negotiations conducted under an able, visionary, clear political leadership, ready to deploy human and material resources to contain the crisis, in the full knowledge of the complexities on the ground, and - if necessary - backed by the possibility to use force in a manner proportionate and effective to the political goal. This may sound old-fashioned, but rather than face the excruciating dilemmas of "humanitarian intervention" I believe that political and diplomatic action deserve a fuller chance. The relative - if belated - success of such action in East Timor may prove my point.

Rebuilding governments, rebuilding society

There are other means to contain, stop and ultimately prevent the wars which are at the heart of today's crises - and, from my own perspective, the refugee flows that go with them. These means, I would like to argue, are insufficiently pursued by the international community. Other opportunities to avoid humanitarian crises, and the problems of humanitarian intervention, are being missed.

Contemporary wars are mostly - although not exclusively - of an internal, and even inter-communal nature. They produce refugees - often as an objective, and not simply as a side-effect - and after they end (when they do!) they almost invariably result in weak states, deeply divided societies and protracted refugee situations - like in Bosnia, for example. Much can be done, and too little is actually done, to address the outcomes of today's wars. I would like to indicate two areas where we must make fast progress.

First, the need to rebuild government. This is a tall order, and - somehow - a unique new challenge. My colleagues, who are struggling, with many others, to reconstruct Kosovo, have defined the situation there not just as "post-conflict", but also "post-government". The importance of helping weak states strengthen their institutions - as quickly as possible, and especially at the very crucial local level - cannot be stressed enough. Physical and economic reconstruction are of course a priority. But it is also urgent to devise innovative ways to re-create governing systems - in particular the law-enforcement capacity of the police and the judiciary. Look at post-genocide Rwanda, for example, a country with few judges and full jails. Once more, look at Kosovo. Having assisted millions of refugees to return home to countries emerging from conflict, we at UNHCR are convinced that more has to be done to help rebuild governments in these places, and thus prevent tensions from degenerating again into bloody conflict.

The second area in which more efforts must be made, is the attempt to bring divided societies together, to help communities coexist again. Rebuilding societies is complementary to rebuilding government. Communities torn apart by fierce violence must be brought together. They must learn to coexist, and perhaps later - through a process that should include, if I may say, an element of "forgiveness" - be reconciled. Restoring judicial systems, and bringing to justice those who have committed crimes against humanity, are very important activities. But we must go further. We must call for more support, and, may I add, more creative thinking, in designing and implementing projects aimed at reconciling divided communities. In a world in which most refugees and displaced people are victims of communal conflicts, a systematic and professional approach to coexistence and reconciliation - devising concrete projects - may well be one of the directions that we must pursue to prevent refugee flows.

This is an area in which humanitarian agencies - with their expertise in human problems, their familiarity with problems of moral pain, violence and loss, and, last but not least, their presence on their ground, next to the people - can provide an important contribution. Making reconciliation a primary goal of humanitarian activities, and adopting a professional, systematic approach to "promoting coexistence", may well be the most crucial humanitarian challenge for the next century.

International leadership for conflict resolution

Colleagues, students,

We must restore a sense of purpose and urgency to conflict resolution efforts. As I said, these efforts must be made through greater commitment to political and diplomatic negotiations. This requires skills and resources. But sure enough, there will be difficult obstacles to overcome, which neither skills, nor resources, will be sufficient to tackle. This is why resolving conflict, above all, requires international leadership.

It requires - as Kofi Annan has said - the leadership of the Security Council - perhaps of a reformed Security Council. It requires the leadership of its Permanent Members. It requires, in particular, the mature leadership of the United States - and by mature, I mean that it must not simply respond to the pressure of media and opinion polls, but be forward-looking, global in its approach, able to set real priorities, and if necessary discreet. Conflicts, do not forget, are usually resolved away from the limelight.

I am not saying that America should take the lead in all peace efforts around the world. Even if this were possible, it would not work. In the field of security, working through regional forces may be the way forward. In some situations, regional coalitions of concerned and committed states have proven useful as peace-enforcement or peacekeeping instruments - effective, and, if I may say, "proportionate" and "legitimate". The United States must support these efforts with political backing and resources.

Because without the decisive, bold commitment of the United States, no endeavour aimed at resolving or preventing conflict - political, developmental, humanitarian - has a chance to succeed. This is why the decrease in American development aid is so worrying. This is why the tendency to stay away from international involvement, a recurrent and now resurgent temptation in American politics, is of such great concern.

As I said before, the sense of responsibility of the international community in addressing and resolving crises has made extraordinary progress. Perhaps this is an inevitable feature of the global age. I like to think that it is also the result of many efforts by those who believe that peace and security are everybody's concern.

Among you are the future leaders in your professions, communities, and the government of your nations. You must make sure that this sense of responsibility continues to express itself through the most reasonable, effective, rational and humane means.

In so doing, you will render the most important service to the pursuit of peace.

Thank you.