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Protection of civilians: lessons from Libya and Ivory Coast

10-05-2011 Editorial, by Yves Daccord

Why has the humanitarian effort to protect and assist civilians come up against so many obstacles, despite all the political statements and resolutions about protection of civilians? Yves Daccord, the ICRC's Director-General, thinks the heart of the problem is the increasing politicization and militarization of humanitarian aid.

ICRC Director-General Yves DaccordIn the past two months the United Nations Security Council authorized military intervention in Libya and also in the Ivory Coast. On both occasions, it justified its decision on the basis of protecting civilians and preventing further civilian deaths.

Aid must be prioritized and allocated strictly on the basis of humanitarian needs, not on political, military or economic objectives.

On 10 May, the UN Security Council met in New York to discuss the protection of civilians. Perhaps never before will the gap between progress on the political, military and policy levels and the humanitarian reality on the ground have been so stark.

Despite – or because of – these initiatives to protect civilians, the challenge of providing impartial and neutral humanitarian aid to the people in the midst of these armed conflicts has become even more difficult. The international humanitarian community has been severely put to the test in both Libya and Ivory Coast.

The humanitarian situation in Libya is dire and continuing to get worse – especially in the besieged city of Misrata, where water supply, health care and other basic services are severely disrupted, if functioning at all. Hospitals are under extreme pressure. The recent shelling of a ship carrying humanitarian aid and wounded people out of Misrata – the second such incident in the last few weeks – caused yet more death and suffering.

In other areas affected by fighting, such as Ajdabiya, tens of thousands of people have fled their homes. Return is hampered not only by the rampant insecurity but also by the constant danger of unexploded munitions. In many areas, particularly in Tripoli and western Libya, access for humanitarian organizations has been extremely problematic, and very few have been able to operate effectively and reach people in need.

At the same time, the humanitarian situation in western Ivory Coast, near the border with Liberia, remains critical. Entire villages have been devastated by the conflict, and the needs of residents and displaced people – for food, water, shelter and health care – are particularly acute. The destruction and looting of many hospitals and health-care centres has resulted in an urgent need for medicines and medical supplies. Yet the overall humanitarian response has been woefully inadequate. In this area of the country, the International Committee of the Red Cross together with the national Red Cross Society are still among the only humanitarian organizations able to reach people in need without military escorts.

So with all the fine statements and resolutions about protection of civilians on the political level, why has the humanitarian effort to protect and assist civilians on the ground been so constrained?

Beyond the blatant lack of respect for international humanitarian law by states and non-state actors, which lies at the heart of large-scale suffering we are witnessing, a key reason is the increasing politicization and militarization of humanitarian aid. This includes the exploitation of aid by states as a tool for conflict management and as an instrument to promote their own interests. In the case of both Libya and Ivory Coast, the political, military and humanitarian agendas of the key international players may be difficult to separate clearly, at least in the public perception. This can become a particularly thorny issue where a UN integrated mission simultaneously plays military and humanitarian roles, and effectively becomes a party to the conflict, as was the case in the Ivory Coast. Such blurring of roles ultimately complicates or hinders impartial humanitarian access to people on both sides of a conflict, not just for UN agencies and their implementing partners, but for others too.

Humanitarian organizations, including the ICRC, can begin with an honest self-appraisal of their capacities and limitations, and a genuine commitment to match fine words and good intentions with reality on the ground. The lives of countless men, women and children depend on it.

Another important reason lies with the performance and behaviour of humanitarian actors themselves. While many humanitarian organizations claim to adhere to the fundamental principles not only of impartiality (which is the minimum), but also of neutrality and independence, few actually do so in practice. Principles tend to cede to pragmatism when it is convenient to do so. This ultimately constrains the delivery of truly principled humanitarian aid.

With a proliferation of actors claiming to carry out protection work, effective and meaningful coordination must be based more on genuine respect of certain basic principles than on ever-more refined mechanisms and procedures of coordination. In the interests of transparency and accountability, we must all be realistic and unambiguous about our available capacities in situations of emergency, including about where we have humanitarian access and where we do not, and about where we implement activities ourselves and to what extent we work through implementing partners. In the case where we delegate activities to partners, to what extent do we monitor these activities? Are we effectively outsourcing risks that we are unwilling to take ourselves?

The challenge of protecting civilians – in all its various dimensions – is a daunting one. States, non-state actors, donors and humanitarian organizations all have their own particular role to play. It is all too easy to pass the blame for failure to someone else.

States and non-state actors must show the political will and good faith needed to turn legal provisions into reality, to take seriously their obligations to protect civilians. Aid must be prioritized and allocated strictly on the basis of humanitarian needs, not on political, military or economic objectives. And humanitarian organizations, including the ICRC, can begin with an honest self-appraisal of their capacities and limitations, and a genuine commitment to match fine words and good intentions with reality on the ground. The lives of countless men, women and children caught up in armed conflict depend on it.


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