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ICRC International Humanitarian Forum on War and Accountability

03-06-2002 No ICRC OP/REX – Update No 16/2002 – Wolfsberg 3 June 2002

The latest International Humanitarian Forum convened by the ICRC took place on 23-24 May 2002. Taking as its main theme the accountability of humanitarian and political actors towards those whose lives are most affected by armed conflict, this year's Forum involved participants from across the political, humanitarian, military, business and media spheres. The Forum was notable for the contribution made by representatives of many of the "survivors" of armed conflicts in Rwanda, Guatemala, South Africa, Afghanistan and Bosnia. It was their individual accounts of their own experiences of conflict, and the role played by humanitarian and political actors, which informed the direction of the discussion.

The latest International Humanitarian Forum convened by the ICRC took place on 23-24 May 2002. Taking as its main theme the accountability of humanitarian and political actors towards those whose lives are most affected by armed conflict, this year's Forum involved participants from across the political, humanitarian, military, business and media spheres. The Forum was notable for the contribution made by representatives of many of the " survivors " of armed conflicts in Rwanda, Guatemala, South Africa, Afghanistan and Bosnia. It was their individual accounts of their own experiences of conflict, and the role played by humanitarian and political actors, which informed the direction of the discussion.

Forming the background to the discussion was the ICRC's publication Forum: war and accountability . Contributors to Forum , some of whom participated in the event, examined the issue from many different perspectives, including attempts to define accountability in the humanitarian context, the consequences of its practical application for humanitarian and political actors, and personal views from those whose lives had been affected by armed conflict. The publication provided a valuable contribution to the Wolfsberg debate, as it allowed participants to give greater consideration to the disparate facets of the accountability question prior to the event, and indeed many of the issues raised in Forum were referred to by participants in making their own contributions to the discussion.

    

 The perspective of "survivors"  

Following the opening remarks of the President of the ICRC, the representatives of " survivor " groups gave their testimony to the Forum. The main points emerging from the discussion included:

  • The need to stop treating those affected by armed conflict as objects, or passive recipients of aid - they are " survivors " , not victims, and part of their survival involves having and using their voice - working collectively for the accountability of all those responsible for their predicaments.

  • The expectations amongst many communities affected by armed conflict that priority should be given to preventing war, expectations that humanitarian organisations are ill-prepared to meet.

  • The need for greater coordination between international political and humanitarian actors, with a common understanding of their respective roles in situations of armed conflict to avoid overlap.

  • The importance of post-conflict reconciliation as a courageous way of confronting the accountability of all parties to a conflict, with the warning that any such efforts must address as a priority the needs of the “survivors” themselves, including the question of financial reparations.

  • The need for a more holistic approach to humanitarian work, including the psychological, emotional and spiritual aspects of the needs of those affected by armed conflict, which can help avoid the “survivors” themselves becoming victimisers - the true objective of the humanitarian should be to allow people to rebuild their lives in all dignity.

  • There is a view that some quarters hold international law in apparent contempt - the " community of nations " must be clea r that this is unacceptable.

 The accountability of political actors  

During the discussion on the accountability of political actors, introduced by Mrs. Zuma, Foreign Minister of South Africa, a number of key points were raised:

  • There was broad agreement on the importance of all parties to conflict adhering to International Humanitarian Law, on the need to put an end to impunity, and the need to put pressure on States -- through various mechanisms -- to undertake measures that ensure respect for International Humanitarian Law. 

  • All states must be mindful of their accountability to " survivors " by avoiding the use of humanitarian assistance as an instrument of foreign policy.

  • More emphasis could be placed on building early warning mechanisms which allow appropriate preventative action to be taken before countries descend into war, but with a clear distinction drawn between the action needed from political actors, and the role of humanitarians. 

  • Double standards are a danger for political and humanitarian actors, who must take care to meet their obligations to all those affected by armed conflict, and avoid distinction based on colour, race or geography.

 The accountability of humanitarian actors  

    

The discussion on the accountability of humanitarian actors focused on attempts to define what accountability really means, on the question of whether those providing humanitarian assistance really want to be accountable to their local " stakeholders " and on the associated question of meeting the expectations o f those affected by armed conflict.

Participants were invited to regard humanitarian action as being much broader than the simple delivery of aid. It must involve local institutions in addressing basic needs, and humanitarians picking up development work during times of crisis and showing true commitment to " survivors " by staying with them throughout their most vulnerable times.

Interventions highlighted the fact that true accountability slows things down and appears to make humanitarian work less efficient. But if players are serious about accountability, they should work to establish small, local institutions capable of holding humanitarian organisations to account on the ground where they operate. The real reason to focus on accountability should be to do humanitarians out of a job - creating institutions capable of building capacity in service delivery in place of humanitarians. There is an inherent problem with this, however, in that humanitarian organisations are often not in a position to place complete trust in local institutions in certain contexts, and sometimes this judgement is right. An additional dimension is the need for humanitarian actors to ensure the sustainability of their action by contributing to the development of local structures and capacities.

On the issue of the effect that codes of conduct have had on improving accountability to " victims " , one intervention suggested that they had made humanitarians better managers and reporters, but had left little time to focus on the important role of challenging the political establishment. Another perception was that humanitarians are too attentive to the interests of powerful donors, and, as a result, their decisions may lack integrity. Humanitarian organisations must focus on this " challenger " role to avoid becoming mere implementers.

By the same token, donors must accept that humanitarian aid is a high-risk activity which cannot and should not be determined by public opinion if it is to be truly effective and universally applied. However, placing emphasis on standards and reporting is an important element of accountability, helping as it does to achieve clarity on objectives from the outset.

The discussion was summed up by focusing on the choice facing humanitarian and political actors on accountability - reform or revolution? The consensus seemed to be headed towards the former, rather than a radical rethink on accountability structures.

 The accountability of the media  

    

The Forum was invited to consider the new generation of " information doers " who, using cheap technology, make us all witnesses to events as they happen during times of crisis, but who often have little training in the principles of good journalism. The reliability of the information they provide poses a real dilemma for all parties to a conflict, particularly political authorities who have to cope with the lack of control over what the public sees, and the interpretation placed on those events - the new phenomena of " real time exaggeration " .

The speed at which images and interpretation can now be delivered has now overtaken the ability to explain, verify and understand precisely what has taken place, further compressing the amount of time available to make a considered response. Audience " radicalisation " is also taking place, fuelled especially by younger people bypassing traditional media outlets such as TV news, and going straight to the Internet for information.

 Conclusion  

The President of the ICRC concluded the Forum by focusing on the importance of state actors meeting their obligations under international law - both respecting and ensuring respect for international humanitarian law can make a tremendous difference to those affected by armed conflict if these obligations are taken seriously.

For humanitarian actors, a commitment to accompany survivors throughout their experiences, with corresponding mechanisms, has major implications which need to be understood more fully if they are to be truly effective and improve accountability.

Finally, the President spoke of the importance of maintaining the momentum of the accountability debate. One approach would be to ensure that it is taken out of the abstract and discussed in specific terms as it applies to clearly defined aspects of humanitarian work.

For example, the ICRC's institutional focus in 2002 and beyond on the missing in conflict provides the ideal opportunity to define how political and humanitarian actors should be fulfilling their obligations towards families of missing persons in dialogue with those affected.