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Accountability in War - International Humanitarian Forum, Wolfsberg 2002: The debate



The Debate 
Accountability in War

The idea that men, women and children affected by armed conflict are entitled to be assisted and protected is today unchallenged. Yet, over the past decade, events such as the genocide in Rwanda, ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and massive population displacements in countries such as Colombia, Afghanistan, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have shown how exposed entire populations can be to the most brutal forms of violence. They have also pointed up significant shortcomings in attempts to protect the people affected and ensure respect for their basic rights. Despite greater public awareness of armed conflict and its impact – a result of the media's growing ability to report from the heart of war zones – it is clear that this has not resulted in increased respect for the principle of humanity.

This range of concerns inevitably involves the crucial issue of accountability, defined in a moral, operational, legal and political sense, and explains why "War and Accountability" was chosen as the theme for the 2002 International Humanitarian Forum. 
It is widely accepted that humanitarian action should be taken to remedy the most pressing consequences of armed conflict. In recent years, such action has come to occupy an important position in political debate and in the public's perception of crisis management. However, the appropriateness of choices made by aid agencies on the behalf of their beneficiaries is regularly questioned. In addition, competition between the organizations themselves – as witnessed in Goma and Kosovo – and allegations that refugees have been sexually abused by aid workers in Western Africa have raised serious questions about ethics, professionalism and transparency in the humanitarian sector.

Concept of Accountability

The concept of accountability is relatively new in the field of international relations. It appeared in the vocabulary of international development cooperation in the early 1990s as one ingredient of the " good governance " which aid agencies sought to promote in developing countries. In the humanitarian field, the promotion of accountability was initially mostly donor-driven, concentrating on the accountability of aid agencies toward donor governments. The impact, standards and cost-effectiveness of humanitarian aid were increasingly scrutinized. This scrutiny has already resu lted in the more professional humanitarian agencies improving the quality of the material assistance and services that they provide to people affected by armed conflict.


Refugee camp in Lebanon
©ICRC/Luc Chessex

The view that will be put forward by the Forum organizers is that accountability in the event of armed conflict cannot consist merely of a dialogue between humanitarian agencies and donor governments on resource-management issues. Accountability must be viewed comprehensively as a triangular relationship between political/military forces, humanitarian organizations and the people affected by the conflict. Today, the main emerging issue should therefore be that of accountability of the former two towards the latter: people affected by conflict have rights and cannot be treated as mere objects of charity.  
Increasingly, civilians in war-ravaged countries are emerging from their passive role of " victims " ; they are speaking out, expressing critical views, organizing themselves and demanding a genuine dialogue with those affecting their lives. This is bound to have implications for both the States and humanitarian agencies in the fulfillment of their obligations.    
Structure of Debate 

The Forum's central objective is to bring about a mo re coherent response to people's needs by bridging the gaps in understanding between aid providers, States, beneficiaries and others. Regarding the issue of accountability, the Forum will be structured into three main discussions.  

  1.  Panel discussion  

  2.  Accountability of political actors  

  3.  Accountability of humanitarian actors  

 1. Panel discussion  

 It will begin with a panel discussion during which individuals  who have experienced the reality of conflict at first  hand will present their views. They will give their opinions about the strengths and weaknesses of political and military intervention in their own situation. They will review the effectiveness of humanitarian action and describe the extent to which they perceived it as appropriate. This panel discussion should provide a major opportunity to test the emerging view that those affected by conflict have rights and will in coming years increasingly challenge the political, humanitarian and other decisions being made on their behalf. Among the specific questions that the panel will seek to address are the following:  

  • Should population groups directly affected by armed conflict be involved in the planni ng, implementation and evaluation of humanitarian operations?

  • Should efforts be made to organize some form of collective representation on the part of affected population groups, thus enabling them to engage in dialogue with humanitarian organizations?

  • Should the involvement of affected populations become an obligation for any credible humanitarian organization?

 2. Accountability of political actors  

 The second discussion will concern the accountability of political actors . In today's armed conflicts, a very high percentage of those affected are civilians. Their most pressing need is to be protected from the systematic atrocities to which they so often fall victim.


The remnant of a building in Grozny
©ICRC/E. Bouvet
The depressing reality of many post-Cold-War conflicts is one of widespread disregard for international humanitarian law. The failure, in many instances, of modern-day belligerents to obey the law of war and their lack of accountability toward the populations affected are both major problems. The discussion will also cover the concept of responsibility to protect that has gained prominence lately. The States party to the Geneva Conventions have accepted a responsibility to ensure respect for their provisions. Too often, however, political, economic or strategic considerations result in some populations being denied the support and intervention that others receive. Among the specific issues the Forum will seek to address are the following:  
  • How can the parties to a conflict be made more accountable to those affected? What can States do to hold the warring parties accountable in terms of protecting their own population, meeting the needs of people affected and ensuring access for humanitarian organizations?

  • Considering the fact that the existing mechanisms for the enforcement of international humanitarian law have proven largely ineffective, should new steps be considered? Should a review be launched to develop new mechanisms for the enforcement of IHL? In particular, should the creation of a diplomatic mechanism be considered by which humanitarian initiatives would be supported and forceful representations would be made to the belligerents in the event of grave and repeated violations of IHL?

  • Will the emergence of persons affected by armed conflict as a constituency in their own right influence resource allocation by donors and generate pressure for more equal treatment of beneficiaries, regardless of media focus and political considerations?

 3. Accountability of humanitarian actors  

 The third discussion will cover the accountability of humanitarian organizations . The questioning that arose in the course of the 1990s led to a series of efforts to set standards and ensure quality/control. It also highlighted the diversity and, at times, divergent views among the various entities involved in redefining the nature, scope and effectiveness of humanitarian action. There is today growing agreement that compassion and solidarity need to be accompanied by professional and transparent instruments and procedures of management. This implies the need for a management culture which recognizes as central the notion of accountability towards those affected by armed conflict. Among the specific questions that will be put are the following:  


  • How can and should humanitarian organizations ensure active participation by the beneficiaries in the planning and conduct of operations?

  • Will this process change the way humanitarian action is taken in the future and lead to effective participatory mechanisms that involve beneficiaries in the planning of that action?

  • Should humanitarian organizations be expected to do more to ensure that their operations explicitly reflect their commitment to a professional " code of conduct " ? Should this include an obligation to clearly identify sperformance standards and indicators and to report results?

 The Forum's overall objective will therefore be to place the above-mentioned triangular relationship on political and humanitarian agendas  and to make a concrete contribution by bringing into the discussion the representatives of affected groups.