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Relationship between humanitarian action and political-military action

09-02-1998 Statement

Brussels, International Symposium, 9-11 February 1998. Keynote address by Dr Cornelio Sommaruga, President, International Committee of the Red Cross.

Excellencies, Distinguished Participants, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I should like to express my profound gratitude to the Belgian Government and in particular to its Ministry of Foreign Affairs for convening this timely and important symposium. I also wish to thank our hosts for their warm welcome and gracious hospitality. It has been a great privilege for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to be closely associated, over the past few months, with the preparatory work for the symposium.

I find it most encouraging to see such a large number of distinguished participants in this event, and it is indeed a positive sign that you have all taken the time to come to Brussels. Your presence underlines the topicality of the subject matter we shall be discussing here over the next three days. I am delighted to see among you many eminent participants with a political, military, humanitarian or academic background and vast experience to share. I would like to extend a special welcome to those of you who have come from Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. Your point of view be especially appreciated.

I recently came across a puzzling prediction by the editor of " The World in 1998 " , a publication of the Economist , stating that this year " everywhere there will be peace " , " no two sovereign nations will be at war with each other " , and that we shall witness " the lowest number of people killed in military conflict in modern history " . I am afraid I have no grounds for subscribing to such an optimistic view. I ndeed, on the threshold of a new century and a few years after the end of the Cold War, it looks like the world is far from being as peaceful and secure as we had all hoped. Millions of victims still demand our compassion, protection and assistance, as our planet remains profoundly riven by fratricidal conflicts, and the problems caused by social inequalities, xenophobia, racism, and the impoverishment of vast regions.

Against this backdrop of continuing armed violence and conflict - in particular intra-State conflict - and their increasing impact on the civilian population, I should like to stress the goal we have set for this symposium. It is to achieve progress in the debate on the relationship between humanitarian and political and military actors. Although a great deal has already been said on the matter, this debate remains of crucial importance in forging constructive relations as the different actors and conflicts evolve over time.

 Crisis management  

It seems to me that in the face of armed violence and conflict what we need is to pursue two principal objectives: the first is to search for a political-military settlement while dealing with the root causes of a crisis. The second is to alleviate the effects of the crisis in humanitarian terms, that is, to protect and assist the victims.

Crisis management thus encompasses much more than the provision of humanitarian aid. If humanitarian action is not backed up by political action, it tends to become at best a palliative to contain conflict or unstable situations. It would be the expression of a system of international governance that values containment more than settlement, which you will all agree is a short-sighted view.

We must bear in mind that peace is not just the absence of war. Lasting peace implies the restoration of justice and respe ct for the fundamental rights of the individual. Crisis management should therefore be directed at finding lasting solutions. It requires a holistic view of all the factors involved, which emerge over time.

An effective response to crisis demands, in my view, that humanitarian, political and military actors manage conflicts in a comprehensive manner, while taking due account of the respective responsibilities, mandates and spheres of competence of each party. The relations of dialogue and complementarity which the different actors should seek to establish and maintain with each other stem from their determination to adopt such an approach. This is why I will give you an outline of how I see the characteristics of the different types of action and the interdependence between them.

 Precepts of political and military action  by the international community  

Political-military action undertaken by the international community in a crisis situation consists in identifying and applying the appropriate tools for resolving the crisis. The United Nations Charter provides a political framework for such action. Moreover, the Geneva Law makes provision for military interventions in situations where serious violations of humanitarian law are being committed. The international community thus has the legal instruments at hand, as well a s the necessary diplomatic, military and economic means for taking decisive action when needed. It should use these instruments in a predictable manner. The genocide in Rwanda, the massacre in Srebrenica and the slaughter of refugees in former Zaire are harrowing examples of the fact that no political action will ever serve as a deterrent unless it entails predictable consequences.

The primary aim of political and military action should always be to restore law and order and thus contribute to reaching a comprehensive solution. This means that such action can have a positive impact on the activities of humanitarian organizations. Military action may be geared at creating conditions that permit the delivery of humanitarian aid. But these conditions are merely a subsidiary consequence thereof and should not be its primary aim. The deployment of military forces for the sole purpose of delivering humanitarian aid would fail to address the underlying political issues that created the need for such aid.

We must also recognize that military operations are subordinated to political authority, direction and control. Unlike humanitarian agencies, military forces may not pick and choose where they go and what they do. By and large, the military do what they are instructed to do.

As experience has shown in Bosnia-Herzegovina and elsewhere, the effectiveness of military intervention depends on the firmness of political resolve and a clearly defined mandate. Taking Clausewitz's idea that war is the continuation of politics by other means a little further we could say that the deployment of military forces must always be in pursuance of a clear political goal.

 Precepts of humanitarian action  

Before dealing with the precepts of humanitarian action, I should first like to pose the following question: What makes an action humanitarian? My reason for raising this question is to express concern about the growing trend of labelling military and other interventions as " humanitarian " .   Indeed the term humanitarian has become infinitely elastic, a catchall expression for describing the international response to conflict. If we are to address the issue of the relationship between actors on the humanitarian scene and those involved in political-military action, I believe it is essential to reach agreement on the meanings that should be ascribed to the terms " humanitarian action " and " humanitarian actor " .

Humanitarian action must be understood as a modus operandi governed   by the principles of humanity, impartiality and neutrality, and is carried out independently of any political or military objectives. It involves conducting activities aimed at protecting and assisting victims in situations of armed conflict or internal violence, in compliance with certain procedures marked by the absence of bias towards the belligerents and non-discrimination towards the victims. It is also non-coercive in nature, as such action can never be imposed by force.

The ICRC uses these fundamental principles as working tools and safeguards against the politicization of humanitarian action. They constantly remind us to place the interests of the victims at the centre of our concerns and operations. The ICRC's experience in conflict situations confirms that access to victims on all sides of a conflict depends on the organization firmly maintaining this approach. For example, if the provision of hum anitarian aid became - or was perceived as being - conditional upon political considerations or the behaviour of warring parties, situations would arise in which some victims'' deserved'' protection and assistance more than others. This would, of course, be intolerable and call into question the very essence of the humanitarian spirit.

On the other hand, we must acknowledge that humanitarian action comprises a political dimension. In some situations this has caused humanitarian organizations unwittingly to become more or less directly involved in a crisis. Such was the case in Liberia in 1996, when, as a result of competition between the organizations on the ground, the humanitarian agencies found themselves serving the objectives of the conflict, to their own as well as the victims'detriment.

Conflicts aimed at asserting ethnic identity place civilians at the centre of the objectives pursued by the belligerents. In these situations the warring parties may not welcome the presence of humanitarian organizations who thwart their objectives by coming to the aid of these people. Such conflicts in which all humanitarian principles contained in the Geneva law are rejected clearly reveal the limits of humanitarian action.

In addition to this political dimension, it is important to be aware of the potential economic implications of a humanitarian operation in a conflict situation. In many instances, control over resources is one of the reasons for waging war. Humanitarian organizations bring in a wealth of resources which could profoundly alter an already fragile economic balance. This may also trigger the emergence of a completely artificial parallel economy, which collapses as soon as these organizations leave.

Humanitarian operations have also become more complex in recent years on account of the proliferation of organizations working in the humanitarian s phere. This proliferation has sometimes created competition in the humanitarian field that is exacerbated in some contexts by the presence and focus of the media, which in turn is seen as crucial for attracting funds.

With the ever-increasing number of agencies and growing humanitarian competition, it is essential to develop and apply a set of ethical and professional standards for humanitarian aid notably to limit any adverse effects in political terms. The widely endorsed Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and Non-Governmental Organizations in Disaster Relief forms part of the efforts made in that direction. We need to recognize that the problem does not lie merely in the quality of the aid being delivered. The safety of humanitarian personnel is also put at risk if humanitarian action loses credibility all round and the belligerents make little distinction between the various organizations on the ground, which is indeed regrettable.

 Working together  

Efficient and comprehensive crisis management requires all the actors involved to establish a constructive working relationship and dialogue between them. Having recognized the need for a strategic approach to conflict situations, we should orchestrate our responses and look for positive synergies.

Since it is vital to achieve greater overall coherence in operations conducted at different levels in conflict situations, I would suggest that we establish more systematically than in the past a structure and mechanism for consultation at every stage of a crisis situation and at the various levels involved, in a spirit of complementarity.

This may help us become better acquainted with each other and with our respective cultures and working methods. It may also help break the tendency for humanitarian organizations to become politicized and for international political or military actors to enter the humanitarian arena and subordinate humanitarian action to political direction and considerations. Every actor is uniquely qualified to carry out its role. Parallel but distinct action will lead to a comprehensive approach to crisis managment. It is the key to maximizing everyone's specific potential and to meeting victims'needs in the most effective way.

I should like to give you a practical example of the way in which political and humanitarian action can complement each other. The humanitarian agencies know from experience in the Great Lakes region of Africa how crucial it is to disarm all those bearing weapons in refugee camps. They know how difficult it can be to separate civilians from combatants, but making this distinction is essential in creating the proper conditions for protection and humanitarian assistance. Only firm and prompt action can safeguard the civilian and the humanitarian nature of such camps. In this difficult but crucial endeavour, what is needed first and foremost is political action, that is, a police- or military-type operation.

Establishing and maintaining a complementary approach between the different actors must be our overriding objective. There are examples where military forces and humanitarian organizations have learnt to work together successfully in this way, as for example in Cambodia, Mozambique, Angola, and more recently in Albania. This can be achieved for instance in situations where there is clear acceptance that the role of the military is essentially to create the necessary security environment for humanitarian action to take place.

To conclude, I propose that we all work to build a fruitful partnership. I trust that this symposium will help us achieve that goal. We cannot afford another Rwanda or Srebrenica. We can do better. Where there's a will, there's always a way .

Thank you for your attention.

 Ref: EXSO 98.02.09-ENG