The Changing Nature of Humanitarian Crises: Implications for U.S. Policy and Effective Response

Roberta Cohen
Roberta Cohen Former Brookings Expert, Co-Chair Emeritus - Committee for Human Rights in North Korea

July 25, 1999

There are three gaps in the international response to emergencies that I would like to highlight in discussing how to reconcile human rights imperatives with humanitarian field operations.

The first is the failure to provide comprehensive protection to people at risk on the ground. An internally displaced Bosnian described the situation well. “We do not need food,” he said, “we are not starving to death. We are being persecuted and we prefer to be hungry for a week than not to sleep every night, in fear of being beaten, raped or killed.” In other words, humanitarian action that focuses solely on providing food, medicine and shelter is not adequate to the humanitarian crises we face today. Indeed, the futility of feeding people to enable them to die on full stomachs has been one of the more strident critiques of humanitarian relief operations.

Recognition of this has led to intensive consultations between human rights and humanitarian organizations on how to promote basic human rights and safety during emergencies and who should do it. At present, most humanitarian and development organizations with access to affected populations do not engage in or relate to human rights protection activities. Although they are often the first to witness protection problems, dealing with human rights and protection is not part of their mandates or training. And they fear, often with good reason, that trying to provide protection to endangered civilians could jeopardize their access and the life-giving support being provided to affected populations. These organizations also fear that engaging in protection activities will endanger their field staff by involving them in what they consider political activities that conflict with their impartiality and neutrality. Some as a result are even reluctant to forward information to human rights organizations and war crimes tribunals.

There are of course increasing exceptions. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has long undertaken a wide range of protection activities, such as interceding on persons behalf, evacuating people or creating protected areas in the course of providing assistance in conflict situations. But it generally forgoes public advocacy and does not provide information to war crimes tribunals. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) also integrates protection with assistance activities both in refugee and country of origin situations. And of the NGOs, Médecins Sans Frontières is well known for combining aid deliveries with what it calls temoignage or witnessing, which includes establishing presence near people in danger, accompanying them, reporting on their conditions, and engaging in private and public condemnation. But even within these groups there are differences. For MSF and human rights groups, for example, there can be no neutrality, as adhered to by ICRC, when governments or insurgent forces are deliberately committing serious violations of humanitarian and human rights law. Remaining neutral in the face of violations, they argue, will encourage more violations and produce compromises in the delivery of aid. Indeed, actions sometimes need to be coercive.

Within the UN’s inter-agency process (which includes UN and other international humanitarian agencies and NGOs), a draft paper on protection is being finalized. It largely reflects where the debate is coming out. The paper steers clear of the neutrality debate but underscores that human rights protection is a concern that must be incorporated in the work of all agencies and in all phases of a crisis. While this does not mean that humanitarian organizations should turn into human rights groups, it does mean that they should consider strategies such as active and assertive advocacy, forwarding information on violations to those who can act upon it, increased field presence, training in human rights, and joint stands to hedge the risks of acting alone. Both in the field and at headquarters, the paper calls for a response to both protection and assistance needs.

In NGO consultations as well, there is growing recognition that a higher profile for protection must be developed within aid activities. In fact, it is increasingly pointed out that humanitarian action taken without reference to the political and human rights context of the crisis can unwittingly fuel wars and reinforce human rights violations. One of the worst case examples was in the Congo where relief aid to Rwandan refugees helped support the activities of armed Hutus and genocidaires in the camps preparing to mount further attacks on Tutsis. Although MSF walked out and others withdrew, UNHCR argued that they did not have that luxury; the withdrawal of aid would have denied life-saving support to innocent persons held in the grip of the Hutus. The choice between withdrawing aid which may risk lives in the short term and acquiescing to unacceptable conditions which may risk lives in the long term, remains one of the more difficult decisions for both human rights and humanitarian agencies. There nonetheless is growing recognition on the part of humanitarian groups that attention must be paid to the broader environment in which aid is provided and steps taken to minimize the danger of doing harm through assistance. But there also needs to be recognition by human rights organizations of the impact of their support of economic sanctions and aid withdrawals on the lives of affected populations.

At present, partnerships between human rights and humanitarian/development organizations are growing, with the groups interacting regularly. But tensions remain about information sharing; and the translation of protection and human rights concerns into actual operational activities in the field is still at an early stage. No division of labor exists. UNHCR has called for the more active presence of human rights bodies on the ground to monitor violations and draw attention to protection needs. But there remains a near absence of human rights bodies in the field (the UN deploys human rights field staff primarily in post-conflict situations and human rights NGOs do not consider continual presence in emergencies part of their roles). Without human rights protection officers, it is largely left to humanitarian organizations and peacekeepers to redefine their roles with human rights components to try to fill the protection gaps in the field.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in a recent writeup of its work reflects the new direction. FAO pledges to cooperate in general protection activities in country teams, pay special attention to protection of the right to food, affirms that its field presence can help deter violence and abuse, and encourages its staff to notify partners with a protection mandate of situations requiring intervention. Unless this is just rhetoric and repackaging, this redefining of roles on the part of humanitarian organizations is expected to produce change in the field.

A second gap to which I would like to draw attention is the second class treatment internally displaced persons (IDPs) generally receive in humanitarian emergencies. Even though emergencies produce both refugees and IDPs, and in many cases IDPs are in worse condition than refugees, the international system set up after the second world war focuses only on protecting refugees. Of course, with greater access to affected populations in the post Cold War era, some changes have begun to be made. But to date, no effective or predictable international system has been worked out to address the protection and assistance needs of persons forcibly displaced within their own countries. The result is that in countless emergencies, most recently Kosovo and Rwanda, aid and attention focused on one side of the border only.

The vacuum of responsibility is exacerbated by tensions between refugee and human rights advocates. In refugee circles there is fear that by focusing attention on internally displaced persons or creating protected areas, the right to asylum will be undermined and refugee protection jeopardized. And indeed, some states have denied asylum to persons on the grounds that there is in-country protection. Overall, however, there does seem to be a some recognition developing that emergencies produce displacement on both sides of the border, that sovereignty is no longer an acceptable shield against mass starvation and genocidal acts, and that effective humanitarian action must address the needs of all affected populations.

A third gap is the ad hoc nature with which human rights and protection concerns are integrated into post-conflict peace agreements and reconstruction plans. To be sure, there has been substantial progress in recognizing that the reconstruction of societies can not be limited to rebuilding infrastructure and providing material aid. And in countries like El Salvador and Guatemala there has been a notable integration of protection and human rights concerns into the peace process. But in too many other places the record remains mixed, with political and other requirements placed ahead of human rights and protection concerns. In Angola, for example, human rights monitoring was not made a part of the agreements reached. In Kenya, no human rights component was included in a United Nations Development Programme reintegration plan for displaced populations with the result that forcible relocations and fraudulent land transfers undermined the plan and brought it to a halt. In Sierra Leone, perpetrators of atrocities have been brought into the government and an amnesty provided to protect them. Here, tensions between human rights concerns and the need to end violence put human rights into a secondary position, but one can well ask whether a sustainable peace can possibly be built on such foundations.

The lesson for U.S. Government policy is that it must begin to more sharply focus on the protection and human rights dimension of emergency situations. At present, there is no locus of responsibility within the U.S. Government that looks at emergency situations and tries to ensure that not only material assistance is provided but security promoted on the ground. This means looking at preventive measures, examining whether relief aid is doing harm, supporting increased presence on the ground, making greater efforts to protect relief workers (last year more humanitarian workers were killed than peacekeepers), promoting training in human rights and protection concerns, and when necessary, deploying troops or supporting others to do so with protection components in their mandates. In short, a regular and systematic look at the protection dimension of humanitarian emergencies is in order. Greater attention also has to be paid to systematically integrating human rights and protection issues into return and reintegration and peace processes. While exemplary attention has been paid to collecting evidence for war crimes tribunals, especially in the case of the former Yugoslavia, there are other parts of the world where such a focus is also needed; there is need for U.S. support of the international criminal court.

As concerns internally displaced populations, a not yet finalized report commissioned by the Brookings Institution and the U.S. Committee for Refugees on U.S. government policy finds a fragmented approach to displacement issues. While refugees receive strong focus from one bureau in the State Department, the protection and assistance needs of non-refugee populations equally at risk are spread out over many different offices and as a result not predictably or adequately covered. Displacement situations are not seen holistically and far too little attention is paid to trying to address the protection needs of internally displaced populations.

The long and admirable legacy of U.S. activism in humanitarian and human rights affairs needs to reflect the changing nature of international emergencies and their fast-breaking requirements, especially in the area of protection. Indeed, such focus might help prevent far larger and more costly interventions. While the U.S. cannot be expected to take lead responsibility in each and every crisis, it should at least seek to promote multilateral approaches that assure the integration of human rights and humanitarian concerns and leave no crisis unattended.