Threatened Are the Peacemakers

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Author: Gil Loescher

Late in the afternoon of August 19, 2003, a suicide bomber drove to U.N. headquarters in central Baghdad. On the third floor of those headquarters, I was sitting with Sergio Vieira de Mello, the U.N. special representative in Iraq, and some senior members of his staff . The human rights expert Arthur Helton and I were there to investigate the human costs of the war in Iraq and its aftermath.

As we talked, the bomber detonated his truckload of explosives. They blew up beneath us, ripping the floor away, collapsing the ceiling upon us and catapulting us down two floors. I have learned that I was conscious after the bombing, that I spoke to a rescue worker and that both my legs were amputated while I lay trapped upside down in the rubble. I scarcely remember this. My first clear memory is of waking up a month later in a hospital in Oxford, England. Everyone else who had been in that room, including Helton and de Mello, was killed.

This suicide bombing was not the only recent blatant attack on humanitarian workers across the Islamic world. In June 2004, five staff members of the international aid agency Doctors Without Borders were murdered in northern Afghanistan. There was no legal repercussion for the killers. The murders forced the group to leave a country where it had operated continuously for 24 years —through Soviet invasion, Muslim guerrilla wars and repressive Taliban rule. Late last year, militants abducted and murdered the Irish-born Margaret Hassan, head of CARE International in Iraq, despite the fact that she had lived in the country for 30 years, was married to an Iraqi, spoke Arabic and had converted to Islam.

Shortly before Christmas I received an email from my friend Toby Porter, the director of emergencies for Save the Children U.K. He told me that two of his staff in the Sudanese province of Darfur had been stopped by Janjaweed militia the day before, pulled out of their car and murdered on the spot. As a consequence, Porter said, “Save the Children U.K. had to immediately suspend its operations in Darfur and withdraw its staff from the region,” despite the fact that it had worked in Darfur for the past 20 years and provided essential aid and protection to approximately 250,000 children and family members.

The targeting of humanitarian workers demonstrates the perilous nature of carrying out humanitarian work in areas of conflict. It also serves to underscore the crisis faced today by the United Nations and the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that provide humanitarian and development assistance. I will never forget the parting words of Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, as he bade me farewell after my discussion with him just prior to the suicide attack at the U.N. headquarters: “The security situation is improving day by day. It is under control now.” He could not have been more wrong.

Not only was the United Nations’ Baghdad headquarters attacked later that afternoon, but during the following months the security situation in Iraq went from bad to worse. The offices of friends and colleagues working for major NGOs were targeted, leading to their departure from Iraq. Other agencies severely scaled down their activities, leaving their programs in the hands of Iraqi national staff. The attacks on humanitarian workers have caused the United Nations and many NGOs to question the future of humanitarianism, particularly in conflict-ridden countries and violent post-war settings. “Never, perhaps, has the mission of the United Nations been more difficult and perilous than it is today,” Secretary-General Kofi Annan said recently. “But nor has it ever been more desperately needed by the peoples it was created to serve.”

Humanitarianism in Crisis

Savage assaults on humanitarian aid staff have occurred against the backdrop of some 50 ongoing wars across the globe today. In the past decade, war has taken the lives of several million children. Some 50 million people are homeless because of war or famine. This is the world of contemporary humanitarian action.

A number of international agencies exist to respond to humanitarian crises. Among these are the United Nations agencies specializing in emergency relief, human rights, refugees, children, health care, food aid and development. The international community also looks for assistance from a vast number of NGOs, ranging from large international agencies to small organizations working on specific problems. As the implementing partners for the United Nations and many governments, NGOs bear the brunt of delivering food and providing shelter, water, sanitation and healthcare in humanitarian emergencies. In recent years, particularly in such countries as Afghanistan and Iraq, the military has played an increasingly important role in delivering assistance and reconstructing the infrastructure of war-torn countries. In addition, private commercial companies such as Bechtel and Haliburton receive government contracts for their reconstruction expertise and assistance. This mix brings conflicts of interest, competition for resources, incompatible organizational structures and cultures, and overlapping functions to humanitarian operations.

In today’s perilous environment, both U.N. and NGO workers are considered “soft targets” by militant opposition groups. In Afghanistan and Iraq, aid workers are attacked by forces that either do not support the government or who see their interests and livelihood best served by instability. Gillian Sandford, who trains journalists in safety procedures for an NGO in Afghanistan, says, “Attackers may be Taliban insurgents opposed to the presidential and parliamentary electoral process. But violent incidents could also be inspired by a commander who objects to NGO involvement in his area because it tempts men to leave his militia for a life without the gun or because instability best suits illicit opium production— from which he gains revenue.”

In very poor countries such as Afghanistan or the Congo, local people resent the privileged living standards of Western aid workers driving Range Rovers and Jeeps. Peter Walker, former head of emergencies at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, recently wrote that Iraqi militants murdered Margaret Hassan to send “a crystal-clear message: It doesn’t matter how impartial, neutral or independent you are. It doesn’t matter how much the local community respects you. It doesn’t matter how much people trust you. Beyond reproach, you are still the enemy.”

Background to the Current Crisis

The crisis currently facing humanitarian agencies is not new. Throughout the 1980s, I visited many of the world’s refugee hot spots, including refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodian border, the Afghan-Pakistan border and throughout Central America and Mexico. At the time, I wrote, humanitarianism had become a political tool. It was used to justify the arming of refugee camps in Thailand, Pakistan and Honduras, and to aid insurgency in Nicaragua and to suppress revolution in El Salvador. The military use of refugees served the political and strategic interests of the United States. The existence of “freedom fighters” symbolized popular rejection of communist governments in these regions and legitimized the resistance movements the United States was supporting through humanitarian and military assistance.

In several visits to Thailand during the 1980s, I witnessed intimidation, forced recruitment and the presence of arms in several of the refugee camps strung out along the Thai-Cambodian border. Some of these camps were controlled by the Khmer Rouge, which had inflicted a terrible genocide on the Cambodian people. Other camps were populated by supporters of the former Prince Norodom Sihanouk. The United States, China, Thailand and others, in their effort to overthrow the Vietnamese-controlled government in Phnom Penh, gave generous military and economic assistance to both groups. Cambodian refugees had become pawns in a political struggle that directly involved the geopolitical interests of major powers.

In Honduras, traumatized refugees and aid workers told me that contra commanders opposed to the Sandinista government in Nicaragua freely entered refugee camps and openly recruited young Nicaraguan refugee men into their armed forces. These camps were generously assisted by the United States through the Honduran Red Cross and conservative Protestant evangelical agencies that openly supported the contras. By contrast, refugees in Salvadoran camps situated along the Honduran-Salvadoran border received little or no American aid because the refugees supported the Salvadoran rebels who were trying to overthrow the U.S.-backed government in San Salvador.

This and other treatment of refugees across three continents led me to conclude that any independence of the humanitarian “space” on the landscape of politics among nations had mostly evaporated by the mid-1980s.

During the post-Cold War world of the 1990s, humanitarian workers with the United Nations and NGOs were in highly politicized and militarized environments in the Balkans, West Africa, the African Great Lakes region, the Caucasus and elsewhere. In the wake of genocide in Rwanda in the mid 1990s, refugee camps in neighboring Zaire were used as a base for guerrilla activities. At that time de Mello was the U.N. refugee agency’s chief troubleshooter. I visited him in Geneva then and asked about the challenges confronting the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Zaire. He complained that armed groups hid behind the humanitarian character of these camps to recruit new insurgent forces among the disaffected, displaced populations. “We are in an impossible situation. We face the dilemma of whether to continue to assist everyone in the camps, including the Hutu armed elements, or to pull out of Zaire.” He also was bitter about the U.N. Security Council’s unwillingness to provide troops to police the camps. “We feel very alone in the Great Lakes,” de Mello said.

As one friend who struggled hard to get aid to desperate civilians on both sides of the conflict in the Balkans told me at the time, “Convoys carrying humanitarian assistance to Bosnians would be targeted by Serb militias, and those transporting aid to Serb civilians would be attacked by Bosnian militias. This proved to be a disaster and placed humanitarian workers at considerable risk.” In the eyes of the local combatants, the United Nations and many NGOs became closely identified with either one side or the other and were targeted by militia forces. “What was needed,” said my friend, “was a more forceful military intervention to create a cease-fire in order to permit humanitarian assistance to needy civilians on all sides of the conflict.”

During the turbulent 1990s, physical attacks against U.N. and international staff increased dramatically across the world. In the 10 years between 1992 and 2002, more than 220 U.N. civilian staff died as a result of malicious attacks. At least 265 people were taken hostage while serving in U.N. operations. Humanitarian aid workers were particularly susceptible to threats and violence. In 1998, for the first time, more U.N. staff died providing emergency relief than in peacekeeping operations.

The attack on the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad in August 2003 and on the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) offices there a few weeks later brought a new and unprecedented degree of anti-U.N. and anti-NGO hostility to the surface. Florian Westphal, the ICRC’s media representative, said at the time, “There’s been danger before, and unfortunately our colleagues have been killed before, but now we face a threat that is global and which comes from groups with whom we have no contact.” In Iraq the United Nations and NGOs quickly learned to their dismay and horror that their humanitarian flags and symbols are no longer enough to provide for their protection or for the protection of civilians caught in the crossfire of conflict.

Today’s Challenges

The United Nations is in a particularly difficult position. It has the contradictory role of carrying out unpopular Security Council resolutions (sanctions and interventions) while simultaneously distributing humanitarian and reconstruction aid through its agencies. When the United Nations returned to Baghdad immediately after the military invasion in summer 2003, it was seen by many Iraqis as having sided with the American- and British-led occupation. A close aide to de Mello recently told me that when de Mello arrived in Baghdad, the first question he was asked by Iraqi and Western reporters was “whether the U.N. was acting as an American poodle.”

NGOs generally enjoy more freedom of choice regarding humanitarian action than the United Nations does. For most agencies, independence, impartiality and neutrality are core principles governing their operations. At the same time, however, many American NGOs rely heavily on U.S. government funding.

Humanitarian action is a big business, with annual expenditures of about $10 billion. Of this, an estimated $2.5 billion to $3 billion is managed by NGOs. In the past, governments transferred resources directly to NGOs, which then prioritized needs and allocated resources. Now the U.S. government earmarks most funding for specific activities. NGOs must compete with others for resources, especially private commercial firms and the U.S. military, which are rapidly expanding their humanitarian portfolios. Consequently, most American NGOs faced moral dilemmas in deciding whether to accept government funding to carry out programs in Iraq. Some agencies believed that to accept funds from and to cooperate with one of the belligerents severely compromised their values and activities. Addressing American NGOs before the war, the U.S. military command referred to NGOs as a “force multiplier” for U.S. military and political objectives in Iraq. Consequently, NGOs came under strong pressure to support American policy in Iraq.

The International Rescue Committee, one of the oldest American NGOs, had long internal debates about whether to go to Iraq under these conditions. Some agencies felt that they had no choice but to go to Iraq, because the humanitarian imperative to provide assistance and protection to vulnerable people overrode all other concerns. Charles MacCormack of Save the Children USA told the press: “We want to be there to do the job we know how to do.” Others feared losing valuable government contracts to private companies, which were in the aid business to make a profit. “Sitting out a crisis such as Iraq has major institutional drawbacks,” notes Larry Minear, a longtime analyst of humanitarianism and war. In the end, most NGOs accepted U.S. government funding and refrained from judgment on the war.

In recent years, the line between humanitarian activity and military operations has increasingly blurred. During the past 18 months in Afghanistan, for example, U.S. soldiers have frequently worn civilian clothing, carried guns and distributed food. While the military may win “hearts and minds” by handing out food and medicines, such activities sometimes double as intelligence-gathering operations. As a result, humanitarian aid has become confused with security and intelligence operations. This had led to the perception that relief workers are an arm of the occupying forces and therefore a legitimate target. For Jean-Michel Piedagnel of Doctors Without Borders, humanitarian agency staff can be protected from attack only if the roles of the military and humanitarian organizations are clearly demarcated. “Independence from military and political interests is not a luxury, it is essential,” says Piedagnel.

Charting a New Landscape

In these complex and dangerous situations, how can humanitarian agencies restore a degree of independence and neutrality to their work in settings like Iraq and Afghanistan?

First, a clear separation between military and humanitarian aid activity is needed. Simply put, the military ought to provide security for humanitarian organizations and help them get aid where it needs to go—and then take a back seat. The military should concentrate on providing logistical help if NGOs require it and then let NGOs deliver the aid to those in need.

There’s a practical reason for this: The military does not have the expertise in humanitarian assistance and reconstruction work, particularly when compared to aid agencies that have decades of experience working with local communities. Similarly, the U.N. specialized agencies have been deeply involved in the temporary administration of such war-torn countries as Cambodia, East Timor and Kosovo. Dennis McNamara, who worked in all three countries as a top U.N. administrator, says, “Given sufficient political support and financial resources, the organization can make a real difference in such settings. Schools and hospitals have been rebuilt, refugees have returned home in large numbers, and elections have been held. But most importantly none of these countries have relapsed into full-scale civil war.”

What the United Nations and NGOs need to do now is embark on a long-term information campaign to address current negative perceptions of partiality in their policies and programs. Peter Walker, a veteran NGO aid worker, has pointed out that humanitarian agencies are largely funded by the governments of industrialized countries, their headquarters are primarily located in North America and Europe, and they are staffed almost exclusively by people from these countries. Among Islamic populations, it is not surprising that humanitarian agencies are perceived to be part of the foreign occupying powers and standard bearers for Western cultural and religious values. He recently argued that if humanitarianism is to survive, it must be reconstructed “as a truly global endeavor . . . that resonates across all cultures.”

It is also essential that humanitarian actors be more assertive in establishing their integrity and in explaining their independence from military and political actors. Reporting on a recent trip to Iraq, Greg Hansen, a humanitarian practitioner, wrote, “We have never explained who we are—as humanitarians—to the Iraqis; we have never sought their acceptance nor their invitation to operate in the country. We have never explained how we operate and why we operate differently from the coalition forces or other players.” Some agencies in Iraq are trying to rectify this situation by launching their own public information campaigns and distributing leaflets at local mosques to explain to people the nature of their relief activities.

NGOs need to take steps to nationalize the humanitarian enterprise. In particular, Western NGOs should make it possible for local people in the poorer countries to take ownership of the projects started there. Such measures will help strengthen civil society and institutions of governance in countries where central government itself is weak or nonexistent.

The United Nations and NGOs also need to exhibit more fairness in the way aid is distributed globally. Right now, most humanitarian aid is voluntary and is designated for specific countries or activities by Western donor countries. Humanitarian aid goes overwhelmingly to high-profile emergencies in geopolitically important regions of the world like Iraq or Afghanistan. Long-standing crises in Africa and elsewhere are ignored. According to Oxfam’s Jeremy Hobbs, “In 2003, donors came up with nearly $3 billion for Iraq relief, over $100 for every intended beneficiary. In comparison, the U.N. appeal for the Congo garnered $25 per person, for Indonesia barely $10.” This disparity has led to widespread disaffection in struggling countries about the lack of universality of humanitarianism and to the perception that double standards exist regarding refugee and other emergencies in poorer countries.

A Kenyan friend recently told me that many Africans think “the West is rebuilding Iraq at the expense of efforts to stem poverty and conflict in Africa.” She says, with some anger, “An estimated 3 million people, mostly women and children, have died of hunger and conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo during the past decade—a number far greater than the death toll in Iraq or Afghanistan.”

The recent spontaneous response to the Asian tsunami disaster underscores the fact that many people in the West still support humanitarian assistance that is both generous and non-political. I hope this moment of global solidarity will be a turning point in the relationship between the West and the developing world. But the past record of responses to both natural and manmade disasters worries me. Usually about half of what is pledged by governments for assistance is actually delivered. Perhaps half of that will reach the intended needy. I hope it will be different this time. A good friend of mine at the United Nations, who has worked with refugees and displaced people for more than 30 years, recently told me, “What is required is to transform the recent incredible groundswell of energy to support humanitarian action in the devastated countries of the Indian Ocean into sustained action. The danger is that once the media focuses on another story, this will become yet another forgotten humanitarian crisis.”

Finally, Edward Girardet, writing recently in the Christian Science Monitor, underlines how important it is for the international aid community to grapple with the security issues at hand in many of the conflict zones in which they work. “Aid agencies need to begin providing appropriate security training for their representatives” as well as “better awareness of the situations in which they will operate,” he wrote. The ICRC, for example, requires all its field staff to undergo two-weeks of awareness courses before working in conflict zones. Governments can improve security for NGOs by working toward establishing neutrality zones or humanitarian spheres without the involvement of the military where aid agencies can operate without fear of their workers being killed or kidnaped.

The bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad in August 2003 and the repeated killing of humanitarian aid workers in the months since then has deprived the world of many dedicated and talented international aid workers. It also has also damaged humanitarian action worldwide. The United Nations and NGOs ignore these challenges at their peril. They must choose between charting the new landscape of humanitarianism or succumbing to it.


Gil Loescher is professor emeritus of political science at Notre Dame and is currently senior research fellow at the University of Oxford, United Kingdom.

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