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We have witnessed the return of the great majority of Rwandan refugees to their homeland. We have seen the overthrow of a deeply unpopular government in what was then known as Zaire. One might well have imagined that those seismic events would have brought a certain peace to the Great Lakes. But, as it is, a life where families may with confidence plan for the future of their children is still for many in that region a distant reality.

Humanitarian assistance has helped. Despite the many criticisms of the role played by humanitarian agencies — some of which are justified, some quite misjudged — I have no doubt of the need for such assistance, both in the past and, unfortunately, in the future.

But the lesson, once again taught to us by the recent history of the Great Lakes, is that humanitarians are the last resort, at best a tragic necessity. We arrive, unintended guests, to treat the wounds caused by political dispute. We treat the consequences, not the causes.

This should not be a matter of blame, as some critics have it: that humanitarians fail to address the underlying issues. It is a different role, a separate function, a distinct responsibility that is entrusted to the humanitarians. We are to be judged by the familiar principles of independence, impartiality, neutrality and humanity. It is for others to master and direct the transformation of society which will lead to peace and justice.

It follows from this that humanitarians cannot be the judges of governance, should not comment upon the path that a nation chooses. We should be bold in our defence of our principles and unashamed in our pursuit of our responsibilities, but equally silent in our judgements on other matters.

The future of the Great Lakes region remains at the crossroads. Humanitarian action may yet be required in even greater measure. But, let us be quite clear, the will of the people and governments in that region to restore peace and a productive life is their best hope.

Martin Griffiths
Deputy to the Under Secretary General
UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

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