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Is humanitarian action
facing defeat?

By Jean-François Berger

This was the central question posed at the symposium organized by the ICRC on 4 February at the Sorbonne University in Paris, with the support of the Humanitarian Action Service of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. On the sidelines, Red Cross, Red Crescent invited Dr Jean-Christophe Rufin, author and director of research at the Institute of International and Strategic Research (IRIS), and Jean-Daniel Tauxe, ICRC director of operations, to expand on the debate.

Here we are, ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The repercussions of that upheaval on the world’s geopolitical balance are still being felt. How would you define the current era?

Jean-Christophe Rufin: Unlike the Cold War, today there are gaps in international relations. As a result, some parts of the globe have been forsaken by the world powers, which have become increasingly indifferent to the new conflicts considered to be of little strategic importance. The current era should be seen as a time of withdrawal by the world powers, with the result that humanitarian agencies are often obliged to work in situations that are developing in a strategic void.

Jean-Daniel Tauxe: We are still in a phase of deregulation, in which new rules that are far from being accepted by all are being made. It is a state of apparent chaos, given that the gaps in present-day conflicts are rapidly being filled by new players and new methods that result in numerous victims.



The international community’s withdrawal has led to a decrease in the number of military-backed humanitarian interventions. Do you think this is just a temporary change or a long-term trend?

JCR: It’s not a simple change of course. There really was a favourable period for military-backed humanitarian interventions between 1989 – in Namibia – and 1994 – in Rwanda. These operations took place at the time the balance within the international system was upset by the collapse of the Soviet Union. During this period, the international community played its “UN-humanitarian card”, which was quick to reveal its limitations, in particular in Bosnia. Since 1995, we have entered a different phase, in which the international community is concentrating on specific regions. In sensitive areas of “interest”, NATO is used. Elsewhere, the international community either steers clear or delegates responsibility to regional bodies, such as the Organization of African Unity (OAU), which are poorly equipped to take on this role.

JDT: The era of military-backed humanitarian interventions was in fact short-lived. That being said, I don’t believe we have seen the end of military interventions. Strategic interests – at present mainly confined to Europe and the Middle East – also include some situations in Africa and Asia and could lead to new international military interventions.

You have put your finger on the role of the economy in today’s conflicts...

JCR: There are two main reasons why the world powers are still prompted to intervene in the South. The first of these is a sort of “colonial” attitude, by which I mean that the international community is prepared to take action to protect areas where important economic interests are at stake. Human migration – or more accurately the threat of massive population movements – is the second trigger for international intervention, as was the case in Haiti or Albania.

JDT: There is an obvious link between conflict and the economy. First, globalization has left many people by the wayside, with the effect that societies are advancing at two different speeds. Secondly, many private security firms are involved in conflict situations. Their main aim – which they won’t admit to – is to ensure that the economy can function in the case of conflict.


New types of combatants are taking part in today’s conflicts. What are their main characteristics?

JCR: These new armed elements are not necessarily all criminal; the root causes of a conflict, whether historical, political, ethnic or religious, are still there. The trouble is that, without external support, the new combatants are obliged to turn to criminal activity to finance their activities. They operate illegally – either in groups or individually – and do business against a backdrop of war. A classic example is the armed movement that allies itself to a mafia in order to buy arms in exchange for heroin or other banned substances.

JDT: The motives of today’s fighters have less and less in common with those of yesterday: some armed movements have no political ideology and simply behave in a predatory manner. For them, a weapon is a means to get rich. Often these groups are manipulated and serve much wider political interests. The distinction between the criminal and the political has become so blurred that it is often difficult to tell the difference. What you describe in your book, L’Empire et les Nouveaux Barbares, is as true as ever, except that the limes [borders of the Roman Empire] run deeper.

Are the links between politics and organized crime really new?

JCR: What is new is that these armed groups have made their way into the globalization process. The real danger is not so much organized crime as disorganized crime. Numerous budding mafias are fighting one another in territories that are not yet under control. This disorganized crime is a formidable threat to humanitarians.

JDT: What is also new is the proliferation of small gangs, as was the case in Albania in 1997.


These new developments obviously pose security problems. What approach should humanitarian agencies adopt with regard to these mafia-like groups, organized or disorganized?

JCR: The humanitarian community does not control wars nor is it accountable for everything that happens during them. Its mandate is to assist the victims. What needs to be determined is whether it is possible to come to some agreement with the mafias on issues of concern to us, such as access to the victims.

JDT: You need to keep a low profile and try to gain a better understanding of what is happening in a given situation, so as to identify the players that count. Establishing a dialogue with the mafias is more difficult. In order to develop a dialogue, you need to have mutual interests, which is rarely the case with the mafias.

Take Sierra Leone, which is an example of a conflict where the scope of humanitarian agencies is terribly limited. In such a context, is it the end of humanitarian action?

JDT: The level of violence in Sierra Leone is exceptional. What surprises me is that the ICRC should be thrown out because it has a dialogue with all the parties to the conflict. We need to return to a diplomatic and military approach in order to be able to work there again. [The ICRC and the Federation began working again in Sierra Leone in May.]


The technology available to humanitarian agencies attracts the envy of combatants. There is a serious problem here...

JCR: In order to understand better how tensions of this sort arise, remember the early nineties, when the big military-backed humanitarian interventions were looked upon as an endless source of supplies, the UN feeling less accountable for its logistics.

JDT: It’s a bit like squaring the circle. The main issue is to know how best to operate in terribly damaged and impoverished environments with logistics that project an image of inconceivable wealth. You have to adjust and not just do things without reflection. The challenge is to find the balance between the dictates of security – we have to be in constant communication with each other – and the risk of supplying combatants with equipment. We are therefore in the process of simplifying and lightening up our logistics, especially as regards vehicles. This means that we make more use of local contractors, but there is a minimum that you can’t do without. Whatever the case, the era of huge convoys loaded with imported goods is over. We are also putting more emphasis on staff training, notably through simulation exercises.

Today, certain areas of tension are terribly neglected, even ignored. In your view, what are the regions affected by conflict that are forgotten by the international community?

JCR: First, the Caucasus where, ever since the Cold War, a very high level of local violence has become the norm. Then Central Asia and the African continent, where the international community tolerates wide-ranging instability because these places are supposedly of little consequence in terms of the world balance. In fact, these conflicts catch up with us through organized crime. It is only in Europe that we accept a lower level of violence, as we are much more conscious of the threat.

JDT: If, sadly, certain conflicts are neglected, it is because of an increasing imbalance in the world’s attention, which is particularly flagrant with regard to sub-Saharan Africa, where the priority for action lies.


Humanitarian action is evolving. In what fields should the emphasis be placed in the next ten years?

JCR: My fear is that the universal nature of human rights could be called into question, which would lead to the erosion of the foundations of humanitarian action. If there are no core values common to all cultures, humanitarian ideals will be reduced to empty words pronounced by Westerners.

JDT: We must make economic circles more aware of their responsibilities with regard to humanitarian issues.

*Jean-Christophe Rufin, L’Empire et les Nouveaux Barbares, J.-C. Lattés, Paris, 1991)

Interview by Jean-François Berger.

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