Is humanitarian action
By Jean-François Berger
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
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
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
have put your finger on the role of the economy in today’s
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
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.
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.
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
The technology available to humanitarian agencies
attracts the envy of combatants. There is a serious problem
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
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
Rufin, L’Empire et les Nouveaux Barbares, J.-C.
Lattés, Paris, 1991)
Interview by Jean-François Berger.
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