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Goodwill's Tough Lessons

By David D. Newsom / October 22, 1997



The recent expulsion of workers of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other relief personnel from the eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) dramatizes the growing difficulties of humanitarian relief in conflict areas. This event and others in the past three decades suggest at least six lessons for those seeking to help humanity in an age of ethnic warfare.

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Relief agencies' goods and services become weapons of war: In 1992-93, those helping starving Somalians discovered the so-called bandits stealing food, supplies, and equipment were combatants in an internal conflict, indifferent to the fate of their fellow country people. Similar actions have occurred in Congo where the army of the late dictator Mobutu Sese Seko seized relief agency trucks and fuel and hijacked UN aircraft in the fight against Laurent Kabila.

Safe havens do not work: In past wars, agencies such as the Red Cross have been able to establish refugee camps and other havens respected by belligerents. As the overrunning of the UN safe haven of Srebrenica by Serbs in Bosnia in 1995 demonstrated, such zones are no longer secure. In a different kind of problem in Congo, Hutu refugee camps became military bases of soldiers driven from Rwanda.

Denial dominates government policy: Governments and factions further frustrate relief work by denying the existence of famine or privation. Self-preservation leads leaders and peoples to dehumanize tragedy. This is not a new phenomenon; the emperor of Ethiopia in the 1970s, embarrassed by the inability of his regime to feed his people, refused to acknowledge the existence of a severe famine. Recent years, however, have seen not only the denial of disease and malnutrition, but of mass killings. Serbs refused to admit the slaughter of thousands of Muslim men. The current impasse between President Kabila of Congo and the international community stems from his refusal to permit an investigation into allegations that Hutu refugees were murdered by his forces.

Neutrality becomes an impossible goal: Remaining neutral in conflict situations has long been a basic policy of most major relief agencies. But it's more and more difficult - if not impossible - to continue that policy. Factions in civil wars see help to an adversary as a partisan act. Relief workers themselves, caught up by the emotions of the scene, find it hard to remain objective. And some relief organizations, as in Bosnia, are dedicated to helping one side.

Sustained development rarely follows relief: Ideally, in situations of internal disorder short-term relief should lead to more permanent efforts to rebuild society. This rarely happens because donors, official or private, fear the expense of "mission creep."

For governments, humanitarian relief is rarely a priority: Governments of major industrialized countries, including the US, reflect the humanitarian interests of their populations in contributing to relief efforts. Yet those efforts are more often than not tempered by political considerations. Without political impediments, more extensive and protracted military interventions in Somalia, Bosnia, or Central Africa might have saved more lives. Such efforts were not to be, either because a foreign government favored one side or another in a conflict or peoples or legislatures balked when the true cost in lives and money became clear.

As the decade began, humanitarian interventions were seen as a major new tool in the post-cold-war world. As the years have passed, governments and private agencies have learned these six lessons and more about the realities of such interventions. Fortunately, determined governments, agencies, and individuals, wiser but not undaunted, and still supported by generous donors, are not giving up. To do so would compound the tragedies of an unsettled decade.

* David D. Newsom, former undersecretary of state, is Cumming Memorial Professor of International Affairs at the University of Virginia.