THE plight of the Kurds and other Iraqis displaced by the Gulf war has exposed the strengths and weaknesses of the world's humanitarian safety net. Like the war itself, the world's response to the victims demonstrates both new potential for collective action and serious structural inadequacies in responding to human need. The appearance of some 2 million refugees in a matter of days, say aid professionals, is unprecedented. While they concede they could have done more to avoid the tragedy, it is difficult to envision standby machinery that could deal overnight with a crisis of this magnitude. It is like having enough plows to remove a foot of snow that falls in 12 hours, only to be faced with a blizzard that drops twice as much in six hours.
Extenuating factors notwithstanding, the world's inability to respond more effectively to Iraqi suffering has cost innocent lives numbering probably in the tens of thousands. There are currently more than 15 million other people around the planet who, fearing for their lives, have crossed international borders in search of refuge. An even larger number are displaced within their countries of origin.
With the international community opposed to the repatriation of people against their will, the choice of some Iraqi Kurds to return home on their own stands as a judgment against the lifeline available to them. Their decision to coexist with an enemy who gassed their relatives rather than trust the world to provide for their needs would be understood by Cambodians languishing in wretched refugee camps along the Thai border and Palestinians similarly encamped in the occupied territories.
But international legal norms related to humanitarian aid may be changing. Over the years, the shibboleth of ``sovereignty'' has subjected aid to the needy to government consent. Normal diplomatic niceties were set aside, however, when the UN Security Council, labeling the mass upheaval a threat to international peace and security, insisted that ``Iraq allow immediate access by international humanitarian organizations to all those in need of assistance in all parts of Iraq.''
Many officials view as a watershed the assertion by the world's preeminent security organ that humanitarian assistance and human rights are themselves of overriding importance. ``Soon it will no longer be acceptable,'' writes Bernard Koucher, France's minister of humanitarian action, ``to cross a border to wage war but not to do the same to make peace and save lives.''
Yet it is hard to imagine a more attractive case for humanitarian intervention than Iraq, given Saddam Hussein's behavior and the prior UN decision to remove Iraq from Kuwait, using military force if necessary. Will the world community feel equally compelled to intervene the next time lives are on the line - for example, in Liberia or Somalia?
The use of American, French, British, and Dutch marines inside Iraq without Iraqi government approval and the allied ultimatums to Iraqi troops to withdraw from areas which then become safe havens may indeed represent a turning point in the evolution of humanitarian ethics. At the same time, current lifesaving efforts in the Gulf crisis raise complex questions.
Lofty rhetoric about the right and even the duty to intervene in humanitarian emergencies is one thing. The institutional capacity of aid agencies to fulfill such obligations is quite another.
Can multilateral institutions be strengthened so that future preemptive action by the United States and others will be unnecessary? Do those requiring succor and those seeking to provide it need protection of a sort that only military force can provide? Does the scale and complexity of the humanitarian tragedy in the Gulf suggest that the international community should be less willing to resort to military force and more patient with sanctions?
Current suffering will be in some small measure redeemed if it hastens the establishment of more effective and consistent international responses favoring humanity over sovereignty. Sovereignty must be faithful to humane values.