Humanitarian Aid on an International Scope

IN 1959 there were 10 active conflicts around the world; in 1995 there are close to 50. When violence flashes, communities dissolve as people attempt to move out of harm's way. In 1960, there were 1.4 million refugees in the world; today there are almost 20 million, and another 20 to 25 million persons are internally displaced within their own countries.

Unfortunately, in 1995 we in "humanitarian affairs" are in a growth business.

While both the size and frequency of emergency operations have increased, numbers alone do not explain the deteriorating environment in which humanitarian assistance operations are conducted today - "in the rockets' red glare." Both the recipients and providers of assistance are affected.

In the midst of conflict, military and humanitarian logistics often must operate in close proximity, at the sea and airports and along roads. Mass population movements occur spontaneously. Already inadequate communications and infrastructure are destroyed; and authority of any kind, governmental or otherwise, is often weakened or it dissolves.

Not surprisingly, a steady increase in both civilian and military (peacekeeper) United Nations casualties was reported from 1992 to 1994. In 1993, the place of maximum danger was Somalia. A total of 136 peacekeepers died during the UN military mission there. In 1994, 65 UN civilians were killed worldwide, most of them in relief operations in Rwanda.

Nongovernmental organizations, which deliver the bulk of the assistance in the field, and Red Cross organizations, are no less vulnerable than UN staff. Since 1985 the International Committee of the Red Cross has had nine expatriates and 39 local employees killed. Another 147 ICRC staff, local and expatriate, have "disappeared."

Insecure, dangerous conditions cause direct and indirect monetary losses, as well as loss of life. From the outset of a conflict emergency operation, there may be outlays for war-risk insurance, body armor, armored vehicles for convoys, extra communications equipment, and the like. The mix of transport brought in for the operation must include planes or helicopters for evacuation. Training field staff in security procedures and security-related skills is important - and expensive.

Once relief operations begin, delays caused by security concerns, or even temporary shutdowns following an "incident," are frequent. If evacuations are necessary, they add to the costs, as do special transport arrangements to avoid ground fire at aircraft or mined roads.

The World Food Program, for example, normally factors in a cost to donors of $30 to $80 per metric ton of food for internal transport, storage, and handling in most development projects. In conflict zones, however, these shipments must be made by circuitous land routes, by airlift, or both. In southern Sudan, this means total internal transport costs of $500 to $1,000 per metric ton; in Angola, $315 per metric ton.

Perhaps the monetary costs of conflict can best be seen in the depressing arithmetic of land-mine clearance. These mines can be produced for as little as $3, but it costs between $300 and $1,000 each to have them located, disarmed, and cleared. Last year, the international community allocated approximately $70 million to clear some 100,000 landmines. During the same period, however, more than 2 million landmines were deployed.

In the conflicts of the post-cold-war era, which have tended to be bitter internal conflicts generated by ethnic, religious, and other intractable differences, the population bases of opposing armies - civilians - have often become primary targets for attack.

In former Yugoslavia, for example, we have seen "pattern rapes" of women and girls, children forcibly recruited into combat, concerted shelling of hospitals, clinics, and markets, and calculated disruption of relief supply lines. When terrorism becomes an instrument of war, among the first casualties are humanitarian principles and norms.

In one particularly vicious instance in Angola, mines were laid one night under a tree that was behind rebel lines outside the surrounded city of Malange, a tree under whose shade women and children traded relief goods for fresh produce. The result was carnage.

Nor is it just the parties to a conflict who violate humanitarian norms. We in the emergency assistance community are sometimes faced with the necessity to do so ourselves, in order to be able to provide life-sustaining relief to civilian victims of conflict. In Somalia, numerous assistance organizations have been obliged to pay hard currency for "protection" services from one or another of the warring factions. Doubtless, the money is used to hire more gunmen and purchase more arms. In Bosnia, Sudan, and Angola, corrupt authorities in besieged cities have required the payment of a fee, or a portion of the food or other relief goods, as a price for being permitted to off-load items desperately needed by trapped civilians.

Perhaps the worst recent example of this grim Hobson's choice is the problem posed by nearly 1.5 million Rwandan Hutu refugees in Zaire. Having massacred between 500,000 and 1 million of their Tutsi countrymen last year, many of the Hutus had a reasonable fear of retribution once their army and militia had been decisively beaten by the (largely) Tutsi army of the Rwandan Patriotic Front.

From the moment they crossed the border into Zaire, however, the refugees became an extremely useful base for the ousted Rwandan regime and the defeated Hutu army and militia. To those involved in the emergency operation, recent reports of arms shipments to a reassembled and retrained army were hardly unexpected. What is slowly becoming clear is that indirectly, unintentionally, continued humanitarian assistance for the Hutu refugees in Zaire is supporting the preparation of the next war in central Africa.

THE operational UN agencies and the private groups that provide emergency assistance, and the governments which fund most of it, have begun to respond to the new risks posed by conflict-related assistance operations: Several agencies have hired permanent security staff, purchased communications gear and specialized transport, revised security and evacuation plans, and established 24-hour duty officer systems at their headquarters.

The UN Security Council and General Assembly have in the same period labored to establish an international convention, as the Secretary General said in his 1993 report on the subject, "to codify and further develop international law relating to the security and safety of United Nations forces and personnel." Unfortunately, the proposed convention, which issued from the General Assembly in the fall of 1994, was too limited in scope. It is, however, a base upon which we can build.

In the foreseeable future, the agencies and organizations that compose the international humanitarian assistance system will continue to respond to conflict emergencies in dangerous neighborhoods across the globe, and will continue to pay a high price for doing so.

One might ask why emergency aid workers should be expected to serve in these places without the range of security systems and supports that are routinely available to foreign businessmen, diplomats, and soldiers when they work in areas of risk. But that is, in a sense, a moot question: The call will go out and it will be answered, whatever the circumstances.

Most needed is an improved and strengthened UN capacity to prevent conflicts, so that fewer calls will go out. Not all internal conflicts are preventable, but timely and appropriate interventions from outside - diplomatic initiatives, posting of human rights monitors, deployment of peacekeeping troops - can and have prevented some conflicts and the widening of others.

In the past, the UN Secretariat has tended to be reactive, rather than pro-active, in its approach to looming crises, which resulted in delayed responses.

When they came, those responses have often proceeded from assessments developed within compartmentalized UN divisions, and these assessments were often at odds with each other.

Over the past year, in an effort to correct this, the three substantive departments of the Secretariat - Humanitarian Affairs, Political Affairs, and Peacekeeping Operations - have agreed to a "framework for coordination." Most significantly, the three departments have agreed to establish a mechanism for joint analysis of early-warning information and planning-preventative action.

Most crises today are complex situations with intertwined political, military, humanitarian, human rights, and economic aspects. The UN, and any other international actors involved, will always find it difficult and dangerous to respond to these situations.

The odds for success will be greater, however, and the security risks smaller, if we have a common understanding of the problems, and if we undertake concerted action at the earliest possible moment.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Humanitarian Aid on an International Scope
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today