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Humanitarian action and the Global War on Terror: a review of trends and issues

The ‘War on Terror’ has raised a number of issues for the humanitarian community, some new, others less so. These include:

• the integration of humanitarian policy with international security policy;

• the weakening of multilateralism, and the consequent erosion of mechanisms insulating humanitarian action and principles from geopolitical influence;

• the implications of integrated approaches to peace-building, and the bilateral management of political

• transition;

• the interpretation of the international legal framework on the use of force, as well as international humanitarian, human rights and refugee law; and issues of dual responsibility, where the governments defining the policy agenda for the war on terrorism are also the main drivers and financers of humanitarian policy in these settings;

• the position of faith-based humanitarian agencies in a war which has assumed a religious dimension;

• donor relations, funding, issues of independence and the place of advocacy; and

• the advent of a new relief ‘industry’ of for-profit providers.

The war has also highlighted more familiar issues concerning the roles and responsibilities of humanitarian actors, not simply in providing a palliative for the worst excesses of war, but also for resolving conflict. Afghanistan and Iraq have shown the difficult implications of blurring the line between humanitarian action and peace-building. This has underscored the conceptual, legal and operational links between instruments of ‘hard’ power, in other words the use of force, and ‘soft’ instruments of power, including aid.

While humanitarian actors may seek to distance themselves from the politics of the global war on terrorism, in operational terms they have played a key role in its major theatres, and are deeply embedded in it, culturally, politically and financially. Humanitarian actors therefore need to examine carefully how they position themselves in relation to the conflict.

Adele Harmer