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Global Peacemaking: How do we link the political and the humanitarian?

Time (GMT +00) 00:00 23:59


Sir Marrack Goulding, Warden of St. Antony's College, Oxford.

1. Sir Marrack began by discussing the different types of UN operation related to modern conflict, which is increasingly internal rather than between nations, and results in more civilian causalities and the breakdown of functioning government. Modern conflict is also covered much more extensively by the media which results in greater public awareness, public fundraising and increased political pressure. Under the broad umbrella of 'conflict' however, there are distinct situations which call for different types of UN involvement: peace enforcement (e.g. Kuwait); peace-making; peace keeping (e.g. Macedonia); humanitarian aid (e.g. the former Yugoslavia); and peace building. Each of these poses different problems and raises different questions about humanitarian aid.

2. In humanitarian aid, the challenge arises from trying to respect humanitarian principles and yet at the same time intervene politically to bring about a settlement. Such humanitarian principles include: impartiality, neutrality, consent, compassion, and the need for an official request from the relevant authorities. As a result of the dilemmas faced by the UN in so many situations, these principles are not always adhered to.

3. Sir Marrack discussed three aspects of the problem. Firstly, the relationship between the humanitarian agencies and the UN political presence in the field; secondly, coordination of efforts from all the players by the UN; and thirdly, the issue of deploying UN forces to provide security for humanitarian activities.

4. On the first issue, Sir Marrack felt that although there is a very close relationship between humanitarian actors and the UN political presence, this situation often means that the UN is faced with dilemmas. For example, (as in Bosnia) the UN humanitarian agencies sometimes come to be seen as siding with certain factions and this makes the efforts of the UN's political work very difficult. Another dilemma is the increasing evidence that the delivery of food and fuel may in fact prolong conflicts rather than shorten them, for example in Zaire where the sustenance provided to the large scale refugee camps had benefited the ex-Government and Interhamwe whilst reducing mortality rates and enabling the survival and return to health of the refugee population as a whole. In future a good case could be made for a large number of small camps, even if this entails a more difficult and costly delivery of services.

5. The impact of NGOs in conflict situations is complicated by their work in both humanitarian aid delivery and advocacy. The UN can/should not express its opinions so easily, argued Sir Marrack, because of its role as impartial mediator in many conflicts. NGOs tend to keep their distance from the UN because of the very sensitive role that the UN plays in conflict situations. Sir Marrack went on to outline three principles for humanitarian assistance: that it must not be a substitute for the political process attempting to stop the fighting; that it must not be an excuse for not looking for long term solutions; that humanitarian aid cannot divorce itself entirely from the political process. It is this last point that is proving the most difficult and contentious. How can a balance be struck between the humanitarian and the political roles of the UN?

6. On the second over-arching issue (how the UN can co-ordinate humanitarian efforts from all the players), Sir Marrack felt that this process is considerably advanced when the individuals involved show mutual respect and recognition. The authority of the Secretary General's Special Representative needs to be clarified and well understood. Coordination of different players needs to be more fundamental than just communication about what each player is doing. It needs to include a common vision, objectives, planning, priorities and resource allocation.

7. The early 1990s have seen some significant success in the third issue (deploying UN forces to provide security for humanitarian activities), and this has partly lead to a false optimism. The Bosnia example shows how this optimism was premature as the UNPROFOR forces inevitably had to take sides, and the task of securing the delivery of humanitarian assistance proved much more difficult than was first thought. Within this rather pessimistic analysis however, are success stories, such as the deployment of US troops (under the banner of UNITAF) early on in the Somalia civil war. This deployment did save tens of thousands of lives because of its very specific remit – the operation began to fail when it became too politicised. That operation illustrated the four key requirements for successful military intervention to protect humanitarian aid delivery: that the force have sufficient military strength to deal with the opposition; that the countries contributing men on the ground are willing to deal with the political consequences; that the force remains absolutely impartial; and that the force has no other mandate within that conflict.

8. Sir Marrack felt that the UN did not have the capacity or command structure to use military force effectively, and that therefore this task was best left to those nations with the political and military power to act on the UN's behalf. Sadly, this kind of commitment is becoming increasingly hard to obtain from nations and it is up to the UN to keep the pressure on them to do so. The failure of the UN's operations in Bosnia, especially in relation to the so called 'safe areas', is a prime example of this lack of willingness to provide adequate forces to carry out the decisions taken by the Security Council.

9. In summary, Sir Marrack felt that the humanitarian and the political goals do not need to be linked, because they already are. What is needed to make the two issues compatible is for the personalities involved to realise that everybody is pulling in the same direction. International leaders need to be far more realistic about what can feasibly be done in the area of peacekeeping/peace-making, and to stop making promises which they either do not deliver or are not willing to deliver because of the potential loss of life. That, said Sir Marrack, is the real crime.

10. Questions from the floor came in the areas of: how to find a compromise in what is essentially a messy reality of principles mixed with exceptions; the lack of awareness of the Security Council about humanitarian issues; the potential conflicts between the humanitarian and political agendas; the UN's role in advocacy; the political nature of global conflict; and UN Security Council reform. John Borton of the ODI's Humanitarian Policy Group raised the issue of creating a UN Security Council Sub-committee on Humanitarian Issues - which was one of the recommendations of a study undertaken by the landmark Joint Evaluation of Emergency Assistance to Rwanda in which ODI had played a key role. The floor was divided over whether to be pessimistic or optimistic over future UN intervention (either political or humanitarian). There was agreement from the floor, and from Sir Marrack, that the UN and international politicians should not indulge in cheap talk about global military intervention, and then not follow this up with the required deployment. There was also consensus that not all conflicts were 'ripe for third party intervention' at any one time, and that often the timing and type of intervention could make the difference between success and failure. Ultimately the clash of objectives (political versus humanitarian) would always make the work of the UN difficult in conflict situations.


At this event, Sir Marrack discussed the different types of UN operation related to modern conflict and the principles used by the UN.