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The EU as a humanitarian actor

Time (GMT +01) 12:00 13:30

Martin Griffiths, Director, Henri Dunant Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue
Joanna Macrae, Group Coordinator, Humanitarian Policy Group, ODI
Simon Maxwell, ODI Director

1. Simon Maxwell, Director of the ODI, welcomed the audience and introduced the speakers. He emphasised the importance of the European issue in general, referring to a host of decisions coming up in European development co-operation, e.g. the current inter-governmental conference on the European Convention, a new Parliament and Commission next year, and negotiations over the new Financial Perspectives. Regarding the issue of humanitarian assistance, questions arose around the EU's relationships with other international organisations, especially the United Nations, and the link to foreign policy and broader development considerations.

2. Joanna Macrae, Group Coordinator at the ODI, considered the role of humanitarian assistance in the draft of the European Convention (link to presentation). Chapter IV of the section on the 'Union's External Action' in the Constitution was devoted to co-operation with third countries and humanitarian aid. It introduced treaty provisions for humanitarian aid in the framework of the EU's external relations.

3. Joanna Macrae pointed out that the draft Constitution focused on humanitarian aid but was not concerned with humanitarian action more broadly. Even though the Preamble referred to the humanitarian objectives of the EU, there was no European sense of humanitarian action, e.g. regarding protecting civilians from war.

4. Discussing the role and achievements of ECHO (the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid Office), Joanna Macrae highlighted the unusual status that it was given when it was created in 1992, in part to engage the EU more actively in complex emergency situations after the Gulf War of 1991. It took until 1996 before it was defined as a legal entity, by an EC regulation on humanitarian assistance. Two principles had guided the work of ECHO since its inception: neutrality and impartiality. These had been laid down in various regulations in order to protect the agency from political interference. They did indeed help to ensure the autonomy of ECHO vis-á-vis the External Affairs Directorate, as well as the office of the High Representative of CFSP. However, the Convention foresaw some important changes to ECHO's position in the organisational structure of the EU. The new EU Foreign Minister would be given the overall responsibility for the activities of ECHO, which Joanna Macrae felt gave cause for concern.

5. With the Convention in mind, Joanna Macrae argued the recent paper by Javier Solana, the CFSP's High Representative, could threaten ECHO's objectives of neutrality and impartiality. There was a risk of instrumentalising humanitarian action for narrow foreign policy interests, e.g. in the fight against terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. In addition, Iraq and Afghanistan provided examples of the risk of militarising humanitarian assistance. The so-called 'Petersberg tasks' - which make military units of the member states available for humanitarian and peace-keeping operations - could make public and indeed private military entities the delivery mechanisms for humanitarian assistance. In these scenarios, the EU's aid could lose its added value.

6. In terms of resources for humanitarian action, the budget of ECHO had - apart from a peak with at the time of the Kosovo crisis - remained fairly static since 1994. Joanna Macrae pointed out the figures did not include spending by non-ECHO departments of the EU for humanitarian assistance. A somewhat surprising idea in the draft Constitution was to create a corps of humanitarian volunteers.

7. Joanna Macrae ended her presentation by referring to a number of unresolved issues in the Convention with respect to humanitarian aid:

  • Was it just another political instrument?
  • Was priority given to humanitarian aid at the expense of humanitarian values?
  • What mechanisms existed to ensure the coherence of EU donor policy?
  • Was the distinction between development and humanitarian aid hardening?

8. Martin Griffiths, Director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Geneva, approached the topic from an operational point of view. He had worked for ActionAid, Save the Children, and the UN, on assignments in various conflict areas. The Centre had acted as a conflict mediator in various parts of the world (Indonesia, Nepal, Myanmar, Burundi and Sudan): its key task was 'humanitarian diplomacy'.

9. Martin Griffiths welcomed the EU's policy to allocate humanitarian aid depending on need. This could function as a role model for others, as emphasised recently in an Oxfam report. It helped to bring assistance to forgotten conflicts in the world, where new thinking was not emerging. However, he thought it was also important to recognise that allocations would always be driven by political imperatives. This should not necessarily be a major concern.

10. As for the distinction between development and humanitarian assistance, Martin Griffiths made the plea for a flexible approach based on his belief in the discretionary capacity of people 'on the ground'. While in theory there was a difference between the two categories, it was very difficult to distinguish in practice. In the case of Afghanistan in 1998/99, it had been impossible to define the difference between what was called 'live-saving assistance' and development aid. He also referred to examples in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Malawi to highlight the point that the boundary between these two categories is blurred, and one could not and should not draw too sharp a distinction between them.

11. Martin Griffiths acknowledged that, for a long time, he had underestimated the important political role of EU institutions as an ally for humanitarian diplomacy. He had found, for example, that many people in the European Parliament shared his sentiment that sustaining peace was an integral part of humanitarian aid. For this point, he referred to last week's session of the Parliament on the situation in the Aceh province of Indonesia, where he felt that a potential mediating role of the Parliament was, because of historical reasons, much more acceptable than the UN. Similarly, the role of the EU as part of the Middle East peace process was a step in the right direction to provide multilateral cover for humanitarian political action.

12. Martin Griffiths ended his presentation by suggesting that commonly humanitarians are viewed as children who do not understand the realpolitik of world affairs. However, this need not be the case. There was the chance for a new multilateralism in humanitarian assistance. This would require the maintenance of ECHO and better co-ordination with the UN. He felt the EU should be perceived not only as a provider of financial assistance, but also as a supporter for political action.

13. During the discussion, the following points were made:

  • What lay behind the perception that humanitarian aid of the EU was better managed and more effective compared with development aid? Speakers from the audience pointed out that they had had much better experiences in dealing with ECHO than with the Development Directorate/EuropeAid.
  • The Convention did not deal with new emerging humanitarian threats, such as SARS in East Asia or the effects of the use of biological weapons. In this regard, a more forward-looking perspective that emphasised the important role of public security and its links with complex political and economic issues was needed. However, the distinction between a concern for public security on the national level, and international security threats, was highlighted.
  • When debating the merits of either operational flexibility or binding rules for humanitarian aid, the definition of broader goals as well as clear instructions for capacity-building methods were regarded as indispensable regulatory mechanisms.
  • EU policy tended to focus on either short-term crisis management or long-term conflict resolution. The former had received considerably more attention, yet it was felt the EU should become more engaged in the latter, including peace-building measures other than military interventions. There was the issue, however, of the EU's competence in this area.
  • The question of whether humanitarian aid should be provided through the EU, the member states themselves, or international organisations such as the UN. Both panelists argued for a flexible approach. The institutions were different entities with different strengths and weaknesses depending on the issue at hand. For example, a higher number of NGOs received funding from ECHO compared to bilateral programmes.


This event looked at the EU's role in humanitarian assistance, and it relationships with other international organisations, especially the United Nations, and the link to foreign policy and broader development considerations.