The Politics of Human Suffering

The Politics of Human Suffering

Mini Teaser:  Less than a year ago, United States marines landed on the beaches of Mogadishu to the acclaim of its citizens.

by Author(s): James C. Ingram


Less than a year ago, United States marines landed on the beaches of Mogadishu to the acclaim of its citizens. They did so at the beginning of "Operation Restore Hope," authorized by the United Nations Security Council "to establish as soon as possible a secure environment for international humanitarian relief operations in Somalia." Within six months, television screens contained disconcerting images of American Cobra helicopter gun-ships inflicting civilian casualties as they fired on targets in Mogadishu and of angry Somalis denouncing United Nations forces as an army of occupation. A little more than a year ago, in June 1992, the deployment of United Nations troops to protect Sarajevo airport in order to allow the unimpeded delivery of humanitarian supplies was hailed. By the following summer, the nightly news programs showed an anguished Moslem population in Sarajevo deprived of water and electric power, and nearly empty United Nations relief supply warehouses. Early in 1991, the successful use of the armed forces of the United States and its allies in support of Kurds fleeing from the Iraqi army captured the imagination of the world community. But that Security Council-authorized operation has not been complemented by a similar concern for the welfare of other Iraqi civilians affected by the war and continuing sanctions.

Security Council Resolution 688, insisting on access by humanitarian organizations "in all parts of Iraq," was regarded as something of a breakthrough by some international lawyers, adding substance to the idea of a "right of humanitarian intervention." By this is meant the right of states to deliver assistance forcibly to people deprived of the necessities of life or otherwise abused by their governments. Security Council decisions on Bosnia and Somalia, particularly Somalia Resolution 794, were seen as significant further steps in the de facto establishment of the legitimacy of such interventions. Now, the seeming debacles in Bosnia and Somalia have raised doubts about the workability of the new approach to humanitarian intervention.

So far, more attention has been paid to peacekeeping than to the most appropriate humanitarian arrangements for minimizing loss of life and life-threatening suffering in situations of civil conflict. This oversight is curious. It was concern for the suffering and death of civilians that led directly to armed intervention in Somalia and gradually deeper involvement in Bosnia. In Iraq, Bosnia, and Somalia the United Nations, through its various humanitarian and other agencies has been a major provider of relief assistance. It has also coordinated the entire international relief effort, involving the work of many private voluntary agencies, or non-government organizations (NGOs), as they are more usually called. It was the failure of the United Nations to perform these roles satisfactorily that was a major reason why the use of armed troops became necessary in Somalia.

There will be many more occasions when the Security Council is faced with humanitarian crises where action on its part is inescapable. The question arises whether humanitarian goals may not be better achieved under a new and different regime. I believe they would. The United Nations should confine its role to political functions associated with the resolution of disputes, the prevention of conflict and coercive interventions to end it. Reaching and succoring the victims of conflict and coordinating the relief efforts of the international community should cease to be a United Nations responsibility.

Principles of Humanitarian Action

There is no agreed definition of the meaning of "humanitarian" in international law, or in the Security Council Sanctions Committee, or among non-government organizations. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has defined humanitarian action as: "action to prevent and alleviate human suffering wherever it is found," that "makes no discrimination as to nationality, race, class, religious beliefs, or political opinions." In relieving suffering ICRC is guided solely by the "needs of individuals." In order to enjoy the confidence of all, the Red Cross movement "may not take sides in hostilities or engage in controversies of a political, racial, religious, or ideological nature."

It is appropriate for the United Nations to be selective about its political and security interventions. Neither the interests of states nor the likely availability of financial and other resources would allow any other course. A genuinely humanitarian organization like the ICRC, however, cannot be selective about which innocent people in life-threatening situations it will help. All must be eligible, the only practical limitation being set by the availability of money, organizational capability, and manpower.

Maximizing the relief of suffering requires access to all affected people. This may well be best brought about by gaining the consent of the parties to a conflict rather than through forcible intervention. In my experience, the indispensable condition for gaining the consent of the parties is for the negotiator to be seen to be "working impartially and with strictly humanitarian motives" (UN General Assembly Resolution 46/182), that is to say being concerned, and concerned only, to prevent civilian loss of life and life-threatening suffering.

When the United Nations first sought to bring about a cease-fire in Mogadishu during the early months of 1992, the basic concern of the official entrusted with negotiations was to use food aid as an inducement to the parties. Because his goal was political and not humanitarian, he gave no serious attention to the extraordinarily complex and urgent problem of getting food to civilian victims under the conditions prevailing. The succession of United Nations failures in Somalia began from that first mistaken judgment, an unwillingness to recognize that bringing about cease-fires and achieving access of relief supplies to victims are driven by different imperatives and practical constraints.

This is a very important point to be clear about. While successful humanitarian action may sometimes promote negotiated conflict resolution, in most UN interventions the two functions of providing humanitarian relief and resolving conflict are mixed up. The structure that is emerging in complex emergencies, such as those in Somalia and Mozambique, is for the secretary-general's representative to be in overall charge, with a representative of the UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs in charge of relief coordination and a military officer responsible for peace keeping. The under secretary-general for humanitarian affairs is at the same time answerable to the secretary-general.

This linkage of the incompatible security and humanitarian roles of the United Nations is precisely the problem in Bosnia, Iraq, and Somalia. In Somalia, at the moment of writing, the United Nations is not distributing relief food in south Mogadishu--that is, to the area where General Aideed's forces are located--because of the security situation. Relief agencies are complaining that they are unable to work in other areas requiring armed escorts because the United Nations forces are preoccupied with the intense security problems they face in Mogadishu.

The use of force against General Aideed has meant that the United Nations, including its relief agencies, has ceased to be seen to be neutral in the eyes of Somalis. It is equally true that if United Nations forces had intervened in Bosnia in a serious way against one of the parties, even to secure the delivery of relief, it would have ceased to be seen as impartial. Hence the emphasis always placed when bringing in relief under the protection of UN forces on doing so with the consent of the parties. The denial or provision of food in a conflict situation has tactical and even strategic implications for the parties to the conflict. They either consent to its delivery, or, if force is to be used to get it through, the user of force becomes a party to the conflict.

In February 1992 the secretary-general of the United Nations over-ruled the UN high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR), Ms. Sadako Ogata, when she suspended most relief shipments in Bosnia in the face of the belligerents' failure to allow access to desperate civilians. Ms. Ogata justified her decision on the grounds that the political leaders on all sides had made a mockery of United Nations efforts. Suspension of its efforts by the ICRC is not unknown, in the face of rampant violations of law and humanity in which continuance of activities would bring into question the organization's fundamental integrity. In overruling Ogata, Mr. Boutros-Ghali, reportedly said, "I'm supposed to direct this operation." The incident demonstrates once again that in the last resort United Nations humanitarian agencies are subject to political direction.

The UNHCR is seen by some non-governmental organizations concerned with human rights as inconsistent in the application of humanitarian principles, in effect too "political" in its decision-making. This is particularly so in its dealings with major donors, as in its alleged failure to uphold the rights of refugees from El Salvador in the United States, and of the several hundred thousand Cambodian "non-refugees" who took refuge inside the Thai border. There was also disagreement between UNHCR and the ICRC about the most appropriate course of action in relation to the creation of "safety zones" for vulnerable ethnic groups in the former Yugoslavia. The UNHCR has not favored evacuation of civilians from zones of conflict, on the grounds that such steps could contribute to the consolidation of "ethnic cleansing"--that is, a politically grounded decision, justified on the basis that efforts should concentrate first on bringing safety to people, rather than people to safety. The ICRC, on the other hand, maintains that this consideration must be secondary to the purely humanitarian consideration of how best to relieve suffering.

Essay Types: Essay