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close this bookThe Courier N° 136 - Nov-Dec 1992 - Dossier Humanitarian Aid - Country Reports: Soa Tomé- Principe- Senegal (EC Courier, 1992, 96 p.)
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View the documentHumaritarian aid
View the documentCommunity humanitarian aid: some facts and figures
View the documentThe response of the United Nations to humanitarian emergencies by
View the documentHumanitarian assistance: the needs and the response
View the documentHumanitarian assistance turns to democratic interference
View the documentUnited Nations Resolutions
View the documentPriorities for UNHCR Today
View the documentNew challenges for the international community by Nicholas HINTON *
View the documentJournalists and humanitarian emergencies
View the document«Médecins sans Frontières» - Helping hands for the sick and injured
View the documentEurope helps the former Yugoslavia
View the documentSomalia: Millions face starvation
View the documentEmergency humanitarian aid for the Iraqi peoples
View the documentThe 1991 Bangladesh cyclone: the Commission's response
View the documentDrought in Southern Africa

Humanitarian assistance turns to democratic interference

To see how the world has gradually slipped from humanitarian assistance into what is often very uneasy democratic interference, we looked at Bernard Kouchner's book 'Le Malheur des Autres' (Other people's misfortune), published by Odile Jacob in Paris in 1991.

The writer, the doctor who founded Mcins sans Frontis and Mcins du Monde, was the French Government's State Secretary for Humanitarian Relief and is now Minister of Health and Humanitarian Relief.

Kouchner spent 20 years providing humanitarian relief in the midst of conflicts in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, from Biafra in 1968 to Liberia in 1991, 'in the kind of places where people shoot first and then stretch out on the ground to die, crying for their mothers at the very moment when they have just killed their own neighbour's mother'.

His book, like everything else he has done, is a plea 'against the antiquated theory of national sovereignty hallowed as a defence for massacring people'. And now that intervention, which he believes to be a duty and in some circumstances a right, has become legally accepted international practice, he welcomes the fact that 'human suffering is no longer a silent by-product of politics and sovereignty, for countries have started taking other people's misfortune into account'.

Humanitarian interference

This made its first official appearance in 1987 at a Mcins du Monde-Paris-Sud Law Faculty conference. 'We had to leave ethics and target setting and fraternal international practice behind us and go boldy forward, "manufacturing law" on the legal terrain.'

On 8 December 1988, the then State Secretary, on behalf of France, tabled Resolution 45/131 in the UN General Assembly, laying down a right of access to provide 'Humanitarian assistance to victims of disasters and similar emergency situations'. It was adopted unanimously.

The following day, 9 December, the USSR opened its doors to international aid for the first time - for the earthquake in Armenia. The following year, it was Lebanon, Sudan, Liberia and Romania.

The UN's first official humanitarian intervention was to help Kurds on Iraqi soil. 'Interference had at last won the right to exist as a means of conducting politics.'

None of this would have been possible had the UN Security Council not adopted Resolution No 688 of 5 April 1991, enshrining the right to humanitarian relief, recognising that the natural right of man came before the right of States and authorising a humanitarian force to move into sovereign territory to save lives.

The international community thereby asserted a right to take a humanitarian interest inside national boundaries - 'placing genuine curbs on a sovereignty which empowered a country to kill its own nationals. A code of ethics without frontiers was emerging.'

Interference - a right or a duty ?

Can the duty to intervene become a right? Yes, it can, maintains Bernard Kouchner, provided it takes place under the banner of neutral, impartial organisations.

UN General Assembly resolutions 43/ 131 and 45/100 only provide for external assistance where the State to which the territory belongs cannot (or will not) provide the relief itself and the distressed populations can only survive with outside help.

What about the danger of military escalation? The right to intervene, Dr Kouchner maintains, does not mean using troops and the threat of armed intervention must only be used in the name of human rights as a last resort.

Since this book came out, humanitarian interference has gained ground, particularly in Somalia and what was Yugoslavia, and this dossier takes stock of it.

As the Kurdish leader Talabani put it: 'Politicians invent things, lawyers just take photographs.' Meanwhile, the international humanitarian movement has gone on working, going beyond States and policies, in the name of civil society. And since things are always out of hand somewhere, there are people who sit back and complain that humanitarian interference is an excuse for failing to carry out direct military intervention. In the Le Monde 'Images' column on 12 September 1992, Daniel Schneiderman talked about a television report on Bernard Kouchner's work in Somalia: 'In the middle of the programme, on came Bernard Kouchner, in a bottle-green safari suit, with dying children all around him. He was on his knees, his hands stretched out to an empty sky or stroking the little bodies for which all hope was gone. He shouted. He harangued us. He harangued the whole world, people going on holiday, people lying on their sofas watching the Olympic Games and people who could not care less about Somalia or have got it tucked away in a little mental drawer which they can open and shut as they like - very handy, that. «None of these children even has a sheet to be buried in," he shouted.

'We could only sit trembling there on the settee, looking at him kneeling in the dust. Shame is a chilly emotion.

'It makes you shiver. We wanted to rebel and shout back: «And what about you?" And what about you, Minister? Don't you have a child at school in a nice part of town? Don't you have a holiday home on a nice beach somewhere? Yes, but he was down there in Somalia repeating absurd, pointless gestures, knowing it was a waste of time, digging the desert up with a teaspoon. We were not. And all we could do was keep quiet. Keep quiet and weep.'