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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 documentHumanitarian assistance: the needs and the response
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View the documentNew challenges for the international community by Nicholas HINTON *
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View the documentSomalia: Millions face starvation
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View the documentThe 1991 Bangladesh cyclone: the Commission's response
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New challenges for the international community by Nicholas HINTON *

A year ago, Save the Children, appalled by the suffering it was witnessing in many parts of the world but disturbed like many others by the inability of the international community to provide an adequate humanitarian response, called for major reforms to the international system. Hope of the 'peace dividend' end the 'new world order' had not entirely faded. Leaders at the G7 summit appeared to be searching for solutions and a new UN Secretary-General was about to be appointed.

Whilst pressure for reform was largely a result of the alarming and unprecedented emergencies of 1991, there were intimations of the major humanitarian crises that lay ahead as the tensions of the Cold War ended, leaving countries bound together by colonial cartographers and unrepresentative regimes to fall apart. Momentum for reform built up, culminating in the UN General Assembly Resolution of December 1991 on the 'Strengthening of the Coordination of Humanitarian Emergency Assistance'. Its 'Guiding principles' - co-ordination, cooperation and leadership, prevention and preparedness - and the all-important recognition of the need to build the continuum from relief to rehabilitation to development into emergency response - could not be faulted. Many of the perennial points of failure were acknowledged: there were to be no more 'ad hoc' operations, a single, permanent emergency response agency was to be established, headed by a top-level coordinator with a direct line to the Secretary-General and a central emergency revolving fund for rapid response at his disposal. The explicit objective of the need not only to respond to emergencies when they occur but to find ways of addressing their root causes was also welcome.

A year on, the suffering has increased, with the demands of 1991 dwarfed by the catastrophes of 1992, and the carefully thought-through paragraphs of the UN Resolution revealed as tinkering with mechanisms which had already been proved not to work.

Four major issues remain unresolved, unaffected by the resolution. The first is the much debated issue of sovereignty and humanitarian intervention, the subject of a dozen erudite conferences, now exercising the Security Council. Whatever humanitarian intervention is, and the fact that it has been invoked as the rationale for interventions of a highly political sort suggests that there is a need for rigorous definition, its credibility depends on the consistency of its utilisation. Whilst the deliberations on definitions continue, it is clear that political attitudes towards governments, strategic priorities, intercultural factors and the shifting attentions of the media are still influential in shaping the international reaction to massive suffering.

During the last 18 months prevarication over Somalia has allowed an entire country to collapse and tens of thousands to die of starvation. Relief agencies on the ground predicted the impending disaster and recommended ways to prevent the current tragedy. In early 1991, at the very moment when infrastructures needed reinforcing, the UN withdrew its relief personnel for reasons of security. It then appeared to revert to the rule predating the new resolution, that it can only provide emergency relief at the invitation of a country's government. The language of the new resolution, reflecting much current thinking on this issue, allows the UN the necessary flexibility to provide humanitarian assistance in exceptional circumstances, such as civil wars, when such a request is not forthcoming. Many would question whether the unrecognised, self-appointed clan leaders in Mogadishu can be called the legitimate government. Whatever the reasons behind the prevarication, one can only conclude that Somalia did not come high on the Security Council's agenda.

Secondly, the question of mandates, despite the new resolution, remains un-clear. Apart from UNHCR and UNDRO, international emergency functions have been acquired by agencies like UNDP, FAO and WHO that have other demanding mandates, and have been extended for UNICEF. There are cogent reasons for specialised responses to emergencies but the machinery that exists is the product of historical accumulation and to date there is little to suggest that what happens on the ground has been improved by the 'co-ordination' provided by the new Department of Humanitarian Affairs (DHA).

The third major issue is resources. We get the United Nations we pay for. At a time when major additional responsibilities are thrust upon the UN almost weekly, tardiness in paying up membership dues, combined with the common practice of withholding payments for political reasons, has brought the UN to the brink of insolvency. The impossibility of paying for the increased peacekeeping role of the UN is currently of great concern. The cost of these operations is currently $3 billion per year, whereas global defence expenditures at the end of the last decade approached $1 trillion per year, or $2 million per minute. There is a recommendation that Member States make peace-keeping contributions from their defence rather than their foreign affairs budgets, but there is little evidence that governments are ready to commit resources commensurate with the growing requirements.

Throughout the Cold War, when strategic reasons for interference existed, the USSR and the USA were willing to flood Somalia with modern weaponry with the capability of destroying the entire civil infrastructure when internal instability resulted in conflict, but when it was desperately needed there was no equal humanitarian will to flood the country with food.

A case of equal concern to SCF is refugees and the displaced.

Large-scale movements of people away from degraded environments and conflict areas now rival classical famines in the scale of humanitarian emergencies. In ]951, when UNHCB was established, there were some 1.5 million refugees; by 1992 there were estimated to be 17 million, more than half of them children. Yet UNHCR's income was halved in real terms during the 1980s. Current programmes of refugee assistance fall far short of acceptable standards - not even the theoretical minimum daily nutritional requirement is provided in some refugee operations.

We are aware of the current attempts by the Secretary-General to streamline the organisation and his recent publication Agenda for Peace. Yet in this very document Boutros Boutros-Ghali himself states that in the area of peacemaking, as in so many others, the mechanisms - resolutions and declarations adopted by the General Assembly and a comprehensive list of means of resolving conflict in the UN Charter - already exist. 'If conflicts have gone unresolved, it is not because techniques for peaceful settlement were unknown or inadequate. The fault lies first in the lack of political will of parties to seek a solution to their differences through such means as are suggested in Chapter VI of the Charter, and second, in the lack of leverage at the disposal of a third party if this is the procedure chosen. The indifference of the international community to a problem; or the marginalisation of it, can also thwart the possibilities of solution.'

Thus, the fourth major issue is political will.

In all the areas of the world where it is involved with refugees, the displaced, children and their communities affected by famine and conflict, SCF works in close cooperation with the agencies of the UN, the International Committee of the Red Cross, other non-governmental organisations and, wherever possible, national governments. We are among those who argue that the new DHA should be given time to work and the new 'cross-mandate approach' to refugee problems given the resources to make it work. We believe governments should support many of the recommendations of Agenda for Peace. And we shall do all we can to make them work. But we are no longer convinced they will.

Like Boutros Boutros-Ghali we believe that in many areas the inadequacies of the current framework do not arise from a lack of international mechanisms but from a failure to resource, implement and enforce the mechanisms which do exist. If these mechanisms do not work or work selectively the moral authority which is vested in the UN by the Charter is lost.

The current reforms cannot ensure that the questions of consistent humanitarian response, mandates and resources will be solved. We are facing a new set of circumstances in the post-Cold War era; today's intrastate conflicts pose graver humanitarian and political challenges for the international community than the more typical interstate conflicts of the past. These challenges have conceptual and political dimensions as well as operational and humanitarian dimensions. For all its good points, Agenda for Peace does not take up these challenges or contribute to the debate on the tensions between sovereignty and human rights and humanitarian access.

Unless these challenges are taken up the response by the international community is likely to get messier rather than more streamlined. This year SCF had the extremely mixed pleasure of announcing its highest ever annual income. Mixed because such a large part of that represented both the response of individual members of the public and that of the British government and the EC to emergencies rather than rehabilitation and long-term development. In attempting to meet the growing financial and institutional demands for humanitarian assistance, bi-lateral and multi-lateral donors are making increased use of NGOs in the delivery of humanitarian assistance. It is clear that unrealistic demands are now being made upon the UN, and other components of the international community must play a complementary role. But the foundation for this community to work effectively as a whole is a consistent, accountable and properly resourced United Nations.

As a bilateral donor of development and humanitarian assistance the European Community must be involved in the evolution of ways in which the international community can meet these new challenges. Already it is demonstrating its belief that many issues can only be tackled by international and supranational action. As a major provider of humanitarian aid the EC should be encouraging the necessary reforms of the current international system. Through its Member States the EC has considerable power on the Security Council, and can urge reform of that body. Can we continue to justify the exclusion of Germany and Japan, two of the wealthiest countries in the world?

Ironically, the recent and proposed reforms of the EC's own mechanisms for emergency relief, with the creation of ECHO, the European Community Humanitarian Office, are based on a very narrow definition of what constitutes an emergency, and could benefit from adopting the principles upon which the UN Resolution was based. We in Britain are hoping that during the UK Presidency this issue can be addressed, thus strengthening the EC's own position as it pushes for reform.