Report of the Conference on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in Acute Crisis

Conference on The Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in Acute Crisis

London, 11-13 February 1998

Edited by
Co-Directors: Dr Mukesh Kapila (DFID) and
Professor Nigel S Rodley (University of Essex)
Rapporteurs: Professor Kevin Boyle (University of Essex)
and Ms Aisling Reidy (University of Essex)

Report links: website home page
Table of Contents - Search - Introduction - Recommendations - Opening Address - Papers Presented - Acknowledgements - Appendices
Papers Presented (by author):
1. Kate Mackintosh - 2. Nigel S Rodley - 3. Françoise Hampson - 4.Carlo von Flüe - 5. Geoff Gilbert - 6. Nicholas Morris - 7. David Bassiouni - 8. Philip Wilkinson - 9. Emma Shitakha - 10. Ian Martin - 11. Colleen Duggan

Kate Mackintosh

International Responses to Acute Crisis: Supporting Human Rights through Protection and Assistance





1.1 Military intervention to protect civilians
1.2 Safe areas
1.3 Peacekeeping Operations
1.4 Human Rights Field Operations


2.1 No substitute
2.2 Avoiding negative effects on protection
2.3 Maximising the protection potential
2.4 Humanitarian workers as human rights monitors




See elsewhere: Author's Biography (appendix C)


Executive Summary

Recent situations of acute crisis have highlighted the limitations of existing mechanisms for the protection of human rights and the challenges posed to humanitarian principles in complex emergencies. The current seminar seeks to address these problems, and to suggest how best to protect people caught up in conflict situations from violence and human rights abuses. This paper aims to provide a background for discussion at the seminar by clarifying the issues involved. It reviews recent experience of field operations to protect or assist individuals with a view to improving the protection they offer from violence or persecution.

Within field operations, the customary division of activities into either "protection" or "assistance" is followed. "Protection" initiatives seek either to protect from the violence of armed conflict - the field covered by international humanitarian law - or to protect an individual’s human rights - the field of international human rights law. "Assistance" programmes consist of the provision of food, shelter and medical services to the victims of conflict. Clearly these too are rights issues; but they are categorised here as assistance rather than protection to maintain the paper’s focus on protection from violence and persecution.


The paper first examines field operations to protect civilians from violence or to protect individuals’ human rights in situations of acute crisis. Initiatives range from the deployment of troops in the midst of conflict to late- or immediately post-conflict peacekeeping operations and dedicated human rights field operations.

While humanitarian intervention against the will of the government concerned is not (yet?) acceptable, military action at the limits of consent has been undertaken to protect civilians in recent years. A recent development has been the creation of "safe areas", which serve to highlight the human rights concerns provoked by such action. The organisation of these areas, and in particular the failure to make them strategically neutral, has meant that, despite some protection effect, they cannot be said to have been successful in their aim of protecting from violence. Furthermore, the very existence of safe areas, along with other forms of in-country protection, may undermine the right to asylum. At the same time, the creation of areas outside the de facto jurisdiction of the national authorities can leave a human rights protection vacuum which the international community is under some obligation to fill. There is a danger that such initiatives will unwittingly collude with war aims, when one of these is civilian displacement. Careful consideration of the right to freedom of movement may help minimise political manipulation in this regard. Lastly, actions need to guard against providing discriminatory protection slanted towards the group most in political favour.

With the scope afforded by the end of the cold war to "wider peacekeeping", human rights are playing an increasing role in post-conflict stabilisation. Arguments about the importance of human rights to peace support the inclusion of a dedicated human rights element in peace-keeping operations, and its integration with the other elements of the operation. Human rights information provides a good indicator of the progress of peace, and dealing with ongoing human rights issues at the political level can prevent the re-emergence of conflict. The military and police components of peace-keeping operations can also be better used in human rights work to provide a solid basis for reconciliation and help prevent future conflict.

Dedicated human rights field operations are an important new development in the international community’s response to conflict. As an instrument in post-conflict "peace-building" they are intended both to stabilise a situation in the short term, and to encourage structural developments which support human rights. Strong political support is crucial to their success, both in terms of authority and financial backing.

While operations to date have been promising, there is widely acknowledged to be room for improvement. Most importantly, human rights operations need to be institutionalised: a stable base is required from which to work on logistics and recruitment, on training and standard methodologies, and on lessons learned and evaluation. The obvious home for such an institution is in the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Other areas in need of development are the structural independence of human rights operations from the UN political process; their public reporting function; the co-ordination of activities with other UN agencies in the field, and, crucially, ensuring proper follow-up by dovetailing the activities of human rights field operations with those of the standing UN human rights mechanisms


The paper then considers humanitarian assistance and its impact on protection: if emergency relief does have an effect on human rights and conflict, how can this relationship be managed so that protection is maximised?

Assistance may have a negative effect on protection simply by substituting for protection initiatives which are inevitably more politically sensitive. This tendency has been criticised as a general feature of international response to conflict in the 1990s, and has been a particular subject of debate around the work of UNHCR. Awareness has also grown recently of the ways in which relief may either prolong conflict by sustaining warring parties, expose civilians to violence, or may undermine human rights by supporting an oppressive regime. Assistance given in the absence of consent, under military protection, has proved particularly fraught. Thorough planning of aid in a conceptual framework which considers the protection needs of the beneficiaries minimises these risks, and may highlight ways in which humanitarian assistance can be used positively to support human rights and prevent conflict. Within the UN system, the inclusion of human rights at the planning stage of humanitarian assistance could become routine through early consultation with the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

There is some divergence among humanitarian organisations over how far protection goals can be integrated into assistance. For some, humanitarian assistance is already provided within a protection framework, namely that of international humanitarian law, and the principle of neutrality recognised therein must remain paramount. Moves towards human rights "conditionality" in assistance are rejected as an abandonment of humanitarianism. Others are trying to use make use of a human rights framework in planning their relief activities.

The role of relief workers in more traditional human rights monitoring and advocacy, rather than in structural protection work, is also currently under debate. Aid workers have access to considerable human rights information due to their wide field presence in situations of acute crisis, particularly valuable in the absence of a human rights field operation. Information may be passed privately to human rights monitoring bodies or human rights violations may be publicly denounced: the consequences of action need to be carefully considered and channels communication need to be established to maximise this resource.

The major theme to emerge from the review is that the use of a human rights analysis in planning and implementing responses to crisis can improve protection. Consideration of the human rights framework strengthens peace initiatives and helps steer a path through the sensitive terrain of a conflict situation. Both protection and assistance initiatives can impact on the civil and political rights of individuals, and on their exposure to violence. Managing this impact, and maximising its potential, is aided by clear enunciation of protection goals.



The British government has signalled its intention to take a human rights-based approach towards its foreign and development co-operation policies. Recent situations of acute crisis have highlighted the limitations of available mechanisms for the effective protection of human rights, and the increasing challenges posed to humanitarian principles during complex emergencies. The current seminar seeks to address these problems and to suggest how best to protect individuals caught up in conflict from violence and human rights abuses. This paper is intended to provide a background for discussion: it aims both to clarify the issues involved and to provide a suggested list of questions for the seminar to address.

The paper reviews international responses to situations of war and violent conflict which involve a field presence to see how they can better protect individuals. Responses, either during armed conflict itself or in its immediate aftermath, are traditionally categorised as either "protection" or "assistance". "Protection" initiatives seek either to protect from the violence of armed conflict - the field covered by international humanitarian law - or to protect an individual’s human rights - the field of international human rights law. Field operations which seek to protect civilians from the violence of armed conflict include military interventions in the midst of conflict, recently to protect safe areas, and traditional peace-keeping functions, such as the separation of combatants and the monitoring of cease-fires. Initiatives to protect human rights include monitoring by actors in the field, aspects of wider peacekeeping such as the training of national officials and human rights institution-building, including the activities of dedicated human rights field operations.

The two forms of protection are intertwined both from the point of view of the individual, who feels equally in need of protection as a civilian from the fall-out of conflict and as an individual from persecution by the state, and because of the interdependence of human rights and peace. While peace is essential for meaningful enjoyment of human rights, it is also recognised that human rights abuses are one of the root causes of conflict, and that without respect for human rights there is little chance of a lasting peace. Efforts to prevent or mitigate conflict support human rights, and vice versa. The paper will therefore consider how protection in general can be improved through international responses to acute crisis.

"Assistance" programmes consist of the provision of food, shelter and medical services to the victims of conflict. Clearly these too are rights issues. They are categorised here as assistance rather than protection to maintain the paper’s focus on protection from violence and persecution. International human rights law is concerned with economic, social and cultural rights as well as civil and political rights; the focus here on the latter group of rights, however, entails the customary division of activities into either protection or assistance. Assistance is thus considered for its impact on protection from violence and persecution rather than in terms of its own assistance goals.

Field operations with a protection mandate are reviewed first. Military intervention to protect individuals is considered in general, and "safe areas" in particular are evaluated for their impact on human rights. The contribution human rights can make to peace-keeping operations, and vice versa, is examined. Human rights field operations are reviewed in some detail as an important development for human rights in the international community’s response to acute crisis. The paper then turns to humanitarian assistance and its relation to protection: if humanitarian assistance does have a significant impact on human rights and conflict, how can this relationship be managed so that protection is maximised?


1. Protection

The following section examines field operations to protect civilians from violence or to protect individuals’ human rights in situations of acute crisis. Initiatives range from the deployment of troops in the midst of conflict to late- or immediately post-conflict peacekeeping operations and dedicated human rights field operations. The contribution a human rights analysis can make to increasing protection is highlighted in military and peacekeeping initiatives. The potential of human rights field operations is then considered in detail, along with recommendations for improving their impact.

1.1 Military intervention to protect civilians

If civilians are at risk in the height of conflict, protecting them from their assailants with military force may be the only effective defence. The UN Charter only authorises such interventions without the consent of the government concerned in the face of acts of aggression and threats to international peace and security as determined by the Security Council. Arguments continue around how far the notion of a threat to international peace and security can be stretched to fit internal atrocities, where individuals may need protection both from armed attack and from persecution. As one commentator has summarised:

If the wind is breathing in the direction of collective humanitarian intervention, it may be difficult to keep it blowing in the absence of a threat to international peace and security manifested by palpable transborder consequences.1

The experience of recent conflicts has shown that humanitarian intervention against the will of the official government is not yet acceptable. Chapter VII actions on humanitarian grounds in the 1990s - in Iraq, Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda and Haiti - have not crossed this threshold, although the limits of consent have been stretched.2

These efforts have been hampered by their halfway-house nature: neither military intervention per se nor traditionally neutral humanitarian action. The tragic failures of the operation in Bosnia, for example, are often put down to the lack of a sufficiently credible threat of enforcement. On the other hand, it has been suggested that abandoning the traditional consent basis of humanitarian action in conflict renders perceived impartiality elusive, and that imposing protection by military means will inevitably lead to the coerced party seeking to undermine the arrangement. At the same time, the fact that something is being done may postpone or replace more decisive military action to bring real security to the populations at risk.3

1 Rodley, N 1992 p.40. Haiti is at the limits of this analysis. [...back to main text]

2 Iraq, see below. Haiti: SC res. 940 of 31.7.1994 authorised the use of “all necessary means to facilitate the departure from Haiti of the military leadership … and to maintain a secure and stable environment”, although at the request of the internationally recognised president Aristide. But before the US-led force intervened in Haiti the consent of the de facto president, Jonassaint, was also obtained. Consent was negotiated in former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda, less freely given in the former case perhaps; and there was no government in Somalia to either give or withhold consent.  [...back to main text]

3 The lack of a sufficiently muscular mandate to achieve the desired ends is often mirrored by inadequate resources which further hamper the operations’ ability to deliver. There is a protection argument in favour of abstaining from all intervention unless the necessary means - both in terms of resources and authority to act - are available. [...back to main text]

1.2 Safe areas

A 1990s development at the limits of intervention has been the creation of "safe areas" with some kind of international military presence in Iraq, Bosnia and Rwanda. These serve to illustrate many of the human rights concerns raised by military interventions to protect civilians, and so are examined in some detail below. It should be remembered, however, that the majority of civilians in two of the cases discussed, Bosnia and Rwanda, were outside the safe areas during the conflict.

While there is precedent for a certain type of safety zone to protect civilians in international humanitarian law, those differ from the "safe areas" discussed here principally in that they are demilitarised zones, premised on the consent of the parties. The recent examples were coercive in nature, established by Security Council resolution, and have been less than totally successful in meeting their humanitarian objectives. They have a number of implications for human rights.

The safe havens and security zone in northern Iraq were created in 1991 in response to Iraq’s persecution of Iraqi Kurds.4 In the wake of its defeat in the Gulf war, Iraq was persuaded to accept the presence of UN guards in the zone5 and a no-fly zone was declared. In Bosnia in the first half of 1993 Srebrenica, Zepa, Sarajevo, Gorazde, Tuzla and Bihac were declared safe areas with an UNPROFOR deterrent presence backed up by the threat of air action.6 And in the summer of 1994, the Security Council authorised France to use "all necessary means" to protect civilians at risk7 in the genocidal conflict in Rwanda. French troops established a "secure humanitarian zone" in the south west of the country in Opération Turquoise, to which the peacekeeping force, UNAMIR, was subsequently deployed.

An alternative to asylum?

All three initiatives were in some measure responses to refugee problems. Turkey had closed its borders to the Iraqi Kurds, fearing a destabilisation of the fragile south-east of the country. The UN Special Rapporteur on former Yugoslavia first suggested security zones there to avoid large numbers of displaced people having to seek refuge abroad as the capacity and willingness of asylum countries was being exhausted.8 Operation Turquoise in Rwanda was authorised in the context of concern over the exodus of refugees to Tanzania, which had already occurred, and the threatened movement towards Zaire. Safety zones were seen as an alternative to asylum.

One of the principal human rights concerns, then, in relation to this kind of in-country protection is that it undermines the fundamental right to seek asylum from persecution while not providing enough security to be a satisfactory alternative. The Croatian government, for example, refused to accept 30,000 Bosnian Muslims from northern Bihac as refugees: it was claimed that they could benefit from UN protection in a Serb controlled UN Protected Area in the autumn of 1994.9 Zaire closed its borders to Rwandan asylum-seekers during Operation Turquoise, although it reopened them under international pressure.

Despite some limited successes, none of the safety zones provided absolute protection from armed attack, a fact which stemmed from the failure to create zones that were truly outside the theatre of conflict.10 The Iraqi security zone was used by the PKK in their insurgency against the Turkish state, and was raided by Turkish troops several times as a result. The safe areas in Bosnia had a strategic significance which rendered them too vulnerable to attack, as the calamity of Srebrenica made clear. In Rwanda the problems occurred after the departure of the French. The presence of a considerable number of armed members of the former Rwandan government in the camps for the internally displaced in the former Zone Turquoise - now under the nominal protection of the peacekeeping force, UNAMIR - led the new state troops to close them by force. In the case of the largest camp at Kibeho this resulted in thousands of casualties.11

Beyond protection from armed attack, experience suggests that the absence of a human rights protection programme can leave the civilians nominally protected in safe areas at risk of serious harm inside the zones. While the UN Special Rapporteur was able to operate in the Bosnian safe areas, and the Human Rights Field Operation in Rwanda was able to monitor the displaced person camps in the former Zone Turquoise12, human rights abuses by the Kurdish authorities in the safety zone in Northern Iraq were reportedly severe.13 The creation of zones by the international community which are often outside the effective jurisdiction of the de jure authorities carries with it a responsibility to replace the national system with some form of international human rights supervision. The importance of human rights in planning such in-country protection measures was acknowledged early by UNHCR in its 1991 Note on International Protection:

the Office is aware that the protection of persons inside their country of origin is feasible when accompanied by necessary guarantees fully consonant with international human rights standards. In-country protection, e.g. through the establishment of internationally guaranteed safety zones, needs to be weighed against the rights of individuals to leave their own country, to seek and enjoy asylum or return on a voluntary basis, and not to be compelled to remain in a territory where life, liberty or physical integrity is threatened.

Lastly, despite a package of humanitarian assistance to all the zones, the material conditions of life in these areas cannot be said to provide a satisfactory alternative to asylum. A safe area will only ever offer a temporary solution, and as such should not replace the long term option of refugee status.

At the same time, traditional asylum in a safe country is not a realistic alternative for the majority of civilians fleeing armed conflict. They will not be eligible for refugee status under the 1951 Convention on these grounds alone, although they may fall into the ambit of the OAU Convention of 1969.14 If they are granted asylum, it is likely to be in refugee camps; these offer no more than the safe areas can in terms of material security and protection of human rights, and are equally vulnerable to armed attack. As with safe areas, this is particularly true if they are not purely civilian and are situated in the periphery of the conflict. And a desire to avoid refugee flows is not merely self-interest on the part of receiving states, or those who will be funding assistance efforts: mass population displacements may well cause conflict, as the Security Council has recognised, which is the ultimate threat to human life.15

Freedom of movement

A second human rights concern arises over the establishment of such areas when one object of the war is civilian displacement. In Iraq, the security zone could be read as an unwitting collusion with "ethnic cleansing", as Iraqi Kurds were forced to move to that area. International humanitarian law recognises the gravity of such displacement and outlaws forced movement.16 In Bosnia, on the other hand, the population was prevented by the authorities from leaving the safe areas as part of the Bosnian resistance to "ethnic cleansing". The rationale of safe areas (realistically not safe enough) was invoked to support an important denial of freedom of movement to civilians at risk.

Discrimination in protection

Safe areas serve to illustrate a troubling feature of military action undertaken at the limits of consent to protect civilians. The wider political context (and motivation) behind the intervention may lead to patchy and discriminatory protection, with civilians in strategically uninteresting areas missing out on the protection of the international community. This accusation has particularly been levelled at the intervention in Bosnia, although Opération Turquoise in Rwanda has also attracted this criticism:

Analysis of the lead up to the massive refugee influx in the Goma area and the reasons why on-the-ground preparedness by agencies was so limited concludes that Opération Turquoise had the effect of diverting the attention of agencies, key analysts and the media away from the developing crisis in the North-West, and reduced the sources of information on the build-up of IDPs there.17

Open Relief Centres

One solution to the problems posed by (inadequate) military protection explored by UNHCR in Sri Lanka was the creation of "Open Relief Centres". Closer to the traditional humanitarian law concept of demilitarised safety zones based on the consent of the parties, these centres have no strategic significance and the Sri Lankan government has agreed not to intervene in the camps without consulting UNHCR. The opposition LTTE appear also to accept the humanitarian nature of this effort.18 While the absence of enforcement powers may appear to offer reduced protection in these areas, the fact that the centres have not been targeted for attack and that no one is known to have died there as a result of military action does suggest that real safety in these situations is more likely to result from the creation of a truly neutral space for civilians than from international firepower. The presence of UNHCR protection officers in the Centres also provides for a certain level of human rights monitoring.

Internally displaced persons

Safe areas are part of a wider strategy of in-country protection which is a response to waning enthusiasm to accept asylum-seekers; to the increase in non-international conflict; to a certain acceptance of international involvement in internal conflicts and to a high-profile product of these: the internally displaced person (IDP). IDPs have no specific status in international law and, not being outside the country of their nationality or habitual residence, do not feature in UNHCR’s formal mandate. Nonetheless, as the reasons for their displacement are frequently the same as the causes of refugee flow and as the two groups are often mixed up together, both the United Nations General Assembly and the Executive Committee of UNHCR have passed resolutions authorising UNHCR to assist IDPs in certain circumstances.

Clearly the particular needs of IDPs should be considered in all international responses to conflict, as this group has been shown to be particularly vulnerable. Such ad hoc arrangements are less than satisfactory, however. Work is currently being done to investigate how the protection of this class of people can be improved on a more consistent basis, most notably by the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General on internally displaced persons, Mr Francis M Deng.


4 See Cooke, H 1995 [...back to main text]

5 SC res. 688, the basis of the UN action in Iraq, was not a formal authorisation of intervention, rather requiring Iraq to “allow immediate access by international humanitarian organisations”. By identifying a threat to international peace and security, however, it does establish the basis for Chapter VII enforcement action. [...back to main text]

6 SC res. 819 established the Srebrenica zone; the others followed under res. 824. [...back to main text]

7 UNAMIR’s mandate at that time included the protection of civilians at risk; SC res. 929 authorised France to use “all necessary means”, the term authorising military action, to achieve the humanitarian objectives as set out in UNAMIR’s mandate for a maximum period of 2 months pending UNAMIR’s deployment. [...back to main text]

8 E/CN.4/1992/S-1/10 [...back to main text]

9 UNHCR also negotiated an amnesty for the group to return, an option closed off both by Abdic and by the Krajina Serbs. [...back to main text]

10 Other important factors were the lack of a strong military mandate to protect the zones, and the failure to delimit them clearly. [...back to main text]

11 See Kleine-Ahlbrandt, STE 1996[...back to main text]

12 After the establishment of HRFOR in September 1994 [...back to main text]

13 See Amnesty International report Human rights abuses in Iraqi Kurdistan since 1991 28.2.1995 [...back to main text]

14 Article 1(2) [...back to main text]

15 Ironically, preventing refugee flows may make it harder for the UN to act under Chapter VII of the Charter - see note 1, above. [...back to main text]

16 Art. 49 Geneva Convention IV in occupied territory; art. 17 Additional Protocol II [...back to main text]

17 Joint Evaluation vol.3 1996 p.55 [...back to main text]

18 See Landgren, K 1995 and Clarance, W 1991. The Open Relief Centres may have been successful in protection against armed attack, but were still subject to the problems associated with humanitarian assistance in conflict, see below. [...back to main text]

1.3 Peacekeeping Operations

Increasingly, peace-keeping requires that civilian political officers, human rights monitors, electoral officials, refugee and humanitarian aid specialists and police play as central a role as the military … Peace-making and peace-keeping operations, to be truly successful, must come to include comprehensive efforts to identify and support structures which will tend to consolidate peace and advance a sense of confidence and well-being among people … The authority of the United Nations in this field would rest on the consensus that social peace is as important as strategic or political peace.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali Agenda for Peace

Recent UN operations in "wider peace-keeping" have included a human rights element.19 This strategy is based on the belief that human rights violations are one of the root causes of conflict and "complex emergencies", and unless these are tackled there will be no lasting peace. Interethnic conflict may be particularly likely to be fuelled by the failure of state mechanisms to protect the human rights of one group, who are forced to look for alternative sources of protection. This can provoke other groups to adopt defensive behaviour toward the first, setting off a spiral of ethnic tension. In addition, serious human rights violations militate against reconciliation, pointing both to the need to prevent a deterioration of the human rights situation in any peace-keeping operation and to the importance of addressing past violations. And in cases where violations are actually less severe than rumoured, an impartial monitoring body may serve to reduce the fear and suspicion which can fuel conflict. The Special Rapporteur for the Former Yugoslavia reported in 1994 that

there is … a great deal of misinformation, rumour and propaganda which, on investigation by objective international monitors has been disproven. The dissemination of such falsehoods only serves to dehumanise the enemy, deepen the persecution complex, fuel the flames of ethnic hatred and, ultimately, prolong the conflict. 20

Addressing human rights is crucial to the success of an operation: the integration of a human rights element into overall UN post-conflict strategy improves protection.21

Against this analysis are ranged arguments which set protection from violence against human rights protection, and consider that an over-emphasis on human rights can hamper the peace process. As Under-Secretary General for Peace-Keeping Operations, Kofi Annan made the following comment about the inclusion of a human rights element in peace-keeping mandates:

The most important of these principles is that human rights activities should be included in peace-keeping operations only when the mandate given by the Security Council or General Assembly specifically so provides. Furthermore, in those missions where the mandate does include a human rights element, usually in a multi-disciplinary operation, account must be taken of the wider policies of that operation. This may require a carefully calibrated approach, for example where over-zealous pursuit of the human rights mandate could have a negative bearing on the co-operation of the parties on which the overall success of the peace-keeping operation may depend. 22

However, experience to date suggests that this is a short-term view, and that the mainstreaming of human rights in peace-keeping operations contributes to their success. Three of the UN human rights field operations undertaken so far have been established before the signing of final peace agreements, in the hope that the human rights presence would pave the way for such a conclusion: in El Salvador, Haiti and Guatemala. An evaluation of the UN Human Rights Verification Mission in Guatemala (MINUGUA) described how

While peacemaking was still underway, MINUGUA’s presence in the field was serving as both an instrument of "preventive diplomacy" (preventing existing disputes from escalating) and "peace-building" (identifying and supporting structures that will tend to strengthen peace in order to avoid a relapse into conflict)23

so ripening the conditions for success of the peace effort. The first Aspen Institute study reported how "The developments in El Salvador showed that effective human rights verification can contribute to a broader political agreement"24, while in Haiti, neglect of the human rights situation by the political actors undermined the search for a lasting settlement: negotiations with the military in the face of their violation of human rights in the second phase of the MICIVIH deployment led to a perception of the weakness of the international community and arguably to the later foundering of the peace process.25 Amnesty International considered that the relative success of ONUSAL and UNTAC in El Salvador and Cambodia was "at least partly attributable to the serious, open and accountable procedures of the human rights divisions. Without [which] … human rights concerns are likely to go uncorrected and jeopardise the ultimate credibility of the whole operation".26

It may be easier to obtain agreement on the deployment of a human rights field operation than on other aspects of a peace settlement. Each party may accuse the other of violating human rights and neither will want to be seen as afraid of international supervision in this regard.

Further, human rights information is crucial to an understanding of the pattern of conflict, so that a human rights mission can supply important data to those involved in the political process. The former Director for Human Rights with MICIVIH in Haiti commented that

The Mission, spread out throughout the country and investigating more closely than anyone else bloody events in the capital, was the international community’s best guide to understanding the local political reality. 27

The failure to recognise that reality meant that "the international efforts were doomed". Later, as Chief of the Human Rights Field Operation in Rwanda (HRFOR) he makes the same point again. The closure of the UN political office in March 1996 left the New York departments without a field presence, yet they were unable to take advantage of the significant monitoring being carried out by HRFOR:

HRFOR’s reporting was highly relevant to those in New York with overall responsibility for UN strategy, yet it reached them only belatedly, via Geneva, and not directly.28

Unfortunately, this coincided with the build-up of the Eastern Zaire crisis: the human rights information gathered by HRFOR could have been of particular assistance to the international community in the context of the developing drama there.


19 For a review of all international human rights field operations so far, see Martin, I 1997, with current conference papers [...back to main text]

20 Tadeusz Mazowiecki report to United Nations General Assembly, cited in LaRose-Edwards, P 1996 p.11 [...back to main text]

21 These are the same arguments that support the use of human rights mechanisms at an earlier stage to prevent conflict. [...back to main text]

22 to Ayala-Lasso 3.3.1995, cited in LaRose-Edwards, P 1996 p.54-5 [...back to main text]

23 Franco, L & Kotler, J 1997 p.43 [...back to main text]

24 Hammarberg, T Introduction to Henkin, AH (ed.) 1995 p.10 [...back to main text]

25 Martin, I in Henkin, AH (ed.) 1995 p.110 [...back to main text]

26 Amnesty International 1994 p.22 [...back to main text]

27 Martin, I in Henkin, AH (ed.) 1995 p.110 [...back to main text]

28 Martin, I Aspen Institute (forthcoming) p.28 [...back to main text]

1.4 Human Rights Field Operations

The term "human rights field operation" is used here to refer to substantial field operations designed to maintain a continuous presence over a period of time in the wake of conflict. This excludes the field visits of the UN Human Rights Commission Special Rapporteurs, for example. Operations to date have been fielded by the UN, by the UN jointly with a regional organisation, or by a regional organisation alone.29 Their role and achievements are examined below, together with recommendations for maximising the potential of these operations to protect human rights.

Functions and goals

Human rights field operations are an instrument in post-conflict reconstruction, or "peace-building", and so are linked to an internationally-backed peace process rather than necessarily to a formal peace-keeping operation. They can stand alone, as MICIVIH did in Haiti, or as HRFOR in Rwanda after the departure of UNAMIR. As discussed above, human rights operations were deployed before a final peace was negotiated in El Salvador, Haiti and Guatemala in order to create the right climate for agreement. In Cambodia, UNTAC’s human rights activities were aimed in the short term at creating a neutral political environment for democratic elections, and in Rwanda HRFOR’s activities were expected to encourage the return of refugees. This is the stabilising function of the monitoring role.

Alongside these short term aims, human rights field operations are usually intended to play a more durable part in peace-building by encouraging structural developments which support human rights. ONUSAL in El Salvador focused on monitoring to begin with, but its responsibilities were expanded to include judicial reform, work with the military, the creation of a national civilian police force and of a Human Rights Ombudsman’s office by the final peace agreements. MICIVIH’s original mandate omitted this structural aspect, which was subject to continuing negotiations, but the revised mandate included institution-building and technical assistance, along with assistance to a future Truth Commission and Reparations Committee. Other field operations have tended to have an institution-building and technical assistance mandate from the start.

It has become clear that this dual approach maximises the impact of operations. Former Chief of HRFOR in the Rwanda described the complementarity of the two functions::

in which the monitoring would identify needs for training and resources, the technical co-operation would provide means of addressing those needs, and the monitoring would again provide feedback on the effectiveness of technical co-operation projects in improving aspects of the human rights situation to which they were directed.30

This is not something that was recognised from the outset. Where the Centre for Human Rights was involved, this was attributable in part to the structural division there between Special Procedures (monitoring) and Technical Co-operation. This has been addressed by the Centre’s restructuring as the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, bringing both divisions together in the new Activities and Programmes Branch. The OSCE mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina unfortunately replicated this split with its team of "human rights" officers on the one hand and "democratisation" officers on the other.

When to field an operation

Given these two broad goals, when is it appropriate to field an international human rights operation? In order to stand a reasonable chance of success, the conditions in the target country must be suitable (institution-building, and even monitoring, may be impossible or counter-productive in the midst of the conflict) and international support must be strong. This means both political support in the form of robust responses to violations reported by the human rights operation, and financial support to ensure adequate resources. The necessary political support is often reflected in the clarity and strength of the negotiated mandate. In Guatemala

the work of the Mission was greatly facilitated by the clarity, comprehensiveness and self-executing nature of the Agreement. The solid framework if established gave MINUGUA a clear mandate to deal with sensitive situations and make independent and often high profile statements on human rights violations and the respective responsibilities of the Parties.31

The deployment of the civilian monitoring mission in Haiti (MICIVIH), may have been premature in the light of its forced evacuation. MICIVIH’s Director for Human Rights had the following to say:

It could be argued that the human rights deployment should have awaited more congenial political conditions, and that the international presence should then have been a more robust one, including uniformed police as well as civilian observers. The International Civilian Mission returned to Haiti after its first evacuation in the obvious absence of political conditions assuring its ability to function according to its terms of reference or the continuing tolerance of its presence. The Haiti experience therefore points to the need to consider the minimum conditions for the deployment of a human rights presence.32

Another field operation for which the pre-conditions mentioned above appear precarious is the Burundi mission (HRFOB), established under the aegis of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in April 1996. The high level of generalised violence in Burundi makes travel out of the capital hazardous, and members of the international community are certainly not immune from this. There has been a demonstrated willingness in some cases to target them.33 The monitoring role of the operation is therefore limited by security issues, although informed observers believe that a sufficient presence of human rights monitors in the provinces could have some dissuasive effect if it were possible to field such a presence.34 The security of individual field officers is increased if there are both adequate resources and the manifest resolve of the international community to take punitive action if the physical security of field officers is violated. Conditions do not seem ripe, however, for structural human rights work within the Burundi mission: "Its technical co-operation activities appear naïve in the absence of a political context in which respect for human rights could be institutionalised".35

This security problem is now also being faced by HRFOR in Rwanda.36 At the time of writing, the operation’s field presence is severely restricted by the civil war under way in the north-west of the country. While activities in the rest of the country continue more or less as normal, monitoring in this area cannot be as comprehensive or useful as it was when the field operation was fully maintained. Nonetheless, as long as some information is being collected the international presence is seen as worthwhile, although the value of HRFOR’s educational activities in this context may be less clear. The level of the conflict in the country also results in the authorities being less receptive to human rights criticism; when insurgency reaches a certain threshold, human rights monitoring (which focuses by definition on the state forces) is more susceptible to accusations of political bias.37


The achievements of the human rights operations fielded so far can be divided into two categories relating to the two broad goals outlined above: firstly the impact of the operation on the immediate human rights situation and secondly the degree to which the operation’s efforts have contributed to the development of indigenous capacity for human rights protection .

Both are difficult to evaluate. Preventive impact is always hard to assess, requiring an estimation of what would have happened in the absence of the intervention. Nonetheless, accounts by those involved in the missions at a high level conclude that they led to a decrease in arbitrary detentions (El Salvador); to some improvement in prison conditions and the release of some untried detainees on humanitarian grounds (Cambodia); to an end to the traditional patterns of human rights violations (Guatemala); that many individuals were helped by the interventions of observers (Haiti), and that the operation had a positive short term impact on human rights violations (Rwanda).38

Assessment of the development of capacity to protect human rights is even harder, in part because the effects of institution-building on the human rights situation are long-term (and intended to be). Indicators can also become confused with concrete project goals: just because a civilian police force has been established does not mean the human rights situation has improved. This problem is addressed by Franco and Kotler in their paper on MINUGUA:

In many cases, the Mission referred to "program outputs" as opposed to "policy outcomes". That is, they referred to the successful carrying out of activities contemplated in the project without judging the extent to which these activities were having a discernible impact on the overall behaviour of the institutions.39

Short term assessment therefore often goes little further than an examination of whether institution-building and technical assistance aspects of the mandate have been carried out. But in this respect the achievements of some human rights field operations have been considerable. Efforts generally targeted those institutions considered crucial to human rights protection: the judiciary, the police, the army and the prison system, as well as civil society, especially human rights NGOs. There have also been efforts to raise awareness of human rights through formal and informal education programmes with all sectors of society.

In El Salvador, the smaller missions which replaced ONUSAL played an important role in institution-building:

Staff participated in discussions within the Assembly regarding legislative reform and helped to forge a consensus for the approval of various reforms to the Constitution; they also took part in a technical commission studying the repeal of the new Police Career Law.40

In Haiti, after the extension of the mandate to include technical assistance, the mission carried out in-depth studies of police, prisons and the judiciary, resulting in a set of recommendations which were implemented by the local authorities, including the introduction of registers in centres of detention. Although an earlier assessment had identified the mission’s failure to develop close relationships with NGOs as a key weakness41, NGO training seminars and workshops were later introduced, including in human rights monitoring skills.

The operation in Cambodia had far wider scope to institute reform as it was effectively running the country as the Transitional Authority. Some interesting projects there included strengthening the Sangha, a Buddhist order of monks whose beliefs were seen to be supportive of human rights, working with human rights NGOs as co-trainers in programmes for the military and the police, and the introduction of human rights defenders as counsel for unrepresented defendants in criminal trials (although this "made little dent in the virtually 100% rate of conviction"42, illustrating the need for indicators - the rate of conviction - beyond the creation of institutions presumed to support human rights - defence counsel).

MINUGUA in Guatemala took the innovative step of creating a Trust Fund in Support of the Guatemalan Peace Process to receive international donations for institution-building activities, which were carried out with all the key state institutions, as well as with NGOs and the Human Rights Ombudsman, along with extensive human rights education programmes. The Mission considered that

"the growing demand for its decentralised education activities were an indicator that human rights issues, and institutions and individuals working in human rights protection and defense, were gaining legitimacy in Guatemala."43

In Rwanda the work of HRFOR helped develop the justice system, although it remained unclear in September 1997 whether it would manage to operate independently of the military, and national human rights institutions had still not emerged after the war. The security situation was too sensitive for national human rights NGOs to carry out much monitoring work themselves.44

Recommendations for improvements

a) Independence from political departments

The contribution a human rights component can make to the effectiveness of a peace-keeping operation has been discussed. Conversely, the human rights element of such an operation can itself benefit from association with the wider political process by gaining authority, but also runs the risk of being compromised by this connection. Dennis McNamara, formerly the Director of the Human Rights component to the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), described the tensions thus:

UN human rights actions … risk being weakened by the same political process… Effective peace-keeping demands that UN administrators constantly mediate and keep diplomatic channels open to the … authorities if the political action is to succeed. Antagonistic human rights interventions do not assist in this process, and many senior officials faced with such situations naturally favour diplomacy and compromise over confrontation.

There is clearly a delicate balance to be struck between broader political interests and the human rights responsibilities of such operations.45

The autonomy of the human rights operation becomes crucial in this situation. In Haiti, the Human Rights Director reported that "There were, however, a few occasions on which the state of the political negotiations placed some pressure on the human rights reporting"46, and acknowledged that

"It is almost impossible for a political negotiator to resist the temptation to shape the reporting to the current needs of the political process, while the credibility of a human rights presence requires the absence of any suspicion that this is affecting its work."47

The recent "Mincho" case in Guatemala provides a salutary example of the delicate balance going awry. In this case, MINUGUA was accused in the international press of covering up the possible torture and forced "disappearance" of a member of the URNG guerrilla movement. As two of the previous leaders of that operation report: "the Mission had to defend itself from the very serious accusation that it suppressed the verification of this killing, so as not to upset the peace negotiations at a very delicate moment".48 It was given the Secretary-General’s seal of approval, but the writers note nonetheless that

"A Mission with a strong reputation for independence and integrity suddenly found itself in a straitjacket, and ended up tarnished by scandal. At minimum, the experience points to a need for more discussion and experimentation with mechanisms to ensure that human rights are honored while keeping the peace."49

Such mechanisms include the institutional separation of the human rights operation from the political aspects of the wider mission. Reporting lines play an important role here: it has been suggested that human rights field operations should in future report to the High Commissioner for Human Rights as a way of reinforcing the autonomy of the human rights element, as is the case with Abkhazia (Georgia), Angola and Eastern Slavonia.50 In these three cases reporting is to the High Commissioner but through the Chief of Mission or SRSG, simultaneously allowing for co-ordination with overall UN strategy.

b) Co-ordination with other UN agencies

This co-ordination between UN agents on the ground is another important area which has not been trouble-free in operations fielded so far. As well as a lack of communication due to structural problems, there have been problems of overlap and competing mandates as human rights field operations move into areas traditionally the preserve of other agencies, albeit with a different focus.

El Salvador was an early example of these difficulties. There was a lack of coordination between the political office of ONUSAL, the Police and the Human Rights Division, made worse by each having separate reporting channels. The relationship between the Division and the Special Representative of the Human Rights Commission was unclear, and when the Centre for Human Rights carried out a needs assessment mission they appeared to ignore ONUSAL’s human rights reports. Projects were then negotiated between the Centre and the El Salvador Ministry of Foreign Affairs without consulting the UN field presence.51 In Haiti, the Special Rapporteur was not sent MICIVIH’s public statements from UN New York on a consistent basis; and relations between the human rights field operation and the Special Rapporteur posed considerable problems in Rwanda. The complexity of operations in Bosnia Herzegovina, with its multiplicity of different organisations with human rights concerns, has led to significant coordination problems.52

Clearly, the integration of policy and creation of clear communication channels between the specialised human rights bodies of the UN must be a priority. The institutionalisation of human rights field operations under the overall supervision of the High Commissioner could provide an answer to this, offering a focal point for UN human rights activities.

Wider use could also be made of the Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Division (formerly Branch) in Vienna, whose mandate naturally touches on human rights, and whose expertise would be invaluable in human rights training for law-enforcement officials. One successful example is provided by the evaluation of the Haitian penal system carried out jointly with the Human Rights Centre (now the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) and the Crime Branch in Vienna, which led to a draft penal reform project.

There may well be an overlap between a human rights field operation and the protection work of UNHCR. Monitoring can be a function to be shared, as in Rwanda where Memoranda of Understanding were drawn up to use each organisation’s "comparative advantage". Institution-building projects can be usefully co-ordinated with UNDP, uniting

UNDP’s long-term project management capability and the capacity of a human rights field operation to make available professional expertise and to utilise its unique outreach to identify needs and be supportive at the local level.53

MINUGUA was able to take advantage of lessons learned in this respect by earlier missions, and created a MINUGUA - UNDP Joint Group "to define strategies, design appropriate projects and promote international assistance for strengthening national human rights entities"54, although conflicts over mandates were still reported.

Within, or alongside, a peace-keeping operation, similar issues arise over relationships between elements of the peace-keeping operation and the human rights operation. The human rights operation can act as a mainstreaming force, collecting human rights intelligence from other agencies and showing the relevance of human rights to their role. UN civilian police monitors (CIVPOL) and military observers (MILOBS) may have monitoring mandates, and should receive training in international human rights standards to maximise this resource.55 CIVPOL’s investigating skills are particularly useful to human rights verification, and they can also be involved in training their national counterparts in relevant human rights norms. The CIVPOL trainers then also take this expertise back to their country of origin. The military can play an analogous training role. When aware of the principles of international human rights law, their wide field presence means they can observe and report on the human rights situation, as well as having the armed capacity to stop violations if their mandate provides. Military expertise in forensic analysis of gunfire and bullet marks is similarly useful to human rights investigations. Again, training in human rights gained by the military element is carried back to the donor state.

In both Haiti and Rwanda MILOBS and CIVPOL had monitoring mandates which overlapped with that of the human rights field operation, and there was inadequate coordination between the different agencies.56 In Rwanda information was shared at a local level and joint investigations were occasionally carried out, but this was largely dependant on the creation of individual relationships rather than a co-ordinated strategy at headquarters level.

c) Institutionalisation

There is an undoubted need, identified in various studies of the human rights field operations to date, to institutionalise these projects.

1. For Logistics and Recruitment

One of the major failings in operations so far has been start-up. Operations organised by the Centre for Human Rights - now the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights - in Geneva are hampered by that institution’s lack of experience of field missions and suffer severe logistical problems. This last was particularly noticeable in Rwanda, although the Haiti operation - organised out of New York - was also hindered by the slowness of UN procurement. In a fragile post-conflict situation, human rights field operations can lose vital credibility if they are unable to establish an effective presence fast.

The preferred option of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is for a solid partnership with the Field Administration and Logistics Division of DPKO in New York to be established, with a liaison office in Geneva.57 Such an arrangement would also streamline recruitment. All operations have complained of recruitment difficulties, as no organisation is currently equipped to carry out large-scale rapid recruitment of human rights officers for work in the field. The Office of Human Resources Management in New York, which has experience of recruitment for field operations, is not well-placed to tap into human rights expertise, and the OHCHR does not have the administrative capacity to deal with recruitment alone. The OHCHR now has a roster of professionals; ideally it would select candidates and FALD would deal with the administrative procedures. Recruitment is crucial to the success of such operations, which rely to a large extent on the commitment, imagination and sensitivity of officers in the field.

Funding methods and procedures have accentuated the problems. Several of the operations have had to rely on voluntary contributions, which has proved particularly difficult.58 Rigid and overcentralised funding procedures have proved ill-suited to the fast-changing environment in which a human rights field mission must operate. Once the UN (rather than the OAS) began providing all administrative services in Haiti, the Head of Mission reported

The rigidity of its financial regulations rendered the organisation of small-scale human rights and civic education programmes a time-consuming and bureaucratic nightmare. In addition, each change of mandate cycle paralysed these operations for at least two months because of delays in finalising approval for the new budget and the early suspension of activities to facilitate the completion of accounting procedures before the end of the mandate.59

The post-UNTAC operation in Cambodia, organised by the CHR, was similarly unable to respond flexibly to perceived needs in-country. "Virtually all of the administrative problems experienced could be resolved by the delegation of authority to the Cambodia office" writes one participant, concluding that, as more field offices of the CHR (now OHCHR) open, "to decentralise will be to survive".60

Likewise, a more stable funding base is essential to the success of future operations. One practical suggestion by the previous High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ayala-Lasso, was the creation of a revolving fund for field operations with non-earmarked contributions. This has not been taken up.

2. For Training and Standard Methodologies

An ongoing issue in the field operations so far has been the need to develop standard training programmes for human rights officers, as well as standard methodologies. So far each operation has found itself starting from scratch, drawing up field manuals and planning training courses for its staff during its deployment, usually without reference to the experience of previous missions. The OHCHR in Geneva has been working for some time on a standard manual which is due to be published shortly. The International Human Rights Trust has also been active in this area, organising a round table discussion in 1996, and has since published the results of its research.61 Clearly this process should be centralised; the OHCHR would seem to provide a natural home.

3. For Lessons Learned and Evaluation

The third important function which an institutionalised human rights field operations unit could perform is to focus evaluation and lessons learned. Feeding into the standard methodologies mentioned above, this would lead to the development of a more thorough doctrine of human rights field operations. Experience so far has shown this to be a necessary and neglected area. The Director of the Human Rights component of UNTAC recorded that

Regrettably, there was no organised debriefing of the heads of the various components of UNTAC, nor was there any apparent attempt by the UN to take into account many of the lessons which had been identified in the final reports of UNTAC components.62

Although the Lessons Learned unit of DPKO visited Haiti, this was only to report on relations between the civilian mission and the UN peace-keeping operation. Rather, the Head of Mission was able to say that

MICIVIH has not benefited from the experience of similar missions … periodic meetings of senior staff of these missions to exchange ideas, strategies and experiences would be mutually beneficial.63

And the experience in Guatemala was the same:

On the one hand, MINUGUA had no contact with other analogous missions (e.g. Rwanda). It also lacked the means to disseminate its own experience.64

The European Commission, an important donor to the Rwanda operation, did carry out two systematic evaluations of HRFOR. The fact that a proportion of the human rights officers in that mission were specifically funded by the EU, who maintained a resident EU co-ordinator in Kigali, provided the impetus for this.

d) Public Reporting

Another feature of field operations which needs to be clarified and strengthened is their public reporting function. The first Aspen Institute meeting concluded that

One of the essential aspects of maintaining the credibility of an operation is to ensure that its findings and activities are regularly and frequently reported and widely disseminated, internationally as well as within the country itself.65

This has not however been the case in all the missions fielded so far. Those mandated by the Security Council or the General Assembly have reported publicly, but there is less clarity over the status of reports both by human rights components of peace-keeping operations and by the operations fielded by the High Commissioner for Human Rights. It has been pointed out that in the latter case the position has been complicated by co-existence of a human rights field operation and a Special Rapporteur: the mandates of the Rwanda and Burundi operations implied that public reporting was to be through the Special Rapporteur, causing some difficulties for the field operations.66

The current OHCHR presence in Cambodia has also run into difficulty. It has been criticised for failing to speak out enough about the human rights situation, being hampered by having to obtain case-by-case authorisation from Geneva:

Many Cambodians have questioned the silence of the Cambodia office after instances of particularly severe human rights violations. Others have questioned how the office can encourage Cambodian human rights workers to do advocacy and complain about violations when the United Nations chooses to remain mute.67

Ad hoc methods have been developed to overcome structural constraints. The interrupted nature of the MICIVIH presence in Haiti did not help to set up a regular reporting structure, but the Mission established the practice of issuing regular press reports on particular incidents. A similar tactic was deployed in Rwanda, where the operation had no specific mandate to report publicly on human rights rather than on operational activities until spring 1997. ONUSAL did report publicly, and arranged for a local NGO to publish a popular version of each report, and MINUGUA has followed this example, both reporting publicly and ensuring significant coverage in the Guatemalan press. The operation’s leaders have identified three important contributions this made to the protection of human rights:

On the one hand it gave muscle to the verification, keeping both Parties on notice that violations would be a matter of public record … [Secondly,] it helped legitimate a human rights discourse previously labelled as subversive, and helped to move the public debate toward a common diagnosis of the problems to be overcome. Finally … it set an example of objectivity that will be crucial for the Guatemalans to build into their own work.68

The inclusion of a public reporting function in the mandate of an operation is a reflection of the political support it is afforded, and a clear signal that its work is to be taken seriously.

e) Follow-up

Finally, it is crucial to plan for continued international involvement after the departure of a human rights field operation. The standing and ad hoc mechanisms of the UN Human Rights Commission are an obvious resource, and coordination between these and human rights field operations would again be facilitated by the institutionalisation of field operations under the overall supervision of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Cambodia provides a useful example of follow-up projects in the wake of UNTAC’s departure after the elections.69 The Paris agreements establishing the operation provided for continued monitoring of the in-country situation by the Human Rights Commission, including a Special Rapporteur, but a Special Representative was appointed instead without a specific monitoring role. Despite initial anxiety about this apparent weakening of international supervision, both Special Representatives have interpreted their broad mandates to include monitoring and public advocacy of human rights issues. The establishment of an office of the Centre for Human Rights (now OHCHR) and its accompanying field presence has been crucial to the effectiveness of the Special Representative, providing far more detailed human rights information than would otherwise be available.

While this solid presence provides a good example of follow up activity, delays in the establishment of the Cambodia office were a problem: the office risked losing experienced staff from the UNTAC human rights mission, and ongoing promotional activities were affected, leading to a "considerable loss of credibility" for the Centre. It is clear from this experience that follow up should be planned and implemented in concert with the withdrawal of a field operation, to avoid this kind of disjuncture and accompanying loss of momentum. Commentators have also suggested that an explicit plan and budget for follow up activities should be included at the outset in future peace-keeping operations, so that the necessary funds are sought while the political will is strong.

Continued international involvement should not obscure the importance of establishing strong national human rights institutions, governmental and non-governmental, who naturally have a far more valuable role to play in the long-term protection of human rights.


29 See Martin, I 1997 for an overview of human rights field operations to date. [...back to main text]

30 Martin, I Aspen Institute (forthcoming) p.20 [...back to main text]

31 Franco, L & Kotler, J 1997 p.13 [...back to main text]

32 Martin, I in Henkin, AH (ed.) 1995 p.122 [...back to main text]

33 Notably the fatal attack on ICRC staff in the summer of 1996. [...back to main text]

34 Martin, I in conversation with the author. [...back to main text]

35 Martin, I 1997 p.7 [...back to main text]

36 5 members of HRFOR were murdered in south-western Rwanda in February 1997. [...back to main text]

37 Inclusion of monitoring of international humanitarian law, if the threshold criteria for its application (“armed conflict”) is met, may help the operation to avoid appearing one-sided as it applies equally to all parties to the conflict. [...back to main text]

38 Aspen Institute papers, 1995 & 1997 [...back to main text]

39 Franco, L & Kotler, J 1997 p.33 [...back to main text]

40 Faroppa, J & Whitfield, T 1997 p.5 [...back to main text]

41 Lawyers Committee for Human Rights 1995 [...back to main text]

42 Adams, B 1997 p.17 [...back to main text]

43 Franco, L & Kotler, J 1997 p.32 [...back to main text]

44 Martin, I Aspen Institute (forthcoming) [...back to main text]

45 McNamara, D in Henkin, A (ed.) 1995 p.78. cf. the statement of Kofi Annan cited above, p.6 [...back to main text]

46 Martin, I in Henkin, A (ed.) 1995 p.103 [...back to main text]

47 ibid. p.122 [...back to main text]

48 Franco, L & Kotler, J 1997 p.40 [...back to main text]

49 ibid. p.44 [...back to main text]

50 Martin, I 1997 p.16 [...back to main text]

51 Faroppa, J & Whitfield, T 1997 [...back to main text]

52 See Martin, I 1997 [...back to main text]

53 Martin, I Aspen Institute (forthcoming) [...back to main text]

54 Franco, L & Kotler, J 1997 p.28 [...back to main text]

55 This raises the important issue of international forces’ compliance with international humanitarian law. While discussion of this topic is outside the scope of this paper, reports of violations in Somalia in particular highlight the urgency of eliminating confusion on this matter. For a full discussion of the issues involved, see Hampson, FH 1995.  [...back to main text]

56 Relationships in Haiti were “underdeveloped” Granderson, C 1997 p.37 [...back to main text]

57 interview with Mautner-Markhof, G November 1997 [...back to main text]

58 See Martin, I 1997 p.11 ff. [...back to main text]

59 Granderson, C 1997 p.38 [...back to main text]

60 Adams, B 1997 p.38 [...back to main text]

61 Kenny, K 1996 [...back to main text]

62 McNamara, D in Henkin, A (ed.) 1995 p.76 [...back to main text]

63 Granderson, C 1997 p.38 [...back to main text]

64 Franco, L & Kotler, J 1997 p.13 [...back to main text]

65 Clapham, A & Henry, M in Henkin, A (ed.) 1995 p.138 [...back to main text]

66 Martin, I 1997 p.15 [...back to main text]

67 Adams, B 1997 p.39 [...back to main text]

68 Franco, L & Kotler, J 1997 p.19 [...back to main text]

69 The following account is based on Brad Adams’ paper for the Aspen Institute meeting 1997. [...back to main text]


2. Assistance

Humanitarian assistance consists of the provision of food and water, shelter, and medical services to the victims of conflict. The customary separation of these assistance activities from protection initiatives is followed to maintain the paper’s focus on protection from violence and persecution. Clearly, assistance can be seen as a human rights issue in itself. Here, however, it is analysed for its impact on protection from violence and on the protection of civil and political human rights. The negative effects humanitarian assistance may have on protection are considered first, along with strategies to minimise these. The paper then reviews ways in which humanitarian assistance could positively support human rights and protect individuals.

The range of actors involved in assistance is greater than that in protection. Assistance is an area in which NGOs play a particularly important role. While the protection initiatives examined above are carried out primarily by intergovernmental organisations (IGOs), both IGOs and NGOs are major players in humanitarian relief. There is also an important difference between NGOs who specialise in relief work and arrive for the emergency, and those who have an existing field presence for development work and switch to relief when a crisis erupts. While these organisational differences have significant implications for policy recommendations, the following analysis deals as a whole with the protection issues which may face any organisation involved in humanitarian assistance.

2.1 No substitute

one of the major challenges facing humanitarian organisations today is the tendency to use humanitarian assistance as a substitute for political action.

Cornelio Sommaruga, President of the ICRC, February 1997

The volume of humanitarian assistance has increased massively since the end of the Cold War. According to OECD / DAC figures, the proportion of overseas aid devoted to emergency assistance rose from 2% to 6% from 1990 to 1996.70 This peaked in 1994 at around $7 billion, although subsequent years have seen expenditure of $3-4 billion. While this may be explained in part by increased need due to conflict in the wake of the change in world order, it also represents a change in focus of the international response to conflict abroad. The end of the Cold War has reduced the incentive of the major powers to intervene politically by reducing the sphere of their strategic interest: there is less political will to "take sides".71 At the same time, domestic pressure on states to "do something" about human suffering overseas exists, fuelled by media coverage.

Direct satellite broadcasting from the scene of disaster both demands action from the international community and suggests that humanitarian assistance is the appropriate response. The Joint Evaluation of Emergency Assistance to Rwanda, the first major evaluation of international responses to a complex emergency, described how the complicated political crisis which had resulted in conflict and genocide there was represented as a simple human disaster story through reporting on the refugee influxes into neighbouring countries in the summer of 1994. As a senior ICRC official reported: "Suddenly it was a humanitarian problem. The refugee situation translated the crisis into terms that could be understood by the world at large".72 The study concludes that "The media’s concentration on humanitarian relief operations, especially in Goma, may have contributed to the relative over-emphasis on the humanitarian to the detriment of the political by governments". The donor nation public becomes aware of the crisis and sees assistance as the solution, chiming with the reluctance of the authorities to tread a more complex and sensitive path.

But humanitarian assistance cannot do more than relieve immediate suffering, and needs to be part of a wider peacemaking strategy. In general, the humanitarian agencies are well aware of this. The policy document UNHCR strategy towards 2000 recommends:

UNHCR should resist becoming involved in protracted humanitarian operations which are not supported by broader peacemaking strategy or in which it is clearly not in a position to enlist respect for its humanitarian principles. While remaining ready to protect and assist civilian populations in conflict situations, UNHCR must insist in future that such involvement be clearly linked to measurable progress in peace negotiations.73

The message is rather directed to international political actors. The Joint Evaluation referred to above finds a "key lesson … that humanitarian action cannot serve as a substitute for political, diplomatic and, where necessary, military action".74 As it went to press in 1996 it was able to record that "Despite massive loss of life and the expenditure of enormous sums of money75, an estimated 1.8 million Rwandese remain in camps outside their country, and many observers expect the civil war to be resumed at some point"76. As we now know, the situation deteriorated past this point, with a civil war currently under way in the north-west of the country, and an unknown number of the refugees having met their death in the former Zaire.

The danger is that the provision of assistance is not only an inadequate response, but will remove the impetus to deal with the difficult causes of conflict by creating the impression that "something is being done". Real solutions will be postponed. Not only is humanitarian assistance ineffective as a real solution to the crises it is deployed to alleviate, but the terms of the current debate in which it is given primary importance place protection - through a longer-term solution - at risk. Generously, the simple resort to humanitarian assistance as the only response to crisis may be characterised by

a tendency to forget that in all these cases the disaster has been man-made and requires changes in policies, institutions and possibly even in the structures of states and their boundaries.77

More critically, this response has been seen as the North’s "institutional accommodation" of repeated emergencies in the South, and a powerful force in making such emergencies permanent.78

Increased humanitarian assistance is also one result of a growing reluctance to accept refugees. Humanitarian assistance often accompanies strategies of in-country and temporary protection which are replacing traditional asylum. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees explains this trend as follows:

First, to the degree that previous refugee flows were often linked to the "proxy wars" of the Cold War, states sometimes had a strategic interest in hosting refugee populations. Other refugee movements were linked to colonial liberation wars … Second, governments of Africa established a truly remarkable record in granting asylum to refugees … the sheer magnitude and accompanying spread of insecurity has created severe strains … Third, as countries in the North are facing large, and what they consider to be irregular, migratory flows into their countries, the critical distinction between refugees and migrants has become blurred and eroded the consensus on the importance of asylum.79

As a result, potential refugees are accommodated in camps either inside their countries of origin, or on a temporary basis in neighbouring states, to which humanitarian relief is provided. Again, the provision of assistance risks displacing protection unless the two functions are clearly defined.

This dilemma is most clear in current debates over the role of UNHCR. Some commentators consider the agency to be substituting humanitarian action for the duty to provide international protection as outlined in its mandate and codified in international refugee law. The apparent downgrading of the Division of International Protection within the organisation (which is perhaps being reversed currently) is seen as a strategic mistake:

The marginalisation of protection also explains why, against experience and principle, UNHCR’s senior policy makers were prepared to tolerate and to service refugee camps in eastern Zaire that failed by a considerable margin to maintain the ‘exclusively humanitarian and civilian character’ required by international law and the Executive Committee, with the tragic consequences we see today.80

Others within the organisation dispute this analysis. They argue that

The provision of assistance reinforces UNHCR’s protection activities, both in countries of asylum and in countries of origin. In many situations, humanitarian relief and the international presence it requires is also the most tangible expression of the organisation’s efforts to protect refugees, avert and resolve refugee situations.81

They also point out that assistance buys access for protection work, States being unlikely to accept large numbers of refugees in the absence of UNHCR’s practical assistance, and underline the value of an international presence to the respect of the refugees’ human rights. Despite the interaction of the two, the tendency among some actors to conflate protection and assistance ("assistance is protection from starvation", &c) is not helpful here. As will be discussed further below, the clear enunciation of human rights and protection principles in the planning framework for all initiatives is the surest way to avoid detrimental effects of assistance on protection, and to maximise the protection potential of assistance itself.


70 cited in Chr Michelsen Institute 1997 p.6 [...back to main text]

71 intervention became a viable option with the removal of the SC veto - hence Iraq, Somalia and Bosnia. But the tendency to disengage from international affairs described here prevailed after the Somalia debacle in mid-1993. [...back to main text]

72 Loane, G cited in Joint Evaluation vol.3 p.151 [...back to main text]

73 UNHCR strategy towards 2000 para. 67[...back to main text]

74 Joint Evaluation vol.3 p.157 [...back to main text]

75 approximately $1 million per day in 1996 according to the study (p.156). [...back to main text]

76 ibid. p.15 [...back to main text]

77 Roberts, A 1996 p.27 [...back to main text]

78 e.g. Duffield, M The Symphony of the Damned 1994, and others cited in Chr Michelsen Institute 1997 p.13-14. [...back to main text]

79 Ogata, S 1996 p.2 [...back to main text]

80 Goodwin-Gill, G 1996 (2)[...back to main text]

81 UNHCR strategy towards 2000 para. 50 [...back to main text]

2.2 Avoiding negative effects on protection

While it is crucial to avoid substituting assistance for protection, it is increasingly recognised that humanitarian relief programmes may impact on protection issues: there may be unforeseen negative effects on human rights and conflict, and conversely there is potential to do good in these areas. The negative effects of assistance on protection, and how to avoid them, are considered first.

Avoiding undermining protection from violence

In terms of negative effects, it is a widely accepted risk that the provision of material assistance may prolong conflict by sustaining the combatants themselves. All the major humanitarian actors have had to deal with the issue of aid intended for civilians in conflict areas being diverted to the armed forces: UNICEF reported 30%.of aid being taken by Bosnian Serbs to allow relief through to Sarajevo, for example, and Norwegian Peoples Aid work informally to the principle that no more than one third of the aid they supply should go to armed forces. Clearly these agencies have managed to set a limit at which they feel the net positive effect outweighs the net negative effect. A similar balance sheet approach led to the suspension of humanitarian activities in Liberia in June 1996. David Bryer, Director of Oxfam, explained:

The Liberian warlords had looted more than 400 aid vehicles and millions of dollars of equipment and relief goods, and those thefts had directly supported the war and caused civilian deaths and suffering. . . In this case, I do think that more lives are likely to be saved by preventing such looting than by providing humanitarian aid. 82

On a smaller scale, Save the Children (Norway) reports withdrawing its support from primary schools in Sri Lanka when it discovered that its funds were being used for propaganda.

Traditional humanitarians might argue that the risk of prolonging the conflict is worth running, if civilian hardship during the fighting is reduced (although beneficiaries are unlikely to prefer humanitarian assistance to decisive action to put an end to the conflict, as interviews with civilians in Sarajevo during the siege of that city attest).83 More emphatically, others point to the relative insignificance of relief spending (less than 1% of world defence expenditure, for example) and the absence of empirical evidence that humanitarian assistance does in fact prolong conflict. They argue that the use of unsubstantiated speculation to this end to justify withholding civilian relief represents an abandonment of humanitarianism.

It is also argued that armies are always the last members of a society to starve and will take food from civilians by force if necessary, so that attempts to channel assistance exclusively to civilian beneficiaries are pointless . One attempt to reduce the risk of such theft is to hand out ready-made meals, as was done in the Somalia famine of the early 1990s (which also reduces unwanted trading of food). A more controversial approach has been advocated by the NGO African Rights for Sudan, where a large proportion of relief is diverted to the military on both sides. Instead of attempting to prevent this - implicitly seen as futile - African Rights suggests formally recognising that much of the food is destined for the armies on either side and making such consignment official. "The soldiers could then sign for their supplies, and delivery of this food could be made contingent on the non-diversion of supplies consigned to civilian populations".84

More extremely, deliberately feeding the army has been seen as a form of protection of the civilian population for these same reasons. This position was adopted by some NGOs in relation to the provision of assistance to Rwandan refugees in camps in Zaire, many of whom were known to be members of the former government forces or militia.

"Apart from the value of aiding the non-combatant families in the camps, the main purpose was to pre-empt predatory raids from these camps onto the towns and other camps. The strategy consequently served to reduce violence in the area, at least in the short run."85 (emphasis added)

Such a plan, at the limits of accommodation to violence, serves as a reminder of the inadequacy of humanitarian assistance as a sole response to conflict. In the absence of political / military strategies of protection or resolution, the traditional short term goals of humanitarian relief may be perverted into direct support of the cause of the humanitarian need.

A recent shocking example of relief inadvertently exposing its intended beneficiaries to violence occurred in Kivu when people were drawn from hiding by the distribution of aid and to assembly points for repatriation only to find themselves the object of armed attack. This echoed the situation in Ethiopia in 1984 which led Medecins Sans Frontières to speak out and be expelled from the country.

Avoiding undermining human rights

Humanitarian aid may directly affect the conflict in ways which undermine human rights. Assistance will tend to support the established powers, either directly (supplies, taxes, wages) or by relieving the authorities of their obligation to provide for the civilians under their responsibility. The presence of international agencies may lend legitimacy to those in power. This regime may violate human rights, indeed this may be at the root of the conflict. Increased awareness of these human rights implications has inspired a range of NGOs to adopt the principle of "Do No Harm" in their humanitarian work.86 Save the Children (UK), for example, has suspended its operations in Afghanistan as a result of the acute gender discrimination and persecution of women there; in particular because this has made it impossible to recruit female staff and reach women beneficiaries.

In the cases described above the relative merits of continuing an operation or withdrawing may have been relatively clear. However, mechanisms for assessing the impact of relief on protection could be further developed. A request to the UN Human Rights Commission from the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities to authorise a study on the implications for human rights of UN action, including humanitarian assistance, was rejected by the Commission in 1995.87 But the current aim to mainstream human rights in the work of the UN offers an opportunity to integrate protection goals into assistance. The present High Commissioner for Human Rights has suggested using the case of Rwanda as a prototype for examining the interaction between humanitarian assistance and human rights.

Some maintain that international humanitarian law provides sufficient tools for such assessment, expressed in the traditional principles of neutrality and impartiality in humanitarian work, as developed with subtlety by the Red Cross movement. Others believe a broader conceptual framework is necessary; one which encompasses the full range of effects humanitarian assistance can have on the human rights and safety of the intended beneficiaries. The Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief, sponsored by the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response and the ICRC and adopted in December 1995, is a first step in this direction. A more recent development is the Sphere project, a joint initiative of two NGO-liaison groups: InterAction and the Steering Committee on Humanitarian Response. This project is attempting to draw up a humanitarian "claimants"’ or beneficiaries’ charter for relief organisations, drawing on the provisions of international human rights and humanitarian law which bear directly on the "rights" of civilians in conflict to protection and assistance.

In another attempt to make use of an international human rights law framework, Save the Children (UK) and UNICEF are trying to use the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child as a programming guide, although some in the organisations remain sceptical as to its practical value. Nonetheless, they consider a thorough analysis of the consequences of fielding an operation, as well as those of not fielding one, to be a crucial part of their planning, and this would include the protection impact of both provision and methods of delivery. One example is the provision of less exchangeable food baskets to people in refugee camps, in order to minimise the number of times they have to leave the camps as they are known to be subject to violence and theft on entry and exit.

There have been suggestions that the most reliable way to provide emergency aid within a human rights framework is to deploy human rights experts alongside humanitarian workers with the explicit brief to assess the human rights situation and the impact of the assistance. A step along this path was the DHA proposal that humanitarian monitors be deployed in the relief effort in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The argument here is that humanitarian workers do not have the expertise to make such assessments to the required standards, and that a clear definition of roles is the key to coordination and efficiency. It also removes the risk run by humanitarian organisations whose human rights assessments cause them to lose neutrality in the eyes of the actors in the conflict, and so to expose their staff to danger.

Another aid to assessment of the protection impact of assistance is feedback from the beneficiaries. As well as harnessing crucial information about the human rights impact of assistance programmes, this is one step on from the definition of principles, providing a way of improving compliance with them once adopted. The Joint Evaluation of Emergency Assistance to Rwanda, itself an important development in the area of accountability, recommended the establishment of an independent body to whom beneficiaries may either complain or seek information about the assistance intended for them.88 Following the annual British Red Cross conference in 1997, a small project team has been set up to explore the idea of a humanitarian ombudsman, although it is not clear at this stage whether this will be an international or a British project.

Increased media attention to the humanitarian aspect of violent conflict, discussed above as a potentially negative influence in terms of long term solutions, might nonetheless also play a role in increasing the evaluation of programmes for their protection impact and accountability to beneficiaries, through closer scrutiny of humanitarian assistance.


82 cited in Roberts, A 1996 p.34 [...back to main text]

83 In Bosnia, the international presence deterred air strikes which might have put an end to a situation of ongoing violations. “The humanitarian operation became an end in itself. Its inviolability was frequently invoked as an excuse not to execute the threats of force” Judge, L 1996 [...back to main text]

84 African Rights 1994 p.15. Solutions based on formalising the separation between combatants and civilians can be meaningless in the type of non-international ethno-political conflicts which typify current unrest. As one commentator has said of the relief operation in Bosnia: “The notion of giving aid to needy civilians only was a nonsense when nearly every able-bodied man was mobilised” Judge, L 1996 p.8 [...back to main text]

85 CMI 1997 p.24 [...back to main text]

86 see particularly the work of Mary Anderson [...back to main text]

87 Decision 1995/107; cf. sub-commission’s 47th session agenda items 19&13 [...back to main text]

88 Joint Evaluation vol.3 1996 p.163 [...back to main text]

2.3 Maximising the protection potential89

Humanitarian diplomacy

The same mechanisms may also serve to highlight ways in which humanitarian assistance can be used positively to support human rights and security. One example is the use of relief delivery to encourage peace-oriented dialogue. UNOCA, established in 1988 in Afghanistan, employed aid in a way designed to promote dialogue between the parties to the conflict90, and another prominent example is the 1989 negotiation of relief corridors in Operation Lifeline Sudan. "OLS officials built on the agreements reached with one side in the conflict to entice the other into concessions. The Operation encouraged dialogue, and this was seen as a direct contribution to the peace process".91 The agreements lasted for only a few months, however, and later commentators consider the conflict resolution impact of the initiative to have been negligible. The Operation continued as a straightforward relief effort, having abandoned its protection goals. Nonetheless, this is an example of what came to be known as "humanitarian diplomacy", whereby relief is thought to contribute to peace by providing super-ordinate goals and promoting communication between the parties whilst granting them some legitimacy- a goal espoused by Jan Eliasson as head of DHA and James Grant as head of UNICEF.

Humanitarian assistance as bargaining tool

Beyond humanitarian diplomacy lie attempts to use humanitarian assistance as a bargaining tool to support human rights and to protect civilians from violence. One relatively successful attempt at this is found in the Ground Rules in Southern Sudan, where factions sign up to a set of principles in order for the area under their control to receive assistance. These principles include:

  • the distribution of aid on the basis of need alone and only for civilians
  • free humanitarian access to populations
  • respect for the Geneva Conventions and the Convention on the Rights of the Child
  • the inviolability of aid workers and their property
  • As well as the receipt of aid for the areas under their control, the factions are motivated to accept the Ground Rules as granting them some legitimacy.

    Clearly, the option of using aid to negotiate improved respect for human rights may not always be available, in particular to NGOs. The situation in Southern Sudan is rather exceptional in its lack of central authority; competition between factions for legitimacy can be exploited to give outside actors more influence than they usually have when dealing with a sovereign state.

    Governments and IGOs will tend to have more sway than an NGO. Nonetheless, some argue that the leverage offered by humanitarian assistance will never be large enough to justify the effects on the intended beneficiaries of withholding it. There is little evidence that national governments step in to fill the gap when international relief is not provided: when humanitarian assistance is used as a bargaining tool, the danger is not only that withholding will it fail to produce the desired change in behaviour, but also that the intended beneficiaries will be left high and dry. Traditional humanitarians thus consider that the introduction of human rights conditionality into emergency relief runs contrary to the humanitarian imperative, whereby assistance is provided to all without distinction purely on the basis of need. The UN Special Representative for Somalia Mohamed Sahnoun was criticised for his attempts to manipulate faction leaders with the provision of aid which was seen as straying too far from the traditional principle of neutrality: "UN humanitarian officials perceived this as dangerous, especially after the deployment of UNITAF at the end of 1992" 92 as it could pave the way for unscrupulous reciprocal manipulation of aid delivery for political ends.

    Co-ordination of protection strategies

    In a multi-actor emergency, coordination is essential to the success of any recipe which seeks to maximise protection. The principal obstacle to the coordination of protection strategies of course is the difficulty of reaching consensus on this issue:

    co-ordination is a concept approved by all but defined by few … The notion of leadership is controversial, and many donors privately admit that co-ordination in the sense of the loss of sovereignty is the last thing they want. 93

    Within the UN system, co-operation between the new Emergency Relief Co-ordinator and the High Commissioner for Human Rights offers one way to co-ordinate policy. Statements by Sergio Vieira de Mello at the end of 1997 indicate that the new office will place greater emphasis on promoting prevention and protection, and that the interaction of protection and assistance is increasingly recognised there. The Strategic Framework Process for countries emerging from conflict, piloted in Afghanistan, is designed to streamline UN agencies’ responses, and a human rights input here will have a significant mainstreaming effect.

    A practical first step towards the coordination of protection strategies among a wider range of actors was the ICRC-organised workshop on International Humanitarian Law and Protection, held in Geneva in November 1996. This examined interaction between agencies, and looked at the question of a common ethical framework.94 A follow up seminar is planned for March 1998.

    Even if consensus can be reached in principle, coordination mechanisms have proved notoriously hard to make work. Many NGOs may be too decentralised to be co-ordinated at Headquarters level. Clearly, good communication between actors at field level is essential, but attempts to achieve this have not always fulfilled their potential.95 A more promising example of such a common arrangement at field level is the Joint Policy of Operations in Liberia96, although "The aid agencies were torn between a desire to insulate themselves from the political process, and a desire to make a direct contribution to peace. As a result, a joint strategy eventually proved elusive".97

    Training of humanitarian workers in humanitarian & human rights standards

    Training clearly has a crucial role to play in improving the protection impact of assistance programmes. Most operational agencies concede that the human rights training given to their field workers is currently inadequate; many are looking at ways to improve this in their organisation. DHA organises training on humanitarian principles, and several organisations request the ICRC or UNHCR at field level to provide seminars for their staff in their respective areas of expertise. International human rights, humanitarian and refugee law provide ready made, tested protection frameworks which should be used to the fullest extent. Nonetheless, this can only supplement clear policy decisions by each agency about how to maximise human rights within their organisation.

    Humanitarian assistance in structural peacebuilding

    The potential of humanitarian assistance to take a proactive role in conflict prevention and resolution on a structural level is also being discussed. Mark Hoffman of the Conflict and Development Unit at LSE argues for all humanitarian assistance to be reconceived in a framework which identifies societal forces which militate against violence. Where possible, relief should seek to "foster the development of the political will, the social institutions and the societal capacity to deal with conflict without recourse to violence".98 A practical example of this approach is the committee-like structures created by NGOs operating in Sri Lanka to deal with practical assistance issues, with the subsidiary goal of facilitating contacts between opposing groups. Another is a multi-ethnic brick making project in Rwanda, devised in the hope that by working together to satisfy a common need political divisions may begin to be transcended and alternative solidarity networks established in a grassroots echo of the humanitarian diplomacy discussed above.

    The NGO CARE recently organised an international conference for its staff on conflict resolution in recognition of the potential to integrate protection goals into assistance.99 Norwegian Church Aid reported that as the assistance they provided in Ethiopia helped beneficiaries take control of their lives, this led to the development of civil society and an emergent political opposition100: effectively an incidental democratisation project through the provision of material assistance.

    Clearly, this is an ambitious agenda and such projects will have to be elaborated with great sensitivity to the local context. Some commentators consider that humanitarian agencies should avoid being led by these goals lest they find themselves unable to respond to emergencies, leaving people without immediate protection. It is also pointed out that conflict resolution takes time and requires political solutions; it is unclear whether the type of activities referred to above have any noticeable impact. Perhaps traditional short-term protection, and certainly respect for international human rights and humanitarian law, are more effective preconditions for conflict resolution.

    Those in favour of preserving traditional neutrality are particularly wary of mixing humanitarian assistance with structural work. They argue that it is precisely this kind of aid which is at most risk of favouring one or other faction in a conflict, or of shoring up a repressive state. The recent UN Strategic Framework Process as applied to Afghanistan concluded that the only capacity building that should be undertaken was that of individuals, precisely to avoid skewing the power equation.

    Addressing scarcity as conflict prevention

    More broadly, if scarcity is seen as a cause of conflict then all assistance has a protection role. Resources can be used in a preventive manner both to reduce scarcity and to support moderating distributive institutions.101 The efficiency and long-term sustainability of assistance is then a protection issue. While a detailed critique of humanitarian relief in fulfilling its own assistance goals is outside the scope of this paper, the principal area of concern is sustainability. Outside assistance can weaken the local authority’s obligation to provide with negative long-term effects for the civilians under their control and undermine viable local coping structures by creating an artificial economy. Indeed, this is a crucial part of the "Do No Harm" philosophy. The effect on local NGOs also needs to be taken into account. In general, assistance which supports local capacities for peace and development is both the best way of ensuring the short term success of humanitarian aims and of incorporating protection goals into assistance.

    Post-conflict priorities

    In a post-conflict phase, one important area of assistance is in demobilisation projects to redirect conflict-inclined leaders and occupy ex-soldiers, who may have few other skills to fall back on. Focusing on skills training and education for children and adolescents is one way of preventing the recruitment of child soldiers as well as reducing criminal violence in post-conflict society.


    89 The following section makes considerable use of the study carried out for the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs by the Christian Michelsen Institute in 1997. [...back to main text]

    90 see Donini, A The Politics of Mercy: the UN Co-ordination in Afghanistan, Mozambique & Rwanda Thomas J Watson Institute for International Studies 1996 [...back to main text]

    91 CMI 1997 p.26, and see Minear et al Humanitarianism Under Siege: A Critical Review Of OLS 1991 [...back to main text]

    92 CMI 1997 p.24 [...back to main text]

    93 Prendergast & Scott 1996 [...back to main text]

    94 see discussion of the Code of Conduct and the Sphere project discussed above, p 24 [...back to main text]

    95 For an analysis of the failure of co-ordination structures in one particular situation see Kleine-Ahlbrandt, STE 1996 on the Kibeho incident in Rwanda April 1995 [...back to main text]

    96 see Scott, C Humanitarian Action & Security In Liberia 1989-1994 TJ Watson , Institute paper #20 [...back to main text]

    97 CMI 1997 p.21 [...back to main text]

    98 Hoffmann, M 1997 p.6 [...back to main text]

    99 Nairobi, January 1996 [...back to main text]

    100 CMI 1997 p.44 [...back to main text]

    101 for details of work developing this idea see CMI 1997 p.25 [...back to main text]

    2.4 Humanitarian workers as human rights monitors

    In a study of UN peace-keeping operations in 1994, Amnesty International made one of its key recommendations that there should be no international "silent witnesses":

    All international field personnel, including those engaged in military, civilian and humanitarian operations, should report through explicit and proper channels any human rights violations they may witness or serious allegations they receive. The UN should take appropriate steps, including preventive measures, to address any violations reported.102

    The wide field presence and considerable resources of humanitarian organisations means they could play a significant role as monitors in the protection of human rights. But such a position is fraught with difficulty and humanitarian actors are far from consensus on how to deal with this issue.

    In deciding whether or not to make public statements organisations must balance the value of their operational presence, which may cease if anti-government statements are made, against the importance to the victims of their situation being made public. This last is inevitably less visible and so more difficult to evaluate. However, it is important for the positive impact of publicity to be properly considered, rather than dismissed as outside the remit of a humanitarian organisation, and for channels for the private passing of information on gross human rights violations to be established and made known to staff in the event that a decision to inform is taken.

    Different groups will tend to weigh the factors according to their wider role and the presence of other actors in the field. While the basic ICRC position, for example, is to work in confidence through diplomatic channels silence is not an absolute rule:

    The ICRC denounces grave violations of humanitarian law when all its representations fail and it is in the interest of the victims to make such a denouncement.103

    Differences of opinion centre around just what is in the interest of the victims. While the ICRC might prioritise maintaining a presence in the country and continuing operations, MSF typifies an agency at the "solidarity neutral" end of the scale who might be more likely to think the interests of the victims best served by denouncing abuses, even if by doing so they were unable to continue their humanitarian work.104

    The presence of other organisations who could fill the role of one who gets expelled is clearly an important factor. ICRC is the classic example of an agency which has unparalleled access to "victims" as a result of its confidentiality policy, and their role is irreplaceable. Norwegian NGOs co-operate so that if one speaks out and is expelled the others carry on their work.105

    Despite these controversies, many organisations already pass relevant information to human rights NGOs, although the UN mechanisms are less well-used, and are looking to improve the direct contributions they can make in the human rights field. UNHCR recognises that:

    a humanitarian presence can often serve as an important witness to and, where possible, prevent and mitigate persecution and human rights violations. 106

    However, there are dangers associated with using humanitarian workers as substitutes for experienced monitors.107 Inexperienced monitors are more subject to manipulation by the sources of their information, and may find themselves unwittingly caught up in propaganda wars. But while humanitarian workers cannot replace skilled human rights monitors, the dissemination of certain basic standards can be of use. The lack of a stock methodology for human rights monitoring complicates the issue, but work being done by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights could usefully be adapted for these purposes.

    Reporting structures are also crucial: within the humanitarian organisations, from those organisations to human rights bodies, and from these last to the political decision makers. Without clear information routes intelligence will be wasted and have less than maximum impact on the human rights situation it identifies.

    Humanitarian assistance under military protection

    Neutrality is acutely threatened by the shift from the traditional consent basis of humanitarian assistance to armed protection of the assistance programmes themselves, as in Somalia and the former Yugoslavia. Clearly if military protection is required the traditional consent basis of humanitarian assistance is not present. As the president of the ICRC has said:

    the mere threat of the use of force aimed at facilitating humanitarian work can jeopardise humanitarian action, in particular since such a threat cannot be maintained indefinitely. Indeed, it causes the military operation to lose credibility while at the same time hampering efforts to provide humanitarian aid on the basis of consensus between parties.108

    The ICRC did use multi-ethnic groups of armed protectors - "technicals" - in Somalia, but this presented problems. "After a year-long period of give and take, as the ‘technicals’ tried to become the dominant players in the game, the ICRC backed out, having handed over its share of the relief operation to the UN or its relief agencies".109 ICRC currently considers that

    That experience has taught us, however, that such arrangements have serious drawbacks in the long term. Indeed, if we were to resort to such measures on a more general scale, humanitarian action would lose the neutrality and impartiality it must preserve in order to be able to operate in aid of all victims.110

    The delivery of humanitarian assistance in the former Yugoslavia, under the protection of UNPROFOR, served to highlight a number of related problems for protection. In the absence of a general consent, access to beneficiaries has to be negotiated each time with controlling authorities. This leads easily to manipulation and to provision of aid to those whom the authorities allow rather than to those in need. Dependence on UN for security made it difficult to work in areas out of political favour. As with the safe areas discussed above, the interference of the political agenda with the humanitarian effort led to discriminatory provision of relief: there was less NGO activity in Serb-controlled areas of Bosnia under UNPROFOR.111

    A way of avoiding such dilemmas of course is to act early enough on reports of human rights violations so that the conflict does not deteriorate to the point where humanitarian assistance can only be provided under armed guard. Amnesty International has remarked:

    human rights aspects have generally not been considered or tackled early enough to prevent conflict from escalating to a situation where attempts to deliver aid may draw international agencies into the conflict itself … The argument that taking human rights into account at an early stage will taint "purely" humanitarian efforts is not convincing - on the contrary, assessment of the human rights situation must be part of what informs UN policy at the earliest stages.112


    102 Amnesty International 15-Point Program for Implementing Human Rights in International Peace-keeping Operations; point 2. [...back to main text]

    103 Lavoyer, J-P 1981 [...back to main text]

    104 see their actions in Ethiopia in 1984 [...back to main text]

    105 CMI 1997 [...back to main text]

    106 UNHCR strategy towards 2000 [...back to main text]

    107 see the DHA suggestion p.27, above [...back to main text]

    108 Sommaruga, C 1997 [...back to main text]

    109 Russbach, R & Fink, D 1994 [...back to main text]

    110 Sommaruga, C 1997 [...back to main text]

    111 Judge, L 1996 [...back to main text]

    112 Amnesty International 1994 p.28 [...back to main text]


    The paper has reviewed recent experience of field operations to protect or assist individuals. Issues pertinent to improved protection from violence or persecution have been highlighted in a range of interventions: military action to protect civilians from conflict; peace-keeping operations; dedicated human rights field operations, and humanitarian assistance. The major theme to emerge from the review is that the use of a human rights analysis in planning and implementing responses to crisis can improve protection. Consideration of the human rights framework strengthens peace initiatives and helps steer a path through the sensitive terrain of a conflict situation. Both protection and assistance initiatives can impact on the civil and political rights of individuals, and on their exposure to violence. Managing this impact, and maximising its potential, is aided by clear enunciation of protection goals.

    From this devolve a host of important questions for the design and implementation of future projects. The current seminar is intended to address these. As a starting point for discussion, a number of suggested questions, drawn from the body of this paper, are set out below.

    Questions For Discussion

    Military action to protect civilians

    Peace-keeping operations

    Human rights field operations

    Humanitarian assistance


    Adams, B "UN Human Rights Work in Cambodia: Efforts to Preserve the Jewel in the Peacekeeping Crown" A paper (September draft) commissioned by the Aspen Institute for a conference on Honoring Human Rights: from Peace to Justice 12-14 September 1997. The papers and conference proceedings will appear in a forthcoming publication in Spring 1998.

    African Rights "Humanitarianism Unbound? Current Dilemmas Facing Multi-Mandate Relief Operations In Political Emergencies" November 1994

    Amnesty International "Peacekeeping and Human Rights" January 1994

    Anonymous "The UNHCR Note on International Protection You Won’t See" International Journal of Refugee Law Vol.9 #2 April 1997

    Centre for International Human Rights Enforcement conference proceedings "International Human rights Enforcement: the case of the occupied Palestinian territories in the transitional period" September 17-18 1994

    Christian Michelsen Institute "Humanitarian Assistance and Conflict" Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs January 1997

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    Cohen, R "Protecting The Internally Displaced" World Refugee Survey 1996

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    Faroppa, J & Whitfield, T "El Salvador" A paper (September draft) commissioned by the Aspen Institute for a conference on Honoring Human Rights: from Peace to Justice 12-14 September 1997. The papers and conference proceedings will appear in a forthcoming publication in Spring 1998.

    Forsythe, P "The International Committee of the Red Cross and humanitarian assistance - a policy analysis" International Review of the Red Cross #314 September 1996

    Franco, L & Kotler, J "Combining Verification and Institution-Building: the Experience of MINUGUA in Guatemala (1994-1996)" A paper (September draft) commissioned by the Aspen Institute for a conference on Honoring Human Rights: from Peace to Justice 12-14 September 1997. The papers and conference proceedings will appear in a forthcoming publication in Spring 1998.

    Garcia-Sayan, D "The Experience of ONUSAL in El Salvador" in Henkin, AH (ed.) 1995

    Gasser, H-P "The United Nations and international humanitarian law: the international committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations’ involvement in the implementation of international humanitarian law" International Symposium on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the United Nations, Geneva 19-21 October 1995

    Gilbert, G "Rights, Legitimate Expectations, Needs And Responsibilities: UNHCR And The New World Order"

    Gilbert, G "The Best "Early Warning" is Prevention: Refugee Flows and European Responses" International Journal of Refugee Law Vol.9 #2 April 1997

    Golub, S "Strengthening Human Rights Monitoring Missions: an Options paper prepared for the Office of Transition Initiatives Bureau for Human Rights Response, USAID December 1995

    Goodwin-Gill, GS The Refugee in International Law 1996 (1)

    Goodwin-Gill, GS "Refugee Identity and the Fading Prospect of International Protection" University of Nottingham Conference on Refugee Rights and Realities 30.11.1996 (2)

    Granderson, C "Haiti" A paper (September draft) commissioned by the Aspen Institute for a conference on Honoring Human Rights: from Peace to Justice 12-14 September 1997. The papers and conference proceedings will appear in a forthcoming publication in Spring 1998.

    Hampson, FJ "The International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia and the Reluctant Witness" submitted to the International and Comparative Law Quarterly 1997

    Hampson, FJ "States’ Military Operations Authorised by the United Nations and International Humanitarian Law" in Condorelli, L (ed.) The United Nations and Humanitarian Law 1996

    Helton AC "What is Refugee Protection?" International Journal of Refugee Law Special Issue 1990

    Hoffman, M "Doing no harm?" LSE Magazine Vol. 9 #1 Summer 1997

    Howland, T "Refoulement of Rwandan Refugees: the UNHCR’s Lost Opportunity to Ground Temporary Refuge in Human Rights Law" unpublished paper 1997

    International Committee of the Red Cross "Strengthening of the co-ordination of humanitarian assistance" Statement to United Nations General Assembly 28 November 1995

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    Papers Presented (by author):
    1. Kate Mackintosh - 2. Nigel S Rodley - 3. Françoise Hampson - 4.Carlo von Flüe - 5. Geoff Gilbert - 6. Nicholas Morris - 7. David Bassiouni - 8. Philip Wilkinson - 9. Emma Shitakha - 10. Ian Martin - 11. Colleen Duggan
    Report links: website home page
    Table of Contents - Search - Introduction - Recommendations - Opening Address - Papers Presented - Acknowledgements  - Appendices
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