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

Nicholas Morris1

Humanitarian Aid and Neutrality2








See elsewhere: Author's Biography (appendix C)



Humanitarian action saves lives but cannot substitute for the political will necessary to reach peace. In the implementation of an agreed political settlement, humanitarian and political action can work well together, as in Namibia, Cambodia and Mozambique. In the absence of the necessary political will, and especially when substituting for it, humanitarian action risks being compromised, or perceived as compromised, as in former Yugoslavia and Somalia.

The delivery of humanitarian aid amidst conflict has, for over a century, been predicated on respect for certain basic principles. These principles require that humanitarian aid be provided impartially to civilians, on the sole criterion of need, without distinction as to their origins or beliefs. Neutrality has been understood as the condition - not taking sides directly or indirectly - that allows humanitarian aid to be given impartially. By definition, humanitarian aid should not contribute to the military effort of any party to the conflict. Humanitarian action requires the consent of the parties to the conflict and assumes that, when they consent, they will also respect the principles.

In the past, humanitarian aid in and around conflicts was generally seen by those with the power to obstruct it as impartial and neutral. There were notable exceptions, for example, Biafra and southern Sudan. There were conflicts where humanitarian aid was not attempted, at least not on a scale commensurate with the needs. At critical times, the United Nations, if not the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), was absent from a number of conflicts as a result of a combination of practical and political constraints, an assessment that the basic principles could not be respected, and the absence of media pressure. Afghanistan, Angola, Somalia and Vietnam are examples. Today, the expectation is that the United Nations and non-governmental organizations will help victims of conflict whatever the circumstances.

1. The problem

Humanitarian aid has probably often been less neutral in effect than was assumed. It now faces new challenges. The difficulties confronting a humanitarian operation where authority and law and order have collapsed are self-evident. Even when authority and some rule of law exists, recent experience suggests that in certain conflicts, the maintenance of neutrality may pose major problems. Neutrality can no longer be assumed. A combatant's perception of the humanitarian operation has become the practical measure of its neutrality, and thus of the safety of humanitarian aid workers. At the same time, the international community has new expectations that are exposing the limits of humanitarian action.

The reasons for the obstruction of humanitarian aid in Bosnia and Herzegovina illustrate problems encountered and to be expected elsewhere. All sides have seen the humanitarian operation led by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as directly helping their enemy. With nearly every able-bodied male mobilized, the distinction between civilians and combatants was largely meaningless. Until the Bosniac/Croat peace agreement in February 1994, Croat and Serb forces surrounded the Bosniacs in central Bosnia, as the Serbs still do elsewhere. For them, the humanitarian operation was demonstrably not neutral: it was undermining their military efforts by breaking the siege and prolonging the war. Political pressures and the presence of the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) could extract grudging consent from those who controlled access, but did not change this perception.

All sides in such conflicts use humanitarian food aid for political ends and to feed their military forces. For the Bosnian government forces in the enclaves and Sarajevo, other sources were too limited to give them a choice. The provision of fuel for humanitarian purposes gives rise to even greater challenges to humanitarian aid's neutrality. The fact that UNHCR supervised delivery and ensured proper use was irrelevant in former Yugoslavia, because while this fuel met priority humanitarian needs, for example, heated hospitals, it released other fuel for the military. Thus the Bosnian government accused UNHCR of fueling Serb offensives on Gorazde and Bihac, and its opponents blocked access for UNHCR fuel, maintaining that it would be used against them.

2. Military support to humanitarian assistance

Such perceptions have cost the lives of humanitarian aid workers. In a humanitarian operation with military support, the perception that this military support is itself not neutral is even more damaging. The provision of air support to UNPROFOR in Bosnia revealed a major divergence between NATO and humanitarian organizations over the concept of neutrality and humanitarian aid. For NATO, humanitarian aid that the UN Security Council had mandated UNPROFOR to support was being obstructed, and force - or preferably the threat of force - should be used to remove the obstruction. Announcing its 2 August 1993 decision to draw up "options for air strikes", the North Atlantic Council stressed the "humanitarian purpose of the military measures foreseen".

For the humanitarian organizations, such an argument was a dangerous contradiction in terms. International humanitarian law imposes on parties to a conflict the obligation to accept humanitarian aid but does not confer on others the right to impose it. The delivery of relief and the ending of suffering are legitimate objectives for an international military intervention. The deployment of the American-led Unified Task Force (UNITAF) to Somalia in December 1992 is an example. Such interventions cannot be neutral: an enforcement operation under Chapter VII of the UN Charter is incompatible with a humanitarian action, which, like traditional peace-keeping, is based on consent. Such an operation may also make the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the custodian of international humanitarian law, feel obliged to distance itself from the UN's humanitarian action. Close cooperation among the ICRC and other humanitarian organizations is essential.

Once the Bosnian Serbs perceived the intent of Security Council/NATO/UNPROFOR actions as punitive and directed only towards them, whatever was left of the operation's neutrality in the Serb military mind was gone. UNPROFOR’s major role in supporting the humanitarian operation was of no moment. The Bosnian Serbs saw little distinction between UNHCR and UNPROFOR, and accused UNHCR of direct responsibility for the use of NATO air power against them. There are obvious parallels from Somalia. There, by early 1993, the neutrality of the humanitarian organizations was being prejudiced by an enforced close association with and subordination to the military actions of UNITAF. By July 1993, the expanded UN Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM II), which had replaced UNITAF and was also operating under Chapter VII of the Charter, was at war with one party to the conflict in Mogadishu, with disastrous consequences for all concerned.

3. Sanctions

Humanitarian assistance has been seen as the "safety net" for the most vulnerable civilians in states subject to sanctions. As the humanitarian operation in Iraq since 1991 has shown, the safety net has great difficulty in functioning effectively. Even if it did, a state subject to sanctions may perceive this assistance as also facilitating the imposition of sanctions, which it could argue was in effect the expectation of the Security Council. When sanctions are tightened, so are the controls and constraints on humanitarian assistance. Bosnian Serbs argued that the humanitarian operation should compensate for the effect of tightened sanctions. When their arguments were rejected, their perception of bias and the likelihood they would obstruct assistance to their opponents increased.

4. The political context

Humanitarian aid can relieve suffering. It can arguably help create time for political solutions, but it cannot end conflict. Nor can it substitute for the responsibility of authorities for the well-being of civilians on the territories they control, even when circumstances render the full discharge of their responsibility impossible. In the absence of real prospects for peace, a humanitarian operation will face increasing - and may even generate - problems. For example, in Angola, where the UN’s political and humanitarian actions have been closely linked, the difficulties faced by the humanitarian operation increased whenever the prospects for peace receded. Such problems will be severe when a humanitarian operation is subordinated to political considerations, particularly those resulting from an unwillingness on the part of the international community to address root causes. Continuing humanitarian assistance (and political containment) may then become a higher priority than ensuring respect for the principles that should govern it. Actions denounced by the international community as "unacceptable" become, if only by default, accepted in practice. The direct attacks on aid workers (and, of course, on UNPROFOR) in former Yugoslavia, and on them and refugees in camps outside Rwanda, are examples.

When humanitarian aid is seen as a substitute for justice, the neutrality of the aid itself may be questioned. The example of Bosnia is instructive. The government considers the emphasis placed on the humanitarian operation to be an evasion by the international community of its responsibilities. If the choice is humanitarian aid or progress towards a more just political settlement, albeit involving more suffering, the latter is preferred. Thus the Bosniacs have obstructed the delivery of humanitarian aid to their own civilians in order to influence the international community to change its stance and not treat aggressors and victims as equal. They object strongly to the phrase "parties to the conflict", and resent the fact that while the Security Council resolutions establishing the mandate of UNPROFOR at least identify the aggressor, the humanitarian operation does not.

There is a related direct criticism of the neutrality of humanitarian aid: that it should not seek to be neutral and impartial when the aggressor prevents humanitarian assistance from reaching the victims of his aggression. This argument, made by the Bosnian government, and the Bosnian Serb perception that humanitarian aid helps their enemy, illustrate the dilemmas facing humanitarian organizations when their own ability to ensure neutrality and respect for the basic principles is severely circumscribed. The debate on humanitarian "linkage" - conditioning assistance to one side on that side's consent to similar access to the other side - is an example. The alternative may be to continue to assist the former while being denied access to the latter. Such linkage is, however, not neutral: humanitarian assistance should be an individual right, and not be conditioned on the actions of others. (Linkage may also be a price besiegers are prepared to pay, and therefore will not work.) Humanitarian linkage is unlikely to be perceived as neutral by those who control access. But for the victims, reluctance to make such linkages can reinforce the perception of appeasement and injustice in the guise of humanitarian principles. The inability of humanitarian organizations to resolve such dilemmas satisfactorily in large part explains why all sides in the Bosnian conflict have on occasions deliberately and fatally targeted the humanitarian operation.

The situation in the Rwandan refugee camps provides a stark example of the intractable problems facing humanitarian action in the absence of preventive or curative political action. That operation assists soldiers, militia and civilians who are held to be responsible for genocide and whose declared aim is the overthrow of the Rwandan government (itself grounds for disqualification from humanitarian assistance). The international community has been unable or unwilling to ensure that such persons are removed from the camps and brought to justice. The humanitarian organizations are unable to stop assisting these persons except by stopping assistance to all, including the far larger number of their victims.

5. Conclusions

In the types of future conflict most likely to challenge the response of the international community, humanitarian aid will often not be perceived as neutral and impartial. For this reason, even if it can start, it is subsequently likely to forfeit consent. In such circumstances, UN or other military support to the humanitarian operation may facilitate delivery, at least in the short term, but with time is likely to exacerbate the problem. The use or threat of force in support of a humanitarian operation, except in clear self-defence, will gravely prejudice that operation. Problems will increase in the absence of a political solution. In operations where problems of the sort faced in former Yugoslavia are expected, a more restrictive approach to the scope of international humanitarian assistance may be advisable.

The principles themselves should not be compromised; there may be circumstances when a humanitarian operation should be stopped. Humanitarian action cannot solve problems that are political in nature. Their solution requires the political will necessary to prevent suffering or remove its underlying causes. If the international community is prepared to use force to this end, this should be independent of the humanitarian operation. Where the required political will cannot be mobilized, the humanitarian operation will have a better chance of success when it is clearly separated from the international community's efforts at political containment.


1 Published in French in “Operations des Nations Unies - Leçons de terrain” (p 357-362), the proceedings of a symposium held on 16 and 17 June 1995 by the Foundation pour les Etudes de Défense (ISBN: 2-911101-02-2). [...back to main text]

2 The views expressed in this article are those of the author, a UNHCR staff member, and not necessarily shared by the United Nations or UNHCR. [...back to main text]


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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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