This article presents a theory of obligation in the context of humanitarianism. Its foundational assumption is that there exists a moral imperative to assist the structurally dispossessed and functionally abused. It builds particularly on the cross-disciplinary work (both academic and applied) of anthropologists, but also of political scientists, sociologists, human rights specialists, and others. The links between human rights and humanitarianism are stressed, while suggesting principles that can guide humanitarian organizations as they serve those in need. Humanitarianism is defined as “crossing a boundary;” risk usually is encountered by the service provider as scarce resources are used to help the vulnerable. Obligation is defined, in part, as “what one should do.” A theory emerges as the “morally possible” and the “materially possible” intersect. Notions of human dignity are shown not to be appropriate in orienting the real-world work of humanitarians; notions of fairness are more appropriate as humanitarian work is organized and implemented. “Pragmatic humanitarianism” occurs as principled guidelines and achievable actions merge, and as non-neutral stances are taken as (for example) refugees are assisted. Humanitarian aid is shown to be fundamentally a moral relationship based on the obligation of “those who have” to address the felt needs of “those who have not.” Examples from Bosnia are featured.
The author of this paper shares many of the concerns of the proponents of humanitarian values, not least the concern to preserve, in the general case, the impartiality and neutrality of humanitarian aid agencies. The focus of this paper is the reporting role played by humanitarian agencies. It examines their role in the sphere of political communication; specifically how certain agencies influenced the struggle over how the events of war were to be represented in mass media in the West. This paper will first elaborate a historical analysis of the Bosnian crisis and its international response. It then briefly outlines an argument about the critical role of Britain and its (TV news) media in the development of Western policy over Bosnia. The role of senior officials of UNHCR and the ICRC is then critically assessed in the context of the wider developments in the mediated conflict itself.
The magnitude of many recent complex emergencies has compelled UNHCR to consider the issue of conflict prevention. Such emergencies pose important questions about how to protect human life and human rights in crisis situations. Human rights abuses and violent conflict are the main reasons why people flee. Grappling with these problems can draw outsiders into areas traditionally seen as internal affairs. Countries in crisis want to preserve their sovereignty. Yet sovereignty should not be a shield, hiding abuses that might lead to major movements of people. Increasingly, international organizations, national governments, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and local leaders are working together creatively to address the abuses that can lead to refugee outflows and internal displacements.
Complex emergencies require the international community to respond quickly and efficiently with a variety of services. Experience has demonstrated that effective emergency response depends on coordination between nongovernmental organizations, governments, and international organizations. The increasing burden in recent years has prompted international organizations and states to reconsider how best to use the considerable capacity of the NGO community.
NGOs play an increasingly important role in humanitarian assistance and protection activities. In complex emergencies, national governments find it more and more difficult to provide, by themselves, the range of relief needed. Many situations present not only logistical difficulties, but political barriers to action. Nongovernmental organizations can, and do, help to fill the gap, playing a wide range of roles from early warning of human rights abuses to education and training for long-term self-sufficiency.
Norway provides an instructive example of one way to manage highly effective cooperation between government and the national NGO community. When I assumed my functions as High Commissioner, I identified emergency preparedness and response as one of the principal pillars of my office. Within this context, UNHCR and Norway entered into a new and closer relationship, through an emergency staff standby arrangement managed by the Norwegian Refugee Council. Through this arrangement, my office has been able to witness very directly the important and cooperative relationship between governments, international organizations, and NGOs.
Such creative arrangements are one of the tools that UNHCR can use to accomplish its key task of protecting people in peril. This report highlights the challenges posed by complex emergencies and suggests some ways in which the rights and well-being of vulnerable populations can be better safeguarded.
Contrary to popular myth, humanitarian neutrality and impartiality are not absolute concepts. Their application depends on the type of international actor involved, the mandate according to which that actor operates, and the nature and extent of the international crisis or humanitarian emergency that is being addressed. For future UN mandated action, clarification of these concepts and their proposed concrete application in relation to the target groups of the humanitarian operation in advance is required, if the disastrous dissonance between mandates and their implementation that appeared in instances such as Somalia and Bosnia is to be avoided.
Published by The Strategic and Combat Studies Institute, Camberley, 1997, as Occasional Paper No 27 ISBN 1D874346D15D1
United Nations operations in Northern Iraq, Somalia and Bosnia in the half-decade following the end of the Cold War focused attention on the possibility of the international community employing force to ‘manage’ or even ‘resolve’ situations of […]
Lack of coordination (including lack of clarity over tasks and command and reporting lines), mutual unfamiliarity, and attitudinal divergence are the principal sources of stress between peacekeepers and aid workers. Nevertheless, Chapter VI mandates rarely give rise to difficulty over the reconciliation of objectives.
However, another issue has arisen with regard to some recent operations. It centres on the application of the principle that aid is provided on the basis of need only, and that it is provided impartially and neutrally. The principle is unexceptionable, and would be fully endorsed by all representatives of the international community. The trouble is, that in its application to the kinds of conflict which have arisen, especially in Bosnia and Croatia, what the humanitarian bodies excoriate as `linkage’ has appeared in various forms. For this, they tend to hold peacekeepers responsible.
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