When faced with a humanitarian crisis, we have a responsibility to help reduce human suffering where we can…DfID will seek to promote a more universal approach in addressing humanitarian needs. People in need – wherever they are – should have equal status and rights to assistance’.

Conflict Reduction and Humanitarian Assistance Policy Statement, DfID, February 1999

Kosovo is skewing emergency and humanitarian aid and is now defining global responsibilities, possibly for many years to come. The accepted principle of extending a minimal hand to the most helpless is being replaced by an undignified new global politics of self-interest and expediency that sails close to moral irresponsibility and racism’

John Vidal, The Guardian, August 1998

Less than a year since the signing of the Peace Agreement between NATO and Serbia, the Kosovo crisis[i] continues to pose important and sometimes difficult questions about humanitarian assistance. The massive emergency response that followed the arrival of over 800,000 refugees to neighbouring countries has been scrutinised and debated in every detail. A plethora of independent evaluations have been carried out, their number ironically propagating precisely the duplication of resources and lack of co-ordination that is a principal criticism of the original aid programme.

Review of the technical aspects of the relief programmes is all but exhausted. Most importantly, the morbidity and mortality figures were extremely low, a fraction of those resulting from past mass displacements. This was due partly to good fortune and partly to an extraordinary volume of emergency relief. The response to the Kosovo crisis saw more money, more agencies, and more media interest than any previous humanitarian operation. Despite this, co-ordination was poor, particularly in Albania, with extreme variances in standards between different sites. But history, in the shape of the Peace Agreement, came to the rescue of a beleaguered aid effort, and the refugees returned home.

But one aspect of the Kosovo crisis, by its very nature, will continue to be discussed. How does the Kosovo response compare with other crises? And what do the differences tell us about the way that the humanitarian system works? This essay will consider one aspect of the Kosovo response, the extent to which the aid programme was consistent with the idea of impartiality, arguably the single most important humanitarian principle. It will argue that the dual involvement of western governments both as warring parties inside Kosovo, and as donors and implementers of the relief operation just outside its borders compromised humanitarian impartiality. It will also consider whether the response was proportionate to the need, a key requirement of an impartial response, by drawing comparisons with other humanitarian programmes.

The second part of the essay will consider two questions. Firstly, if a core humanitarian principle such as impartiality was compromised or even discarded during the Kosovo crisis, then what can we conclude about humanitarian principles themselves? For the majority of aid agencies, are principles really principles or are they more easily understood as a tool guaranteeing security and funding for their operations in dangerous and unstrategic arenas? An end in themselves or a modus operandi developed to survive in the increasing complexity of contemporary conflict zones?

Secondly, how can the global inequalities in the response to suffering be reconciled with the principle of universality that lies at the heart of the humanitarian endeavour? The Kosovo crisis is undeniable proof that strategic interest and political considerations are powerful factors in determining the nature and the level of donor responses to humanitarian need. Aid agencies, however, should neither be surprised nor discouraged by the fact that their universalist philosophies and state interests do not routinely coincide. But nor should they make the mistake that state interest or disinterest is fixed or immutable. Kosovo teaches us just the opposite. Solidarity can be created. The real lesson for humanitarians is not to despair and abandon their Universalist positions, but to use them instead as a basis for ‘creatively participating in the quintessentially political processes of constructing interests’. (Macfarlane & Weiss 2000:5)

Impartiality – four promises

I – ‘Aid is given regardless of the race, creed or nationality of the recipients and without adverse distinction of any kind. Aid priorities are calculated on the basis of need alone…’

II – Within the entirety of our programmes, we will reflect considerations of proportionality. Human suffering must be alleviated wherever it is found; life is as precious in one part of a country as another. Thus, our provision of aid will reflect the degree of suffering it seeks to alleviate…..’

III –‘ This Code of Conduct seeks to guard our behaviour. . .’

IV – The right to receive humanitarian assistance, and to offer it, is a fundamental humanitarian principle which should be enjoyed by all citizens of all countries..….’

Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief, 1994

Impartiality has been a fundamental principle for the Red Cross Movement ever since the first Geneva Convention of 1864. For Jean Pictet, the celebrated ICRC lawyer, impartiality was an ‘Essential principle’, located in the moral realm, designed both to inspire humanitarian action and keep it faithful to its humanitarian purpose (Leader 1998). This is still the view today. ‘Once humanitarian aid serves causes rather than victims and embraces political parties or religious or cultural ideologies, it loses its claim to being humanitarian’ (Minear and Weiss 1992: 16)

The Code of Conduct is the most comprehensive and influential set of contemporary principles specifically governing the provision of humanitarian assistance. The majority of NGOs involved in the Kosovo response are signatories[ii]. Together, the four statements in the extract encapsulate the key elements of impartiality. Aid should be allocated purely on the basis of need, independent of all other considerations. It must be given in proportion to that need. Aid agencies commit themselves to abiding by these principles. All this is motivated by the belief that all people share a right to receive humanitarian assistance.

It is against these four statements that the response to the Kosovo crisis will be assessed.

‘Aid priorities are calculated on the basis of need alone . . .’

Impartiality, neutrality and independence are predicated on separating the humanitarian from the political. One acts within the humanitarian space in the midst of, but separate from, the political.

The politics of the political / humanitarian divide, Daniel Warner

It is clear that our humanitarian and military objectives are completely intertwined.

Claire Short, May 1999

The events preceding the refugee crisis are well known. Following the failure of the Rambouillet Talks, NATO began a campaign of air strikes against Serbia on 24th March 1999. The systematic human rights abuses in Kosovo immediately deteriorated and a campaign of mass deportation of Kosovar Albanians began. Within two weeks, half a million refugees had crossed to Albania and Macedonia.

The mass exodus posed a simultaneous political and humanitarian headache for the NATO governments. Locally, the Macedonian Government closed its border, fearing the mass arrival of Kosovar refugees would destabilise the fragile political and ethnic balance in the country. Regionally, the military campaign depended on the air space and support of the two countries that hosted the influx. Internationally, NATO was accused of ‘turning a crisis into a catastrophe’ by actually precipitating a mass forced displacement. In domestic constituencies, the wisdom of the military action came under intense scrutiny, as television pictures showed refugees from Kosovo arriving in neighbouring countries.

The extent of this ‘implicatedness’ continues to be debated, but, irrespective of this issue, the first few days set the tone for one fundamental feature of the entire Kosovo crisis, the blurring of humanitarian and political issues. The offer of support of NATO contingents to build refugee camps, and the simultaneous commitment from western states to a burden-sharing agreement with Macedonia led to the border being opened at Blace. Camps were built in record time, mainly by military forces. Was this a political solution to a humanitarian crisis, or a humanitarian solution to a political crisis? In fact it was both, and this is precisely where the difficulties arose. From day one, it became difficult or impossible to untangle one set of concerns from the other.

Critics of the military action quickly pointed to the suffering of the refugees as proof of a misguided and unsuccessful policy. Western States responded by introducing and developing a carefully constructed rhetoric whereby the presence of the refugees in neighbouring countries became not the consequence of the war, but its very raison d’etre. It became known, quite deliberately, as a humanitarian war, thus inextricably linking activities in the refugee camps with the military campaign. As Dennis McNamara, UNHCR’s Special Envoy for the Balkans, acknowledged: ‘When you declare a war – NATO’s first in Europe – to be primarily a humanitarian war with the main objective the return of refugees – you raise the political temperature enormously and that inevitably affects the collaboration between military and humanitarian actors’.

The military campaign may have been fought in the air over Kosovo and Serbia, but the public relations campaign needed to sustain support for it was explicitly and deliberately focussed on the refugee camps in Albania and Macedonia. To maintain domestic support for the conflict, western leaders travelled to the camps. At every opportunity, Prime Ministers and Presidents identified the return of the refugees as the main objective of a military campaign that had in fact preceded their flight. But everyone also knew that the very credibility and unity of NATO as a viable political entity was at stake, with some commentators arguing that the alliance might well not survive an unsuccessful outcome.

Consequently, these refugees became unquestionably the most politicised group of forced migrants in contemporary history – ‘ too important to be left to UNHCR’ (Suhrke 2000:10). In this environment, it was inconceivable that the sole motivation for the aid operation was the impartial alleviation of suffering. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a context less conducive to an impartial humanitarian assistance programme.

The role of NATO in the relief effort

All activities undertaken by AFOR[iii] should contribute to the enhancement of NATO’s public image and the undermining of critics of the NATO air campaign

Annex W to NATO AFOR Op 0 001, p5

The most enduring image of the blurring of political and humanitarian considerations was the role played by NATO forces in the response to the refugee crisis. In both Macedonia and Albania, acting either under unified command or in a bilateral capacity, military contingents dominated the initial stages of the relief programme.

The use of the armed forces in relief operations is nothing new. The past decade has seen a huge expansion in military involvement in disaster relief operations, particularly in the field of logistics and providing security, fields where they are traditionally perceived as enjoying comparative advantage over civilian agencies. But their role in the Kosovo response went much further. In addition to these traditional tasks, the military designed and built refugee camps, and, in some cases, took on responsibility for providing direct services to refugees. Aid agencies wishing to work in the camps needed first to request permission from the military commanders, and then to secure funding from the donor representatives of the same government.

The key issue, however, was obviously that the dominant humanitarian player was a party to the conflict, the very antithesis of an impartial actor. There has been some misunderstanding about exactly why the provision of humanitarian services in the refugee camps by NATO was so problematic. This arises partly from the relatively unchallenged but incorrect assumption that humanitarian assistance can only be delivered by impartial humanitarian agencies.[iv] It is this, for example, that leads the International Council of Voluntary Agencies to conclude that the fundamental problem with NATO’s role was that ‘Being a warring party and trying to be an impartial humanitarian actor at the same time, are diametrically opposed’ (ICVA 2000:22).

But NATO neither was nor ever claimed to be an impartial humanitarian actor. None of the military contingents experienced the slightest discomfort with a dual military and humanitarian role. On the contrary, as the above excerpt from the AFOR mandate confirms, ‘it was clearly in NATO’s interests to be seen to be alleviating the problems of the Kosovo Albanian population – or risk creating a huge contradiction in the public mind concerning its overall humanitarian purpose’ (Pugh 2000:5).

Nor does international humanitarian law specify that assistance can only be delivered by impartial humanitarian organisations, quite the opposite, in fact. ‘One of the ironies associated with contemporary humanitarianism is that, despite the extent to which private actors have laid claim to it, the legal clothing of humanitarianism has always been determined by states, arose historically through traditional diplomatic methods, and has always been Westphalian in form.’ (Greenaway 1999: 2)

The issue is more complex than the mere participation in the relief operation of a military alliance that never claimed an impartial viewpoint. Of equal importance is the relationship between NATO and agencies that have adopted impartiality as a guide to their work. In the Kosovo crisis, NATO’s involvement can be considered a catalyst rather than ‘the thing itself’ –the question is what happened to the supposedly impartial agencies that came into contact with it.


NATO fully recognises the leading role of UNHCR, which is not only reflected throughout NATO’s operational plan, but is currently being implemented as a working operational reality on the ground in Albania

Letter from Javier Solana, NATO Secretary-General to Mrs Ogata, 21st April 1999

NATO not only builds the refugee camps and ensures their security, it sets the humanitarian agenda

Off-the-record remark by UNHCR official, quoted in The Guardian, June 10th 1999

Faced with a protection crisis at the Blace border post, and the need to prepare sites for a massive influx of refugees, UNHCR made an official request to NATO on 3rd April for assistance with the humanitarian aid operation. This agreement with a warring party was without precedent and seriously undermined the impartiality of the assistance programme.[v]

This agreement placed UNHCR in an impossible situation. The humanitarian needs may have provided a powerful incentive for joint action with the military but, at the same time, the price for co-operation was a very public sacrifice of the principle of impartiality. Mrs Ogata attempted a balancing act, insisting that it was possible to accept ‘logistical support from the military to alleviate refugee suffering, but at the same time we must maintain a clear distinction between the humanitarian operation led by UNHCR and military operations, especially as long as NATO forces are engaged in military action in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.’[vi]

Her optimism was misplaced. Aircraft dedicated to the relief effort were parked next to Apaches on the tarmac at Tirana airport. Armed troops deployed for combat duties patrolled refugee camps in Kukes, within artillery range of Serbian positions in Kosovo. The distinction between military and humanitarian duties was, of course, impossible to maintain. ‘The head of one national Red Cross Society recalled the Dutch folktale, “When does a sausage cease to be a sausage?” That happened, he surmised, somewhere between the first slice, when a lieutenant was asked to prepare ground with a bulldozer for a refugee camp, and the last, when Chinook helicopters pre-positioned for combat tasks, ferried in blankets. Whenever it happens, or is deemed to have happened, co-operative actions undertaken with the best of intentions may end up undermining the identity and integrity of humanitarian organisations’ (HWP 1999:15)

NATO governments’ “support role” to UNHCR included the following: not informing UNHCR of its intention to create AFOR, a purely humanitarian force, until after its deployment had been agreed with the Government of Albania. Choosing, designing, building and running refugee camps bilaterally, usually only informing UNHCR after the decisions had been made. Selecting NGOs to work in the camps on the basis of nationality rather than competence. Generating ‘a massive supply-driven “free-for-all”’ (Morris 1999:16) and ensuring as much international media coverage of their troop contingents as possible. The final component of their support to UNHCR’s leading role was for member states to repeatedly and publicly criticise the organisation for its sluggish response, and, in perhaps the most liberal funding environment of all time, to withhold significant financial support from the refugee agency.

The agreement between UNHCR and NATO was the Trojan Horse that allowed NATO to effectively take over the humanitarian operation from the inside. Cloaked in the legitimacy of an invitation from the United Nations, NATO’s involvement in humanitarian activities had political objectives, including maintaining support for the air campaign.


Corporate interests in the NGO Relief Sector, and the corporate culture of at least the ‘successful’ NGOs, in the competitive aid marketplace, lie in a sustained complicity with states, notwithstanding rhetoric to the contrary.

Post-modern conflict and humanitarian action: Questioning the Paradigm’, Sean Greenaway

One influential aid body has recently stated that in the course of the Kosovo crisis, the ‘entire concept of “an NGO” was blurred and called into question’ (ICVA 2000:4). For almost very camp in Albania, for example, NGOs were selected to work on a site first and foremost on the basis of shared nationality with the country whose military forces had prepared the site. Funding from the aid department of the same Government invariably formed part of the package.[vii] When agencies are selected and financed on that basis, and appear happy to go along with it, inevitable questions are raised about their independence.

It is also important to note that it was the day-to-day co-operation between NATO contingents and NGOs in camps that provided the most visual images of the blurring of distinctions between military and humanitarian organisations. These proved instrumental in preventing many NGOs from working with civilians affected by the bombing in Serbia and, after the conflict, with minority populations inside Kosovo.

Although some NGOs did make efforts to distinguish themselves from their Governments[viii], most were happy to go along with these arrangements. While aware of the threat to their impartiality, it was neither in their power nor their interest to make a stance. In addition to the humanitarian imperative, there were strong institutional incentives for NGOs to work in the camps. The media profile of the humanitarian operation was unprecedented, and had led to massive amounts of private donations. In addition, the relationship between NGOs and their own Government’s aid department is usually vital to the wider organisation. Overt public criticism of NATO involvement in the humanitarian operation, or refusal to work in camps run by their own Governments, would have run strongly counter to both the short and the long-term interests of the organisations concerned.

The decisions made by NGOs during the Kosovo crisis show that mixed motives are not exclusively the domain of Governments – ‘humanitarian organisations can operate either morally in accordance with their essential ethic as their driving force or amorally with their own organisational survival driving their behaviour and adaptation’ (Sle:2000: 16). It is this ambivalence that made it hard for NGOs to remain impartial during the Kosovo crisis.

II – ‘Within the entirety of our programmes, we will reflect considerations of proportionality. . ..’

One implication of impartiality is that aid agencies are committed to providing such help wherever life-threatening suffering exists. In this sense, all such suffering exercises a valid claim on outside resources. To make arbitrary distinctions between more and less worthwhile suffering undermines the universality central to a basic commitment to humanity

’Humanitarian Principles and Policy Guidelines’, Larry Minear & Thomas Weiss

The second requirement of an impartial response is that the ‘provision of aid will reflect the degree of suffering that it seeks to alleviate’ (Code of Conduct, p9). Proportionality is not an easy concept to measure. Most people requiring emergency assistance live in extremely conditions, particularly, as in the Kosovo crisis, when forced to flee their homes. A disproportionate humanitarian response is certainly not a common phenomenon. In fact, the global amount spent on humanitarian assistance between 1994 and 1998 has exhibited a steady decline.

Given the problems facing forced migrants arriving or other disaster victims, the argument that too many resources have been allocated to a given humanitarian emergency is not a comfortable one to make. But, in a world where available humanitarian resources are not enough to meet all the needs, then a comparative perspective is essential.

Proportionality is therefore an ethical issue. It assumes equal regard for any person in need, basing the response on the need rather than on the person. It can also be used to choose between competing claims. As Nagel explains, ‘impartiality is also egalitarian in itself. What it means is that impartiality generates a greater interest in benefiting the worse off than in benefiting the better off – we may be able to benefit more or fewer, and we may be able to benefit them to a greater or a lesser extent…. Impartiality favours the first over the second in each case.’ (1991:66)

This section will consider two levels on which the response was disproportionate, on a regional and a global level.

Proportionality within the region

>These refugees (in Serbia) have the same rights and needs as refugees from Kosovo in Albania and Macedonia, and deserve similar levels of assistance and commitment from the international community to identify urgent solutions to their plight. . …It is important for the international community, as it attempts to provide assistance to the refugees in Albania and Macedonia, not to neglect people who have been refugees for over four years

UN Inter-Agency Needs Assessment Mission to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, OCHA, 2nd June 1999

For years, UN agencies and NGOs had experienced difficulties in securing funding for humanitarian activities in Serbia. Prior to the Kosovo conflict, the country hosted the largest caseload of refugees in Europe, some half a million refugees from the Krajina. The war had a twofold negative impact, significantly increasing the need for humanitarian assistance, while, at the same time, making it harder for international agencies to operate.

Images of aid agency staff working alongside NATO troops in Albania and Macedonia did little to enhance the image of humanitarian assistance as impartial. ‘Only a small group of humanitarian operations remained or became operational. Those associated with NATO had particular difficulty in functioning, whether during or after the NATO bombing.[ix] However, some organisations which as a matter of policy had not collaborated with NATO also experienced difficulties’ (HWP 1999:7). Adding to the constraints was a major shortage of donor funding available for humanitarian assistance inside Serbia following the end of the conflict, compounded by heavy conditionalities regarding its use.[x]

In May, a UN Inter-Agency Needs Assessment Mission urgently drew attention to the ‘new type of complex emergency’ in Serbia, pointing out that no international assistance had yet been received. At the same time, in Albania and Macedonia, stories of luxury camps were entering humanitarian folklore. Some had hot showers, video rooms and imported street lighting. Others controlled entrance with electronic swipe cards. One camp in Kukes, run by a foreign army, had surgical facilities of such high quality that NGOs in Albania were advised to medivac staff there rather than to a hospital in mainland Europe.

Practical obstacles not withstanding, one hugely significant conclusion can be drawn. The international community was manifestly unable to mount a humanitarian response that corresponded to the widespread need in Serbia during and after the Kosovo conflict. In theory, impartiality means upholding human values irrespective of the allegiance of those involved[xi]. In practice, political considerations seem to have given rise both to humanitarian excesses on one side of the conflict, and a equally dramatic shortfall on the other.

Proportionality within the world

To the 1999 UN appeal for Kosovo and the rest of former Yugoslavia, donor governments gave $207 for every person in need. Those suffering in Sierra Leone received $16 a head, and in the Democratic Republic of Congo little over $8

‘An end to forgotten emergencies?’ Oxfam Briefing Paper, April 2000

Comparisons between the response to Kosovo and the response to the world’s other humanitarian crises began straight away. Oxfam, in a recent paper drawing attention to the ‘brutal inequality of the global response’, illustrated their argument with the respective responses to the United Nations Consolidated Appeals Process (CAP) for different countries. The European Community (ECHO) spent more money in 1999 on humanitarian assistance in Kosovo than on the rest of the world put together. Individual government figures show the same imbalance, even before inclusion of the costs associated with their military’s involvement in humanitarian work, much of which remain unpublished and unknown.

The comparisons make uncomfortable reading. The money spent by the US Army / OFDA on Camp Hope in Albania, which housed just over 3,000 people for two months, was roughly the same amount as the UN’s entire annual appeal for Angola. Initial commitments to rebuild Honduran and Nicaraguan livelihoods shattered by Hurricane Mitch were not honoured. Proposals for emergency work in Sierra Leone and Sudan lay on the desks of donors, unanswered and ultimately unfunded. NGOs, for their part, re-assigned personnel from other programmes to staff their Balkans operations.

There is not the slightest doubt that much of the response to Kosovo was disproportionate to the need and, in the context of dwindling aid budgets world-wide, that this was profoundly at odds with impartial humanitarian values. The problem was not that the Kosovo Albanians received substantial assistance, which their situation undoubtedly demanded, but that so much of the aid effort involved duplication or quantities of assistance that could have achieved more elsewhere. Aid budgets are finite, and therefore any unnecessary expenditure on the Kosovo crisis could and should have been spent elsewhere.

It relates to the familiar concept of diminishing marginal utility – ‘within any person’s life, an additional thousand dollars added to fifty thousand will be spent on something less important than an additional thousand added to five hundred – since we satisfy more important needs before less important ones’ (Nagel 1991:65). It is clear that respect for this principle did not inform the response to the Kosovo crisis.

The humanitarian war

The UN Secretary General noted in May 99 “the necessity for respecting the distinction between humanitarian and military activities. If these lines are blurred, there is a grave risk of irreparable damage to the principle of impartiality of humanitarian assistance.”

The whole concept of a humanitarian war removed the traditional distinction between military and humanitarian objectives. This was compounded by UNHCR accepting NATO’s offer of support to the humanitarian operation, and by close funding and day-to-day relationships between NGOs and military contingents in the camps.

There were winners and losers from this blurred distinction. Support for the military campaign over Kosovo was increased by the involvement of NATO soldiers in the relief operation. Refugees in the camps received extremely high quantities of humanitarian assistance. NGOs received unprecedented media exposure and levels of funding, from both Governments and public alike. But there were losers too. As a result of close identification with NATO in Albania, humanitarian organisations were not able to respond adequately to the humanitarian needs in Serbia. Victims of other humanitarian disasters elsewhere in the world did not receive either the attention or the assistance that their plight demanded. In summary, the international response to Kosovo was impartial neither in its motive nor its execution.

‘This Code of Conduct seeks to guard our standards of behaviour . . .’

The humanitarian system is increasingly using voluntary commitments by agencies to codes of conduct as a method of self-regulation . . . broadly, agencies abided by the mechanisms to the extent that they saw it was in their interest to do so. . . . Conversely, agencies tended not to respect the agreements when they considered them not in their interest

‘The Politics of Principle: The Principles of Humanitarian Action in Practice’, Nicholas Leader

It is difficult to imagine that, had the bombing and the military contingents come from another quarter than from NATO, aid agencies public and private would have moved with such alacrity to respond

‘The Interaction of NATO-related Military Forces with Humanitarian Actors in the Kosovo Crisis’, HWP

Over the past decade, the international community has made both general commitments to implementing a principled approach to humanitarian aid, and developed context-specific[xii] mechanisms to guide activities in particularly complex environments. Traditionally the domain of the Red Cross, the increasing adoption of humanitarian principles by UN agencies and NGOs in particular has served three main purposes.

Firstly, they serve as an ethical framework that commits aid agencies to doing all that they can to preserve the integrity of the humanitarian ideal in the complex operating environment of conflict zones. Thus they represent an attempt to establish humanitarian ‘space’ or values, often in the face of widespread human rights abuses.

Secondly, by setting out certain rules and operational procedures, humanitarian principles have helped to establish ‘agency space’, allowing aid organisations relative freedom and security in which to work. In his review of humanitarian principles, Leader concludes that it is with respect to this purpose, this creation of ‘agency space’, that principles have proved most effective (1999:4).

Adherence to the principles is finally intended to minimise opportunities for warring parties to manipulate humanitarian assistance either for material gain, military advantage, or political legitimacy. Donors have exerted steady pressure on NGOs to demonstrate that their relief activities neither unwittingly prolong conflict nor become incorporated into the political economy of warfare. In fact, there is currently a trend among donors to make funding for relief activities conditional on agencies setting positive developmental or conflict-resolution objectives for their assistance. This is significant. ‘The perception of the potential for political impact, negative or positive, has in effect qualified the ‘humanitarian imperative”. This represents a shift away from an absolute towards utilitarian ethics as the foundation of humanitarianism’ (Leader 2000:2)

But, in Albania and Macedonia, aid agencies were faced with and new dilemma. Donors were not insisting on NGOs maintaining a distance from the warring party. Donors were the warring party. It is very interesting to see what happened.

Firstly, as has been seen, the proclamation of a conflict fought for humanitarian values inevitably encroached upon humanitarian space. The humanitarian ideal was diminished by the grossly uneven way in which assistance was divided between those in need on either side of the conflict. As one observer noted, the poison of enmity placed Serbs beyond the scope of human sympathy. This conflict seemed to create an ‘undeserving victim’ a concept that is ‘morally and ethically untenable, and practically counter-productive. It represents an outright rejection of the principles of humanity, impartiality and universalism, fundamental tenets of human rights and humanitarian principle’. (Stockton 1998:356)

Secondly, aid agencies betrayed extraordinary double standards when it came to carving out agency space. The same organisations so insistent on prohibiting armed soldiers from vehicles and compounds in places like southern Sudan appeared to happily set aside these rules when it came to working alongside NATO. Commenting on these double standards, one manager of a relief agency asked in a final report – ‘Would aid agencies working with refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo accept travel on a Rwandan military helicopter from Kigali to Gisenyi? Or would agencies working with refugees from Sudan transport material on an SPLA truck between Nairobi and Lokichokkio.’ At times co-operation gave way to demonstrations of open support. ‘Anyone present at the UN / NGO meeting in Tirana on June 14t h, where the Commander of AFOR, General Reith was greeted with a rapturous standing ovation by NGOs, may have had difficulty in offering credible arguments in support of the impartiality of the humanitarian community in Albania’ (Vaux 2000:16-17).

Finally, a political economy analysis of the kind demanded by the same donors for other conflicts may actually have precluded NGO co-operation with NATO contingents during the assistance programme altogether. Given that NATO’s participation in the relief effort was seen as crucial for maintaining support for the air campaign, then the inevitable consequence of NGOs working with the military was for their activities to become incorporated into the political economy of the conflict. However, it is significant that, on this occasion, all agreed that the ‘humanitarian imperative’ justified UNHCR requesting NATO’s support, an apparent shift back to absolute rather than utilitarian ethics as the basis for humanitarian action.

There were perhaps three reasons for this selectivity in applying a principled approach to the situation. The first in some respects is the most understandable. It has never been easy for aid agencies or personnel ‘to maintain a neutral and impartial stance in conflicts in which one party may have strong claims (including legal ones) to international sympathy and support’ (Roberts 1999: 37). Compassion for the plight of the Kosovar Albanians was inevitably tinged with anger at those responsible.

The second issue is that, for once, international staff members from aid agencies faced the same dilemma that many of their local staff faces on a regular basis, namely reconciling personal political sympathies with the impartial mandate of their employers. Most international aid workers were nationals from NATO countries and had close linguistic, cultural and often political affinities with military contingents from their own countries. The interaction was qualitatively different from relationships between aid workers and warring parties in other settings, and different rules applied.

A principle traditionally approached from an objective viewpoint suddenly became clouded with subjectivity. As one experienced aid worker observed: ‘It is hard to escape the rather disturbing conclusion that impartiality is very much easier in a context of geographical and political difference– when your own nations (and donors) are involved, many international agencies seemed to have struggled with their own impartiality’ (Vaux 2000:18).

The third reason is arguably the most significant. Agencies have adopted humanitarian principles such as impartiality partly because it has been in their interest to do so. A principled approach not only offers a degree of security and operational freedom, but also has ensured the legitimacy, and the funding, for agencies to work anywhere in the world. In the process, principles have changed ‘from something belligerents imposed on humanitarian agencies to something agencies are trying to impose on belligerents’ (Leader 2000:2). The massive increase in the influence and turnover of the international NGO sector over the past decade is testament to the success of a ‘politics that takes the world rather than the nation as its political space’ (Ignatieff 1998:21). Impartiality has been the business card of this global expansion.

During the Kosovo response, however, the traditional incentives for an impartial approach went into reverse. There were neither security concerns nor difficulties negotiating access to the refugee populations with parties to the conflict. There were no donors insisting on strategies to minimise the incorporation of aid into the dynamics of the conflict. On the contrary, working in the camps actually required agencies to set aside impartiality. That they were prepared to do so with such dispatch creates the strong suspicion that the value of humanitarian principles for many agencies is as a means more than an end.

’The right to receive humanitarian assistance, and to offer it, is a fundamental humanitarian principle. . .’

It is the characteristic of co-relativity with a duty that is often held to provide the hallmark by which we may know that a right properly so-called exists. Thus it has been suggested that the attribution of a right is meaningless without the possibility of a correlative duty resting somewhere, such that ‘Right and duty are different names for the same normative relation, according to the point of view from which it is regarded’.

‘Human Rights and International Relations’, Robin Vincent

The Kosovo crisis is proof, if any were needed, that selectivity is the ‘defining characteristic of the new humanitarianism’ (Chimni 1999:7). The universal rhetoric fails to disguise a global system where geography and political allegiance seem to be more powerful determinants of humanitarian assistance than rights. ‘In an Orwellian fashion, it seems that all humanitarian crises are imperative but some are more imperative than others. The more imperative emergencies are of course usually determined by the realpolitik imperatives of relief agencies’ donor governments, and by the financial, publicity or market imperatives of competing relief agencies’ (Slim 1997:346).

Beliefs, insists Rorty, are habits of actions. ‘If no actions can be predicted on the basis of a belief-attribution, then the purported belief turns out to be, at most, the mouthing of a formula, a meaningless incantation’ (1998:7). The key challenge facing humanitarianism is what it can do to ensure that its core belief in the universal right to assistance is backed up with more equitable action.

The first step is to determine the nature of the right in question. This will help clarify where lies the obligation to provide assistance wherever it is needed.

A legal obligation to provide assistance?

It would be much simpler to identify to whom falls the correlative responsibility if there were a direct legal right to humanitarian assistance. Unfortunately, there is not. There are no international legal instruments that refer to a generalised right to assistance. Rather like the legal protection of internally displaced persons, existing law only applies in specific situations. Article 59 of the fourth Geneva Convention and Article 18 of the second Additional Protocol, for example, oblige warring parties to do all they can to facilitate relief action on behalf of a civilian population during conflicts, but place no obligations on donor states. While several international covenants refer to the right to life, or freedom from hunger, the realisation of these rights depends on ‘international co-operation based on free consent’.

A recent study concludes that a right to humanitarian assistance may be emerging in international public law, but for the time being ‘can only be deducted by a far-fetched teleological interpretations of General Assembly and Security Council Resolutions’ (Quenivet 1999:31). Basing her argument on Security Council resolutions during the Bosnian War[xiii] that stressed the ‘right to access’ of humanitarian organisations, she concludes that ‘the right to access is the means to enhance the right to humanitarian access (assistance), the “effet utile”. Hence it is logical that such a right exists’ (1999: 24-26). However, even if this interpretation is correct, the right still cannot be claimed against specific donor states. Security Council Resolutions do not compel but ‘call upon states’ to contribute to humanitarian efforts. In this it resembles refugee law – the right of an individual to enjoy asylum entails no corresponding obligation on a particular state to grant it.

A moral obligation to provide assistance?

The next question then is to consider the nature of the moral obligation of donor states to provide humanitarian aid. Following Walzer’s principle of mutual aid, richer countries have a clear duty to provide assistance so long as the costs of doing so remain low. Yet, the proportion of GNP spent by the world’s richest countries[xiv] on official development assistance has actually declined in recent years. From a peak in 1992 of 0.33% of GNP, there has been a steady decline over the past decade to a figure of 0.23% in 1998. This represents a failure to honour even the minimal obligation donor countries have publicly set themselves, namely to allocate 0.7% of GNP on overseas assistance.

Because the need for humanitarian assistance continues to exceed total available resources, donors usually rely on less universal considerations to choose between competing moral claims. The obligation to provide assistance consequently is most keenly felt towards ‘particular communities of interest or conviction’ (Nagel 1991:14).

It is recognition of this that leads most commentators to concede that it will never be possible to separate the international humanitarian agenda from the political and foreign policy considerations of the small number of powerful countries that finance the international relief system (Slim 1998:7, Roggo 2000:8). Hence, even in the era of the non-governmental organisation, ‘taken as a whole, the system reflects donor priorities’ (Leader 1998:13).

France and Britain, for example, still tend to concentrate much of their emergency funding for Africa on their respective former colonies. The United States, with its influential Latino community, is usually the most generous donor for humanitarian work in Latin America. In this sense, the bilateralisation of assistance along national lines in Albania was just a microcosm of this broader pattern, albeit of a notably more overt nature. Humanitarian agencies have created international alliances[xv] partly in response to this, but gaps still remain.

Therefore, ‘despite the espoused universalism inherent in international organisations like the United Nations and its international human rights instruments’ (Slim 1998:7), donors routinely react most generously to those towards whom they feel solidarity as fellow members of a moral community ‘smaller and more local than the human race’ (Rorty 1989:191). Such solidarity may arise from past historical relationships, a shared religious, ethnic or cultural affiliation, or political beliefs.

Occasionally, donors may feel a particularly strong commitment to a particular group of people due to feeling implicated in the circumstances that precipitated a crisis. The process described here by Walzer could have been written about Kosovo.

‘Toward some refugees, we may well have obligations of the same sort that we have toward fellow nationals. This is obviously the case with regard to any group of people whom we have helped turn into refugees. The injury that we have done them makes for an affinity between us: thus Vietnamese refugees had, in a moral sense, been effectively Americanised even before they arrived on these shores (1983:49).

Solidarity and Universalism

Just as friendship need not be the only reason of someone who goes to the aid of a friend, so a commitment to compatriot fellow citizens or other locally specific communities does not have to exclude more general humanitarian concern

‘Solidarity in the Conversation of Humankind’, Norman Geras

The humanitarian response to the Kosovo crisis is clearly much better understood as an expression of solidarity than as the operation of impartial, universal concern. It does not follow, however, that universal values are generally obsolete, only that, in this particular instance, it was much stronger ties of moral obligation that determined the nature and the scale of the humanitarian response.

The real importance of universal values is ‘as a residual moral system of obligations among strangers that comes into force when all other social relations capable of saving a person have been destroyed’ (Ignatieff 1998:20). The Kosovars were our friends, so this safety-net turned out not to be needed. But this does not give the full picture. The problem with solidarity is there is ‘a potentially sinister side to it: It is essentially exclusive’ (Nagel 1991:176). It was civilians on the other side of the conflict that felt the full force of this exclusion. Paradoxically, if the importance of universal values was upheld by the Kosovo crisis, it was not in the abundance of humanitarian assistance in Albania or Macedonia, but rather by its scarcity in Serbia.

Conclusion – looking to the future

Perhaps the most important question to emerge in the aftermath of Kosovo is not whether we can purify ourselves of the connections that make this kind of powerful response to refugees possible but whether we can replicate such a response to the situation of those refugees whose plight is currently neglected.

‘Kosovo and beyond: popular and unpopular refugees’, Matthew Gibney

As the dust settles over the Kosovo crisis, what, if anything, can be done to make humanitarian assistance more impartial? Efforts need to be made on two levels.

Firstly, there are practical measures that might ensure a more even-handed response between different humanitarian crises. Following the heavy bilateralism of their response to the Kosovo crisis, donors must re-affirm their commitment to multilateral institutions. Despite the well-publicised problems of UN agencies, and their obvious dependence on a small group of western donors, their mandates and organisations alone have the global perspectives required for a more equitable international response. While management and cost-effectiveness of UN agencies require improvement, bilateralism fails to offer a credible alternative. Indeed, in the Kosovo response, bilateralism led to duplication and squandering of resources far beyond that tolerated by the same donors in other contexts.

Donors and aid agencies must also to work together to acknowledge and ultimately solve a problem that may be uncomfortable to them both. At times, there is simply too much money available for a particular crisis, and not only in Europe. It is worth recalling that the previous refugee crisis of a similar scale saw a similar proliferation of agencies and funding. The Kosovo crisis demonstrated that a key recommendation of the Rwanda Evaluation has not yet been taken on board. ‘Donor organisations and implementing agencies should take greater care to ensure that during periods when resources are comparatively freely available, as was the case for the two months following the Goma influx, they continue to be used wisely and cost-effectively’ (RRN 1996:16). In the context of declining overall aid budgets, money wasted on one crisis is money stolen from the next.

The humanitarian community has begun to develop tools by which this problem can be approached. The Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response, known as the Sphere Project, was initiated in 1997. The aim of the project is to define minimal technical levels below which no humanitarian programme should be allowed to fall. Although developed to specify minimum standards, they can also be used to indicate when no more resources are required. More systematic monitoring by, and adherence to minimum standards could help ensure a more measured response between different crises, if priority is given to areas where minimum standards are yet to be met.[xvi]

The second crucial lesson to emerge from Kosovo is that the kind of solidarity that inspired both the military action and the humanitarian response is a construct, and not ‘something that exists antecedently to our recognition of it’ (Rorty 1989:195). It is worth remembering that the nations that went to war for Kosovo in 1999 were those accused of sacrificing it at the time of the Dayton Peace Accords four years earlier. Or that in early 1998, despite protests from UNHCR, more than a thousand rejected asylum seekers were returned to Kosovo under the terms of formal readmission agreements with Belgrade. These deportations were carried out by the very governments that were competing to take in Kosovar refugees just twelve months later (HWP 1999:10).

Kosovo teaches us to ‘view solidarity as made rather than found, produced in the course of history rather than recognised as an ahistorical fact’ (Rorty 1989:195). Universal values undeniably played a part in the construction of this solidarity. The eventual response, hastened by political and public revulsion to events such as the Racak massacre, owes at least something to ‘a larger trend which has seen states give increased weight to human rights and humanitarian norms as matters of international concern’ (Caplan 1999:5).

The real challenge for humanitarians is to learn ‘how to massage dominant conceptions of interest, how to redefine them to be more reflective of humanitarian values.’ (Macfarlane & Weiss 2000:29). How successful this can be was recently illustrated by the response to the flooding in Mozambique. Backed up by unusually dramatic media coverage, the humanitarian community succeeded in placing the UK Government under intense domestic political pressure to improve its response to the disaster. While it will undeniably always be harder to create the same levels of interest for for-away crises as for those taking place in Europe, there are certainly enough successes from the past two decades for humanitarians to keep on trying.

The final and ironic legacy of the Kosovo response may be that its very excesses provide important opportunities for humanitarian agencies to lobby for increased levels of engagement with other crises.[xvii] Kosovo will continue to be the yardstick by which the generosity of Governments sensitive to charges of inconsistency or inequality will be scrutinised by an increasingly powerful alliance of domestic and international constituencies with a more universal outlook. Kosovo proves that while humanitarian expenditure is sure to continue to reflect the interests of the major powers, it does not necessarily mean that these interests themselves cannot be shaped in part by impartial humanitarian concern.


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[i] The focus of this study will be the response to the refugee crisis in Albania and Macedonia, between March and June 1999.

[ii] More than 140 NGOs have currently signed up to the Code of Conduct, in addition to the Red Cross Agencies. Several donors have recently made funding conditional on agencies being a signatory to the Code.

[iii] short for Albanian Force. It had, from the onset, a purely humanitarian mandate.

[iv] Hugo Slim criticises the possessiveness of aid agencies over the humanitarian idea. ‘Humanitarianism has been developing for over 130 years and its species of organisation has been evolving for the same period. It is now manifest in hundreds of varieties, the latest of which might be NATO’ ( 2000:8).

[v] ‘UNHCR’s decision to work with NATO during the air strikes therefore meant a deviation from the traditional norm that humanitarians be impartial and neutral’ (Suhrke 2000:109)

[vi] Briefing by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to the Security Council, 5th May 1999

[vii]for example, Erseke camp near Korce was built by UK K-For troops. Oxfam GB, Merlin and Care UK were the three NGOs chosen to work in the camp. All were offered DfID funding.

[viii] MSF, for example, the most vocal and consistent critics of NATO involvement in relief activities, used their international structure to place a symbolic distance between NATO forces and their organisations. They only used staff and national chapters unconnected with the nationality of the troops in each camp.

[ix] The most serious incident was probably the arrest of the two Australian CARE workers on spying charges. Harassment of local staff of international NGOs and searching their offices was a common occurrence throughout the conflict.

[x] The Focus Initiative was set up by the Governments of Switzerland, Russia and Greece to deliver assistance in FRY during the conflict. Its budget, USD 3.5 million, was a tiny fraction of the sums spent in Albania and Macedonia.

[xi] ‘In any conception of work for humanity, as well as in humanitarian law, the imperative to treat all people, including casualties of ‘friendly’ military forces, according to need is an ideal that deserves respect..’ (Pugh 2000:13)

[xii] for example, the Ground Rules Agreement in southern Sudan (1995) , the Joint Policy of Operation in Liberia (1996), and the Principles of Engagement in the Democratic Republic of Congo (1999)

[xiii] inter alia, Security Council Resolutions 752,757,758,764

[xiv] members of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development)

[xv] ie, MSF France will obtain funding from the French Government for work in Cameroon, even if the project is implemented by MSF-Holland.

[xvi] In Albania, some NGOs asked, only half-jokingly, whether Sphere should specify maximum standards as well.

[xvii] The UK Foreign Secretary, for example, admitted in a recent TV interview that his decision to send British troops to Sierra Leone was partly motivated by the strong necessity to show, post-Kosovo, that the international community was also prepared to intervene in area
s of less direct interest to major powers.

The author worked in Albania between April and July 1999. He can be contacted at

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