[This article appeared in Jim Whitman and David Pocock (Eds) After Rwanda: The Coordination of United Nations Humanitarian Assistance (Macmillan: 1996).]

Many of the UN peace support operations that have been created since 1989 are complex international conglomerates. Humanitarian organisations, governmental and non-governmental, often work alongside them. Despite the long field experience of bodies such as UNHCR and the ICRC, cooperating with peacekeepers is opening new perspectives. At times, there is no peace to keep. Especially in civil war situations, the parties usually do not fully accept that humanitarian assistance has any special status. This new environment is having a major impact, not only on the UN, but also upon some of the aid organisations. There are not, yet, many maps, and the process of discovery continues.

Most of the UN’s sixteen peacekeeping operations which had been established prior to UNTAG in Namibia in 1989-90 did not have mandates which expressly conferred humanitarian tasks [2]. ONUC (the United Nations Mission in the Congo 1960-4) had major humanitarian roles pressed upon it as disintegration and violence spread in the former colony. UNFICYP has had some such tasks in respect of dwindling minority populations on either side of the Green Line since the large population movements consequent upon the Turkish invasion in 1974. These have been exercised by a small (30-40) group of UN policemen, working alongside the rest of UNFICYP, UNHCR and the Red Cross. In a `diplomatic adviser’ role, UNFICYP has participated in the painful activities of the Committee on Missing Persons which is chaired by the ICRC. Since 1948, when the UN’s first peacekeeping mission, UNTSO, was created, other subsidiary humanitarian tasks, expressly mandated, or just inevitably arising and having to be fulfilled by a large, disciplined, logistically-competent force, have recurred. The underlying purpose of many of these missions was, of course, humanitarian -to further conditions of peace and security for the local population, often through the supervision of a ceasefire while a more permanent peace settlement was sought. Humanitarian aid was also often dispensed by the UN military in order to win hearts and minds. Many battalions arrived in theatre with a substantial capability, including medical facilities, and, traditionally, any spare capacity was shared with the inhabitants. Thus, for example, the UNIFIL field hospital at Naqoura, in southern Lebanon, has, for nearly a generation, given medical help to the often-deprived population of the region. And, as one saw in the Krajina region of Croatia, even battalions that themselves come impoverished and under-equipped into the field have frequently shared their limited resources with the war-ravaged villages which they protect and where they live. In many armies there is an old tradition of local support and solidarity.

With the arrival of the multi-task, multi-component peace support operations of recent years, the UN has found itself with a wide range of responsibilities which are designated `political’, `civil’ or `humanitarian’, as well as military. Beginning in Namibia, and continuing in Iraq, Cambodia, ex-Yugoslavia, Somalia, Angola, Mozambique, Rwanda, Georgia and Zaire, vast repatriation and/or relief operations have been carried out, or are planned, in conjunction with UN peace support operations, on the part of UNHCR, ICRC, WFP and other inter-governmental and non-governmental organisations. In recent years, virtually all armed conflicts have been primarily internal, with the parties’ objectives also including targeting the local population. UNHCR has assumed the new function of providing for the displaced and other victims of conflict in their own countries (alongside its traditional role of dealing with refugees outside their home states). It has also suddenly found itself working on the front lines. And it has doubled in size since 1990.

Meanwhile, a senior ICRC official has recently noted that starvation and terror have become `a predominant method of warfare… no quarter is given during armed confrontation… Neutral and humanitarian organisations are denied the basic conditions, laid down in international humanitarian law, which are indispensable for carrying out their activities’.

Pressure on all involved with peacekeeping is increased by the growing political role of the media -satellite television brings, fresh and devastating, the savagery of war into millions of homes. Reactions and funds are generated, often in response to such publicity, impelling governments and NGOs to `do something’. Pressures build on those in the field to tend to the victims, stop the mayhem, and somehow banish the awfulness. But the humanitarian organisations have often found that their mandates run directly counter to the objectives of the contending parties. UN peace operations, for their part, are frequently (especially in ex-Yugoslavia) knee-deep in mandates promulgated by a Security Council which, in 1992-3, lost contact with reality in regard to Yugoslavia and perhaps also elsewhere. Some missions had not even a fraction of the resources required to implement crucial tasks, nor was there the political will to see them fulfilled. Adding to the complexity of the new peacekeeping/humanitarian cooperation, while UN bodies and some NGOs are organically committed to impartiality, other NGOs are partisan, and make no pretence about it. They nevertheless often expect full assistance – including, at times, protection – from the UN. And, not infrequently, they bring their equally engage media with them.

Thus, on several continents, new types of relationships between humanitarian organisations and peacekeeping soldiers have had to be developed, often under stressful conditions, in the eye of the camera lens, and with no instruction leaflets.

Rarely do the internationals’ objectives conflict. Peacekeeping operations fully endorse humanitarian goals, and aid workers usually believe that the peacekeepers should try to keep whatever peace there might be. Where problems arise, they do so over means , not ends. A public international mission in the field, whether political, humanitarian or military, carries out the mandate conferred on it by its executive authority, whether that be the Security Council, General Assembly or other inter-governmental body. This is, in principle, also the position of non-governmental humanitarian bodies, although with them, in practice, the degree of headquarters control might be more varied. There is unlikely to be conflict between the mandates of UN political and UN humanitarian and aid agencies; there is not much chance that the Security Council will direct a peacekeeping operation to contravene humanitarian principles, and there can be few instances in which humanitarian agencies might be mandated to take action incompatible with a peacekeeping mandate.

It is not proposed here to discuss Chapter VII enforcement situations, wherein the coercive weight of the international community is brought to bear. In such situations there is, indeed, the real possibility of a clash of mandates, whether coercion takes the form of economic or military sanctions. In the case of economic, communications and transport sanctions, responsibility is often placed upon the overseeing Sanctions Committee of the Security Council to ensure that appropriate exemptions are expeditiously made in circumstances of humanitarian need (for example, casualty evacuations or a hospital’s urgent need for particular drugs).

In a peace support, Chapter VI, situation, whatever problems arise tend to do so during implementation. As regards NGOs, while some are quite eager to coordinate their activities with UN bodies, and are also able to do so in practice, it might prove impossible to achieve much in the way of cooperation with many others. Some may have mandates which are very narrow, or are openly partisan, and thus incompatible with the impartiality of UN bodies; other NGOs, such as the ICRC, have a firm tradition of autonomy, and do not ordinarily seek coordinated arrangements with the UN (though there may in appropriate situations be close cooperation between them and the peacekeeping force and its UN humanitarian companion body).

A UN peacekeeping mission and a UN humanitarian body that share the same theatre of operations will, in today’s scheme of things, have multiple points of interface; while their mandates will, though interlocking, in principle remain distinct and non-overlapping. It is self-evident that both military and civilian components of the peacekeeping mission seek the same objectives, and also share them with the major aid organisations. Yet while cooperation in some countries has been immaculate and, as it should be, mutually supportive, in others, most notably Somalia and, at some points, Bosnia, there have been problems. In recent months, both UNHCR and ICRC have been making commendable efforts to learn from their experiences. They have concentrated on the range of problems that has emerged from this new cooperation, by holding civil-military seminars and by producing training modules designed to explain each to the other [3]. This is an absolute necessity, exacerbated by the fact that in situ there is a frequent rotation of key personnel. The learning process has therefore to be virtually continuous. Learning the elementary features of one another’s modus operandi in theatre is not very efficient and both humanitarian officers and the military need this training as an integral part of their basic instruction and orientation process, with regular refresher courses thereafter. For it seems likely that combined humanitarian/security operations will become a regular feature of international action, whatever future routes UN peacekeeping may follow.

In general terms, the problems that exist between humanitarian workers and the military stem from a lack of familiarity with one another, and with the new kind of tasks they are having to undertake, jointly and severally. As already indicated, some agencies such as UNHCR have suddenly found themselves in largely uncharted territory, having to learn new operational tasks which must often be undertaken in more exacting circumstances than has usually been the case. Moreover, because of the rapid expansion of UNHCR’s duties, it has had to recruit a large number of personnel `from the street’. These new staff, however willing, able and courageous, may have little experience of international operations of any kind. Indeed, this is a problem besetting the whole of peacekeeping, to the extent that the last major operation which could largely be staffed by the UN from its own personnel was Namibia in 1989. In Yugoslavia, for example, only about 10 per cent of UNPROFOR’s political personnel had previously been UN staff members. There is no rotation system in the UN Secretariat (there is in UNHCR) and Missions are staffed with those volunteers who can be extracted from their headquarters offices.

One can probably also blame a two-way lack of familiarity for the attitudinal abyss which frequently separates aid workers from the military. Aid workers are often suspicious of the military, and the feeling is reciprocated. Especially in recent missions, aid workers tend to be much younger than their military counterparts, and this can reinforce perceived differences of approach. One example comes vividly to mind. A senior general, veteran of many campaigns, had a key operational role in his first UN Mission. His initial meeting took place with his humanitarian opposite number. This officer turned out to be female and, however field-experienced, in her late twenties. It did not go well. Afterwards, the general was near-incoherent. `She lectured me’, he spluttered, `just like my wacko teenage Peacecorps daughter’. (It might be added, first, that he proved an effective operator, and was rated `very supportive’ by aid workers. Second, there is no record of what the aid coordinator said after the meeting.) Analogous stories abound on both sides of the military/humanitarian fence.

The second problem that exists, and can be cured if there is a full awareness of it and a determination that it be overcome, is lack of information about what each element is supposed to be doing (and is actually doing) in that particular Mission. As in a high proportion of the multitude of managerial problems that arise in peacekeeping, the key is coordination. Yet ensuring even moderate standards of coordination may require much determination at senior levels on all sides. Failure might bring about confusion and mutual hostility; these can create serious dangers for all concerned, and will certainly undermine the Mission’s viability. The effectiveness of some recent UN Missions has been seriously affected by management’s failure to focus on coordination, or through allowing established mechanisms to disintegrate.

In summary, 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.


In UNHCR’s recent training handbook Working with the Military , the problem is described thus:

`Linkage occurs when the parties to a conflict condition humanitarian activities upon other humanitarian actions or the progress of political or military events. The acceptance of linkages by humanitarian or military actors violates the principles of humanity, impartiality and neutrality. From a practical point of view, acceptance of linkages creates operational gridlock, because linkages tie the continuity of humanitarian programmes to matters beyond the control of the operation’s participants. The insistence on linkages by the parties to a conflict also suggests a vitiation of consent.

The military, more accustomed to autonomy, may find it difficult to apply this principle, as to them it may appear to prevent the achievement of reasonable objectives. An escort commander who is told at a checkpoint that passage of his humanitarian aid convoy is conditional upon sharing some of the aid with needy locals, for example may not immediately appreciate the implications if he has not been briefed about the problem of linkages and the fact that each linkage however apparently reasonable – may become a precedent for obviously unreasonable demands.’

Further, `… each of the political, humanitarian and military elements must exercise caution and sensitivity in order to avoid interference with the other’s pursuits. In practice, this requires restraint and strict limitation of negotiations and mediation to each party’s respective sphere of competence. The alternative is the nightmare of linkage, which inevitably leads to operational paralysis.'[4]

In UNHCR’s parallel Handbook for the Military, it is stated that `allowing humanitarian objectives to become linked to military or political events can cause paralysis in Missions, where extraneous issues are allowed to cloud the primary principle of humanity ‘[5].

Some of these issues, and others, were analysed from the ICRC’s standpoint at a 1994 symposium on Humanitarian Action and Peacekeeping Operations by its Director of Operations, Jean de Courten. He expressed ICRC’s acute concern over `…the subordination of humanitarian action to political objectives during recent UN operations… Such situations have given rise to confusion which in turn has had an adverse effect on the acceptability and thus the security of independent and neutral humanitarian action. Mandates, tasks, means and objectives have all been affected by this confusion’. He emphasised that states have a duty to respect international humanitarian law, and that this also compels them to agree to humanitarian action – which depends upon consent. But he noted that in Bosnia political bargaining had developed, and the politicization of humanitarian action – calling into question even so pivotal a principle as that of non-reciprocity. He said that similar issues had recently arisen in Angola and Liberia. During the ensuing discussion on the pressures which require peacekeepers to adapt principles to immediate humanitarian concerns, he added that the ICRC had faced similar dilemmas to those confronting the UN in Bosnia-Herzegovina; for instance, unable to prevent `ethnic cleansing’, the ICRC helped to move some of its victims to save their lives [6].

The `Politicization of Humanitarian Action’ – a Classic Dilemma

The preceding paragraphs identify a number of issues: one is that everybody should stay within their own terms of reference; another relates to the need, under compelling circumstances, to adjust humanitarian goals to what overwhelming circumstances demand; another is about using aid as a means of pressure or reward; a further issue refers to parties’ conditioning their agreement to do what humanitarian law requires them to do upon reciprocal action by their foes. All in fact relate to the same underlying issue: what are international peace or humanitarian personnel to do in the absence of the parties’ consent, or in an environment of qualified consent? UNHCR and ICRC have at various times indicated that force is not the answer; one cannot achieve humanitarian goals by fighting one’s way through. If withdrawal, also, is not an alternative, how does one function on the dangerous shifting sands in the middle? (Neither flight, nor paralysed rumination, being acceptable options.)

Described below are some examples of humanitarian problems that have arisen in ex-Yugoslavia. Each has required a practical and defensible solution so as to advance humanitarian objectives in hostile environments. Each was answered at the time. But were they the correct answers? How does one define `correct’? Does an imperfect means destroy a good objective? What would the potential or actual victims think? What is one to make of our pondering Hamlet if, meanwhile, the victims are themselves annihilated?

The Bihac Blockade

A simple example of the problem, albeit involving an aid agency only, without the involvement of any UN political entity, arose in March 1995 over the blockade by the `Krajina Serbs’ of UNHCR aid convoys to mainly Moslem areas of the Bihac pocket in Bosnia. The UN Secretary-General’s spokesman announced that, on 8 March 1995, UNHCR had written to Mr Milan Martic, the Krajina leader, informing him that because his followers were obstructing the delivery of aid to their adversaries in the Bihac pocket, humanitarian assistance in the Krajina (which the Serbs were, obviously, not obstructing) would be suspended. Under questioning the spokesman said that this `was not at all a political, but a technical, decision’. He emphasised that it was not a cancellation, but a `temporary suspension’ of deliveries [7].It is indisputable that vulnerable groups in both population groups were in need and it would appear that the `temporary suspension’ of aid delivery by UNHCR was a means to seek a humanitarian objective, namely, the restoration of a transit right for aid convoys to Bihac, and, paradoxically, in order not to continue providing aid to one side only.

Such a decision is, perhaps, more readily understandable by those living with the problem and having to resolve it, than by those at a distance. The justification might be that it was a last resort taken to cut through an issue which imminently threatened human life. On the other hand, prima facie, UNHCR decided that it must impose humanitarian pressure to achieve a humanitarian objective, and this raises a basic issue. Without having personal knowledge of the situation, it may be inferred that the UNHCR theatre representative decided that the desperation of the humanitarian situation in Bihac was so much worse than that in the Krajina that a value judgement had to be made between two conflicting moral imperatives. The representative would then have obtained the support of his or her head office in Geneva and taken the relevant decision, no doubt after coordination with UNPROFOR in Zagreb.

It has been nowhere suggested that extraneous political factors entered into the equation – that, for instance, the Bihac Moslems tend to have more sympathetic press coverage in the principal donor countries and more diplomatic support in UNHCR’s governing body than the Serbs of Krajina; or that, in the crisis situation over the Croatian president’s proclaimed intention to `discontinue the mandate of UNPROFOR’, certain pressures will have existed in respect of the Bosnian Moslems with whom the Croatian government then had an alliance. While, as stated, no public reference to such interpretations is known to the writer, it is certain, given local conditions, that these (and others) will be widely discussed in the region. Whether the act of `temporary suspension’ will affect the reputation for impartiality of UNHCR in the area, and therefore its humanitarian competence, is likewise a matter for judgement; this too will have been considered by those taking the decision.

`Ethnic Cleansing’ in Croatia

One midnight in May 1992 in the Serb-controlled sector east in Croatia, a patrol of UNPROFOR’s Russian battalion intercepted an instance of `ethnic cleansing’ – a remaining minority of Croats were being forced from their village, Tovarnik by local Serbs. The Croats – old people, mothers and children, who had lived in Tovarnik all their lives – were given sanctuary by the Russian soldiers. UNPROFOR personnel came to meet with them there, listened to their story and their concerns, discussed their options with them, and offered them full 24-hour protection. But they were too afraid to return to Tovarnik (that night’s events had been the culmination of pressures and, they said, the local authorities themselves were involved) and asked, instead, that they be taken to Osijek, in Croat-controlled Croatia. UNPROFOR gave them 48 hours to think over their decision, but their minds were made up. Accordingly, UNPROFOR provided transport and security when they left the Russian sanctuary and crossed to Croat-controlled territory. UNCIVPOL conducted a full criminal investigation and established a `prosecution dossier’ of witness statements which it provided to the Serb authorities in Erdut and Belgrade [8]and, ultimately, to the newly-established international tribunal in The Hague.

Was UNPROFOR participating, as an accessory, in the barbarism of ethnic cleansing (as the Croat media immediately trumpeted) or was it exercising the only form of protection that, in the circumstances, was going to be effective? This was the first of many similar dilemmas faced by UNPROFOR, UNHCR, and the ICRC in ex-Yugoslavia.

Once, UNPROFOR refused to accept the collective decision of the whole population of a village, Podlapac, to leave sector south and go to Croat-controlled Croatia. It declined to do so despite intimidation and murders which implicated members of the local Serb authorities. It was the last mainly Croat village in the Serb-controlled sector – all others had been abandoned in flight long before. However, UNPROFOR perceived there to be special factors, and the peacekeeping body was able to deploy a significant presence in the area. Two years later the situation is holding, but all involved in the decision knew that they would share a heavy responsibility if other atrocities were to take place.

In both Tovarnik and Podlapac difficult decisions – practical, humanitarian, political, moral – had to be taken on the facts. In peacekeeping, such decisions cannot be avoided. In ex-Yugoslavia, only rarely did senior officials have the luxury of choosing between viable `legitimate’ alternatives. All too often, the choice was between what one or more of the parties, for political reasons, would certainly portray as indefensible behaviour by the UN, and what negotiators knew was impossible. Soon, whatever was least immediately bad (from the humanitarian standpoint) began to be the normal favoured course of action. Better no bloodshed today; tomorrow might never come.

Reciprocal Releases of Serb and Moslem Hostages

From about May 1992 onwards, UNPROFOR frequently negotiated the release of civilian prisoners, non-combatants held as hostages by Bosnian government or Bosnian Serb forces; often – when it had representation in the area – in conjunction with the ICRC. Habitually, neither side was prepared to release prisoners unless a specified number was released by the other side. Each threatened to kill their prisoners – threats which, from experience, one knew to take seriously. Taking of hostages is illegal. Linked releases not only may, but probably did, encourage more prisoners/hostages to be taken. Having failed to secure their release on a unilateral basis, UNPROFOR nevertheless participated in the negotiated release. Had it not been involved, perhaps the practice would have diminished (though history lent little encouragement to that hope). Alternatively, more hostages might have been killed. Faced with these alternatives, UNPROFOR negotiated reciprocal release.

Reciprocal Repair of Sarajevo’s Utilities

From autumn 1992 onwards, UNPROFOR military personnel, often at great personal risk, repaired water and electrical lines in parts of Sarajevo. Each side had disrupted basic utilities in order to make the lives of its opponent’s civilian population even more awful than before. This was in breach of international humanitarian law. As usual, UNPROFOR told the parties that they were behaving unlawfully and asked them to stop. When, also as usual, they paid no heed, UNPROFOR negotiated with each side, then conducted repairs (the parties, despite their prior consent, often opening fire upon the UN military when they began repair work). Gradually, some aspects of the inhuman conditions under which Sarajevans lived were thereby moderated until, in some fresh paroxysm, the parties re-dynamited power pylons or fired tank rounds into pumping stations. Was UNPROFOR, by going beyond a demand that unlawful and inhumane practices cease, and permitting reciprocity where there should have been moral and legal absolutes, encouraging illegality? Was this `politicising humanitarian action’? From the outsider’s standpoint, undoubtedly. In the view of the parties? – Probably not. Utilities, in civil war situations, are seen by them as rather political to start with.

The Sarajevo Airport Agreement

Sarajevo airport is now seen throughout the world as a symbol of a city’s survival and of an international determination to provide aid to its people. Each day – except when the war makes flying plainly suicidal – a dozen or more huge planes dip suddenly below the rim of surrounding hills (which bristle with weapons), drop precipitously onto the runway, and quickly unload a hundred or more tons of aid from all over the world. 29 March 1995 marked 1000 days of the airlift. During that time, according to UNHCR, more than 150,000 tons of aid have been carried in more than 12,000 sorties. The airlift has provided around 95 per cent of the assistance received in Sarajevo. It has also enabled more than 1000 medical evacuations to be conducted.

Since 1992, many have died at the airport, many more in delivering or protecting the aid that arrives there. Fighting between government and Serb forces which, from their ruins, face one another across the runway, did not cease with the airport’s handover by the Serbs to UNPROFOR in June 1992. One cannot but be aware, when emerging from behind the protective sandbags and earthworks, that one might have slipped into the rifle-sights of a sniper belonging to one or the other side – or, now crazy, perhaps no longer to any. The humanitarian airlift is the most extensive the world has ever seen. It is run with great efficiency. A plane may be unloaded and back on the runway five minutes after touching down. Though some would have wished the international community to have adopted a more forcibly interventionist policy, this joint operation between UNPROFOR and UNHCR has enabled the city’s people to survive a three-year siege.

By June 1992, the airport had been captured by the Serbs. Their siege and shelling of the city had begun two months earlier and they had seized it after prolonged and bloody battles with Bosnian government forces. It was useful to them not so much as an airport – for each side can easily destroy any aircraft planning to use it – but because of the strategic importance of the site. Without it, a major Serb base, Lukavica, could easily be separated from their main population centre, Ilica. The UN had to have the airport if the Security Council’s demand that the people of Sarajevo be provided with humanitarian aid were to be realised, and if a link to the outside world were to be maintained. The Bosnian government side wanted it because they could thereby acquire a major strategic advantage. But they also supported the idea of the UN having it. While, for geographical reasons, the Serb side was not so dependent on humanitarian aid being brought in, they needed to be seen to have their due share; it would have been politically unthinkable for them to have appeared to have given the airport to the UN for the support of their adversaries.

The Serb decision to hand over the airport to UNPROFOR was a most unexpected outcome to several days’ intensive and difficult negotiations. The Serb negotiators were Dr Radovan Karadzic, Mrs Biljana Plavsic and General Ratko Mladic. Mladic was strongly opposed to the UN demand. All three were clearly nervous of having to explain to their own people any decision to give to the UN what many Serbs had died to conquer. The UN team explained that it had a Security Council mandate whose terms were not negotiable, though the idea of barter was explored for some time by the Serbs. The UN insisted that there could be no trade-off. This led to an apparent breakdown in the discussions. But, in the end, a regime was established for the delivery of humanitarian aid which would enable the Serbs to check everything being imported at the airport; and to have an at least mathematically appropriate share of incoming supplies, even though it was clear that, in terms of need, such share would probably be disproportionate. Various other provisions were included in related agreements to enable the Serb side to justify its actions to its own constituency, and the Bosnian government endorsed the deal.

It might be appealing and `politically correct’ to pretend that the UN imposed the airport agreement on the parties; but this would be false. Even two months into the war, and with the UN’s standing still high with both sides, marginal undertakings (from the UN standpoint) had to be given to satisfy Serb concerns, especially from the standpoints of security and public relations – because it was imperative that the UN had the airport. It was of such importance that negotiators might have had to show even more flexibility than their initial authority afforded. (They did not foresee early Serb agreement, or the significance the airport would have over such a long period.) As one can now see, it was perhaps one of the most important humanitarian negotiations in the region, and was relatively `tidy’ in terms of avoiding `linkage’.

East Mostar – 1993

Considerably less `tidy’ was the series of interlinked negotiations in August – September 1993 in and around the Croat/Moslem city of Mostar; Western Mostar was mainly Croat and East Mostar mainly Moslem. The city was divided, nearly down the middle, by the River Neretva whose once graceful and historic bridges had by then been reduced to savage parodies, a major killing-ground. Mostar had been bombarded for months in 1992 by the Serbs. What was left on the Moslem side was then pulverised by Bosnian Croat (and allegedly Croatian) artillery. The condition of East Mostar, overall, was a good deal worse than that of Sarajevo. Croats controlled all access, except for a track across the mountains, impassable by vehicles. To all intents and purposes, East Mostar was cut off from the world, though the Bosnian army had a rudimentary radio capability. There was no international presence; it had either been expelled or had withdrawn because of conditions there. Negotiations by the UN to end this state of affairs continually broke down because one or the other side would not agree part of a package deal whose first provisions dealt with humanitarian access and a permanent international presence on both sides of the Neretva; and also because the city had become so dangerous for UNPROFOR, (especially its Spanish battalion) which had lost several personnel there.

The long deadlock showed some sign of yielding when Croatian Foreign Minister Mate Granic became involved, together with senior UNPROFOR officials, and a complex and unfolding agreement was achieved in outline, in consultation with all concerned (many participating elements had to be coopted to make sure the agreement stuck). The Croats largely controlled the situation, but had become much concerned over the international image of that they were doing in Herzegovina. In its first stage, therefore, there would be an UNPROFOR military/UNHCR humanitarian convoy to Croat Mostar, media-covered talks with the Bosnian Croat leadership there, and a visit to the heavily-damaged hospital. The international media would be encouraged to accompany this visit and, the Croats said, they would also facilitate their coverage. They did not, initially, agree to a visit to East Mostar. As a result of this first step, the media carried images, worldwide, of the makeshift hospital arrangements, the dedication of medical personnel there, the UN/Croat consultations, and the Bosnian Croat version of the story. The Croats, stressed by the rebounding publicity which they themselves had chosen to generate, were then politically compelled to permit a parallel visit, two days later, to Moslem East Mostar. Despite the daily images of death and destruction from Sarajevo, the condition of this part of Mostar, with its ancient elegance reduced to a fretwork shell, and the humanitarian horror which existed there after months of bombardment and siege, shocked international opinion. The Croatian Government in Zagreb leapt into further action, and more pressure was imposed on the Bosnian Croats. Further negotiations at Medjugorje, in the presence of Croatia’s Foreign Minister, brought about a Bosnian Croat agreement, in principle, for a ceasefire and an initial convoy of food and medical aid. Getting this convoy into East Mostar proved very difficult, and, in the end, was brought about by a series of complex and unattractive collateral agreements. They included one whose main features were that a small proportion of the aid was to go to the west side of Mostar (though it was hard to see any objective humanitarian need for this – it was, instead, part of a face-saving device for the Bosnian Croats); a second was that there would be a subsequent visit by senior UN officials to a Bosnian Croat hospital near Vitez (Nova Bila); and, a third, that specified numbers of bodies of former military personnel, buried or otherwise in the possession of the opposite side, would be carried by the convoy and exchanged as it crossed the lines. Other provisions in a deal which was intended to break the long humanitarian logjam over Mostar related to the reestablishment of the UNPROFOR presence on both sides of the Neretva – with a civil affairs office, UNCIVPOL, military observers and a company of the Spanish battalion – and a `permanent’ ceasefire. The initial relief convoy into Mostar did not proceed without incident – with Croat demonstrators, blockades, surrounding firefights and other problems. It took 12 hours to cover 25 miles. It culminated in the convoy (which had reached East Mostar with its 200 tons of aid in the middle of the night and immediately been unloaded) being blockaded – in effect held hostage – this time by the Bosnian Moslems who wished to draw still more world attention to East Mostar conditions. They held it for two days. Other parts of the agreement were implemented over the next week or so, together with new agreements, which also had to be negotiated on a reciprocal basis, as each side’ s active support was necessary, for access by international medical personnel to the main hospitals in the region of the Moslem/Croat conflict, the regular provision of medical and food aid and – perhaps most difficult of all – the evacuation of gravely sick and wounded personnel including many civilians, especially young children and mothers. Many humanitarian objectives, blocked for months, were attained and some element of movement, from peacekeeping, humanitarian and political standpoints, was inserted into a savagely-contested region, at last beginning to open it up to external influence.

However, the agreement became controversial within sections of the aid community during the dangers incurred by the convoy while it was blockaded into Mostar. During these days, fighting, including bombardment and intensive sniping, broke out again, and some international elements, which had tagged onto the convoy somewhat unnecessarily, experienced the less euphoric side of peacekeeping and rued their decision. In the end, the whole convoy safely extricated itself. But soon the initiative came to be criticised because it was said not to be a `clean’ agreement. The amount of `linkage’ and, indeed, unequivocal political leverage, that had been used to break the immobilism, and insert some momentum into the deteriorating Herzegovinan situation, made it retrospectively unacceptable, even reprehensible, to some. And yet, for better or worse, it was probably one of the most effective examples of linked agreements during the Bosnian operation. Lives were saved and the belligerents had to begin a dialogue, at least on humanitarian matters. Even to the most hardened, conditions in East Mostar were traumatic, over and beyond the `regular’ awfulness of war. It was hard to explain, much less justify, the lack of effective attention that had been given to Mostar over the previous eighteen months, while the media had focused on Sarajevo and the so-called `safe areas’. While, for months following, the Mostar situation was far from happy, it has never again descended to the Inferno-depths of late August 1993.

The Parties’ Perception of Humanitarian Aid

With UNPROFOR, UNHCR has done excellent humanitarian work in Bosnia. WHO surveys and analyses confirm how effective its aid programme has been [9].It is all the more remarkable because each side has principally been making war on the other’s civilian population. Destruction of the people’s morale has been the main objective. Mortar-bomb attacks on population centres; the destruction of utilities; blockades to induce near-starvation conditions; sniping, preferably to maim rather than kill, children often being the targets of choice; anti-personnel devices in population centres; the use of quasi-concentration camps and of hostages as `human shields’ during infantry advances; maintaining maximum pressure on hospitals (often reducing them to near-medieval working conditions) and siting weapons adjacent to them; limiting the evacuation possibilities of the gravely wounded – whether adults or little children; the destruction of cultural institutions – dynamiting churches and bulldozing graveyards; these, and more, have been used by all or some of the parties as characteristic features and tactics of the war in Bosnia and Croatia. While much savagery has been wanton, a great deal has been calculated; often showing meticulous logistical and operational planning and, in some cases, almost certainly commanded at very high official levels.

Humanitarian assistance has been seen by the parties as providing not only material aid but also as helping to uphold the morale of beleaguered communities. Each humanitarian convoy passing through the lines of a besieging force diminishes its power and capacity for terror. Humanitarian supplies may be destined especially for the vulnerable groups – children, mothers, the sick and wounded, the elderly. However, secondary delivery from warehouses is essentially for the local community to arrange. Monitoring may be carried out by the international agency concerned but, at best, it cannot be wholly effective. In many cases (air-drops, for instance) control may be almost impossible. Without doubt, much aid is not going to vulnerable groups. It has become a commodity, a means of wealth and power; and it has certainly been augmenting the rations of the fighters. All the humanitarian agencies know these things. By blunting the impact of belligerent action, and in the absence of negotiated settlements (which have been the business, at the macro-level, of the International Contact Group), humanitarian relief has probably prolonged the war (which is not to say, that it should not be provided). When the parties yield to the international community’s demands that relief be permitted to pass, they do so with a clear understanding of what they are doing. They perceive it as a concession with its price. That price may be exacted on the spot – 10 per cent, perhaps, of the convoy’s content; or 50 per cent of its fuel supplies. Or, it might be permitted to pass on some other condition – that, say, all persons of its cultural background should be evacuated from an adjacent town (whether they wanted this or not); or that they would be given safe passage to evacuate wounded through opposing lines to a major medical facility; or some other quid pro quo.

This is not to say that aid did not reach vulnerable groups at all. It generally did, in some degree, else the mortality and nourishment statistics would be much worse than they have been. But it reached more than sick babies and nursing mothers.

All who served in ex-Yugoslavia and had to negotiate with the parties doubtless explained to them their obligations under international humanitarian law, and may have emphasised its commonsense, practical, and humane foundations. The effect has been minimal. At best, belligerents might concede that what was said was just, but, they would add, `the other side’ could not be trusted to behave reciprocally or would behave deceitfully, and this could have the gravest consequences. All saw aid as having political and economic, as well as humanitarian, significance [10]. The result was that everybody negotiated everything, save their most sacred shibboleths (which rarely coincided with the terms of any Geneva Convention.)

Voluntary Compliance with Humanitarian Standards

What were the alternatives? That the UN would fight its way through, or summon Jove’s righteous thunderbolts to sear a humanitarian path? And then back again? And the next day? And the day after that, when the whole countryside would be ablaze, and the UN be overwhelmed in some humiliating and terminal encounter? The other alternative was, that having met blank refusal when the UN insisted, as of right, to pass through road-blocks and deliver sustenance to the enemy (as the other party saw it), the humanitarian effort could have been called off. Some agencies, certainly, considered this possibility. But they concluded that, once present, it was politically impossible to withdraw. Had they done so, the war would have continued. Perhaps, after one or two appalling, genocidal clashes, it might have been abbreviated, though this, in the circumstances of Balkan history, must also be dubious. After a Tito-enforced period of stability among peoples, many of whom have long been uneasy with one another, each has determined to hack out its Lebensraum. Their time for humanitarian solidarity, pluralism, reconstruction and reconciliation, will be later.

It would be gratifying if belligerent parties knew and respected the Geneva Conventions and the other aspects of international humanitarian law. But the ICRC has a monumental educational task in inducing governments to make effective the solemn instruments which they have signed and by which they are legally bound. Ex-Yugoslavia has not been unique in its recent savagery. It has brought home, once again, how wide is the gulf between what parties promise and what they do; especially in the field of international law, where enforcement is rare and sketchy. Perhaps vigorous and well-focused political pressure by one or more of the humanitarian NGOs could begin to have some positive effects, if the ICRC feels that it would be inappropriate for it, as `guardian’ of international humanitarian law, itself to undertake this politically-charged follow-up work.

There is no permanent court to oversee the application of international humanitarian law. The international community has been no more enthusiastic about creating one during the last fifty years than it has been ready to take enforcement action against the parties in ex-Yugoslavia. (UNHCR appears not to believe in enforcement action to secure the delivery of humanitarian aid.[11]) But if the parties remain adamant in their disregard of international standards, and force and withdrawal are ruled out, the alternative can only be negotiation.

The Balkan conflict has again brought home to Europe some harsh lessons and realities, fifty years after the last world war and the Nuremberg judgements. Some aid organisations are newcomers to some of these circumstances, and to the peacekeeping environment, in which slender forces seek to prevent conflict, or to minimise its barbarity, without, save in exceptional circumstances, much in the way of coercive power or sanctions. This also reflects the general character of international relations and its regrettably weak law. It almost always means negotiation and compromise in the pursuit of standards, because they are unsupported by the kind of community enforcement that takes place within nations.

This often means not endorsing, but living with, the fact that worthy ends might have to be achieved by indirect means, not all of which will in themselves be wholly pure and defensible when evaluated in isolation. The decision-maker will also be aware, however, that this might instead result in worthy ends being corrupted by compromising methods. In actuality, the real issue is how to achieve humanitarian goals and standards despite having to use methods that may at times be less than perfect. This is the habitual problem of those who often risk their lives to bring some humanitarian aid to the victims of war and oppression.

Yet some feel that there may be even more painful dilemmas than those that have been explored here. If aid delivery prolongs a particular conflict, as some have come to think, should it be continued, notwithstanding that saving some lives could be at the cost of others, and some even greater evil? Who, the alternatives being open to them, will be so resolute as to decide that the ultimate common good requires that some siege not be lifted, vulnerable groups not be relieved? Some organisations are already edging towards such conclusions.

It is rare to find a morally perfect solution to the kind of dilemma habitually met in the actuality of humanitarian action, when warring parties give only a grudging and qualified consent. What, however, is sure is that gaining compliance with even minimal humanitarian standards is more complex, in both practical and moral terms, than is sometimes publicly propounded.


1. Cedric Thornberry joined the UN in 1978 and became involved in the internationally-supervised settlement of the Namibia question, and was also in charge of the operational planning for its non-military side. During UNTAG, he was the Director of the Office of the SRSG and responsible for coordination of the Mission’s day-to-day political operation. Mr Thornberry also served as the Senior Political and Legal Adviser to UNFICYP and to UNTSO, and was Director of Administration and Management of the UN for 4 years. He was Director of UNPROFOR Civil Affairs at the beginning of the Mission in February 1992, and shortly afterwards became Assistant-Secretary-General when he was made Deputy Chief of Mission. Until the appointment of an SRSG, he was in charge of UNPROFOR’s political, civil, legal and police activities. He remained head of UNPROFOR’s Civil Affairs until early 1994. The views expressed in this chapter are entirely personal.2. For the UN’s official account of peacekeeping operations until 1990, see The Blue Helmets (1990).

3. UNHCR, Handbook for the Military (1995); UNHCR, Working with the Military (1995); ICRC, Symposium on Humanitarian Action and Peace-Keeping Operations (1994). See also, Col Kenneth Allard, Somalia Operations – Lessons Learned (Washington: National Defense University Press, 1995).

4. Working with the Military, p.50.

5. Handbook for the Military, p.30.

6. Symposium, pp.29ff.

7. Secretary-General’s spokesman’s noon briefings on 9 and 10 March 1995.

8. Despite repeated UNPROFOR follow-ups, no local authority action was taken.

9. International Herald Tribune, 4 November 1994, carries a summary of the report by Dr H Vuori, WHO Special Representative for ex-Yugoslavia.

10. Similar dilemmas are arising in other theatres. MÈdecins sans FrontiËres decided, in February 1995, to withdraw from all Rwandan refugee camps in Zaire and Tanzania because, they had concluded, international aid had become the key to Hutu leaders’ efforts to restart the Rwandan war. See Alain Destexhe, `A Border without Doctors’, New York Times, 9 February 1995.

11. Working with the Military, pp.20-1 and p.51; see also statement by UNHCR representative to the Fourth Committee of the General Assembly on 17 November 1994. The ICRC’s position seems somewhat more nuanced: see Symposium, pp.29-34 and 99-104.

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