The militarization and politicization of humanitarian efforts have led to diminishing effectiveness on the ground and greater dangers for humanitarian workers, leaving humanitarian action in a state of crisis.

273

Summary

  • With the end of the Cold War, internal conflicts targeting civilian populations proliferated. As international political institutions struggled to figure out how to deal with these conflicts, humanitarian action often became a substitute for decisive political action or, more worryingly, was subsumed under a political and military agenda.
  • The increasing militarization and politicization of humanitarian efforts have led to growing ineffectiveness of humanitarian action on the ground and greater dangers for humanitarian workers. Without a vigorous restatement of the principles of humanitarianism, humanitarian action will remain in a state of crisis and continue to be a selective tool for the powerful and hence fail in its global mission of protecting and restoring the dignity of human life.
  • There are six main causes of the humanitarian crisis, which first began to manifest itself in the former Yugoslavia and Kosovo and later in Afghanistan and Iraq. These causes are principally structural and operational in nature.
  • The new post–Cold War types of conflict have thrown humanitarian workers and organizations into the middle of conflicts, with a constant risk of being perceived as taking sides.
  • Many humanitarian agencies and their donors too easily and uncritically accept the conditions for involvement set by the military in those increasingly frequent operations where security forces are part of the integrated response to a crisis. This problem is aggravated by the fact that key military forces often come from the countries that are also donors to the humanitarian organizations.
  • As recent events in the Arab world demonstrate, there can be no stability if human security is not protected. The main protection responsibility is the legal protection of the displaced and refugees. Today, humanitarian staff is often obliged to provide physical protection and assistance in the midst of conflict zones.
  • There are far too many humanitarian organizations present in new and major emergencies. For example, in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, there were more than nine hundred international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) on the ground.
  • Although there has been considerable improvement in the coordination among humanitarian agencies, a continued lack of coherence among political, security, development, humanitarian, and human rights agencies continues to pose serious problems.
  • In too many operations, the presence of a noticeable number of humanitarian NGOs from the North and the West give weight to the perception in many countries in the South that humanitarian operations are an integral part of a political strategy to maintain and increase the power and dominance of the North and West.
  • The challenges confronting humanitarian action have no easy answers. To begin to address the crisis, the international community should pay more attention to conflict prevention to minimize human costs and to mitigate the need for humanitarian action. Militaries should be trained in how to respect humanitarian principles in their operations, and humanitarian organizations should be proactive in maintaining impartiality and independence of action.

About the Report

The militarization and politicization of humanitarian efforts have led to diminishing effectiveness on the ground and greater dangers for humanitarian workers, leaving humanitarian action in a state of crisis. Without a vigorous restatement of the principles of humanitarianism and a concerted effort by the international community to address the causes of this crisis, humanitarian action will, as this report concludes, progressively become a tool selectively used by the powerful and possibly fail in its global mission of protecting and restoring the dignity of human life.

About the Author

Søren Jessen-Petersen is a former assistant high commissioner for refugees in the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and UN special representative for Kosovo. He has served UNHCR in Africa and the Balkans as well as at its headquarters in Geneva and New York. He is currently teaching migration and security at the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, and at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University. He was a Jennings Randolph guest scholar at the United States Institute of Peace from November 2006 to June 2009.

Related Publications

How to Revive an Afghan Peace Process

How to Revive an Afghan Peace Process

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

By: USIP Staff

The halt to U.S. peace talks with the Taliban, announced September 7 by President Trump, should be used as a starting point for new negotiations, according to U.S. and Afghan specialists. The United States and Afghans have a chance to shape a new phase of talks to maximize the possibilities for a peace accord that Afghans can accept, the experts said at USIP. Some urged resuming talks as quickly as possible. Others argued for focusing first on unifying non-Taliban Afghans following the planned September 28 elections, and on exploiting war fatigue among the Taliban.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Peace Processes

What are the Prospects for Power-Sharing in the Afghan Peace Process?

What are the Prospects for Power-Sharing in the Afghan Peace Process?

Monday, September 16, 2019

By: Alex Thier

While the negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban were recently thrown-off course, a peace agreement among Afghans remains an urgent priority. The U.S.-led negotiations over a phased drawdown of U.S. troops in exchange for a Taliban commitment to eschew terrorism and engage in intra-Afghan negotiations took nearly a year. Yet these talks excluded the Afghan government and other political elites and didn’t address the fundamental question of what it will take for Afghans to put a sustainable end to four decades of war: how will power be shared?

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Peace Processes

A Rift Over Afghan Aid Imperils Prospects for Peace

A Rift Over Afghan Aid Imperils Prospects for Peace

Monday, September 16, 2019

By: William Byrd

As the United States has pursued peace talks with the Taliban, international discussions continue on the economic aid that will be vital to stabilizing Afghanistan under any peace deal. Yet the Afghan government has been mostly absent from this dialogue, an exclusion exemplified this week by a meeting of the country’s main donors to strategize on aid—with Afghan officials left out. The government’s marginalization, in large part self-inflicted, is a danger to the stabilization and development of Afghanistan. In the interests of Afghans, stability in the region and U.S. hopes for a sustainable peace, this rift in the dialogue on aid needs to be repaired.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Economics & Environment

Afghan peace talks are damaged, but not yet broken.

Afghan peace talks are damaged, but not yet broken.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

By: USIP Staff; Andrew Wilder

President Trump’s weekend announcement of a halt to U.S. peace talks with Afghanistan’s Taliban—including a previously unannounced U.S. plan for a Camp David meeting to conclude that process—leaves the future of the Afghanistan peace process unclear. USIP’s Andrew Wilder, a longtime Afghanistan analyst, argues that, rather than declaring an end to the peace process, U.S. negotiators could use the setback as a moment to clarify the strategy, and then urgently get the peace process back on track before too much momentum is lost.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Peace Processes

View All Publications