Humanitarianism is increasingly under threat. This was the conclusion of two recent meetings held in London (February 1998), which will form the backdrop to a forthcoming RRN Network Paper (no. 25), due out in May 1998, and Paris (October 1997), reported by Action Contre la Faim, France, in this Newsletter (see page 7).

The threat seems to be twofold. The Paris meeting, organised by Action Against Hunger, examined the challenges to aid agencies of working in conflict zones, where food is increasingly being used as a weapon of war and where the political climate of sanctions and parallel economies combine to create disasters and jeopardise the evolution of effective relief operations. In these contexts, aid agencies face profound dilemmas. Can they continue to respect the principles enshrined in the Geneva Conventions and human rights law or is it inevitable that they will be manipulated by warring parties? In the face of abuse and belligerence should agencies withdraw or simply be pragmatic and do what they can, perhaps in a more coordinated way?

The second meeting, organised by the UK Disasters Emergency Committee, took a slightly different perspective. It sought to respond to the attack on humanitarian values and principles not only by warring parties, but the growing critique emerging from the western media, African governments, and parts of the development and foreign policy community in donor countries. Those present at the meeting were not uncritical of the state of the existing international relief system, but argued that the values and principles it strove for were fundamental and should be protected. A principal conclusion emerging from the debate was that the humanitarian community is currently being used as the scapegoat for wider failings of national governments and international political bodies, and that NGOs and others should be more pro-active in defining the values for which it stands.

That these two meetings should take place in such a short space of time is no coincidence. The sense of frustration felt is now palpable within sections of the humanitarian community following successive debacles in Zaire, continuing tragedy in Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia, and the latest political and humanitarian confusion in Sierra Leone, to name but a few. In the coming months, it will be interesting to see whether by articulating more clearly common concerns regarding the future of humanitarian action in wartime, relief agencies will be able to mount a stronger defence of their values and enhance the coherence of their political advocacy.

This issue is also available in French: Échange Humanitaire No. 10

Issue 10 articles