Issue 15: Kosovo, NGO consortia and more
by Humanitarian Practice Network June 2003

Many events are currently announced as being the last of this millennium, and it is no different for the RRN Newsletter. The 20th century has brought immense change to everyone’s lives everywhere, and of course it has also been very important for the evolution of the sense of ‘humanity’ which underpins humanitarian action. Awarding the last Nobel Prize of the century to MSF may be seen as a conscious homage not only to MSF but to all those who have worked immensely hard, and sometimes sacrificed their lives, to preserve humanity in what has been a very violent century.

The decade of the 1990s has also been of great significance for humanitarian action. The International Decade of Natural Disaster Reduction has ended with a seemingly unstoppable wave of earthquakes, cyclones and floods that has put natural disasters high on the agenda once again. The initial hopes for a better ‘new world order’ after the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 have given way to frustration as a number of scenarios have unfolded. These have included: the proliferation of unstructured civil wars; the decline in funding of humanitarian responses in the mid-90s; out of control proliferation of NGOs, followed by new actors on the humanitarian scene (notably the military and private sector companies); the tensions created as the uncritical and uncriticised ‘white knight’ image of aid workers has given way to accusations that humanitarian action is doing more harm than good, and may be prolonging war; the fact that relief workers have been told to act more ‘developmentally’ whereas development agencies have been told to be more ‘conflict-sensitive’; the challenge to longheld principles of neutrality and nonpolitical positioning as humanitarian action has come to be seen as a necessary tool of conflict management.

At the same time NGOs have organised globally and successfully to obtain an international ban on landmines. They are increasingly working together on small arms control, and are beginning to build alliances to look critically at the role of international business in sustaining war economies.

The RRN has reported on these and other topics, and intends to continue doing so in ever better and more relevant ways. This last Newsletter of the millennium has contributions grouped around a number of major themes: coordination; protection; selfdetermination, notably through ‘autonomy’; the boundaries of ‘humanitarian action’; and evaluation as a learning tool.

This year has seen the 50th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions, and new momentum is being generated around practical protection for non-combatants. In February 1999, for example, an Inter-Agency Expert Consultation on Protected Areas was organised by OCHA with the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies; in March, UNHCR convened a meeting with key international humanitarian assistance and human rights agencies to discuss measures to strengthen field protection; in September an ICRC commissioned global consultation on the rules to limit violence in warfare was concluded and reached over 20,000 people; in that same month the UN Secretary General presented a report to the Security Council on the protection of civilians in armed conflict. Welcome as this is, the challenge remains to translate intent into effective practice pro-actively and preventively, and not only reactively after people have been abused and displaced. Indeed, Kofi Annan rightly stresses that ‘physical security often needs to be assured before legal protection’.

The assertive international interventions over Kosovo and East Timor give the impression that the shameful passivity displayed at the time of the Rwandan genocide has been overcome. This hope, however, is dampened by feet-dragging over the growing humanitarian and protection crisis in Chechnya as well as the lack of international interest in the tragedy that once again engulfs Angola, where over two million people are in danger. The UN operation in Kosovo also raises deeper political problems because identity based conflicts and related protection challenges cannot escape the question of self-determination and what political shape that takes. The UNMIK operation deals with Kosovo as a ‘protectorate’ in all but name – a situation not unfamiliar for the earlier League of Nations, but unprecedented for the UN. Strictly speaking, the UN recognises Kosovo as part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, but in Serbia, Sri Lanka and China alike, central governments see greater ‘autonomy’ as a step towards secession.

The 1990s has been a decade of creation of new states, which recalls the decolonisation era of the 1950s and 1960s. Some new states, such as Slovakia, Macedonia and Eritrea, came into being peacefully. The creation of others like Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Palestine and East Timor generated violence. Still others, like Chechnya and Somaliland, declared independence but are not internationally recognised. The people of Aceh, on the tip of Sumatra in Indonesia, now also clamour for independence, whereas Tibetans who only want substantive autonomy through peaceful means get no political support. Can ‘realpolitik’ alone explain why one group of people gets greater scope for self-determination than others? If humanitarianism has to become more principled, what about international politics?

Conflict is inevitably political, and international intervention to provide assistance and protection and to try and create a sustainable peace inevitably gets entangled with these politics. As conflict management and peace-building become more urgent, more and more has been loaded onto the humanitarian agenda. Some see this as a positive and necessary development, others – conscious of the gap between rhetorical ambition and practical achievement – see it as problematic and call for a return to basics. The news section and a series of book reviews capture some of this debate, with special reference to the Netherlands and the UK.

Finally, the humanitarian sector continues to be criticised and to criticise itself – not in the least over the Kosovo crisis – for repeating the same mistakes and for failing to learn. Recent years have brought a renewed interest in evaluation, not only as a tool for accountability but also for organisational and institutional learning. This is a positive development, but the proliferation of uncoordinated evaluation exercises, such as those planned for Kosovo, go against the admitted value of a systemwide and multi-donor evaluation as carried out in 1995 for the Rwandan crisis. Why is it so difficult to learn?

This issue is also available in French: Échange Humanitaire No. 15