Protecting Civilians in Armed Conflicts: The Creation of a Humanitarian Commission within the UN
by Jean-Christophe Rufin and Jacky Mamou June 2003

In 1918, five per cent of the victims of the First World War were civilians. In 1999, 95 per cent of the victims of armed conflicts were civilians. Instead of being offered protection, civilians are assassinated, starved and displaced, caught in the crossfire of different opposing camps. The price paid by the victims over the last 20 years is truly intolerable. The nature of conflicts has fundamentally changed: internal conflicts have proliferated, and crises have become increasingly complex. There is an increase in ‘extermination wars’, such as the Rwanda genocide and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, which aim to eliminate or drive out one part of the population. Civilians have become a means of waging war, used by combatants in their strategies. They serve as human shields, and are starved to attract and requisition humanitarian aid, as in Somalia and Sudan.

While the international community has endowed itself with legal instruments to protect civilians, international humanitarian law is not respected. Many humanitarian organisations, including Médecins du Monde, have established from their presence in most of the conflicts of the last 20 years that there is an absence of protection for civilians, and less room for intervention by humanitarian organisations.

UN failures

The UN is the only international instrument to offer a framework for negotiations, or to implement instruments of constraint by recommendations, sanctions or intervention by its peacekeeping force. It has said its mea culpas: reports, backed by Secretary-General Kofi Annan, have cited examples of intervention being inappropriate, or coming too late. The powerlessness of the UN, combined with erroneous analysis, led to the reduction in the number of peacekeepers in Rwanda in the midst of genocide in 1994. The following year, the organisation could not prevent the massacre of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica.

In its special report to the Security Council on 8 September 1999, the UN noted the weaknesses in effective protection measures for civilian populations, and underlined the responsibility of the international community in this area. Now it is time to go beyond this report. We must find ways of allowing heads of state to assume their moral and political responsibilities towards civilians caught up in conflict.

And yet there does not exist an impartial, independent authority to assess the vulnerability of civilians. Sources of information are often unfocused, sometimes contradictory and, above all, are not universally recognised. Belligerents themselves often supply the numbers of victims, reports by NGOs are suspected of being partial and journalists’ articles are accused of being alarmist. In the words of a former French Prime Minister, this only produces background noise, which never obligated him ‘to take a political risk for a faraway population’.

Creating a commission

The proposal to create a Humanitarian Commission was accepted at the end of the UN’s Millennium Forum in May 2000, which was attended by 1,000 NGOs from all over the world. There is a clear need for such a commission within the UN, composed of independent experts given the responsibility for counting the victims, evaluating humanitarian needs and recommending effective protection measures for civilian populations. This authority could be created by the UN General Assembly, applying Article 22 of the Charter.

Why count? Because counting was a crucial issue in the argument over whether to intervene to protect Rwandan Hutu refugees in eastern Zaire in 1999.

Why evaluate humanitarian needs? Because today, it is Russia, and more particularly the Minister for Emergency Situations, who decides on the needs of civilians in Chechnya.

Why make recommendations? Because of the knowledge of what happened during the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 as a result of the decision to withdraw peacekeepers, leaving Rwandan civilians defenceless.

Why another authority?

A Humanitarian Commission is necessary because there is no other authority giving impartial humanitarian diagnoses. This Commission, of course, would not have an operational mandate. On the contrary, it would complete the system of existing authorities. It would not compete, either with the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or with UN agencies with a specific role, such as the High Commission for Refugees, the UN Children’s Fund or the World Food Programme. As for the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission, whose competence is recognised by only 55 states, it has still received no mandate. Furthermore, it can only act at the request of states, and with the consent of the interested parties. Its conclusions cannot be made public without the consent of the parties to the conflict.

Making states more willing to protect civilians

Faced with the tragedies lived by civilian populations in numerous conflicts, it is not enough to call for the application of international humanitarian law. Of course it is legitimate to continue to do so, and this is the role of the International Committee of the Red Cross and NGOs. The problem is often seen as a lack of political willingness by states to protect civilians. But nobody asks how this can be changed.

Faced with a new type of conflict, the international community’s response is variable. Very violent situations are not taken into account, or dealt with in time, as for example in East Timor, where for the last 25 years the Indonesian army has been allowed to commit acts of violence with no intervention. However, action is sometimes taken. But when a political decision is made, it too often constitutes a response to particular political, strategic or economic interests. The interventions that follow are often ill-prepared, with mandates that are inappropriate to increasingly complex situations. The result is all too rarely of true benefit to the people. Moreover, the label ‘humanitarian’ attached to these interventions deprives them of any real effectiveness. Humanitarian aid is not a management method, nor a way of settling conflicts. In no cases can it be a substitute for political action. We all remember the disarray of the peacekeepers in Bosnia and the feeble protection they offered the people there. At no time did their presence prohibit the pillaging of Sarajevo and the ‘security zones’. It did not prevent the fall of Srebrenica. The NATO airstrikes against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia did not prevent the deportation of nearly a million people, nor did they protect the people who remained in Kosovo.

Creating a Humanitarian Commission within the UN would demonstrate willingness on the part of states to offer better protection to civilian populations in armed conflicts. Its recommendations would force states to shoulder their responsibilities, particularly since the reports issued by the Commission would be public, rather than confidential, as is so often the case today.

Ensuring independence

The Commission’s independent experts could be elected by the General Assembly for a non-renewable term. Even if they are proposed by states, experience shows that they rapidly become autonomous. Moreover, the international criminal tribunals have judges of different nationalities, and yet their integrity has never been questioned. It is common today to call on committees of experts in the UN official system, for example to assess diamond-trafficking in Sierra Leone. Furthermore, it is evident that the choice of experts will be made as much on the basis of their knowledge of the humanitarian field as on their moral integrity. It must be remembered that the experts are not UN officials and that they are not, therefore, destined to make a career there. Be that as it may, in relation to this Commission, NGOs will obviously retain their freedom of speech and action.

In any case, if there is not a consensus on this nomination mechanism, experts could also be designated directly by the Secretary-General himself. As regards its operation, the Humanitarian Commission could work at the request of the Secretary-General, or act on its own initiative, submitting its recommendations to the Secretary-General whenever it deems it necessary. The former could then, by applying Article 99 of the Charter, draw a matter to the attention of the Security Council. The experts on the Commission could work from reports by different UN official agencies and NGOs or, if necessary, they could themselves go to the field. Finally, the Commission could operate on voluntary contributions from states, or from private donations. Nevertheless, it is important to stress that cost issues should not hinder the setting up of such a Commission; improving the protection of civilians in war should carry no price-tag.

One may or may not agree with the proposed Humanitarian Commission. Nevertheless, it does offer the advantage of reconsidering the question of the protection of civilian populations in armed conflicts and, more generally, the issue of humanitarianism as an item on politicians’ agendas. If solidarity is a matter for all citizens and their organisations, then essential political decisions belong to states. It is perhaps worth remembering this from time to time.

Jean-Christophe Rufin is a writer and lecturer at Sciences Po, Paris. Jacky Mamou is President of Médecins du Monde, Paris.