Issue 22 - Article 16

The war on terror's challenge to humanitarian action

May 29, 2003

It is a commonplace to say that the world has changed since 11 September. This also holds true for those dedicated to humanitarian action. The cause of the change for us, however, is not so much the attacks themselves or their vicious character. What has changed is that the US, the leading international power, has declared a new global ‘war on terror’. As defined, this war pits terrorism against freedom, and those who imperil humanity against those who defend it. While the main focus has been on Afghanistan, the repercussions have swiftly embraced the entire planet. Like the Cold War, this is an open-ended, global fight for both interests and values. Yet unlike the Cold War, alliances are constantly shifting, the ‘enemy’ consists primarily of an ill-defined set of non-state actors and their purported state sponsors, and territorial control is not necessarily an aim.

This new war presents a number of challenges for independent humanitarian action and the principles that underpin it. First, it seeks to subordinate humanitarianism to the conflict’s broader purpose, undermining the impartiality of humanitarian action. Second, by questioning the applicability of international humanitarian law, the anti-terrorism campaign could threaten fundamental restraints on the conduct of warfare, thus weakening the protection and assistance to which civilians are entitled. Third, worldwide attention to conflicts, and the victims they generate, is shifting, making it more difficult to respond to crises at the margins.

Subordinating humanitarian action to the anti-terrorism campaign

During the 1990s, humanitarian concerns were subject to intense political calculation. This yielded highly selective results for victims, ranging from absolute non-intervention in the Rwandan genocide to a ‘humanitarian war’ in Kosovo. The common thread was that humanitarian concerns were often put at the forefront of public discourse, either as a smoke-screen to mask the absence of genuine political engagement, or to justify intervention in fact motivated by other interests.

With the advent of the global war on terrorism, the situation is much clearer. The US government declared that it was going to war in defence of national security interests. The means employed have been diverse: according to the Bush administration, the campaign is ‘being fought at home and abroad through multiple operations including diplomatic, military, financial, investigative, homeland security and humanitarian actions’. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has spoken of a ‘military–humanitarian coalition’ – epitomised by his evocation of a ‘bombs-and-bread’ campaign in Afghanistan. Secretary of State Colin Powell has argued that NGOs are a ‘force multiplier’, essential contributors to the United States’ ‘combat team’.

In this view, humanitarian action, whether conducted by military forces or by civilian agencies, should be subordinate to a broader politico-military objective. Assistance is understood as part of a strategy to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of civilians, and fits nicely with the doctrine of ‘compassionate conservatism’, in which a clenched fist towards a hostile regime is accompanied by an outstretched hand towards that country’s population. Thus, in Afghanistan coalition air forces dropped food to Afghan civilians, while simultaneously bombing military targets. Special military units engaged in civil affairs, such as rebuilding bridges or digging wells. The effectiveness of these interventions is questionable: the unmonitored dropping of individual food rations from high-flying planes provides little relief for those most in need, even if this food reaches them. The usefulness of the food drops in winning over Afghan support is also doubtful. Northern Alliance commanders sealed off some drop zones in order to confiscate food rations, and several children were injured after mistaking cluster bombs for food rations. Meanwhile, the authorities in neighbouring allied countries such as Pakistan essentially sealed their borders, trapping would-be refugees in the violence they were seeking to escape.

The assistance provided by the military coalition in Afghanistan is not humanitarian action, which is required by the Geneva Conventions to be neutral, independent and impartial. By blurring the line between military and humanitarian agendas, and by making aid delivery a means of attaining its politico-military objectives, the coalition’s actions endangered the security of humanitarian staff and their access to populations in need. Throughout Afghanistan, coalition soldiers still wear civilian clothing and carry concealed weapons. While some take part in combat operations, others engage in relief activities, and their civilian clothing is meant to facilitate contacts with the local population. In south-eastern Afghanistan, where foreigners are often viewed with suspicion and where US forces continue to battle presumed Taliban fighters, this has raised tensions and contributed to preventing unarmed humanitarian personnel from accessing rural areas. In Kandahar, MSF teams are often asked if they are US soldiers, and have been warned not to venture into outlying areas.

For more than 20 years, maintaining a clear humanitarian identity in Afghanistan has been crucial for the provision of assistance. Humanitarian agencies will continue to respond to the needs of Afghans once the coalition’s priorities have shifted. Now, however, humanitarian actors will find it increasingly difficult to establish the trust that is necessary for this assistance to take place.

International humanitarian law and the war on terrorism

The second major challenge to humanitarian action concerns the role of international humanitarian law. Humanitarianism is based on a key distinction between combatants, who are considered legitimate targets of violence, and non-combatants such as civilians and prisoners of war, who should be spared. This cardinal principle is enshrined in international humanitarian law. Whatever the aims of belligerents, humanitarian actors seek out the victims of violence.

The terrorist actions of 11 September raise disturbing questions about how to combat an ill-defined enemy that, through its actions, has placed itself outside the prevailing normative framework governing warfare. To deal with this challenge, the US is considering jettisoning international humanitarian law. The prevailing description of the conflict relates not only to the type of military operations and forces being employed, but also reflects claims to unambiguous moral supremacy. By defining its cause as just and vitally important, the US believes it should fight this war unfettered by cumbersome international rules. Deciding that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to al-Qaeda and Taliban combatants captured in Afghanistan was a clear indication of this.

This line of thinking contains serious dangers. It is based on the false premise that forces acting in the name of a greater good cannot commit abuses. There is a precedent here: in the Somalia intervention, forces operating under the UN banner refused to be bound by international humanitarian law, under the assumption that, because they were carrying out a peacekeeping mission in the name of the international community, they could by definition do no wrong. After UN forces bombed hospitals, humanitarian compounds and civilians, this stance was reversed, and peacekeeping forces agreed to be held to international standards.

The same logic applies to the war in Afghanistan. Incidents such as the US bombing of ICRC warehouses in Kabul and the dropping of cluster bombs in populated areas are violations of international humanitarian law and must be opposed, irrespective of the cause that is being pursued. In fact, compliance with international humanitarian law in no way constitutes an obstacle to the struggle against terror and crime. International humanitarian law grants the detaining power the right to legally prosecute prisoners of war suspected of having committed war crimes or any other criminal offence prior to or during hostilities. International humanitarian law does not prevent effective military action; rather, it regulates it so as to minimise non-combatant suffering in a manner consistent with military necessity.

Around the world, conflicts and their victims have been cast in a different light since 11 September, with the loosely-defined concept of terrorism as the dominant mode of interpretation. As a result, in the name of fighting ‘terrorism’, violations of international humanitarian law are increasingly being condoned. The brutal war in Chechnya is a good example. Although political interests have long allowed the Russian government to escape meaningful sanction for its conduct, the absence of public international scrutiny and concern since 11 September is particularly striking. Whether this conflict is called a ‘war of national liberation’ or an ‘anti-terrorist operation’ does not change the fundamental fact that Chechen civilians are being victimised by abusive military operations conducted by Russian forces.

This shifting categorisation of conflicts and their victims is another fundamental reason why independent humanitarian agencies need to resist subordination to the anti-terrorism campaign. Humanitarian action does not categorise: civilian victims continue to be just that, irrespective of the label applied to the violence that causes their suffering.

Shifting attention to crises

The anti-terrorism campaign has bestowed international relevance on certain local situations, while relegating others to oblivion. This has not changed the priorities for independent humanitarian agencies, but it has changed the environment in which we operate. In particular, it has been difficult to attract attention to the human cost of conflicts in regions peripheral to the anti-terrorism campaign.

In Angola, for instance, the conflict between the government and UNITA thankfully appears to be coming to a close. Following a ceasefire agreement in April, hitherto inaccessible areas opened up to humanitarian agencies, revealing thousands of famished people who had endured years of isolation, abuse and neglect. The government of Angola was, however, far from alarmed at the massive crisis affecting its citizens. Meanwhile, the international community, which has for years backed the Angolan government against UNITA, was slow in responding to this major emergency. MSF mounted one of its largest nutritional interventions in years, but struggled to attract attention. Not one US-based TV network sent a team to cover the story, while radio and press coverage was few and far between. UN appeals for aid in Angola, as well as in other neglected crises such as Sudan or West Africa, have been woefully underfunded. Clearly, the resources and focus are elsewhere.

There has been much hopeful talk of a surge of public interest in international issues, particularly in the US. Even in Washington, commentators have noted that engagement, even if starkly self-interested and unilateral, has apparently been rekindled, as pledges to increase development aid seem to indicate. However, the level of commitment to social and economic problems remains crassly insufficient and pales in comparison with the push towards heightened military engagement and spending. Moreover, whatever momentum exists seems to be predicated upon the tenuous and unproven link between poverty, disease and terrorism. This reveals a worrying absence of critical reflection about political responsibility, and underlines the subordination of ‘humanitarian’ concerns to the broader politico-military agenda.


In defining the war on terror, President Bush drew the line clearly: ‘either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists’; the war, he declared, ‘is civilisation’s fight, the fight of all who believe in progress and pluralism, tolerance, and freedom.’ Humanitarian organisations unambiguously reject terrorist attacks, condemning them as an illegitimate means of waging war and an all-out assault on our fundamental values and principles. Yet in the interest of victims of all violence, whatever its cause, humanitarian agencies must strongly resist entanglement in this ‘terrorism versus anti-terrorism’ view of the world.

Humanitarian agencies have much to beware in the new environment the anti-terrorism campaign has created. Above all, the selectivity that politicisation engenders is a poor guide to the effective alleviation of suffering. As battle lines mutate in unforeseen ways, the imperative to reach out impartially to protect and assist victims of crisis and conflict is more critical than ever. This can only be accomplished by making a commitment to fundamental rules of warfare central to the anti-terrorism campaign, by not allowing the campaign to determine who and where the only ‘real’ victims are, and by respecting the necessary independence of humanitarian action.

Nicolas de Torrenté, Médecins Sans Frontières. V A version of this article appears in Ethics and International Affairs, vol. 16, no. 2, Autumn 2002. See the website of the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs:


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