From geopolitics to humanitarian action.

Withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan on 15 February 1989.

Emergency humanitarian aid is linked to wars, both internal and external, since it is about rescuing the victims of these wars. This has never been more true, despite the fact that the number of refugees and displaced persons is the highest since UNHCR’s creation, with 70.8 million forcibly displaced in 2018, not to mention the loss of human life and material destruction.

War, let us say, is geopolitics in action and the pursuit of politics by other means. The great idea of Henri Dunant, founder of the Red Cross, is still relevant today. Saving lives, alleviating suffering and meeting the vital needs of populations is the mission of humanitarian organizations today.

If we cannot predict the future, we can seek to understand the relationship between conflict and humanitarian issues over the past 40 years, identify the characteristics of our times and their consequences for humanitarian workers.

At the beginning was the Cold War.

In the 1980s, we were at the time of the confrontation of blocs and models between East and West, between the NATO and Warsaw Pact military alliances. The East-West war, which was frozen in central Europe because of the risk of nuclear weapons, was fought on the periphery, with everyone advancing their pawns. Let us remember the Cuban military involvement in the wars in Angola and Mozambique, that of Vietnam in Cambodia and Laos and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan at the end of 1979.

It is at this moment that humanitarian aid will undergo a major breakthrough through the choice made by some to rescue populations in danger with or without authorization, with or without a visa. Those whom the journalists then nicknamed the “French doctors”. It will then take about ten years for this movement to be recognized and implemented more widely.

The break-up of the Wall.

The geopolitical cataclysm that followed was the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, followed by the disappearance of the USSR two years later. At that time, there was a sweet euphoria and hope for a lasting peace, dear to Aristide Briand. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Secretary General of the United Nations then published his “Agenda for Peace”. For the humanitarian sector, the major event is the creation of ECHO within the European Commission. This is both the result of the constant advocacy of humanitarian workers and a favourable moment. This decision will undeniably increase the capacity of humanitarian organizations. Let us remain as clear-headed as ever. A former director of ECHO told me in 2012 that the creation of ECHO would probably not have been possible 10 years later.

The peaceful euphoria was short-lived and the first Gulf War in Iraq (March 1991) marked the end of it. Yet it is to this conflict, when Saddam Hussein launches his army against the Kurds, that United Nations Resolution 688 is often considered the first humanitarian resolution protecting civilian populations. Moreover, the continuation of the war in Angola as elsewhere will make us aware that beyond the East-West confrontation, this type of conflict had its own reasons in the first place.

At the same time, the dislocation of the Eastern bloc will have the collateral effect of dismantling the former Yugoslavia and 10 years of war in the Balkans. If the genocide in Rwanda had first of all inter-ethnic motives, as did that of Burundi, against a backdrop of competition between Anglo-Saxons and French, the war that followed in Zaire, which led to the fall of Mobutu and the takeover by Laurent Désiré Kabila in 1997, would have been difficult to imagine during the Cold War and the American influence in that country.

In any case, the concomitant wars in the Balkans and the Great Lakes region will require a considerable development of humanitarian capacities but also an awareness of the weaknesses of the UN in the face of the Srebrenica massacre and the Rwandan genocide. These will trigger Lakhdar Brahimi’s famous report for the UN in March 2000 on the limits of UN capabilities in peacekeeping operations and the reminder of state responsibility.

Geostrategic disruption.

The event that will then trigger a major strategic change is the attack and destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 by Al Qaeda. The whole world will be in shock and, for the most part, in solidarity with the United States in this ordeal. Very quickly, they will respond by declaring war on terrorism and adopting the so-called “preventive war” strategy.

Attack against the Twin Towers in New York by Al Qaeda on September 11, 2001.

This will be the military intervention in Afghanistan, within the framework of a Security Council resolution. Then in the spring of 2003, a fatal mistake, the invasion of Iraq for fallacious reasons that will have dramatic consequences, both for the population and for the Middle East in the context that will follow with the Arab Spring from 2011.

Conflicts and wars spread to Egypt, Yemen and Syria. These last two countries are still experiencing a real ordeal in which state, regional and global actors are involved against a backdrop of political, social, ethnic and religious conflict between Shiites and Sunnis. Western intervention in Libya, authorized by United Nations resolution 1973, could have been limited to protecting the populations of Misrata and Benghazi. It will plunge this country into chaos for a long time and destabilize the Sahel countries where the war has since spread.

Humanitarian aid will be deployed in these countries as best it can with considerable difficulties of access, respect for the impartiality of the relief effort and physical risk to humanitarian workers, both due to the intensity of the fighting and the threats from Daesh.

In Afghanistan, if the legitimacy of the right of pursuit against al-Qaeda were legalized by the UN, the lack of knowledge of the country’s ethnic and historical realities, the feeling of any power of the United States and its NATO allies, the weakness and failure of a genuine reconciliation policy are now leading Trump America to negotiate with the Taliban after 17 years of war. This is to be considered. Is there today in the world an army capable of defeating a popular rebellion militarily and sustainably in the absence of a political solution?

New period or continuation of the previous one?

Are we today in the continuation of the past 20 years or already in a new phase? Let us be pragmatic and consider that we are in a transitional phase.

Donald Trump was elected in November 2016, a few months after BREXIT and the various difficulties facing Europe. The annexation of Crimea and the conflict in Ukraine precede these changes in 2014 and Wladimir Putin was re-elected in March 2018, as was Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey. Also in 2018, Xi Jinping was elected President for life and China is now showing its will to power, worrying its neighbours and threatening to wipe out its minority populations (Tibetans, Ouigours).

Syrian refugees in exile ©Solidarités International

At the same time, humanitarian aid entered the global agenda at the 1st Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in May 2016 and its budget increased from 16 billion dollars in 2012 to 27.3 billion in 2017 according to the “Global Humanitarian Assistance Report 2018”. While this is good news for victims of conflict and disasters, it also shows a deterioration in human security, even though humanitarian needs were already estimated at $40 billion in 2016. This means that there is still a lack of resources to meet needs at a time when financial transactions are flourishing and the cost of borrowing money has rarely been so low.

Although there is no decision, everyone will form their own opinion, we can nevertheless observe certain facts that will structure the sequence of events and the contexts of humanitarian intervention.

The major trends at work.

Globalization is being undermined, both by its excesses and by the reaffirmation of worried sovereignties, which weakens multilateralism and reinforces unpredictability in international relations.

While large-scale natural disasters already involve humanitarian actors, the consequences of global warming, rising waters, pollution, water stress, loss of biodiversity are major threats to human beings, societies and all forms of life on earth, and require rapid adaptation and further development of humanitarian and development action.

Demography will increase the world population from 7.5 billion people today to 10 billion in 2050 and lead to a doubling of the population in Africa in 30 years from 1.2 to 2.5 billion people. Are we ready to face them and what will be the consequences?

The 2015-2030 Sustainable Development Goals are both ambitious and necessary, but we already know that despite undeniable progress, which is to be welcomed, the trajectory is not the right one for the poorest countries and populations, particularly in Africa.

If power remains an unavoidable reality in international relations, it implies more actors, more oppositions between them, more unpredictability, more danger and power also has its limits.

What are the priorities for humanitarian aid?

While some of these priorities are not new, we must revisit them in the context of the context and dynamics at work. Without being exhaustive or going into too much detail, what are the challenges facing humanitarian actors in the face of wars and disasters?

  • Invest in contextual knowledge and strategic anticipation.
  • Strengthen its overall capacity for rapid response and local adaptive capacity.
  • Increase your understanding of the human and environmental environments in which you work.
  • Seek a greater knowledge of the populations and encourage their involvement and that of social and representation structures in meeting needs.
  • Seek the optimal possible balance between emergency action, reconstruction, stabilisation and the relaunch of development in the perspective of the Sustainable Development Goals.
  • Constantly improve its efficiency through quality and innovation adapted to the context and controlled by local actors.
  • Demonstrate responsiveness, sobriety and exemplarity.
  • And to conclude provisionally.

What will be the next wars and their human consequences? What does the increase in disasters and affected populations tell us? What will be the results of the United Nations reform work undertaken by Antonio Guterres and the reform of peacekeeping operations launched in 2018? What will be the future of the project to regulate the use of the veto in the event of mass crime, launched by France in 2013 and already signed by 100 countries?

Humanitarian aid is constantly building its capacity to provide relief. Humanitarian work acquires knowledge through experience that can be useful to all. Humanitarian aid can and must alert public opinion if necessary. Humanitarian aid must develop by being itself to fulfil its mission.

Alain Boinet.