Interview with Philippe Ryfman, co-director of the Treaty on the Law and Practice of Humanitarian Action

Marina Eudes, Sandra Szurek and Philipe Ryfman jointly directed the collaborative book “Traité de Droit et pratique de l’Action Humanitaire” published recently by L.G.D.J. On this occasion, Alain Boinet interviewed Philippe Ryfman and presented this new treaty to the readers of Défis Humanitaires.




Alain Boinet : Philippe, you and two of your legal colleagues have just published a voluminous 900-page book, “Traité de Droit et Pratique de l’Action Humanitaire”. Marina Eudes, Sandra Szurek and Philipe Ryfman jointly directed the collaborative book “Traité de Droit et pratique de l’Action Humanitaire” published recently by L.G.D.J. On this occasion, Alain Boinet interviewed Philippe Ryfman and presented this new treaty to the readers of Défis Humanitaires.

Philippe Ryfman : With Sandra Szurek Professor Emeritus of the University of PARIS-NANTERRE and Marina Eudes, Lecturer at the same University (both specialized in international law and international humanitarian law), we coordinated and successfully carried out this project together. This is what is called a “collective” work, bringing together a larger number of contributors, since there are more than eighty (85 to be exact). The first objective was to work with them on a global approach to humanitarian action, in order to try to cover a field whose scope and complexity are largely underestimated.

Admittedly, there are quite a number of publications dealing with humanitarian action, but this is the first time – it seems to us – that such a process of gathering and synthesis has been conducted. In other words, if the book includes legal aspects (particularly in international humanitarian law), it includes many others, in a clearly transdisciplinary perspective. The legal approach was therefore combined with the resources of other disciplines and the contributions of practitioners.

This is the first originality of this publication. Which is deliberately called “Treaty”, both because of the number of contributors, its textual dimension (nearly 1000 pages), and the intellectual and conceptual ambition that inspired it. We will come back to this later. Let us just note that contemporary humanitarian action, today in the 21st century, is also a public policy. It can even be described as one of the first, if not the first international public policy.

As you mention, Alain, very regularly in Défis Humanitaires, humanitarian action has changed scale. Over the past ten years, the number of recipients, recipients and beneficiaries of aid has exceeded two hundred million on average annually, while its budget[all resources and all actors combined] has increased more than tenfold in ten years as well. Faced with these considerable changes, it seemed to us that the time was right to better identify and qualify the situations it covers, to question the nature of the humanitarian offer, its actors (NGOs, Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement structures, United Nations agencies, States, local authorities).

This overall vision also addresses the consistency and economy of this aid because a real humanitarian economy exists, as well as a specific communication to the latter. The issues of coordination, the conduct of aid and its reception with access to the population and its purposes are also covered. Finally, the last of the four parts of the book focuses on the risks, responsibilities and ethics of humanitarian aid. These were the first central ideas that inspired Sandra Szurek, Marina Eudes and myself.

Secondly, the relationship with the contributors did not want to reproduce the classic construction scheme of this type of structure. Indeed, we have decided to go beyond the usual framework in this matter, consisting simply in ordering a paper on a given subject from an author, with simply a maximum delivery time. To do this, we favoured interactivity by regularly interacting with the people solicited, asking them how they conceived their contribution, their plan, the main axes they envisaged based on the contribution proposal sent by us. You were one of those contributors Alain (I thank you for that in passing) and you could therefore judge how it worked.

It is therefore truly a collective work bringing together both the three directors with the authors and the support of two editorial secretaries (themselves contributors). In addition, it is part of a clearly French-speaking and non-French-centric dynamic, with – alongside the French – contributors from Africa, Europe and North America. We will come back to this later.

AB : Your Treaty gives the impression of being at the same time an academic work with academics and researchers while involving practitioners of humanitarian action.  It’s not a very frequent process in the end. Why did you choose such a wide variety of contributors between law and practice?

PR : Here too, this was – from the outset – another of our founding concepts. Perhaps it was overwhelming, but our desire was to bring together both academics (academics and researchers) and experienced practitioners. Precisely because humanitarian action is vast, multifaceted and covers many areas. The idea was to combine diversified contributions and skills that are too rarely associated. In order to report on them, explain, identify the major and other less obvious problems that structure them, and finally try to ask the right questions. Finally, if the book is 970 pages long (including index and bibliography), it is also because the topics covered are numerous. We obviously do not claim to be exhaustive, but this large number of themes to be addressed quickly imposed itself on us in the work of developing and conceptualizing the project. From this point of view, we must thank the publisher for the confidence he has shown us both in the total freedom of choice of contributions and in the non-imposition of drastic limitations.

As mentioned above, humanitarian aid is an international public policy, but it is not just that. It is a complex phenomenon. Hence, precisely in order to understand and analyse it, I was underlining the need for lawyers and researchers from other social science disciplines (sociologists, politicians, anthropologists, economists, historians, etc.) or hard sciences (doctors) to work together with experienced practitioners. It seemed to us that this was the best – or least bad – way to decipher this complexity in order to enable the reader to understand and grasp humanitarian aid in the 21st century in its different dimensions.

In international relations and today’s world, it is a central issue in many geographical areas. Not only at the international level in crisis areas (wars, disasters, population movements…), but also at the domestic level. For example, in European countries with refugees, asylum seekers, migrants, marginalized or vulnerable populations. From this point of view, humanitarian work also has a social dimension, and here again, we believe that it is justified to bring together academics and practitioners.

At the same time, we have not wanted to sacrifice anything in terms of scientific approach and research criteria and we are committed to sharing the triple concern of high standards, rigour and quality with all our authors.

This combination of theoretical and practical approaches (notably through “Case Studies”) also explains this wide choice of authors. Nor is it unrelated to the various audiences targeted (I intentionally use the plural) by the Treaty and I will come back to this point. Let us just say that they include those of aid operators, donors and journalists.

In the end, it is the readers who will judge the result achieved. Of course – despite this global approach that we have taken – it was not possible to cover all the now multifaceted dimensions of aid. Some omissions or gaps will – perhaps – be identified. We can always do more and better, but we think the most important thing is there. In any case, the book will live its life and who knows one day to know a second edition, with its share of revisions, updates, possible additions! While it does not claim to be exhaustive, the objective of a thorough analysis of the humanitarian ecosystem is clearly stated. Because the need for a general, systematized and scientifically established vision of a field, among the most solicited but also the most controversial in international life, is essential for all those, researchers, practitioners or decision-makers involved in humanitarian action.

AB : Philippe, the international humanitarian context today is more than troubled. Think of the Middle East, with the situation in north-eastern Syria, the Sahel region, the Rohingyas, but also the ever-increasing number of refugees and displaced persons and people in need of humanitarian assistance. In addition to geopolitical tensions, there are debates within the international humanitarian community, such as the Great Bargain with its ten priorities, the upcoming debates at the next National Humanitarian Conference next year in France, what is the main interest and what use do you think this Treaty can have?

PR : It is the readers who will naturally tell us how they will use it. Precisely, another of our main goals has been to provide them with effective instruments for reflection and – why not – action. From this point of view, practice must be articulated with theory. By the way, I would like to insist on the latter. Because it is not intended to remain a field reserved only for researchers, analysts and students. Actors and all those involved in humanitarian work (in any capacity) also make full use of it. They also need a solid theoretical corpus, and not only in terms of humanitarian principles.

You were talking about the Great Bargain: it is indisputable that the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit marked a turning point. Every day, we see the consequences on the ground and in the realities of aid. Similarly, the current humanitarian context is undeniably troubled and difficult. All the more reason to approach it with a viaticum of robust conceptual devices, in-depth analyses and consistent lines of thought. We have tried to make our contribution, insisting on Francophone resources in this area. You will allow me to highlight this element, which is another central feature of this work.

Because all those who are interested or working in the sector know it well, a kind of Anglo-Saxon Stream hand dominates that seeks to set the tone of thinking on humanitarian issues, its analysis or its future. While many French and Francophone reflections and studies on these issues exist and are no less valuable. The fact that the history and action since the 1970s of French and French-speaking NGOs have made them important protagonists in humanitarian aid is no stranger to this. Yet this thinking and analysis is – in our opinion – neither sufficiently valued nor presented. They therefore suffer from a double deficit of exposure and outlets. One of the motivations of this project was also to make them better known and promoted.

Wanting to contribute to it does not seem to me to be an illegitimate ambition. Not from any culturalist perspective, but because French-speaking humanitarian thinking exists and the resulting analyses deserve to be taken into much more account, especially since they are not necessarily identical to those of Anglophones. In doing so, they will contribute more to a better understanding, for example, of aid mechanisms and more broadly to the development of critical thinking on humanitarian issues. In the end, in order to better assist, support and accompany the suffering populations whose fate remains at the heart of the humanitarian act.

We were talking about the World Humanitarian Summit just now. My personal feeling is that in Istanbul, although Francophones participated, their voices were not sufficiently heard and retained in the decision-making process of this summit. It is therefore also the aim of such a Treaty to allow these analysts, researchers – essayists – through this medium – to be better known, perceived and, if possible, more listened to.

On a daily basis, humanitarian agencies also need these voices to contribute to their decision-making and operational choices in highly sensitive areas, such as northeastern Syria, southern Sudan, the DRC, the Sahel, etc. In order to pursue impartial, independent and neutral humanitarian action in accordance with humanitarian principles. Or to strengthen the consideration of global warming, MDGs, location.

AB : What is the public concerned by your Treaty and what use do you imagine it could be made of?

PR : Here too, we tried to build a rather new approach (again with the support of the publishing house Lextenso and its subsidiary LGDJ), targeting several audiences. Generally speaking, this type of work is targeted – above all – at university and student readers. Of course, this is a major, legitimate and important segment for us. However, we have – at the same time – sought to expand it.

First of all, to aid operators who complain – often rightly so – about the lack of knowledge (even if it is necessary to put it into perspective) of the academic world, but also of the media, decision-makers, citizens, of the realities and consistency of aid as well as of the theoretical and practical problems or ethical issues they are facing. Sometimes even some approaches are completely wrong. This needs to be addressed, and we believe that the book can contribute to the development of knowledge on humanitarian issues.

Then, we also target potential readers who are not familiar with the subject, but who wish to discover it. These may be people who have to work on humanitarian aid from one angle or another. Whether it is a matter of conducting research, scanning a bibliography, preparing a course, a conference, writing a memo… the resources provided by such a “Treaty” will make their task easier. Let us just take the example of population displacements and the role that humanitarian aid plays in helping populations forced to leave their places of residence. Referring to the book, we will find analyses and references that will feed them.

Another readership is made up of those who think about or simply report on the future of aid. From this point of view, there are many of them today: from journalists to bloggers or “influencers” speaking on social networks. However, this type of public does not necessarily have a minimum knowledge base on such a sensitive subject.

We are still addressing all those who are in a financial relationship with aid actors, starting with public and private donors, individual donors, foundations or patrons. Or in relationships involving different government departments or local authorities. However, here again, ignorance of the realities of aid (even if it is not widespread) often prevails.

Finally, the general public – that is, the citizen who would like to better understand humanitarian issues – is not absent from our concerns.

You will have understood that addressing these different categories is not an easy task, but with the contributors, it is also a proactive dimension of this project.

AB : To conclude, do you want to add something, to specify such or such a point that we may have forgotten? And then, on November 14, you have scheduled a conference at the University of Paris Nanterre to present your Treaty with guests to discuss it with the public. Can you tell us a little bit about it too?

PR : I would like to take this opportunity to highlight a point that may strike readers of the book: the lack of a specific conclusion. It is clearly voluntary. The publisher also left us free here. Indeed, Marina, Sandra and I thought it would be better not to write one. Just to keep the debate open. Because – in a way – we have never finished with humanitarian work: the questioning is permanent and daily, I would add.

Since it is therefore difficult to conclude, a first way to do this – and we mention this at the end of the introduction – is to encourage this type of comprehensive approach to humanitarian assistance. A second is that the Treaty contributes to encouraging and stimulating French-speaking scientific research on the main humanitarian issues, and even explores new ones, among its readers and users. Whether they are doctoral students looking for a thesis subject, experienced researchers or essayists. If only, as we said above, because precisely in view of the objective of providing assistance, support and facilitating the resilience of the recipient populations, we must never stop questioning aid. I usually say that just because we are in the register of Good with a big B does not mean that we should not ask ourselves about humanitarian issues. On the contrary, without falling into hyper-criticism. Humanitarian workers are among the first to get involved, they even have a strong propensity for self-criticism…

Finally, a third is that the Treaty adds its touch to the creation of a French-speaking field of “Humanitarian Studies”. In France, unlike Switzerland, Belgium or Canada, for example, we lack the tools, places and networks to do so. Research programmes should be carried out on a permanent and regular basis, bringing together practitioners and researchers on a platform (s). Make people work (and turbulate, one could say) horizontally in a network. The experience of the Treaty, which brought several dozen of them together in a common project, shows that it is not so difficult. It can be used.

Turning to the day of November 14 at the University of Paris Nanterre, with a significant number of authors participating with other speakers, we will certainly not cover all the topics covered in these 970 pages, but we will ask ourselves – and here again together – about some of the highlights. Around two main themes, one on the geopolitics of humanitarian aid and the other on ethics. Perhaps we will then try to decline the exercise on other occasions. Contacts have been made with us for interventions, conferences, exchanges in order to address other issues, such as those related to access difficulties, prisoners, the impact of new technologies…

Like you Alain, I know from experience but I have lived it – perhaps – in a different way with the process of developing this book, humanitarian aid is a living and moving material, which is constantly evolving. Thus, throughout the process of preparing the book, which lasted about two and a half years, it became necessary to ask some contributors to update the paper they had already submitted. Because data and figures change, contexts evolve, new paradigms emerge. This is often destabilizing, but – by the way – the acceptance of humanitarian aid by the populations and belligerents (in a conflict context) is also at this price.

Therefore, if the analyses developed in the Treaty can attract the interest of new researchers, such as academic institutions, funders and others, on all these and many other issues, from the same multidisciplinary perspective, bringing together academics and practitioners in a common reflection, we can take it as its main merit.

Philippe Ryfman : Doctor of Political Science and graduate of higher studies in private law, he is professor and honorary associate researcher in the Department of Political Science and at the European Centre for Sociology and Political Science of the Sorbonne (CESSP-Sorbonne), University of Paris I, Panthéon-Sorbonne. He directed the DESS then Master “International Cooperation, Humanitarian Action and Development Policies” (CIAHPD) at this university. Today, he pursues research activities on non-governmental and humanitarian issues, in particular as an associate researcher at the Canadian Observatory on Crisis and Humanitarian Action (OCCAH), UQAM, Montreal.

Contributeurs au Traité de Droit et Pratique de l’Action Humanitaire : Julia GRIGNON, Mamadou MÉITÉ, Bob KABAMBA, Clément PAULE, Hélène DE POOTER, Karl BLANCHET, Catherine-Amélie CHASSIN, Alice CORBET, Nordine DRICI, Ghislaine DOUCET, Eric DAVID, Alina MIRON, Xavier EMMANUELLI, Jérémie LABBÉ, Isabelle VONÈCHE-CARDIA, Francisco RUBIO, Fernando LIMA NETO, Rachid LAHLOU, Anne-Thida NORODOM, Abdelwahab BIAD, Céline SCHMITT, Marie CUQ, Claire BRISSET,Clémentine BORIES, Philippe LAGRANGE, Anne MILLET-DEVALLE, Patrick DESJARDINS, Mutoy MUBIALA, Marjorie BEULAY, Christian LECHERVY, Anouche BEAUDOUIN, Olivier LEBEL, François AUDET, Marie-Claude SAVARD, Francis CHARHON, Martin SPITZ, Laurent BACOS, Ophélie SPARWALD, Boris MARTIN, Luciano LOIACONO, Vincent TAILLANDIER, Serge BREYSSE, Gilles CARBONNIER, Bruno-Georges DAVID, Mélanie ALBARET, Maryline GRANGE, François GRÜNEWALD, Malika AÏT-MOHAMED PARENT, Julia GRIGNON, Rebecca MIGNOTMAHDAVI, Aude LE GOFF, Sarah PELLET, Julie TAVERNIER, Isabelle MOULIER, Michel MAIETTA, Sophie GROSBON, Marion BLONDEL, Jelena APARAC, Julie FERNAGU, Stéphanie MILLAN, Marie-Laure BASILIEN-GAINCHE, Damien SCALIA, Marie-Laurence HÉBERTDOLBEC, Thomas RIBÉMONT, Lucie DELABIE, Aimé Kouassi MALANHOUA, Claus SORENSEN, Hervé DELPHIN, Alexandre BALGUY-GALLOIS, Clara EGGER, Pierre MICHELETTI, Simon TORDJMAN, Marc LAVERGNE, Olivier RAY, Ariane JOAB-CORNU, Virginie TROIT, Jean-François MATTEI, Alain BOINET, Michaël NEUMAN, Fanny LAFONTAINE, Moussa Bienvenu HABA, Xavier LYONNAIS, Emmanuel GUEMATCHA.

You can order the book at the following link : here.