Geopolitics of humanitarian action.

Sandra SZUREK, Alain BOINET, Chrisitan TROUBE, Philippe Ryfman et Marina EUDES, le 14 novembre 2019 à l’université Paris Nanterre.

Humanitarian action between law, ethics and politics.

On November 14, 2019 at the Centre de Droit International de Nanterre (CEDIN) was held a conference on the occasion of the publication of the Treaty on the Law and Practice of Humanitarian Action (LGDJ Editions). You will find a presentation in Philippe Ryfman’s interview published in October 2019 on Humanitarian Challenges.

In the presence of the three co-directors of the book, Sandra SZUREK, Marine EUDES and Philippe RYFMAN, panelists and guests debated around two round tables. The first one was moderated by Christian Troubé, journalist, with the participation of the founder of Solidarités International, Alain BOINET. It launched a debate on the relationship between two concepts: geopolitics and humanitarian action. The second round table shed light on ethical issues in humanitarian action. Emmanuel Decaux, Professor Emeritus of the University of Paris II Panthéon Assas, questioned Ghislaine DOUCET, Principal Legal Advisor of the delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross in France and Virginie TROIT, Executive Director of the French Red Cross Foundation.

Alain Boinet opened the debate by providing an overview of the different historical contexts of humanitarian action since the 1980s. According to the Founder of Solidarités International, humanitarian action is part of a specific temporality and geopolitical context. Its very genesis reminds us that it is intrinsically linked to wars and conflicts. Humanitarian work takes root with the story of its founding father: Henry Dudant and his book “Souvenir de Solférino” (1862).  It was on the battlefield that the need for assistance to the wounded struck him, just as it is on the battlefield that we find today’s humanitarian work. Since this 19th century heritage, modern humanitarian action has been structured into three main periods that we can distinguish.

  • To understand the beginnings of modern humanitarian aid, we must go back to the Cold War in the 1980s. It is in hiding that the movement of borderless people with the “French doctors” and founders of French NGOs (Médecins Sans Frontières, Médecins du Monde, Handicap International, Solidarités International) provide assistance to victims of conflicts (from Biafra to Afghanistan and South East Asia…). These French pioneers of humanitarian aid, actors in a duty of humanitarian intervention that has become a duty of assistance, anticipated the law.


  • After the fundamentals comes development. The Cold War gave way between 1989 and 1992 to a brief period of euphoria embodied in Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s Agenda for Peace and a belief in a perpetual peace, if not an end to history, thanks to democracy and the liberal economy. Soon, the first Gulf War, the break-up of Yugoslavia, the Rwandan genocide and the earthquake in the Great Lakes region brought us back to geopolitical realities. It is in this context that humanitarian aid is undergoing considerable development and becoming more institutionalised, particularly with the creation of ECHO in 1992.


  • The Al Qaeda attacks in September 2001 on the World Trade Center in New York, the United States’ pre-emptive war against terrorism and the development of jihadist groups mark a turning point in the history of humanitarian action. In the face of wars such as the one in Iraq in 1993, humanitarian aid must assume its action within the framework of its principles while redoubling its vigilance to avoid any political instrumentalization to the detriment of its mission. Neutrality, impartiality and independence from the political agenda must guide its action more than ever. To avoid bureaucratic paralysis, it must also ensure that it maintains flexibility and flexibility in both action and administrative processes.

The geopolitics of humanitarian action: compatible concepts?

Christian TROUBE asks the eternal question: is humanitarian action an actor and producer of its own geopolitics or, on the contrary, does geopolitics and world order shape humanitarian action?

Sandra SZUREK replied by presenting Rony BRAUMAN’s thesis. They cannot be treated together: the two terms would be contradictory. Geopolitics reflects the relationship that a State has with a territory, the political project envisaged and its rational calculation of costs and gains. Conversely, humanitarian action is not determined by administrative boundaries. Speaking in turn, Philippe RYFMAN added that there is indeed a geopolitics specific to humanitarian aid because of its diversity of actors, the number of nationalities present and the diversity of territories. On the other hand, the geopolitics of humanitarian action is part of a global geopolitics. The global order and the resulting geopolitical situations can influence or limit humanitarian action: this is the case, for example, when land is inaccessible for security reasons.

The political neutrality of humanitarian aid: an ideal or a reality?

Marina EUDES insists on one fact: NGOs are subject to political influence. Political pressure is exerted by donors on whom they depend in part financially. Claus SØRENSEN, former Director General of ECHO, intervenes by nuancing the ideal of neutrality. “ECHO is a state institution which by its very essence cannot be neutral,” he said, adding that humanitarian action is an expression of values and therefore cannot be neutral. The European treaties are based on a value system that includes the right of the individual to protection and assistance without discrimination. He goes on to say that a humanitarian policy is not completely disinterested and can also be used as a last resort in the event of failed state solutions. His questions challenge the audience: when does humanitarian aid become a contributing factor to the prolongation of a conflict? Would politicians refrain from failing to find a solution to the conflict by offering a humanitarian substitute? To fulfil its mandate, humanitarian aid must be temporary. According to Alain BOINET, humanitarian aid is certainly part of a geopolitical context and must be adapted to it. However, the purpose of its action is neither geopolitical nor political. Humanitarian aid is detached from conflict in the sense that its objective is not to influence the resolution of crises and conflicts but to assist people and populations at risk without distinction.

The increasing complexity of the humanitarian landscape: a consequence of the multiplication of actors?

Developing countries and countries in crisis that are strengthening their control over their territories are major actors for humanitarian action. This change in the balance in the strengthening of these States may be positive in order to meet the needs of the populations or, on the contrary, it may stand as an obstacle to the proper conduct of missions. Increasingly, NGOs are being forced to deal with accusations of collusion with terrorist groups made by some governments. In addition to States, there is the power of control of non-state armed groups. With the fragmentation of territories, these groups tend to multiply and can exercise real power over entire territories. Philippe RYFMAN illustrates the postulate with the case of Saudi Arabia in Yemen, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Russia… These new actors, signatories or not to the Geneva Conventions, may have a different interpretation of Humanitarian Law. We are in a period of increasing numbers of aid actors where states are also pursuing humanitarian policies. The phenomenon modifies and questions the essence and scope of humanitarian action, summarizes Sandra SZUREK.

Chrisitian TOURBE revived the debate by addressing the theme of new funders. Can the private sector reasonably be a financial source for the humanitarian IEA?  Is the NGO, United Nations, local government and private sector consortium the right way to meet the ever-increasing needs? Alain BOINET reacts that all funding is welcome if it meets ethical criteria. Indeed, the financial resources mobilized are not commensurate with the needs. He recalled that in 2016, at the 1st World Humanitarian Summit, it was established that 40 billion in humanitarian aid was needed and that only 28 billion were available. Chaos in international relations, the sustainability of conflicts, demographics, climate change and the increase in disasters require humanitarian assistance commensurate with emergency needs and sustainable solutions.

The audience, thanks to its dynamic interventions and exchanges, raises points of concern but also hope for the future of humanitarian aid. Fraud, corruption, terrorism, the duty to assist in the Mediterranean, climate change, the demographic explosion in Africa, migration: so many new challenges are being added to the field of humanitarian action. As a result of enlargements, the speakers have gone so far as to wonder whether their mandate has not been changed. Evolving in a constantly changing international context, the humanitarian sector is questioning itself and renewing itself to respond and keep in focus its primary mandate: to provide relief to populations in danger.

Report by Alicia Piveteau.

Find the Treaty on the Law and Practice of Humanitarian Action on the website of Editions L.G.D.J.