How can aid workers help war victims without falling prey to, or becoming complicit with, their persecutors?
Humanitarian organisations have an ambiguous relationship with the violence of war. Seeking to relieve its severity, they contribute to its continuation to varying degrees while subjecting themselves to becoming targets. This collection of studies explores the way aid workers attempt to “humanise” war and face the risk of becoming victims of or complicit in the war.
This article was first published in Issue 2, Volume 2 of The Journal of Humanitarian Affairs.
How can a medical humanitarian organisation deliver emergency assistance in Syria when there is nowhere in the country where civilians, the wounded and their families, medical personnel and aid workers are not targeted? Not in the areas controlled by the government, nor in those held by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or the different rebel groups. So what action could be taken, and how? Remotely or on site? At the very least, we had to decipher the diverging political and military agendas, and then adapt, persist or sometimes just give up. In this article, I will present the full range of methods used to acquire knowledge and obtain information as well as the various networks used to carry out this venture. I will also show how Médecins Sans Frontières’ operations became a balancing act, punctuated by episodes of adapting to the various difficulties encountered.
On the 31st January, a symposium was held at Sciences Po in support of Fariba Adelkhah and Roland Marchal, researchers at Sciences Po's Center for International Research (CERI) who were arrested in Iran on June 5, 2019. Roland Marchal was released on 20th March 2020 in exchange for an Iranian engineer detained in France. On 6th May Fariba Adelkhah was sentenced to 6 years imprisonment for "propaganda against the political system of the Islamic Republic, and collusion to undermine national security". The researcher was offered conditional release on condition that she terminates her research, but she refused.
The symposium brought together diplomats, journalists, humanitarians and researchers, with the aim of "nourishing reflection about prisoners and hostages, from a political, legal and ethical point of view". Fabrice Weissman presented the experience of Médecins Sans Frontières in the face of kidnappings.
This article discusses the policy of absolute secrecy on abductions adopted by aid organisations. It argues that the information blackout on past and current cases is to a large extent a function of the growing role of private security companies in the aid sector, which promote a ‘pay, don’t say’ policy as a default option, whatever the situation. The article contends that secrecy is as much an impediment to resolving current cases as it is to preventing and managing future ones. It suggests abandoning the policy of strict confidentiality in all circumstances – a policy that is as dangerous as it is easy to apply – in favour of a more nuanced and challenging approach determining how much to publicise ongoing and past cases for each audience, always keeping in mind the interests of current and potential hostages.
This article seeks to document and analyse violence affecting the provision of healthcare by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and its intended beneficiaries in the early stage of the current civil war in South Sudan. Most NGO accounts and quantitative studies of violent attacks on healthcare tend to limit interpretation of their prime motives to the violation of international norms and deprivation of access to health services. Instead, we provide a detailed narrative, which contextualises violent incidents affecting healthcare, with regard for the dynamics of conflict in South Sudan as well as MSF’s operational decisions, and which combines and contrasts institutional and academic sources with direct testimonies from local MSF personnel and other residents. This approach offers greater insight not only into the circumstances and logics of violence but also into the concrete ways in which healthcare practices adapt in the face of attacks and how these may reveal and put to the test the reciprocal expectations binding international and local health practitioners in crisis situations.
The rehabilitation of international humanitarian law (IHL) has become a priority for those who think that the horrors of contemporary wars are largely due to the blurring of the distinction between civilians and combatants and for those who think that campaigning for the respect of IHL could result in more civilised wars. Similarly, respect for humanitarian principles is still seen by many as the best tool available to protect the safety of aid workers. In this text, I argue that both assumptions are misled. The distinction between civilians and combatants, a cornerstone of IHL, has been blurred in practice since the late nineteenth century. In addition, humanitarian agencies claiming to be ‘principled’ have been victims of attacks as much as others. History and current practice tell us that neither IHL nor humanitarian principles provide safety or can guide our decisions. Accepting their symbolic value, rather than their unrealised potential to protect and solve operational dilemmas, would free humanitarian agencies from endless speculations.
In the eyes of Rony Brauman of Médecins sans Frontières, wars are always triggered in the name of morality. Today’s “humanitarian” interventions are little more than new moral crusades – and their justifications are based on lies.
Although much has been written about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, two recent volumes offer fresh perspectives and add considerable insights. Guichaoua’s From War to Genocide: Criminal Politics in Rwanda 1990–1994 takes the reader deep into the belly of the beast. The book describes and analyzes the real politics of the politics of genocide based on extraordinary detailed evidence with respect to the strategies and tactics of key military and political players. Bradol and Le Pape’s Humanitarian Aid, Genocide and Mass Killings: Médecins Sans Frontières, The Rwandan Experience, 1982–97 offers a unique understanding of the consequences of this murderous political game from the point of view of humanitarian aid workers in general and the NGO Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières – MSF) in particular.
Published in March 2018, Judi Rever’s investigative work, In Praise of Blood, quickly garnered international attention. It is an indictment of both the Rwandan patriotic front (RPF) and its leader, current Rwandan president Paul Kagame, and foreign governments and international institutions – the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), in particular – that allowed crimes committed against Hutu civilians to go unpunished.Judi Rever’s book is more than a work of investigation. It reads like a prosecutor’s closing argument: the massacres are described in such a way as to classify them as genocide. And it is precisely this combination of investigation and the pursuit of evidence that would stand up in a court of law that is problematic.
Kevin MacMahon's review of "Saving Lives and Staying Alive: Humanitarian Security in the Age of Risk Management" (Michaël Neuman and Fabrice Weissman, London: C. Hurst & Co, 2016) is published in the Journal for the Study of Peace and Conflict (2016, pages 69-70).