Tag Archives: United Nations

A Nobel for the WFP: A non-political Peace Prize for humanitarian multilateralism? (WFP Nobel Series, 1)

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This text first appeared on the PRIO blog, and is re-posted here. You may access the original post by clicking this link. The 2020 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the World Food Programme (WFP) for “its efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict”. WFP is the world’s largest humanitarian organization, and food insecurity and food aid are much-discussed topics in humanitarian studies. In this blog series, we examine the implications of the award and critically engage in debates on food (in)security, food aid, innovation and technology and the WFP as a humanitarian actor. This is the first post in the series.

A World Food Programme ship with workers unloading pallets of high energy biscuits during the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003. By 26th MEU(SOC) PAO (U.S. Marines) via Wikimedia Commons

This year’s Nobel Peace Prize is awarded to the World Food Program for its “efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict”. The announcement emphasizes the importance of supporting – and funding – international solidarity and multilateralism in a world in crisis. The WFP is praised for its work in extremely difficult conditions and for gaining access to populations in war zones like Syria and closed dictatorships like North Korea.

Together with the struggle against slavery and the provision of medical assistance to wounded soldiers, the fight against famine is the original humanitarian cause. Images of starving victims in Biafra in the late 1960s and then again in Ethiopia in the 1980s mobilized TV audiences and humanitarian efforts to ensure food delivery. Today, as the economic and health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic devastate the livelihoods of communities globally, the WFP estimates that an unprecedented 138 million people are in need of food aid.

In her announcement, the chairman of the committee, Berit Reiss-Andersen, described food as “the best vaccine against chaos”. Asked if she expected that this year’s prize would be uncontroversial, Reiss-Andersen hoped that giving the Nobel Peace Prize to an organization helping to end starvation would not be provocative, indicating that food-aid was non-political. Whatever the reception, we argue this is nevertheless a deeply political choice, due to the assumptions it makes about food as an instrument of peace, about the linkages between humanitarianism and peace and finally about the World Food Program as an international organization.

This contribution first puts the opening quote in context, showing how food is currently framed as an instrument of peace. It then focuses on the very political nature of the WFP as a multilateral humanitarian organization within the global environment, even as the emphasis of the Nobel Peace Prize is on its role in “saving lives”. Finally, it discusses one example of the WFP at the operational level: the politics of humanitarian technology.

Food as an instrument of peace

In 2015, hunger eradication became one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. As Reiss-Andersen indicated in the Nobel Peace Prize announcement, the WFP is the “UN’s primary instrument for realizing this goal”. In 2018, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2417, recognizing the link between famine and conflict, and reasserting the importance of international humanitarian law in addressing hunger in armed conflict. Echoing this, the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize is presented first and foremost through the lens of the insecurity that is created when food supply is insufficient, or controlled by warring parties, and thereby praising the WFP’s contributions to making “food security an instrument of peace”.

This peace-humanitarian nexus, however, is problematic. The prize recognizes the existential threat that a lack of food causes for human life and the importance of preventing the use of food as a weapon of war. The struggles against the Irish and Russian famines were foundational moments in modern humanitarianism. Yet throughout history, mass starvation has been miscategorized as a natural phenomenon, or as an unfortunate side-effect of conflict and political oppression. Scholars have disputed this narrative, focusing instead on the infrastructures of food distribution and the political underpinnings of famine and mass starvation. The politics of famine are fierce, as exemplified by the heated discussion of whether the food shortages in Niger in 2005 amounted to a famine at all – and whether that mattered. While the focus on early warning systems and increasingly fine-grained measurements of access to nutrition in real time has provided the international community with increasingly accurate tools for predicting and addressing food-shortages, these mechanisms remain prone to interference. And as the Nobel committee notes, the WFP (and other humanitarian actors) can do little in the face of endemic funding shortages.

Thus, defining what constitutes a famine, and thereby who should respond to it, with which means and requirements, are deeply political questions. Just as hunger can be a weapon of war, so can food aid be instrumentalized in conflict settings. Improving the conditions for peace requires much more than providing food; it necessitates political commitment to promote and preserve peace.

WFP and the political nature of humanitarian multilateralism

The prize – given to an agency headed by David Beasley, a Trump nominee – is seen by some commentators as a criticism of the US for turning its back on multilateralism and withdrawing funding from the World Health Organization in the midst of a pandemic. Founded in 1963, the WFP has historically been criticized as a front for American agricultural interests. American executive directors have led the agency since 1992. The US has always been the largest donor of the WFP, which remains relatively popular in the US.

The WFP is no stranger to political controversy. Given the emergency focus of its work, with short time horizons and the potential costs to human life, the agency continually makes difficult tradeoffs. The WFP has historically struggled with corruption and food diversion, facing accusations of half of the food aid disappearing in Somalia in the 2000s. Operations in North Korea have, over time, proved challenging in relation to the quest for humanitarian accountability. Occasionally the agency has closed operation in response to donor concerns about local diversions of funding and food items, including staff corruption, such as in Yemen in 2010. Its partnerships with private companies likewise raise protection concerns, such as when its biometric ‘data lake’ (comprising sensitive data such as beneficiary biometrics) was potentially at risk of becoming accessible to Palantir and to security actors whose notions of protection refer foremost to national security rather than to the security of its humanitarian beneficiaries.

The organization has also been in the spotlight for its ongoing struggles with a problematic working environment, with reports cataloguing discrimination, abuse of authority, sexual harassment and retaliation; so far ineffectively dealt with by a poor management culture. As late as in September, there were reports of allegations of sexual misconduct in relation to a WFP compound in Northern Uganda.

The politics of the WFP at an operational level: the example of technology

In recent years, the WFP has won praise and criticism for its approach to innovation and digitization. From initial pilot projects to gauge the advantages of using biometrics to its use of blockchain, the WFP has now become a forerunner in using new technology to think differently about assistance, such as the move from ‘food’ to ‘cash’, a significant innovation in effectively meeting the needs of those affected by crisis. The use of new digital technology, however, has significant challenges.

Harnessing “data and tech to save lives” has indeed helped the WFP in various ways. Yet, acknowledging that “data and tech” can have advantages should not preclude debate about potential flipsides and critical dimensions of these developments. As mentioned above, the WFP announced last year that the agency had decided to enter into a “five-year partnership” between the WFP with Palantir, a “controversial US-based data analytics company with deep links to US intelligence agencies,” criticized for being a human rights violator.

As a more specific example of how this partnership spilled over into the WFP’s programmes the case of Yemen is worth mentioning as the issue of biometric data collection became the subject of “a pitched standoff” between the WFP and Yemen’s Houthi government. Referring to the controversial Palantir-partnership, Houthis accused the WFP of being “a front for intelligence operations,” i.e. not a politically neutral humanitarian actor. Commentators have observed that  this dispute was not just about data but essentially about “power, trust and the licence to operate”. Crucially, the tech-related confrontation has ‘real’ consequences, putting food aid to 850,000 people caught in a dire humanitarian crisis at a standstill.

Although debates about this partnership waned rather quickly, it is important to contemplate the broader relevance for the humanitarian community in a time where humanitarian governance increasingly revolves around data governance. Critical discussions – and more transparency –about the collection and sharing of digital data from people in extremely volatile contexts and about emergent humanitarian data-infrastructures are crucial for the integrity of humanitarian protection mandates. Here, the WFP, which remains a curiously under-studied international organization, could also do much more to facilitate academic engagement with the organization.

Concluding thoughts

The work of UN agencies like the WFP, are examples of multilateralism as an essentially deeply political endeavor. In the years to come, climate change may return famines to the core of humanitarian action. The kind of versatile World Food Programme we have seen emerge over the last decade will likely become an even more important actor on the multilateral scene. At the same time, as discussed in this blog, while this Nobel Peace Prize is undoubtedly a prize for humanitarian multilateralism it is not unproblematic to read this as being in praise of the humanitarian enterprise as such.

From Moria to the UN Security Council: Norwegian Domestic Politics and Foreign Policy Ambitions

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This post first appeared in Norwegian in Dagbladet. You can read it here.

Norway’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Ine Eriksen Søreide and Jordan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Ayman Safadi at an event in Jordan. Photo: Indigo Trigg-Hauger / PRIO

The fire at the Moria camp underlines the depth of the crisis in the international system intended to protect people fleeing their home countries. Under the Refugee Convention, people in need of asylum must be given the opportunity to apply for it. The fundamental flaws in this system weighs heavily on the international community and will dominate the political agenda for the foreseeable future. At the same time, we are now seeing a deeply irreconcilable conflict between the domestic policy considerations shaping Norway’s immigration policy and the foreign policy ambitions that the country is pursuing. While Norway prepares itself for a term on the most prestigious and respected international forum, the UN Security Council, where its opportunities to exert influence will be significant, “on the home front” its approach to one of the great challenges of our time is to wait for other countries to take the initiative.

Weakened UN structures

UNWRA, which works with Palestinian refugees across the Middle East, is in serious financial difficulty after its main funder, the United States, withdrew its support for the organization in 2018. The agency is also struggling politically, because the Trump administration has taken the issue of Palestinian refugees off the negotiating table. The Palestinian refugee problem is particularly important because it illustrates, more than any other situation, how long a refugee crisis can continue if it is not solved.

Even so, UNRWA’s responsibilities are minor compared with the burden carried by UNHCR. UNHCR, which is responsible for all other refugees worldwide, is struggling because of the enormous and ever-growing number of refugees globally, and the shortage of political and economic will to take the measures necessary to resolve the problems. Solutions involve providing housing for people in need, and also finding enduring solutions to the situations that caused them to flee in the first place. In both cases, the central role of the UN in addressing these key questions, both as an international forum and through its specialized organizations, should be obvious. At the start of 2019, there were 79.5 million refugees worldwide. At that time, UNHCR had only half the funding it required for 2020-2021.

The burden-sharing principle is central to ideas about how the international community should assist refugees, but it is not legally binding. There are no mechanisms for establishing a reasonable and just method for making countries share the burden. As a result, the system depends on some countries taking the lead, setting the standard, and then bringing others on board. It is at the same time difficult to argue against the fact that countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Italy, Greece and Turkey are in practice bearing far more than their share of the global challenge of providing protection for refugees.

Norway on the UN Security Council

Although refugees are not directly the concern of the UN Security Council, the UN’s reputation, credibility and effectiveness are weakened if its agencies and member states fail to resolve the various longstanding refugee crises. Accordingly, some connections should be made visible here: from the burned down Moria camp via Oslo and to the UN Security Council in New York. As the Norwegian government celebrated its successful campaign for a non-permanent seat on the Security Council, the institutional difficulties concerning the protection of refugees follows it into the assembly rooms in New York.

Until Moria burned down, the Norwegian position was that Norway should contribute by accepting children from the camp, once another 10 or so countries had already gone ahead and provided assistance. It was clear that this policy was formulated with an eye on the domestic policy agenda, but if Norway is to take up one of the most important positions in international politics, then surely we should not be waiting for other countries to take the lead, so that we can follow in their footsteps. In this regard, Norway’s reputation as a major humanitarian power comes into play. Norway’s foreign-policy capital rests very much on this reputation.

Successful management of this legacy could both strengthen Norway’s position on the Security Council and encourage other countries to take their share of responsibility. This is needed.

In a critical moment for Yemen, donor fatigue can have disastrous consequences

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About the authors: Dr. Ghassan Elkahlout is Head of the MSc. Program in Conflict Management and Humanitarian Action at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. Mr Belal Abdo is a former Yemeni diplomat, and holds a Master degree in Conflict Management and Humanitarian Action.

WFP food distibution in Raymah. Photo: Julien Harneis via Flickr

Heartbreakingly for those of us still watching, Yemen continues to descend further into humanitarian catastrophe. Now the scene of the worst humanitarian disaster on the planet, the country has been spiraling deeper into suffering since the war began in 2015 and the ongoing cholera epidemic took hold the following year. The economy in ruins, healthcare system close to collapse, and infrastructure devastated after years of conflict, a staggering 80% of the population need some form of humanitarian assistance or protection – some 24 million people. And now those people, already teetering on the edge of survival, face Covid-19, leading the head of the United Nations Refugee Agency to warm that the deadly virus could ‘delete Yemen from maps all over the world’.

Limited resources despite deepening crisis

Despite the deepening crisis, humanitarian aid operations in Yemen remain critically underfunded.  The UN warns that 30 of its 41 programmes in the country will have to close in few weeks. Some of the resources pledged last year have not yet materialized, causing financial distress to critical life-saving humanitarian programmes. What is more, humanitarian organizations working in Yemen face tremendous challenges. According to reports, they are threatened if they do not make payouts to warring parties, who are alleged to use the funds to finance their war effort. Humanitarian workers also face threats and restrictions, ratcheting up security concerns and limitations on their movements. During recent years, humanitarian aid is said to have been stolen from humanitarian organizations, in particular the World Food Programme, which declared that it will suspend its operations if the authorities continue to impose restrictions on the programme, their aid personnel, or their warehouses. Last year, Yemeni activists adopted a campaign calling for further transparency by UN agencies, especially in relation to using and disbursing funds for Yemen. Some also levelled accusations of corruption and the squandering of huge portions of funds on international travel, higher salaries for unqualified international staff, and diversion of aid money to warring parties. Activists claimed that only a small portion of funds was reaching those in need – in some cases, less than 30%.

“Pledges will not save lives unless they are paid” 

The dire situation in Yemen has prompted the UN to call, jointly with Saudi Arabia, for a high-level pledging conference for the response to the crisis. The conference convened via an online platform on June 2, 2020 and was attended by around 125 countries and international organizations, UN agencies, and non-governmental organizations. The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, urged donor countries to pledge generously and to transfer the resources as quickly as possible so as major humanitarian aid operations can be maintained. Some 30 pledging announcements were made, amounting to $1.35 billion; around $1 billion less than that promised at last year’s pledging conference. This leaves a huge shortfall in the $2.41 billion needed to cover the UN’s basic humanitarian programmes in the country for the next six months.  UN Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, added that “pledges will not save lives unless they are paid”.

Of the pledges announced, Saudi Arabia, which leads the coalition, is to contribute half a billion dollars – the biggest contribution for humanitarian situation in 2020 in Yemen. About $300 million will go to the UN agencies, and $200 million will support humanitarian programmes run by King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Centre. Although other Arab countries participated in the Conference, they have not pledged any financial support.  The United Arab Emirates, which is a key actor in the coalition and which directly or indirectly controls some areas in Yemen, has not pledged any money, choosing to refer to funding disbursed to UN agencies or politically charged Yemeni-run organizations. Qatar, among the top ten major donors to OCHA and humanitarian action around the world, did not participate in the conference due to circumstances relating to its withdrawal from the coalition, while Kuwait, surprisingly, did not commit.

Yemen’s hour of need

It is perhaps understandable that donors feel exhausted and despondent, as we see in the language of figures or numbers and as those who once supported Arab Spring issues turn away to focus instead on problems such as coronavirus and the global economic recession. But it comes at a time when Yemen needs more desperately than ever a political settlement which brings warring parties to the negotiating table with the support of Arab countries and the international community.  Donors –– especially those who contributed to what is now the world’s largest humanitarian crisis –– must shoulder their responsibilities by providing humanitarian aid and contributing to post-conflict reconstruction. History will not forgive them if they do not.

PoC as a concept for UN peacekeeping

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The Protection of Civilians (POC) has gradually become central to UN peacekeeping both in policy formulation, in mandates, and in practice. Yet, the concept is broad, and few actors agree on its meaning. Such a broad understanding hinders coordination on issues across agencies, and makes the implementation of POC challenging. Few agree on whether POC is a specific task of peacekeeping mandates, or it should be an overall concern across all tasks.

The issue is further exacerbated by the lack of differentiation between POC and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). The somewhat contested status of R2P thus contributes to undermine the inclusion of POC concerns in peacekeeping mandates. The introduction of a related system-wide agenda, Rights Up Front (RUF) is not about to make that more clear. An essential task at the policy level is therefore now to clarify the status and meaning of POC both vis-à-vis other tasks and other broader protection concerns.

Entering the UN peacekeeping system from Kofi Annan’s emphasis on the need for a “culture of protection” as a remedy to the failures of peacekeeping in the mid-1990s, the POC has since become an established part of the peacekeeping vocabulary and repertoire of actions. Today, while not a central concern to all UN agencies involved in peacekeeping operations, POC is nevertheless a factor taken into consideration by most of them. While it was for long seen as the prerogative of OCHA, it is now also an equally important concern to DPKO. The prominence given to POC in UN documents is symptomatic of a growing awareness of protection issues within the international community. However, these good intentions and interventions have not always led to the security and peace desired. Effective implementation of POC still involves practical challenges at the operative level as well as resolving the conceptual muddle characterizing POC today.

For the UN is routinely accused of not protecting when expected to in practice, and at the conceptual level little has been done to clarify what POC actually entails, and the extent to which it should figure in peacekeeping: is POC but one aspect of a vast array of measures, and should it therefore be compartmentalized alongside other policy areas, or is it an overreaching or cross-cutting concern for peacekeeping operations as a whole? In which case, should it also guide the work of agencies not formally part of the operation?

Yet, the past years have seen an increasing number of policy and doctrinal processes aimed at streamlining POC. Combining the UNs military capacities with the humanitarian ethics of protection produces both opportunities and challenges. On the one side it makes the PoC framework more robust, putting greater political (and military) capital behind preventive protection efforts, while also enabling actual physical protection of civilians. On the other side, it risks politicising protection, and conflate the UNs political-military agenda with the humanitarian, in turn jeopardising the humanitarian principles so central for the legitimacy of PoC.

The PoC is central to peacekeeping operations in seeking to manage war-to-peace-transitions. This involves both civilian and military entities, and a critical problem is their lack of a shared understanding of what PoC means in and entails for practices. This is partly due to the UNSC who feared defining and operationalising PoC would make it too binding for member states and override the UN’s lack of resources. Hence it was never properly defined and instead the UNSG opted for mainstreaming a ‘culture of protection’ throughout the UN system. The problem here is that distinct actors interpret this culture differently and contextually, thus making interagency harmonisation difficult. The paradox of this is that while mainstreaming POC would seem to require a simplification of the concept, so to speak, in order to make it more tangible, this in turn would run the risk of undermining the aim of POC, which is to be malleable enough as to provide protection in all situations.

There is a crucial need for more grounded reflection on how to provide effective protection. As long as understandings of “protection” vary, ranging from the provision of direct physical protection to the wider framework adopted by the UN, greater flexibility should be shown in which interpretation of protection is taken as the point of departure, depending on the aim of the case in question.

POC is broad, lacks tangibility, and is still elusive to many involved in peacekeeping. Accordingly, it has become a conceptual battlefield with little agreement of the status of POC, ether as a legal principle rooted in International Humanitarian Law, guidelines for humanitarian action, or a comprehensive doctrine including coercive means. This confusion is due to the fact that POC is vague and open for interpretation and contextualisation. This inherent feature of POC has been exacerbate by the fact that a number of actors eager to further legitimize the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) have been deliberately confusing the two concepts. While both the POC and R2P concepts are related in terms of aims, there are clear differences between them. R2P is interventionist, POC is not.

R2P faces the problem of legitimizing humanitarian intervention which POC does not face, and its disciples have therefore sought to attach or confuse the two in order to take a share in the broad legitimacy POC has enjoyed, but which R2P has lacked.

Even so, these distinct concepts are routinely referred to as synonymous and used interchangeably in the same contexts. This is not likely to change with the recent launch of the Rights Up Front (RUF) Action Plan, yet another concept aimed at remedying the failures of peacekeeping. If no concerted and central effort is made within the UN to conceptually clarify how POC, R2P and RUF relate to different agencies, contexts, policies and actions, UN peacekeeping will have to deal with three related, often competing, ideas or cultures of protection – all good intentioned, yet not clearly defined as to enable action. Such a reflection must take the field as its starting point, as the key to understand protection in any given context is to understand how it translates into practice, and the extent to which its application addresses the needs on the ground.

UN at War

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In reality, nothing is more dangerous for a peace-keeping operation than to ask it to use force when its existing composition, armament, logistic support and deployment deny it the capacity to do so. The logic of peace-keeping flows from political and military premises that are quite distinct from those of enforcement; and the dynamics of the latter are incompatible with the political process that peace-keeping is intended to facilitate. To blur the distinction between the two can undermine the viability of the peace-keeping operation and endanger its personnel.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali.[1]

“If you have a hammer, the problem will look like a nail”. With the inclusion of the Force Intervention Brigade in the DRC, the UN has got a hammer and has showed that it can use force against specified targets to ‘neutralize’ them. On the other hand, MINUSMA can be seen as a laboratory for including some of the concepts and lessons learned from Afghanistan. It will be essential to support this process by providing the new arrivals to the UN with a better understanding of the similarities and differences between NATO and UN missions, and the need to take a less combative stance in Mali.

Modern peacekeeping needs intelligence capabilities in the shape of surveillance drones, tactical human intelligence teams and so forth. However, there seems to be an unspoken link made between the inclusion of modern military capabilities and the more robust version of stabilization, leaning towards peace enforcement. With the Western capabilities the MINUSMA mission is becoming more robust. But the robust posture may also have a self-fulfilling effect, drawing attention to the mission and increasing the chance of targeted attacks against the UN. In the longer term, retaliatory attacks may target the soft underbelly of the UN – the funds, programmes and agencies carrying out development and humanitarian work.

In 1993, John Ruggie warned that the UN had entered “a vaguely defined no man’s land lying somewhere between traditional peacekeeping and enforcement – for which it lacks any traditional guiding operational concept.”[2] His warnings were not heeded and the UN soon failed miserably in Srebrenica and Rwanda. The solution to the problem was to come to a new understanding that impartiality should be understood from the perspective of protecting civilians, and that the UN could not stand idly by while atrocities were committed. The Brahimi Report held that the traditional principles ‘should remain the bedrock principles of peacekeeping’, but that peace operations should be sufficiently mandated with robust rules of engagement for civilian protection and have the necessary resources to react where civilians were in danger. Today the UN is finding itself in a similar predicament, taking on new tasks that border on peace enforcement. The question is whether the gap between principles and practice signify a need to update principles, or whether this is a function of practice leaving still valid principles behind.

At the strategic level there is a need for careful consideration of what kind of instrument UN peacekeeping should be. Can the UN deploy peace enforcement operations? While it may be a tempting solution for members of the UN Security Council and for the UN Secretariat, wanting to show leadership and resolve and with limited interest in engaging bilaterally or through regional organisations, the urge to equip UN peacekeeping operations with enforcement mandates that target particular groups should be considered carefully. The use of force should be limited to critical instances when civilian populations are in grave and immediate danger. The urge to satisfy short-term objectives such as showing the UN Security Council and the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations to be ‘doing something’ should be resisted. UN Security Council mandates should not specify any potential enemies, should resist the inclusion of euphemisms such as ‘neutralise’, and force should be used only for short periods in order to protect civilians.

***

[1] Boutros-Ghali, Boutros (1995) A/50/60-S/1995/1: Supplement to An agenda for peace. New York: United Nations: para 35.

[2] Ruggie, John G. (1993) ‘Wandering in the Void: Charting the UN’s New Strategic Role’, Foreign Affairs 72 (5): 26–31.

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Read the (open access) article on which this blogpost is based, here:

Karlsrud, John (2015) ‘The UN at War: Examining the Consequences of Peace Enforcement Mandates for the UN Peacekeeping Operations in the CAR, the DRC and Mali’, Third World Quarterly 36 (1): 40-54.

PoC: How the Security Council in 1999 came to consider protection of civilians in armed conflict

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It is now fourteen years since the UN Security Council formally decided to include protection of civilians in armed conflict as a separate item on its agenda. The event was marked by an open discussion on protection in the Security Council – the first of its kind – which took place in February 1999.  It was followed by a request to the UN Secretary-General for a comprehensive report on the subject. The report was duly submitted in September (S/1999/957), which highlighted problems (“challenges “in UN language) and ways of addressing them. The Security Council endorsed the report’s recommendations in a formal resolution.

That was the beginning of a biannual, and later annual, routine in the Security Council  of dedicated discussions, reports and resolutions  that highlighted protection of civilians in armed conflict. Dedicated websites now follow the process. The practice has become so well institutionalized and widely accepted that we readily overlook the significance of these first, path-breaking steps in 1999.

Before then, the Security Council had focused on “hard” security issues of war and peace. Occasional reports had been requested and resolutions passed that dealt with refugees – not surprising given the existence of a large, and in the 1990s increasingly powerful, UN agency with a mandate to protect refugees (UNHCR). Questions of protection of civilians in armed conflict had also surfaced in the context of particular crises – notably the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, when the UN peacekeeping force, UNAMIR, was told to stick its head in the sand rather than respond to the unfolding signs of a genocide, and also when UN peacekeepers the following year were passive bystanders to the massacre in Srebrenica. But it took another five years before the Security Council was energized to consider protection of civilians in armed conflict as a subject worthy attention on its own, and in its own right. Protecting civilians was in effect elevated to the sphere of ‘high politics’.

How  did that happen?   And why then?

The context was favourable. The 1990s was “the humanitarian decade”. Humanitarian action was the language of the time, the veil of politics, and in part also a driving force. Analyst spoke of an international order with “embedded humanitarianism”.

An agent was needed as well. The crucial initiatives came from the Canadian government, above all its innovative and energetic foreign minister, Lloyd Axworthy. The government (then liberal with a small as well as large L), was seeking a seat on the Security Council and campaigned on three issues. “Human security” was one of them. Having rescued the term from near-oblivion (it first came to general attention in the 1994 UNDP Human Development Report), the Canadians had been promoting  “human security” as a central concept in foreign policy and international relations.  The new orientation had already contributed to a very significant result – the treaty banning landmines was signed in Ottawa in 1997. With their eyes on the Security Council seat, the Canadians were now seeking broader support for the “human security” concept and its possible concretizations.

The Norwegians soon signed on. “Human security” fitted nicely with the country’s general foreign policy traditions as well as the particular orientation of the new coalition government lead by the Christian Democrats (Bondevik I). Not so coincidentally, Norway was also angling for a future seat on the Security Council and needed relevant issues and allies. In 1998, the foreign ministers of the two countries met at a small island in western Norway where they declared their support for human security (the Lysøen Declaration).

Canada did win a seat in the Security Council (1999-2000), and so, a bit later, did Norway (2001-2001). The Canadians immediately tabled the issue of protection of civilians in armed conflict. The rest, as they say, is history. The issue never left the Security Council again. Outside the Security Council, the Canadians promoted “the responsibility to protect’ (R2P) as a matter of principle on the national and international level, receiving a measure of endorsement by the UN World Summit conference in 2005.

The above analysis of how the Security Council routinely came to pay attention to protection of civilians in armed conflict is cast in a neo-realist mould.  In this perspective, noble ideas need to be propelled forwards by more robust national interests of power and ambition, such as getting a seat on the Security Council. That is, we need to recognize the instrumental value of ideas to account for their political saliency. We also need to step outside a narrow neo-realistic framework to consider the conceptual clarity and normative power of the idea itself. At the time,  “human security” was a powerful idea; concretizing it in terms of protection of civilians gave it a focus and policy relevance necessary to capture the agenda of the Security Council.

What this all matters on the ground, outside the chambers of policy debates in the United Nations, is of course another question. But high-level recognition of a problem surely is a necessary (though not sufficient) prerequisite for effective active.

What, then, of the future? Will “human security” again provide inspiration or legitimacy for new initiatives in the humanitarian sector? The original carriers – Norway and Canada – will this spring mark the 15th anniversary of the original Lysøen Declaration. It will be a low-key and totally unofficial affair. The present Canadian government, no longer liberal with a small l, has practically banned the term (and taken down the website). The Norwegian government has not gone quite as far, but seems focused elsewhere.  Yet there is no lack of urgent issues. On top of my list is the development of an international regime to regulate ‘targeted killings’, particularly through drone strikes.  To get this squarely on the table of the Security Council and beyond, however, probably requires a massive lift – more than even an inspired Oslo-Ottawa axis could carry.

A Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies?

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This is our first blog posting at the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies. The Centre is the brainchild of a multidisciplinary group of researchers from CMI, NUPI and PRIO, while the blog will host a mixture of reports from the field; thoughts on new issues such as emerging donors, urban violence and humanitarian technology; discussions on (in the first place Norwegian) humanitarian policy and critical reflections on the emergent field of humanitarian studies. We welcome your comments and inputs.

Change is upon international humanitarianism.

Whether caused by violent conflicts or natural disasters, humanitarian interventions (armed and unarmed) raise fundamental questions about ethics, sovereignty, and political power. The global humanitarian system has gone through significant, and often poorly understood, changes over the last two decades. What are the implications for the protection of civilians? Humanitarian work has expanded to cover more long-term development activities at the same time as emergencies have become more frequent. Meanwhile the division between man-made and “natural” disasters is getting increasingly blurred. Humanitarian reform initiatives, with their focus on accountability, transparency and financing, have become institutionalized. But they are raising further questions in their wake.

New actors are rapidly transforming the humanitarian landscape: heavyweights like China, Brazil and Turkey engage in cross-border humanitarian action in ways that differ from the “classic” humanitarianism of Northern donors.  Global philanthropy and the rise of “for profit” NGOs reshape the political economy of humanitarian aid. Social media and so-called “humanitarian technologies” continue to transform understandings of what disasters are, and how civilians can be aided and protected.

In the midst of this, most humanitarian assistance remains a local affair: Human rights groups, social movements and a multiplicity of faith-based organizations bring their specific rationalities to the table in their efforts to address the needs of community members and displaced individuals fleeing from crisis. And of course, for all that humanitarianism is constantly in the news, most of the time the international community is not present, or it arrives too late.

The Norwegian government and Norwegian NGOs have long been (and remain) important actors on the humanitarian stage.

Humanitarian principles are central to overall Norwegian foreign policy, and humanitarian donorship is central to the Norwegian national identity.  In 2011, funding for humanitarian issues totaled 3, 3 billion Norwegian Kroner. This constituted 12% of the Norwegian aid budget, and according to OECD/DAC, the Norwegian contribution represented around 3 % of all humanitarian aid given.  Norway is home to myriad organizations that self-define as “humanitarian”, ranging from mom-and-pop shops to the big internationally known organizations like the Norwegian Red Cross, the Norwegian Refugee Council, CARE International, Save the Children Norway, the Norwegian Peoples Aid and the Norwegian Church Aid.

These organizations work in conflict zones across the globe. While Norway’s roles in peace negotiations and in development aid have been contentious issues for some time, the channeling of these funds to the world’s emergency zones has so far been relatively uncontroversial at home.  For all Norway’s imprint around the globe there is surprisingly little public debate about humanitarian issues in Norway itself.

Based on our work in a range of conflict zones such as Afghanistan, Colombia, the Horn of Africa and the two Sudans; in post-conflict settings like Liberia and Uganda; and in the air-conditioned meeting rooms of the “humanitarian international” in New York and Geneva, our aim is to change that.