For information only - not an official document.
      21 November 2000
 Military Operations Should Not Be Described as Humanitarian Action,
Secretary-General Tells Symposium

NEW YORK, 20 November (UN Headquarters) -- Following is the text of opening remarks made today by Secretary-General Kofi Annan to an International Peace Academy Symposium on Humanitarian Action, also attended by Foreign Minister of the Netherlands, Jozias van Aartsen:

Let me begin by thanking you and your Government, Minister, for proposing this symposium on a subject of great concern to the United Nations and to thank International Peace Academy (IPA), as usual, for collaborating on such a provocative topic. 

I know some of you may be expecting me to repeat what I said to the General Assembly last year about intervention and sovereignty.  If so, I'm afraid I shall disappoint you, because that is not what we at the United Nations mean when we talk about "humanitarian action".

Indeed, this symposium is particularly useful and timely because there is a lot of confusion about what the word "humanitarian" does mean. 

The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines it as "1 a person who seeks to promote human welfare.  2 a person who advocates or practises humane action; a philanthropist". 

Well, in that sense, all of us probably like to think of ourselves as humanitarians, and certainly all the work of the United Nations, from development to peacekeeping, should be seen as humanitarian in that sense.  Indeed, that is the way much of the general public sees it.

Within the United Nations, however, the term is more narrowly defined. 

All our work is aimed at preserving human life and improving its quality.  But the humanitarians among us are those whose work involves saving lives that are in imminent danger, and relieving suffering that is already acute. 

They are people who bring food to those threatened with starvation, or medical help to the injured, or shelter to those who have lost their homes, or comfort to those who have lost their loved ones.

They are people who see a great deal of human suffering and live with it in the operations that they undertake in the field.  In the course of their work they see the suffering and they are well aware that this suffering does not just happen.  It is caused by events, either natural or man-made.  A great deal of it could have been prevented, by wiser or more vigorous policies.  And, of course, it should be prevented.

Few people are more aware of that than humanitarian workers.  Perhaps nothing in life makes you angrier than the spectacle of massive human suffering which you know need not have happened, if only people had taken better decisions in good time, or had some thought for the human consequences of their decisions. 

Most humanitarian workers also soon learn that their work has results, beyond the immediate relief of suffering which is their purpose. 

The humanitarian ideal is to treat all human beings as equal, and to make need and suffering the only criteria that determine who we help.  But so often we find that our impartial benevolence is not neutral in its effects.

Again and again, in the conflicts of the last 20 years, we have seen humanitarian aid manipulated by warring factions and unscrupulous regimes to advance their political interests.  Every day, in the humanitarian work of the United Nations, we face agonizing moral dilemmas. 

Should we continue sending food to non-combatants in an area controlled by one side in a conflict, when we know that much of it will be taken by the fighters, and we are unable to reach the people on the other side?

Should we allow armies to take a percentage as the price of allowing some relief to get through to starving populations, when the effect may be to prolong the war?

Should we help people to reach safety, when by doing so we also help their persecutors to win control of their homes and "cleanse" the areas of unwanted population?

Should we continue bringing humanitarian relief to a country where a large part of the population -- women, for instance -- is denied its most elementary rights?  Their need may be all the greater, but relief can help stabilise the regime and so prolong the oppression.

In short, humanitarian disasters very often have political causes, and humanitarian action often has political effects. 

So it is not surprising that humanitarian workers often form strong political opinions. 

Some of us are so horrified by the pain that war inflicts that they become uncompromising pacifists, rejecting the very notion that war could ever be just.

Others react in the opposite way, and call for decisive military action to halt the killing and the ethnic cleansing whose grim effects they are left to deal with.

Some insist that they must concern themselves only with the immediate suffering, and not get drawn into the calculus of how today's relief may lead to suffering tomorrow.

Others may say such an approach is naïve and irresponsible, and humanitarian aid should be made conditional on the observance of some minimum standards of behaviour by the recipients and their leaders. 

But what happens when such conditions are refused, or when promises are made but not kept?  Do we simply leave people to die?  The humanitarians will tell us they cannot do that.

Of course, there are no easy answers, and in real life there is probably no such thing as a wholly neutral humanitarianism.  Man is a political animal, and politics affects all human activities.

But I hope in this symposium you will help us to preserve the specific role of humanitarianism, and not allow it to be too much confused with other things.

David Malone has told us, in his letter of invitation, that the title "Humanitarian Action" refers to and I quote, "the whole range of humanitarian responses to conflict and crisis situations, ranging from provision of aid with the consent of a State, through to military intervention". 

I would go a bit further, and say, let's get right away from using the term "humanitarian " to describe military operations.

And I know some of you said, “But you referred to humanitarian intervention last year”.

Of course military intervention can be undertaken for humanitarian motives. 

I myself believe, and I think it is implicit in the Charter, that there are times when the use of force may be legitimate and necessary because there is no other way to save masses of people from extreme violence and slaughter.  I hope such cases will be very rare, and I strongly believe it is our job to make them rarer.  But they do exist.

Such military intervention should not, however, in my view, be confused with humanitarian action.  Otherwise, we will find ourselves using phrases like "humanitarian bombing", and people will soon get very cynical about the whole idea.

And I do recall during the Kosovo crisis having a long chat with our good friend Cornelio Sommaruga who was very upset that the humanitarian agencies were being pushed aside and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops had become very much engaged in humanitarian activities.  And Cornelio was screaming at me saying, “You have to do something.  You have to tell NATO to respect the lines.  They are taking our space and we cannot create confusion, which gives the impression that the same people who are bringing the bombs are bringing the bread.  Ours is to bring the bread, let them focus on the fighting or whatever they were there to do.”  He was really very emotional about this.

I think humanitarian workers may sometimes think military intervention is called for in a given situation.  But they would not regard it as part of their own work. 

On the contrary, their anger is strongest when they feel that their work is being used as a substitute for political or military action, because politicians lack the resolve to do their job properly.

Some humanitarians have felt this so strongly that they actually gave up purely humanitarian work and went into politics.  I respect them for that, and I think those who have stayed in the humanitarian field should also be grateful.  It helps to clarify the division of labour.

No government should fear that accepting humanitarian aid is the first step towards military intervention.On the contrary, governments should be eager to allow humanitarian aid to reach their people without obstruction, because by doing so they remove any pretext for military intervention.  It is in everyone's interest to keep the two things clearly distinct.

Anyway, that is my view.  But I shall listen with great interest to yours, Mr. Van Aartsen, and to those of other participants.

Thank you very much.

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