European Community Humanitarian Aid Office ECHO, Strategy, Planning and Policy Analysis Unit, European Commission, Brussels


PARIS, 10 March 2000

Lecture in Cicero Foundation Great Debate seminar 'Europe: An Emerging Global Actor? The New Common Foreign and Security Policy of the EU'

Humanitarian Crises at the End of the Twentieth Century

ECHO's short yet intense experience since 1992 provides ample confirmation of a series of trends apparent in the "crises of the end of the century", including: an increase in the number of civilian casualties; a tendency towards the "privatisation" of conflicts, ever more internal and complex, and often linked to the implosion of the State; the emergence of the phenomenon of "donor's fatigue", and a related rising selectivity of the international community at the time of choosing where to intervene (resulting in the so-called "forgotten conflicts"); the attention of a global media bringing appalling images of human squalor to western homes; or the mounting difficulties experienced by the (ever more numerous) NGOs to gain access to conflict zones, and to have their impartiality respected by the belligerents.

In the aftermath of the relatively stabilising Cold War, the world has witnessed the actual disintegration of certain regions/States along ethnic/national lines (case of Afghanistan, former Yugoslavia, Great Lakes, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, even Angola), and the re-surfacing of geopolitical "games" similar to those from times long gone (Great Lakes, Central Asia). The "neat" rules of the game of UN's inter-governmentalism from the bipolar era perished with it, and have been replaced by the fading of those same "rules".
The 1990s have experienced an explosion of "unbridled" civil wars, often with external components (Bosnia, DRC, Afghanistan). In these "complex emergencies" it is less and less a matter of regular armies disputing but rather a "muddle" where anything goes to carve out power and resources for new Lords of the War in the regions they control (proof of that may be amply found in Somalia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, DRC), and where economic interests of multinationals are sometimes heavily involved. The absence of great strategic international stakes in some of these regions (particularly Africa), compounded by the failure of a rather "timid" attempt at creating a new world order axed on the United Nations (Somalia, Bosnia), have resulted in a disengagement of sorts on the part of the international community (Great Lakes, Angola, Somalia, Sudan), which nowadays advocates regional solutions (the case of Africa) or simply "observes" developments from the distance.
At the same time, an intense, uneven and short-term media coverage of some of these complex emergencies (the famous 'CNN effect') has pushed often reluctant decision-makers to do something about it. Humanitarian action (whether in the form of assistance, corridors, safe-zone, or even bombing) has usually been the easy and 'visible' substitute for long-term political solutions addressing the root causes of conflicts. The much sought after "humanitarian space" has suffered accordingly, finding itself reduced and menaced by the instrumentalisation of the humanitarian concept (more on this below), the proliferation of conflict agents and the withering of "the rules". At the same time, the exponential proliferation of "humanitarian" managers (NGOs on top) contributes to a certain state of confusion in the crisis management field. The above-mentioned donor's fatigue and the financial crisis of the United Nations throughout the past decade, together with the increasing inadequacy of mandates (case of the UNHCR) owing to the internationalisation of conflicts, do not simplify the picture either.

The 1990s have also witnessed the emergence of new actors, both regarding the overall management of crises and specifically in the realm of humanitarian assistance. I am talking about Western security organisations, the real "winners" of the Cold War. This is the case, in particular, of NATO, which has imposed peace in Bosnia, and again recently in the case of Kosovo. Its actions as party to the conflict, but also as a major humanitarian agent at least in the first phase of crisis management (whether in Albania and FYROM at first or in Kosovo later), has introduced some new elements and additional concerns for the humanitarian community to tackle. The relationship between impartiality-concerned NGOs, international organisations aiming at leadership but short of means to ensure it (i.e., UNHCR) and military organisations with a "new" crisis management vocation (like post-Washington NATO in the "Euro-Atlantic space") is greatly complicating the "humanitarian scene". ECHO, the world's largest single source of humanitarian aid (some 800 million euros in 1999), has tried to respond to the needs of the times by choosing an indirect sort of action (funding of others rather than conducting its own operations) axed on NGOs (most notably the Red Cross Movement); but also by keeping in mind the need to support the leading role of the United Nations (actually UNHCR) in multi-faceted humanitarian crises (the so-called "complex humanitarian emergencies") that entail a flow of refugees and displaced people.

"Lessons" for the Management of Humanitarian Crises in the Twenty-First Century - ECHO's Role

The protection of "ever-more-at-risk" civilian populations in increasingly complex conflicts has become a multi-faceted enterprise, both at the level of the actors involved (NGOs, international organisations-- whether civilian or military --, individual countries) and regarding the action to be taken (humanitarian assistance, human rights monitoring, military operations, diplomatic demarches).é Nowadays tailor-made "peace packages" are required, adapted to the needs and characteristics of each particular crisis (the case of Kosovo may provide ample illustration of some standard features).
As regards humanitarian assistance in particular, it can no longer even pretend that it is carried out in a vaccum. It must be articulated in a context where crisis management (both military and political), concern about human rights and humanitarian law abuse, and interest in linking relief with the longer term perspective of development are indivisible elements of the same (above-mentioned) "package". At the same time, humanitarian agents and donors must tread very carefully so that the necessary impartiality of humanitarian assistance is not compromised. (more on this below). For its part ECHO is engaged in a reflection within the Commission, with EU Member States and with outside partners in the humanitarian field (USAID, UN, Red Cross) focusing on the broad concept of "protection" and how best to ensure it in complex emergencies. At the operational level, ECHO has funded projects related to the protection of victims of human rights abuse during the Kosovo crisis. Also in Kosovo, ECHO seconded an officer to the Task Force that ensured a smooth transition between relief and reconstruction, and has laid the ground for the establishment of the European Agency for Reconstruction.

An efficient humanitarian action must be based on a good coordination among all humanitarian agents. It is increasingly necessary to collaborate with non-governmental actors, whether "of old" or "of new" (ICRC vs ICG), and with the various donors and international organisations. The case of Kosovo is most telling: four main organisations (NATO, OSCE, UN and EC) and a vast array of NGOs are sharing the job of managing the crisis, at all levels (humanitarian, security, human rights, reconstruction). ECHO has been a pioneer in the work with NGOs and has long supported the fundamental role of the United Nations, especially the UNHCR and OCHA, in ensuring such a coordination.
Nor should humanitarian action turn its back on those affected. On the contrary, affected populations must be closely associated to the humanitarian effort, so that they can regain control of their lives as soon as possible. The creation of a dependancy culture must be avoided. Humanitarian action is no longer "done" in isolation from the security component. Once again Kosovo maybe "blazing the trail" ahead, at least as far as the Euro-Atlantic space is concerned (but so did Somalia, and so is doing East Timor). In the case of Kosovo, NATO (perhaps in the future the EU/WEU as well) has assumed tasks that go way beyond what is strictly military action: protection of humanitarian convoys; construction of refugee camps; rehabilitation and reconstruction of intrastructure; police patrolling. The humanitarian community may have no other option but to get used co-operating with the military in the management of crises; at least when dealing with the creation of international protectorates (like in Kosovo and East Timor).
Humanitarian action is facing its greatest challenge in the case of crises which are "relatively" forgotten by the (western-dominated) international community, and/or by its media: Angola, Sudan, Somalia, DRC... 'Peace packages' seem to come into existence only when and where the international community (i.e., major international players) has "relevant" interests of a geopolitical, economic, or media-related nature. Ultimately this is a world order evolving at various speeds, where the so-called "right to humanitarian intervention" fiercely competes with a temptation to forget "non-strategic, godfather-less, media-unfriendly" crises in God forsaken places. The humanitarian community must do what it takes to remind public opinion and political leaders that "the South also exists". As an admittedly little token of that, last year ECHO chose not to re-assign to Kosovo fund from its regular budget originally destined elsewhere.
Humanitarian action nowadays is more dangerous than ever before, especially in the case of "forgotten crises". More humanitarian workers than peacekeepers have died in humanitarian crises in recent years. The security of humanitarian agents remains a major concern; to the point that in some cases the international humanitarian community may have no other choice but to be 'selective' and pull out of certain crises when minimum conditions for humanitarian work are not present. ECHO has reflected on the matter and is supporting efforts by NGO umbrella organisations in the US (INTERACTION) and Europe (VOICE) to improve that situation. Humanitarian action, particularly in the current context of "agent proliferation", must stress certain criteria aimed at guaranteeing the necessary quality of humanitarian efforts. Thorough evaluation of humanitarian action (did assistance reach the needy? what impact did humanitarian aid have on the conflict?) is thus fundamental. To that effect ECHO is supporting the NGO-driven SPHERE project and has commissioned an aid impact assessment on Sudan's conflict. Ultimately, and this is perhaps the main lesson from humanitarian endeavours throughout the 1990s, the best that the international community can offer is a window of opportunity (in the form of the 'peace packages') that populations affected by humanitarian crises must seize if the underlying causes of conflict are to be addressed.

EU Crisis Management - Dilemmas for ECHO

There are several layers of interaction between the 'humanitarian element' (including material relief and protection along the values upheld by International Humanitarian Law) and 'crisis-cycle management' (including conflict prevention, crisis management and post-conflict peace-building) on the verge of the new millennium. Just as humanitarian crises have been at the centre of conflict in the 1990s, the 'humanitarian element' has become an inherent component of crisis management responses by the international community:

1) whether in a conflict-prevention manner (as a signal of international attention with a deterrent value -- i.e., pressure on Russia to respect IHL provisions in Chechnya, threats to prosecute Indonesian leaders for crimes against humanity);
2) as an entry point for peace-making diplomatic activities (i.e., attempts in Colombia to bring the guerrillas -- especially the ELN -- to the negotiating table to discuss respect for IHL);
3) as a crisis management tool in conjunction with or in the absence of more decisive international action (i.e., repeated cases in Africa, where relief has "thinly" veiled the absence of political will to address the root causes of conflict and provide lasting solutions);
4) as justification for military intervention (i.e, the all-too-well-known case of Kosovo, perhaps the first "humanitarian war");
5) finally, as a substitute for tardy development assistance in the post-conflict phase (i.e., ECHO's involvement in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which went way beyond emergency rehabilitation into full-fledged reconstruction of infrastructure).

As a consequence, humanitarian actors have been confronted with the 'politicisation' of the 'humanitarian element', which (together with the "blurring of rules" in late century crises) directly challenges core humanitarian notions such as neutrality and impartiality. This predicament, that has elicited varied responses from non-governmental actors, has been felt even more acutely by components of broad, all-encompassing organisations, such as the UN and the EC. In the case of these, the humanitarian components (UNHCR, ECHO) have had to cope with the fact that their organisation has combined all crisis management tools, some politically-driven and others (theirs) bound by the need of impartiality.

ECHO is confronted, now more than ever, with this predicament. Decisions on CFSP and ESDI made at the Helsinki European Council are bound to have an impact on the way ECHO operates, on its relations with its partners, and on the perception of its actions by those affected by humanitarian crises. Although it is still too early to know, it seems possible to foresee a 'politicising CFSP impact' at three levels of ECHO action: humanitarian diplomacy; humanitarian operations; and relations with partners.
Successive European Commissioners in charge of humanitarian aid have undertaken high visibility activities aimed at upholding respect for IHL values among parties to conflict, with a special stress on gaining access to the victims. Commissioner Nielson has recently urged Russian authorities to allow the creation of a humanitarian corridor to assist victims of the Chechnya war, and former Commissioner Bonino participated actively in the campaign for an international criminal court to deal with gross violations of IHL.
These activities may be affected by the creation of a real EU foreign policy, both regarding the number of EU representatives potentially involved in humanitarian diplomacy and with respect to the potential politicisation of such humanitarian diplomacy. In particular, one may easily envisage that the EU High Representative for the CFSP will, as part of the EU's reaction to a given crisis, combine purely political conflict management messages (including threats of sanctions or military intervention) with humanitarian ones (chastising the parties for violations of IHL or using the humanitarian 'entry point' to peace-making).
Of course this is not new to many countries, or to the UN, but it may somehow alter the non-political perception of actions hitherto undertaken by the European Union and add a political tinge to non-political 'démarches' by the Commissioner responsible for humanitarian aid. Proper co-ordination between the latter and Mr. PESC may go a long way in avoiding those potential difficulties, but the less-than-potential overlapping of their 'diplomatic' mandates and the fact that they respond to somewhat different masters (Member States versus, after Amsterdam, the President of the Commission) will not necessarily help.
At the operational level, ECHO's funding of relief projects implemented by humanitarian NGOs, the Red Cross and humanitarian components of the UN system will soon co-exist in the Commission with the funding, by Helsinki-mandated Rapid Reaction Facility, of 'political' crisis management activities. These may include human rights monitoring (perhaps even evidence-gathering in support of international tribunals), management of trade sanctions, electoral observation, the promotion of democracy and the rule of law, police contingents to help restore public order, or the sending of political envoys to mediate (or to threat). This may affect the way ECHO-funded operations are perceived by the parties to a conflict, and thus imperil their impartiality, and their security.
Once again this is not new to many countries or multifaceted international organisations like the UN. EU governments have been providing funding to humanitarian actors during the Kosovo crisis, while at the same time participating in the bombing of Serbia. Of course, in most cases (specially regarding international organisations) the perception of what humanitarian actors do will not necessarily emanate from their sources of funding; ICRC will be perceived as being neutral because of what they do and how they do it, regardless of which countries are financing their activities.
However, in the case of ECHO's funding (and of EC funding in general) visibility is a particularly crucial issue, and ECHO stickers sometimes figure prominently in the humanitarian projects. ECHO has sought, and has often obtained, a measure of visibility for its funding, particularly through NGOs. ECHO-funded humanitarian agents may thus be affected by any change in the perception of what the European Community's role is in a particular conflict. Their access may suffer as a result of a perceived politicisation of the EC's approach, and implicitly of ECHO's approach, to humanitarian crises. The security of their staff may also suffer accordingly.
Thirdly, and lastly, ECHO's reations with its partners, especially NGOs, may also be affected by these developments. Some NGOs might decide not to work with ECHO any longer if ECHO were to be perceived as part and parcel of a 'political' crisis management operation by the EC/EU; i.e., if ECHO-labelled 'impartial' NGOs were seen working side by side with RRF/EU-branded 'partisan' actors.

These are all matters on which there are no definitive answers yet, on which reflection is ongoing in all interested quarters (ECHO, Commission, EU members, NGOs). Commissioner Nielson has repeatedly stressed the importance of keeping ECHO and the humanitarian element "at arms length from Foreign Policy"; so as to safeguard the latter's necessary impartiality and the former's operational autonomy (bearing in mind the visibility concern). He has, however, openly acknowledged that there is also a need for fluid communication between ECHO and the 'political' crisis management mechanisms being developed. Co-ordination will prove inevitable as well (as it has in the recent past), both at HQ and in the field, and so probably will 'creative solutions' (such as, in some delicate cases, the choice to forgo visible signs of ECHO's support).

This is, after all, the infancy of a true EU Crisis Management Policy, and it will take some time for all the pieces to fall in place and for the appropriate co-ordination mechanisms to be developed and fine-tuned.

(The views expressed in this speech are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Commission).