On Intervention: Iraq, not Syria?

By Steve Saideman

August is usually a slow news month, but certainly not this year.  The latest?  That Canada has sent transport planes to Iraq to help the Kurds as well as Iraq deal with the Islamic State movement.  It is only natural to ask the question: why here and not Syria?  Or, why Iraq and not place x, y, or z?

The obvious answer and also the correct one here is: because we can.  That is, Canada can help here and cannot really help that much elsewhere.  The second answer is always true: because there is discrimination in international relations.  That is, countries are selective about where they get involved, with some crises getting more attention and effort and others less.

The big difference between the situation in Iraq and the one in Syria is that there is a side that Canada, the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom and others can assist.  Focusing either on the Kurds or on Iraq itself, there are local allies that control territory and governments.  That outside support can take place with relatively little risk to the outsiders is a key ingredient.  That there is a local ally that one likes or can stomach is a second.  The Kurds have done a nice job since 2003 of positioning themselves as the most reasonable faction in Iraq (not that difficult a task) but also the most competent.  While there are always fears that supporting the Kurds in Iraq might have implications for Kurdish separatists elsewhere, that is dwarfed here by the threat posed by the Islamic State.  Together, these conditions mean that the outsiders can make a difference and would like to do so. 

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Srebrenica Rears its Head Once Again

By Steve Saideman

On July 16, a Dutch court ruled that Dutch peacekeepers were partially responsible for the deaths of more than 300 Bosnian Muslims when Bosnian Serbs attacked the Srebrenica “safe haven” in 1995. This is not anything particularly new as the Netherlands has taken its responsibility in this matter far more seriously than pretty much everyone else.

In 2002, the Dutch government fell after its entire cabinet resigned due to a report on events in Srebrenica seven years earlier. Can you imagine an American or Canadian or British government reacting to events seven years earlier after a critical report is released? No. I didn’t think so. Indeed, has anyone in Belgium resigned in the aftermath of Rwanda?

The Netherlands developed a series of reforms to try to prevent a similar disaster in the future. Among these reforms is the Article 100 process in which the parties in parliament must approve of a letter that explains the purposes and means of a military deployment before the troops are sent. In terms of military planning, this is a remarkably transparent process. With that said, it might mean too much legislative influence on what actually goes into a military deployment, but the letter requires a clear statement of purpose, clarity about the rules of engagement and so on.

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Living in the Shadow of the Ottawa Convention: The Convention on Cluster Munitions

Arms control issues have been receiving a lot of attention lately. On April 2nd, the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly in support of the long-debated Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), establishing new regulations meant to prohibit the international sale and transfer of conventional weapons to the world’s worst human rights abusers. This landmark event occurred just two days before the International Day of Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action, the annual day of advocacy and outreach for organizations involved in the global campaign to ban landmines and other deadly weapons which disproportionately harm civilians during and after armed conflicts. In the United States, President Barack Obama gave a forceful speech on April 8th in Hartford, Connecticut in favor of stronger domestic gun-control legislation. All this coming as the world discovers the true extent of U.S. drone strikes in South Asia and the Middle East, with all the strategic, legal, and moral problems this raises.

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A Humanitarian Bailout?

The NPSIA blog post “Legal Liability and Humanitarianism” discussed the shocking but real possibility that humanitarian organizations may be held legally liable for the assistance they provide. Remarkably, an ever more shocking reality that humanitarians must deal with has been highlighted over the past couple of weeks. And, like legal liability, this issue has gone unaddressed in the academic literature. The issue being: humanitarian organizations with large aid footprints have run out of funds.

This is an issue that is largely separate from the much-discussed problem of humanitarian agencies having too little funding. The problems that result from a humanitarian organization having limited funding and the problems that arise from an organization running out of funds differ considerably. Limited funding leads to problems with project implementation. In contrast, running out of funds leads to the immediate suspension of aid as occurred with the UNRWA cash assistance program in the Gaza Strip earlier this month. Not only does it seem likely that such an action will further marginalize those on the margins but, as the Gaza case demonstrates, such an action may also lead to social instability, revolt, and the repeal of further assistance.

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Humanitarian Aid to Syria: A Mismatch Between Principles and Expectations

According to multiple recent stories in the New York Times, Syrian rebels are complaining that the humanitarian aid being funneled into the country is not reaching those in need in rebel-held areas. Instead, the lion’s share is benefiting those in the territories held by President Assad and the rebels are interpreting this as de facto support of Western humanitarian donors for the incumbent regime. Needless to say, this interpretation has led to rising anger towards the West.

Is this sentiment reasonable?

I don’t think so and here’s why: the organizations providing the humanitarian aid do not aim to provide an equal and simultaneous distribution of aid to all those in need.

Most of the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that provide humanitarian aid aim to behave apolitically, which involves the impartial, neutral, and independent delivery of aid. In other words, humanitarian NGOs aim to allocate aid on the basis of need and without discrimination (impartiality); they aim to avoid deliberately favouring any side in a political dispute (neutrality); and the organizations aim to act autonomously from political, economic or other objectives (independence).

A commitment to remaining apolitical is crucial for humanitarian NGOs since it is the only behavior that will be tolerated by the states in which they are looking to distribute aid. Sovereignty is still considered an inviolable principle in international relations, therefore, in order for humanitarian NGOs to gain access to a population, they must be invited into the country by the regime in power. Gaining such an invitation requires that the NGOs stay out of domestic politics: in other words, that they remain apolitical.

Since humanitarian NGOs are “guests” of the state, they must confine their activities within whatever boundaries the state draws around them. To violate that boundary means risking expulsion from the state thereby being denied the opportunity to provide any aid whatsoever.  The fear of expulsion is a strong motivator for NGOs to toe the line drawn by the state. Fundamentally, however, respecting these limits presents an impediment to providing an equal distribution of aid to all the populations in need.

Furthermore, even if humanitarian NGOs weren’t constrained by the state, no state, let alone NGO, has the logistical capacity to deliver aid to everyone, everywhere in a given country at the same time.

Now, I am in no way saying that the delivery of aid cannot be improved. It can. And, that is a goal that all donors (states) and deliverers (NGOs) should work towards. What I am saying is that the criticisms and derision by the Syrian rebels are not wholly warranted.

The rebels make a powerful point in noting that by providing aid where the state wants the humanitarians to do so (to the Assad-held areas) is, in fact, a beneficial resource transfer to the regime. However, the point still stands, that to expect humanitarians to deliver aid equally and simultaneously undermines their commitments to delivering aid apolitically. Ultimately, the rebels are demanding a service that was never promised and is not feasible. For this reason, I believe that the scorn that the rebels are directing at the West in general is misplaced.

Stephanie Soiffer

Ph.D. Candidate

Legal Liability and Humanitarianism: A Game Changing Idea?

The ultimate goal of humanitarian assistance is to alleviate suffering in situations of disaster or conflict. Haiti has suffered through internal conflicts and natural disasters and has therefore been the recipient of much humanitarian aid. Following the 2010 earthquake, for instance, billions of dollars of aid was spent on disaster relief in Haiti (the New York Times reports that, by December 2012, $7.5 billion had been promised to Haiti for humanitarian aid and general reconstruction purposes).

The delivery of Haitian quake relief aid has been criticized on multiple levels. Most of the arguments center on the theme of inefficient delivery. One argument, however, stands apart: over a thousand Haitians are demanding compensation from the UN for harms that befell them due to problems with the delivery of UN assistance. More specifically, these claimants (convincingly) allege that UN peacekeepers from Nepal triggered a cholera epidemic in post-quake Haiti. The Nepalese troops introduced the disease to the water supply as the result of poor sewage management at their base.

Fundamentally, these Haitians and their lawyers are demanding that the UN be held liable for the humanitarian services it provided. This demand breaks with a long-standing tradition that holds humanitarians above reproach and beyond the reach of the law.

Humanitarianism and humanitarian assistance have existed in one incarnation or anther for at least a century. For most of that period, humanitarian activities were shrouded from criticism by the undeniable nobility of its fundamental goal. Over the last 20 years, however, policy-makers and academics have recognized that humanitarian actions can lead to undesirable and unintended consequences. This has led to calls for accountability: demands for humanitarians to evaluate the actual and potential outcomes, good or bad, of their actions.

To date, however, humanitarian accountability has largely been an academic discussion limited to the pages of journal articles and books. These sources recognize that accountability in the humanitarian sphere is necessary. The most oft-repeated point is that humanitarians must “do no harm” but that is where the advice ends.

In summary, the literature is calling for greater assessment and evaluation in the humanitarian sphere. In contrast, the Haitian litigants are calling for humanitarians to be held legally liable for their actions.

What would being held legally liable mean for humanitarians and humanitarianism? While a strong case can be made that accountability in the humanitarian sphere can improve the delivery of assistance I don’t think the same can be said for liability. Providing humanitarian assistance is expensive and dangerous under even the best circumstances. If humanitarians and humanitarian organizations are liable for their actions their costs and risk increase dramatically. That said, I think it’s fair to question whether liability and humanitarianism can coexist. Will increased cost and risk force humanitarian actors out of the market? As someone with a great deal of respect for humanitarianism and the principle that no individual or organization should be above the law, I’m troubled by this thought.

Fortunately, at this point, unpacking the effect of liability on humanitarianism is only an academic exercise. Ban Ki-moon announced last Thursday that the UN will not compensate the victims of the cholera epidemic since UN lawyers have deemed the claim “non receivable” due to diplomatic immunity. Yet, despite the lack of a real-world scenario forcing the exploration of the interaction of liability and humanitarianism, I argue that it is still an issue worth examining since the Haitian claim highlights that this interaction will likely not remain a moot point for long.

Stephanie Soiffer

Ph.D. Candidate