Debate | Humanitarian Action and Protection

Capture d’écran 2013-06-27 à 09.36.03Humanitarian Action and Protection – Lessons from Sri Lanka

The paper addresses the protection dimension of humanitarian action in the Sri Lankan Civil War. The end phase of this long-standing war and subsequent internment of survivors illustrate the limited capacity of the international relief system to adequately protect civilians. The author argues that the failure of intergovernmental crisis management and the human rights machinery was exacerbated by the relief system’s lack of agency in safeguarding humanitarian space and the protected status of civilians. According to Norah Niland, relief actors largely ignored the instrumentalisation of humanitarianism and the use of sovereignty and Global War on Terror (GWOT) narratives to rationalise the slaughter of thousands. The lack of accountability for and reflection on the humanitarian  operation  in Sri Lanka will likely complicate future relief efforts and add to the suffering of  civilians in other crisis settings.

Initial contribution:
Norah Niland
Sri Lanka:  Unrestricted Warfare and Limited Protective Humanitarian Action

Reaction and Analysis:
Sir John Holmes, Former UN Under-Secretary General and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
Comments to ‘Sri Lanka: Unrestricted warfare and limited protective humanitarian action, by Norah Niland’

Miriam Bradley, Postdoctoral Researcher, Programme for the Study of International Governance, the Graduate Institute, Geneva
Sri Lanka: Limited Humanitarian Action — Or a Lesson in the Limits of Humanitarian Action?

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We invite the initial author and any interested readers to share their comments and views.



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2 réponses

  1. Maren Schulte dit :

    Read Norah Niland’s analysis of a new report by the Oxford Research Group on the role of the UN in the recording of civilian casualties:

  2. Norah Niland dit :

    Norah Niland’s comments to the feedback by Sir John Holmes and Miriam Bradley

    Before commenting on the different perspectives concerning lessons that need to be drawn from the end phase of the war in Sri Lanka, I wish to express my thanks to Miriam Bradley and Sir John Holmes. Their thoughtful observations on the many factors that came into play when pushing for protective humanitarian action in a situation where geo-political agendas took precedence over the measures needed to stop or mitigate the slaughter of civilians will facilitate an overdue debate on this topic. Importantly, this triangular discussion shows that there is full agreement on the need for humanitarians and others to examine and identify lessons that will inform and improve future decision-making.

    There is much on which we concur. For example, I agree that the lack of action to halt indiscriminate killing cannot be attributed to a lack of knowledge of the carnage in the Vanni. Satellite imagery that was available at the time of the killings, and Edward Snowden’s subsequent revelations of the U.S. National Security Agency’s data dragnet, show that, indeed, the issue is not a lack of knowledge but, rather, an absence of political will to challenge and counter atrocity. Almost invariably, such political will needs to be mobilized. I also agree that humanitarian and human rights agendas, and related procedures, are different and need to be distinct even when the end goals are complementary in settings such as Sri Lanka. I also, of course, agree that there is no sure-fire formula to keep civilians safe in conflicts where the warring parties are contemptuous of the suffering of non-combatants or, as happened in Sri Lanka, were determined to maximize the harm inflicted on the besieged population to advance strategic agendas.

    My paper on Sri Lanka is a slimmed down version of a longer manuscript that contextualizes issues and decision-making in a broader historical framework to illustrate that protective humanitarian action frequently plays second fiddle to the provision of material supplies. This includes many instances of the instrumentalization of relief programmes to the detriment of those in need of life-saving protective action. One such example is the Thai-Cambodian border in the late 1980sn when the survivors of the Khmer Rouge genocide were held in closed camps and used as pawns in the Cold War politics of the time. The Balkans war reminded humanitarians of the problems inherent in the “well-fed dead”. Darfur taught the relief system that effective humanitarian action needs a clear protection strategy that is focused on bringing about changes that enhance the safety of at-risk individuals. In other words, the task of enhancing protection – addressing or mitigating threats that disregard the status of civilians – almost invariably goes beyond making statements or what is loosely called “advocacy”.

    I was working in Afghanistan in 2009 managing an initiative to reduce the impact of the war on civilians and was often asked why I was “making such a fuss” about casualties when many more were dying in Sri Lanka. The Afghan and Sri Lankan war zones have, at first glance, little in common beyond GWOT and related narratives. In Afghanistan, most donor Member States were belligerents and were not enthused about systematic monitoring and public reporting on civilian casualty trends. In Afghanistan, credible data collected by the UN was part of a larger toolbox designed to leverage attention to tactics that were deadly. The approach taken did contribute to a reduction in civilian war dead when both sets of warring parties issued instructions that curbed particular tactics such as the use of airstrikes or military operations in areas where civilians were concentrated. In sum, I agree that shrill statements will not, necessarily, have the desired impact. Experience shows that humanitarians need to be good analysts, strategists and have a sound understanding of local power dynamics. Humanitarians in contentious settings need to figure out how to mobilize opinion to make it too costly for those who call the shots – military forces, armed groups, powerful allies, suppliers of arms, intelligence and funding – to ignore the deadly consequences of their politics.

    I have no illusions that relief personnel have magical powers or that well-crafted humanitarian strategies always prove successful when lives are on the line. But I also know that initiatives to stop or reduce indiscriminate shelling of hospitals, for example, is no less practical than negotiations for relief convoys when lives are at imminent risk.

    My concerns about events in Sri Lanka do not impugn the motives or commitment of aid personnel and others who are no less appalled than I at the policies that resulted in the death of tens of thousands of besieged civilians in the Vanni. My concerns are also shaped by the lessons of different war zones. Experience tells me that humanitarians are operating in a fast-changing world where the politics and polarization associated with GWOT are used to rationalize mind-numbing levels of brutality that, left unchallenged, will further complicate the task of life-saving. To paraphrase the 18th century philosopher-politician Edmund Burke, all it takes for atrocity to triumph is for those antagonistic to the slaughter of civilians to stop being indignant.

    In the first decade of the 21st century, Sri Lanka illustrates the importance of challenging not just the Rajapakse regime and its Tiger opponents but their allies and the political calculations that enable civilians to be killed in their homes, in hospital beds, or on a shrinking stretch of beach bloodied by the deaths of family members and friends. I agree that it is not the task of relief personnel to end armed conflict but I hold to the view that humanitarians do have a responsibility to push for measures that acknowledge our common humanity. That, in my view, includes proactive strategies to counter policies and practices that humiliate, discriminate, or disregard the protected status of civilians.

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