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World: War On Terror A Threat To Humanitarian Aid Operations

  • Antoine Blua

International antiterrorism efforts are posing ethical dilemmas that may threaten the legitimacy and work of humanitarian agencies. The "World Disasters Report 2003," released today by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, says many humanitarian crises are being neglected as aid is increasingly targeting those countries and conflicts in the political and media spotlight.

Prague, 17 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The 11th annual "World Disasters Report," issued today by the Geneva-based International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, highlights the increasing shift by donors and humanitarian agencies toward high-profile aid efforts in politically strategic conflicts such as in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, the report says, chronic emergencies in countries such as Angola, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo receive little attention.

Red Cross-Red Crescent spokesman Denis McClean told RFE/RL the war on terror has exposed a double standard in humanitarian aid, as millions suffer in situations that have been largely forgotten by the international community.

"The international donor community and international aid organizations need to always keep at the forefront the humanitarian ethic: Basically, humanitarian aid should be distributed on the basis of needs alone," he said. "We saw in April this year, for example, that within a couple of weeks $1.7 billion [was] raised for humanitarian aid in Iraq. While welcome in itself, it doesn't sit well beside the fact that at the same time there was a $1 billion shortfall in [United Nations' World Food Program] funds to buy food to feed 40 million people in Africa."

According to the report, aid agencies themselves are partially responsible for failing to call attention to more of the world's chronic humanitarian emergencies. Poor data gathering, information sharing, and collaboration between agencies has meant that the true scale of suffering in many crises has been ignored by the international community. In some cases, the wrong kind of aid has been provided.

Even in high-profile areas, McClean said, humanitarian work is sometimes marked by shortcomings. In Afghanistan, for example, he said that short-term aid and efforts to restore peace and democracy are being pursued at the cost of long-term development.

"The Afghan government has been looking for assistance for long-term reconstruction and development, but instead they're still getting a lot of short-term humanitarian release, including a lot of food aid, which is distorting the local agricultural economy and is not really needed. Even though after 11 September humanitarian aid to Afghanistan more than tripled, we think that it's not always the right kind of aid," McClean said.

McClean points out that his organization has only received 25 percent of its emergency appeal of $10 million to support the Afghan Red Crescent. This lack of funds, he stresses, threatens the Afghan Red Crescent's network of 50 clinics providing health services to about 2 million people, often in remote rural areas.

"There's a great irony, I think, in the fact that [the Red Crescent network] managed to function throughout the difficult years under the Taliban. And now when such a great effort is being made to restore peace and democracy to Afghanistan -- with mixed results, one has to say -- this life-saving network is under threat," McClean said.

The report is also critical of international agencies that arrive in the wake of disasters only to undermine, rather than support, the work of local NGOs and national authorities. The arrival of over 350 international aid agencies in Afghanistan, it says, has driven up local rents, inflated salaries, and sucked away skilled and experienced Afghans from the government and vital public services.

McClean said today's conflicts and disasters present a challenge to the moral values and principles championed by humanitarian aid workers. The Red Cross-Red Crescent spokesman said agencies must exercise better judgment in order to strike a proper balance between advocacy and action in their work.

"It's just a question of reminding the international aid community that we have a collective responsibility to ensure that humanitarian aid is distributed on the basis of needs alone. And we [should] respect the dignity of every woman, man and child affected by disaster and conflict, and take their [needs] into account, and not let that be overwritten by the media spotlight or political agenda of the day. That's our obligation and that's our moral duty. Otherwise we compromise our own legitimacy," McClean said.

Noting that military forces are assuming a greater humanitarian role in conflicts where Western geostrategic interests are at stake, McClean said regime change in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kosovo has blurred the lines between civilian and military humanitarian assistance. Such a situation could result in aid workers losing their impartial status and becoming the target of hostilities.

"We don't believe that military forces should have any part in the delivery of humanitarian aid, or be involved in it -- unless in very extreme and difficult circumstances," McClean said. "And we feel that when people see soldiers throwing aid out the back of a truck and providing humanitarian assistance, it blurs the lines of distinction between humanitarian aid workers and the military who can be potential belligerents, depending on the situation."

The report claims that humanitarian principles are also at stake as the rights and welfare of migrants come increasingly under threat. Up to 50 million forced migrants and internally displaced people remain invisible throughout the world -- unprotected by aid or law.

The report draws attention to the wider "asylum crisis" facing today's world, where too much money is spent keeping asylum seekers out of the north and not enough is spent on helping them in the south.

The report also raises concerns that Western governments are increasingly exercising discrimination on the basis of religion and nationality, by tightening immigration controls to prevent the entry of potential terrorists.

It notes that in the United States, foreign nationals from 25 mainly Muslim countries are required to register with the authorities.

McClean also cites fears that tighter controls and continued uncertainty regarding the status of migrants may strengthen human-smuggling networks, which currently traffic up to 4 million people a year.

(The full text of the report can be found at http://www.ifrc.org/publicat/wdr2003/)

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