Humanitarians and the modern interventionist family

PHAP member articles are written by members of the association in their personal capacity. The views expressed belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of PHAP or any other organizations with which the author is associated.
5 June 2014


Toute action de l’esprit est aisée si elle n’est pas soumise au réel.
- Marcel Proust

Humanitarian laws and principles were largely formulated and written between 1860 and 1930. Those ideas are being tested by the complex reality of today. Those who would come to be the major “aid” recipients did not contribute to their formulation. Moreover, they were written in a time when humanitarian aid did not have to be delivered at the extremes of insecurity, when there was not such a broad range of intervening actors, and when information was not broadcast immediately around the globe. If we are to best serve those principles and the ideas behind them, we must understand the range of players and circumstances that is the current reality, and not cling to “traditional” modes of action.

In today’s complex emergencies, ongoing conflicts, and post-conflict environments, humanitarians are just one among the myriad of actors involved in interventionist actions. In an increasingly interlinked field, where each actor’s actions has important consequences for all others, the desire for separation of humanitarian activities from other modes of intervention has to be questioned, both in terms of effectiveness and catching up with the reality on the ground. Technical and legal definitions alone will not win the argument of when, how, and for whom the world intervenes or how budgets are spent.

The majority of funding for humanitarian action still comes from governments. State investment in humanitarian action overwhelmingly arises out of a moral responsibility and genuine desire to relieve immediate suffering. However, this is not done in isolation, and governments also factor in the links humanitarian action will have more broadly in relation to efforts in peacebuilding, security, development, economic investments, and power projection.

The language and rhetoric of “Humanitarianism” is another issue altogether. We are now faced with an apologist culture and a world of spin looking for an excuse rather than an explanation for foreign policy. The reflex to couch almost any interventionist action as “humanitarian” is manipulative, lazy, distracting, irrelevant, and often as confusing for those planning and designing the operation as for the general public.

New actors in the humanitarian arena in the form of private industry, civil society, individual philanthropists, and others, are providing new pressure points on the nation state. However, Westphalia is far from finished writing its chapter on influencing world history. Traditional interventionists, such as Japan and Germany, continue to evolve a post-World War II method of operation, China has really just begun what will be an increasingly visible role outside its borders, and Arab states are exploring diplomatic, military, and humanitarian ways to engage and shape the world.

While discussion on Security Council reform seems likely to remain rather circular and limited to “additions,” changes in the power balance over multilaterals are inevitable. Other battlefields will be chosen, from leadership of UN departments and agencies (will peacekeeping remain the realm of the French and politics that of the United States when assigning under-secretary-generals?) to potential proxy wars over Western constructs such as “Humanitarianism” and “Human Rights”. Multilaterals in regional or sub-regional incarnations are also on the rise and will continue to claim a larger voice.

Predicting the next big crisis/ intervention in a world that can give us such diverse situations as the Arab Spring, Syria, Mali, the Central African Republic, and Ukraine is a tough gig. But understanding the attitudes and tools the world is developing concerning interventions is crucial for the humanitarian world as something it should seek to prepare for, but equally to shape.


Trends in interventions: States and multilaterals

“Integration,” “interagency,” “cross government,” and “comprehensiveness” will continue to be the catch phrases of the traditional donors. Much has been invested in structures, personnel, and rhetoric and the usual suspects on the multilateral front (UN, AU, EU, and NATO) will further develop their already established methods in this area. I add one significant proviso to this – it is clear from experiences such as South Sudan and Afghanistan that stacking technical components does not a successful system make. Expect an effort to put greater weight on political solutions – and therefore a politically led framework for all interventionist activities.

Bilateral and multilateral donors have adopted the language of “stabilization.” Maturation from the “quick impact” of the Balkans era, through “hearts and minds,” and now to “stabilization” has brought a greater diversity of actors to the scene, both civilian and uniformed, both humanitarian and with political mandates, all carrying out essentially the same actions. The economically driven interventions by state actors together with private industry, where a core objective is to have a stable and secure environment for investment, brings another actor to stabilization contexts.

Some of the traditional actors are undergoing significant change in terms of intervention-related policy and general posturing on the international arena. While the EU is in a year of leadership change, the first council meeting with a security and defence focus in five years was held in December 2013. As well as highlighting the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) and a European desire to expand its international posture, the process of breaking down the financial separation between Commission and Council continued. Bilaterally, the Franco-German push to move forward on European defence issues is also likely to see these countries increase both police and military interventions along with civilian actions, particularly in Africa.

Germany and Japan continue their gradual reengagement with the international community after their World War II experiences. Japan’s latest defence white papers’ reinterpretation of their constitutional “self-defence” to allow for the introduction of a marine force and a helicopter destroyer class longer and heavier than anything held by the British Royal Navy is another step in the normalization of the country’s status as a self-sufficient state and credible military ally. The January 2014 Munich Conference Speech by German President Gauck calling for greater German engagement and shouldering of greater responsibility in issues of international security has opened the way for increased operations in Africa, including with EU allies. Expect an increased uniformed presence from these development big hitters – the Japanese response to Haiyan/ Yolanda was characterized as that country’s largest military deployment post World War II.

Much talk of U.S. policy is centred on the “Asia Pacific Pivot.” Given this context, announcements of increased security and humanitarian support to ASEAN come as no surprise, nor should it that the U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM) was the face of those announcements. Asia Pacific aside, the United States continues its slow but relentless re-entry into Africa. Djibouti, long the French military centre for Africa, hosts the Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) as the African base for the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM), which continues to extend its scope of action. Japan and China are also introducing their military faces in Africa via Djibouti. Add an EU presence in the form of EUCAP NESTOR and EUNAVFOR ATALANTA, Italian and German uniformed personnel, and Russia looking to rent airfield space, and it becomes clear that Djibouti has become a strategic platform for both African and Middle Eastern operations.

The cycle will continue between interventionists being invested enough to act decisively and so invested that they are seen as “part of the problem.” The current trend towards both regional multilateral groups and interest-specific military alliances will continue. The newer regional actors, e.g. the Arab league, ECOWAS, or ASEAN, and bilateral alliances are yet to reach the same level of deployability and specific character as their more traditional homologues. As these alliances develop, expect a greater range in how different mission components are used, including: little if any distinction between uniformed and civilian action; foreign policy delivered by intelligence services as well as traditional diplomats; different – if any – concepts of secularism; and sensibilities shaped by histories as recipients rather than donors. Moreover, given a context where everyone is questioning the cost of duplicate delivery mechanisms, the separation of humanitarian action may come to be seen as both unnecessary and disingenuous by those who were not involved in developing that system in the first place.


Security and military action: Shifting roles and new actors

An increasingly wide number of actors are engaged in the humanitarian arena and are investing senior staff resources cross-sectorally at the planning level, while humanitarians are still too often represented by junior or middle management voices armed only with the Oslo guidelines and a sermon.

There are of course many civilian actors in the interventionist world, not least the politicians and diplomats who direct, however clumsily, the military. The humanitarian sector often characterizes their challenges in terms of the civil-military divide, where it feels it has a monopoly on the “civil” side of this equation. In many ways, this has restricted conversations to the tactical level since it has been easy to characterize both non-combat actions of the military and humanitarian actors as just delivery systems or logistics arms.

Movements in current military actions can be summarized by diminishing Western defence budgets, in contrast with increasing Asian and Middle-Eastern investments, technological advances dominated by unmanned vehicles, and a post Iraq/ Afghanistan adjustment in preparedness to deploy large-scale forces from Western states. A shift in the nationalities and locations of military will be seen across the world, not least in Africa where they will engage across the crisis spectrum from conflict to humanitarian relief.

Counter-insurgency actions of the type and scale seen in Iraq and Afghanistan are unlikely to be repeated in the near future in terms of large-scale boots on the ground deployments. The trends towards integration and stabilization resulting from these operations will continue to shape the space in which humanitarians operate, but expect deployments scaled for counter-terrorism rather than counter-insurgency.

Unmanned systems in warfare are seen by some as a cure all, reducing costs, direct exposure of troops, and proof that western technology is the way ahead. They will equally be deployed in intelligence gathering, private industry, and the media, and platforms for discussing issues related to their use will continue to develop. The current debate on their use is somewhat sensationalist, leaving much space for international humanitarian law (IHL), protection, and human rights voices to provide leadership.

Equally important is the strategic increase in the emphasis on maritime security and hence maritime operations. “Counter piracy” can be seen as the gateway drug to these operations but the issues are significantly broader than the explicit priority of securing trade – including terrorism, transnational crime, natural resource protection, and people movements. The space between sea-based “counter piracy” operations and court-based prosecutions will be populated. In the battle of rhetoric, the navies of the world have much to say and a tradition of looking at the strategic level more readily than their land-based counterparts. A long history of being used as diplomatic and political chess pieces has been a useful training – so humanitarian actors should expect to encounter them more regularly.

Regardless of the above developments, the concept of security delivered through civilian means (uniformed or not), which resonates deeply with many in the West, will continue to increase its footprint, for better or for worse.

Recent tactical level improvements in humanitarian civil-military cooperation, particularly in natural disasters, have to be commended. In what was largely a field-led response for resolving the chaos of operations such as those in the Balkans, coordination, deconfliction, and cooperation have improved. Alongside a cadre of civ-mil specialists, an organizational structure has grown up that is isolating these issues at the tactical and middle management levels, leaving a critical gap at the strategic and policy levels.


Concluding remarks

What is the feasibility of a "purely humanitarian" intervention? Such a thing does not exist in either intent or effect, nor should it. All interventions are undertaken for a complex mix of motivations, where outcomes will inevitably cross boundaries. Calls for stovepiping humanitarian action inevitably lead to a poor understanding of motivations and complexity, and in turn the possibility to plan for that complexity. Yes, the balance is difficult but an oversimplification into "good and bad,” “black and white," or "humanitarian and self-interested," does little to move forward the debate or implementation of either the humanitarian component or the larger interventionist system.

Did “humanitarian space” ever exist as more than a concept? Equally, how much is the current humanitarian construct able to resonate across the communities it serves and how much is it hijacked by the rhetoric of either “saving the world” or “imperialist repression?”

While an element of protecting humanitarian space and principles is required in the discussion, if it is not balanced with leadership for engagement with the present reality it runs the risk of presenting the humanitarian sector as ideological and negative. The effectiveness of all actors should be questioned and debated. But it is also crucial to look at the dominating trends and how they may be shaping the operating environment for humanitarian actors.

There is a time to defend traditional modes of action, a time to observe and assess the new developments, and a time to act and to shape the future. It seems that we are well past the time of simply defending “humanitarian space,” or protesting against the “blurring of lines,” and it is now time to actively shape the future of humanitarian action. We need to hold both the principles of the past and the requirements of the future more creatively in our minds. The personnel needed to successfully shape or influence actions in complex situations are hard to find. Broader, strategic thinkers with not only the ability to cope but rather to thrive when operating in the “grey” are required. Without agility of action, leadership, and the right skills we cannot expect to find the necessary solutions to reshape humanitarian action.


The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.
- F. Scott Fitzgerald.


About the author

Natascha Hryckow is an experienced leader of multilateral interventions with a particular interest in conflict and post conflict environments. Experiences across the European Union, Nato, the United Nations and Government have shaped her perceptions of current day interventions.