Suddenly, the plight of the world's refugees and other disaster victims has become front page news. The Kurds in Iraq, because of their strategic location and sheer numbers, have received attention in the United States. The allied response has raised serious questions about the adequacy of the international humanitarian system and its relation to national sovereignty.
No less dramatic, though much less noticed, is the condition of 27 million people, including 7 1/2 million Ethiopians, threatened by a combination of civil war and famine in 25 African countries.
Their future is particularly perilous as they are neither prominent in geo-political strategy nor victims of a sudden, cataclysmic disaster. They inhabit a world in which people live in abject poverty without political representation -- and are thus more vulnerable to disasters than ever before. And, they are growing in number.
The allied establishment of safe-haven zones for the Kurds clearly violated Iraqi sovereignty, but did so for an ostensibly worthy cause: the provision of protection and humanitarian assistance on an emergency basis to civilians.
However, it is unlikely that the combination of political and military factors that led to the allied action in northern Iraq will ever be replicated in order to consider the allied action a model for a new humanitarian world order. Furthermore, however laudable the goal, the unilateral imposition of military force to accomplish humanitarian objectives is neither practical nor desirable on a wide scale.
How, then, to reconcile the human right to humanitarian assistance in emergency situations with the fundamental principle governing world order embodied in each country's right of sovereignty? What can be done to prevent a repetition of the 1984-85 Ethiopian nightmare when the political agendas of both the Ethiopian government and Western donors led to a million deaths from starvation? While there are clearly no simple answers to these questions, recent experiences in Africa, where relief agencies have been quietly chipping away at the foundation stone of sovereignty in order to bring urgent relief aid to victims of civil strife, hold promise.
In Sudan and Angola, the United Nations, with strong political backing from the United States and other Western donors, negotiated agreements with both governments and rebel forces to allow relief to pass through so-called "corridors of tranquillity." While the Sudan initiative has since collapsed, private relief agencies continue to assist the war-displaced in southern Sudan in cross-border operations from Kenya and Uganda.
In Ethiopia, prior to the fall of the Mengistu regime, a group of church agencies and the U.N. negotiated separate agreements with both government and rebel forces to allow food to cross the front lines of conflict to feed civilians in both government and rebel areas. In Liberia, several private agencies moved into the vacuum left by the collapse of governmental authority in that country to provide relief aid to both Monrovia and rebel-held areas.
TC These initiatives, mostly unheralded in the media, represent major advances in international humanitarian action. In all of the cases, sovereign governments, usually authoritarian in nature, either have abdicated the responsibility or lack the ability to meet urgent relief needs of their citizens. Both the U.N. and private agencies have shown that they can hammer out agreements with governments and rebel forces and convince all parties to the conflict that meeting human needs is good politics.
However, to turn isolated examples into what could be called a new humanitarian world order, political leaders and relief practitioners need to address at least the following three issues:
* First, nation states must recognize the fundamental right of all persons to the essentials of life when those essentials are threatened by natural or man-made disasters.
I am not talking here about broad economic rights to food, clothing and shelter, however legitimate those may be. Rather, I am referring strictly to emergency situations which require outside assistance. To achieve this, the international community has the obligation to provide emergency assistance to civilians when their government is unable or unwilling to provide that assistance.
* Second, the world community must strengthen the international structures in place through the U.N. system to ensure that such assistance is provided in a timely, effective and non-partisan manner.
Specifically, the U.N.'s humanitarian mandate should be broadened to include the creation of political and operational structures to provide assistance in internal emergency situations the basis of need. This mandate would establish the humanitarian principle of providing aid to victims wherever they may be located as distinct from questions of territorial control.
* Finally, the small community of committed and responsible private relief agencies, which bear the operational brunt of most humanitarian operations due to their flexibility and experience, must be assured of a status that allows them access to populations in need on the basis of strict political impartiality.
Currently, such agencies are frequently forced to limit their operations to one or another side of a conflict, working at great risk. An extension of the U.N. mandate that recognizes the critical role of these agencies would provide them with a framework for a comprehensive humanitarian response.
Increasingly, war and famine characterize disaster situations. In order to save lives, particularly in situations where the ruling parties, be they sovereign states or rebel forces, are a major obstacle to relief efforts, the world community must adopt new ++ norms of international humanitarian behavior. To do less will only lead to the repeated horror of what the Kurds and millions of Africans now endure.
Peter Shiras is the Senior Director for Africa of Catholic Relief Services, whose world headquarters is in Baltimore, and is responsible for overseeing CRS's emergency relief programs in Angola, Ethiopia, Sudan, Liberia and the Sahel.