The Humanitarians


Geneva. -- Winter closes in on the former Yugoslavia as the big relief agencies are questioning their role. Already central Europe is being swept by the coldest air currents in years. This war has always had two faces -- modern military bombardment and medieval siege. Seize the one viable access road, and snow and ice do the rest.

The doubts and debate emanating from the two largest relief agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, raise questions that affect the future of humanitarian relief. So far it has been an internal debate among professionals. Perhaps it's time for the rest of us to tune in.

It is a matter of guns. By 100-year-old tradition, the Red Cross delivers relief without military protection, without even a discreet pistol hidden in an inside pocket. The U.N. missions travel in convoy with U.N. forces prepared to open, by threat of force, the access routes. The situation is complicated by the blue colors worn by all the U.N. personnel, relief workers as well as soldiers on peace-keeping or -- in the case of Somalia -- peace-enforcing missions.

For most of the lifetime of the U.N., peace-keeping has meant the interposition of soldiers between warring sides, but only once the principals have agreed to be separated. Lines have usually been fairly clearly demarcated. Even Cambodia never seriously erupted while the U.N. peacekeepers and humanitarian workers were there.

Yugoslavia and Somalia are different. The fighting continues. The demarcation lines change rapidly. Soldiering takes priority over relief giving -- or it did in Somalia until President Clinton called off the hunt for Gen. Mohammed Farah Aidid.

The U.N. High Commission for Refugees is clearly worried about this. Too often, it feels, it has been regarded as partisan to one side or the other, its workers even considered as a legitimate target to be shot at when they are accompanied by U.N. soldiers.

On one occasion Sadako Ogata, the high commissioner, feeling that her organization was being sucked into the Yugoslav conflict, ordered a halt to relief operations, only to be publicly overruled by Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. For the future, Mrs. Ogata wants to have full written agreements with U.N. peacekeeping units so that relief work in the field is not given second place to military considerations.

The Red Cross is outspokenly critical of the way the military and political work of the U.N. has come to dominate the relief business. By tradition Red Cross workers are left alone to get on with the job, abjuring armed protection. Field staff rely for their safety on their apparent selfless disregard for their own lives and well-being. "Let us not appear to provoke a contestant," says the Red Cross secretary general, Cornelio Sommaruga, "by accepting an offer of military protection. Then we avoid becoming a target ourselves."

The danger in the way the U.N. High Commission is being compelled to work, argues the Red Cross, is that it too often leads to imposing humanitarian relief. Once one starts to impose, one becomes a part of military action. One is part of the problem, not the solution.

The Red Cross argues for "autonomy," but it wouldn't mind if the international community used the Red Cross more to get the world's aid to the victims of war. Although it admires much of what the U.N. High Commission does, it is convinced that if the U.N. is going to be more active in peace-keeping and peace-enforcing, humanitarian workers must escape from the U.N. umbrella and show, by their courage and persistance, that their only concern is to succor the wounded, feed the hungry and comfort the imprisoned.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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