Academic journal article Strategic Forum

Protection for Humanitarian Relief Operations

Academic journal article Strategic Forum

Protection for Humanitarian Relief Operations

Article excerpt


* Internal strife over the past decade has often involved the deliberate targeting of civilians for violent attack.

* A result of the deliberate attacks on civilians is that humanitarian relief workers and their charges increasingly require protection.

* Effective humanitarian protection will normally require a combined response from military, constabulary (armed police), and police organizations--both indigenous and international.

* Protecting internally displaced persons is the most daunting challenge because this usually requires military intervention, for which an international mandate is rarely possible and almost never timely enough.

* In dealing with refugees, the best approach is to maximize reliance on indigenous capabilities, especially police, to minimize the use of foreign military forces, and to tailor international civilian support to the circumstances.


Civilian populations have always suffered the collateral effects of armed conflict, but increasingly throughout the course of the 20th century they have become both a target and the principal victim of warfare. During the post-Cold War era, the vast majority of wars have been internal to the sovereign state, which has frequently bred humanitarian catastrophes. This has included "ethnic cleansing" (Bosnia, Kosovo), genocide (Rwanda), starvation (Somalia), ruthless governmental suppression of minorities (Iraq, Sudan), wanton brutality by rebel forces (Liberia, Sierra Leone), protracted civil war (Angola, Mozambique, Afghanistan), and extreme deprivation of human rights (Haiti). These situations have resulted in massive population displacements, both internally and internationally, and have generated international action aimed at resolving the conflict and assisting the victims. They have been marked by a climate of extreme insecurity for the affected populations and those trying to help them.

The crisis in Kosovo has brought this issue to the forefront of international concern yet again, riveting public attention on the plight of another victimized population. NATO and UN actions vis-a-vis Kosovo have been unprecedented in terms of international military and civilian response for humanitarian protection, but have also highlighted the difficulties and delays in mounting a response. While it may be too soon to determine what precedents have been set, humanitarian protection has clearly become a major international security issue at the intersection of the conflict between national sovereignty and universal principles of human rights.

Internal Populations. Population groups imperiled by civil strife or violent persecution may become displaced from their homes and villages. The most daunting situations entail internally displaced persons (IDPs) who remain under the jurisdiction of a regime that may have caused their displacement. The international community is often stymied by a division between those wishing to intervene to protect the human rights of IDPs and those placing an overriding priority on national sovereignty. When persecuted groups are associated with an armed independence movement, the principle that national borders should not be altered through force will also constrain the international response.

As the conflict over Kosovo exemplifies, the regime involved will inevitably regard any uninvited intrusion by the international community as a violation of its sovereign prerogatives and will resist with whatever means are at its disposal. This is a major inhibition of direct international action. The likelihood of resistance and the lack of international consensus about the justification have normally precluded military intervention or delayed it while atrocities mount. Less forceful actions (political persuasion, economic sanctions) have usually proven ineffective.

Refugees. Refugees, who by definition have fled their native land, are easier to assist. …

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