December 2011, No. 4 Vol. XLVIII, 7 Billion People, 1 United Nations, Hand in Hands

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the creation of the United Nations and documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Genocide Convention, the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, and their Additional Protocols, as well as concepts such as responsibility to protect (R2P), have transformed international law and the basis for how states must conduct international relations. Yet, as David Rieff, who has covered several wars and humanitarian emergencies, remarks in his book A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis, the "murderous twentieth century remained just as murderous". In fact, the twenty-first century remains no stranger to humanitarian emergencies: from man-made and natural disasters to wars and revolutions, millions of lives remain at risk. Today, world politics is testing many of these laws and humanitarian relief work in unforeseen ways. At the same time, the Internet and mobile technologies have provided a means to improve data collection and humanitarian response, which provides the United Nations with an opportunity to play a more dynamic role in how it coordinates and responds to humanitarian emergencies.


At present, the world community has limited options for responding to humanitarian crises. General Assembly resolution 46/182 formed guiding principles for the international community's response to humanitarian disasters and was central to the establishment of the Office of the Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC) and the development of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC). IASC includes major humanitarian actors from both within and outside the United Nations, and is aimed at facilitating inter-agency analysis and decision making in response to humanitarian emergencies.

One way IASC strives to improve coordination is through the humanitarian "cluster" system established in 2005. Clusters are groupings of United Nations agencies, non-governmental organizations, and other international organizations concentrating on a specific sector during a humanitarian crisis. There are 11 clusters: protection, camp coordination and management, water sanitation and hygiene, health, emergency shelter, nutrition, emergency telecommunications, logistics, early recovery, education, and agriculture. Each cluster, led by a designated agency, coordinates with the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the United Nations agency accountable for the overall coordination under ERC. Most data is designed to flow through the clusters that process and analyze it, and is used to periodically brief decision makers.

However, as many experts have noted, these humanitarian clusters lack the resources to coordinate with OCHA and they tend to manage information in a way that makes it difficult to share. For instance, clusters often choose systems that lock data in tools and formats that cannot be easily shared.

Satchit Balsari, a fellow at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, an interfaculty initiative which is dedicated to advancing research, practice, and policy in humanitarian assistance, points out that another concern with this system is that not everyone who is working in the field is clued in to the clusters, such as volunteers or those in remote areas. Balsari, who worked in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake, noted that "they often forget to involve stakeholders". He added that for the first couple of months, Haitians were conspicuously absent from these cluster meetings because locals were not allowed into the United Nations compound where meetings were being held. "So decisions were being taken without those who were most affected", he said.


According to the March 2011 report by the United Nations Foundation, OCHA, the Vodafone Foundation, and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, the cluster system proved inadequate in Haiti when the volume, tempo, and diversity of the inflowing information increased. The publication Disaster Relief 2.0: The Future of Information Sharing in Humanitarian Emergencies looked at how new technologies were being applied to early warning systems for crises and humanitarian responses and how they could become powerful tools in humanitarian relief work. For instance, the crisis mapping response to Haiti's earthquake in 2010 showed how mobile technologies, geospatial data, and citizen-based reporting could influence humanitarian action and disaster response. Today, several online mapping organizations with a humanitarian focus, such as OpenStreetMap, Crisis Mappers, Sahana, and Ushahidi, are employed during critical emergencies around the world. Following the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in 2011, crowdsource mapping came in handy for local relief workers as they set priorities for aid delivery of food, shelter, and sanitation services. According to The New York Times, web-based community mapping was also used in Libya to track where the fighting was taking place and the movement of refugees who were fleeing the conflict.

The report further noted that "new voices are opening the possibility of closer interactions with communities affected by disasters". It acknowledged that "new partners are offering faster, more effective means of analyzing an ever-increasing volume and velocity of data", and that the challenge ahead will be "to create an effective interface between these resources, and create an ecosystem where each actor understands its role".

In this regard, veteran humanitarian organizations such as the United Nations have a particularly significant role to play. According to Patrick Meier, co-founder of the International Network of Crisis Mappers, it is imperative to consolidate key partnerships between formal humanitarian organizations and informal volunteer networks. He urges participation in joint crisis response simulations to ensure "appropriate and robust but flexible mechanisms in 2012".


A big challenge for the United Nations and its agencies is that they still have major difficulties in providing relief on neutral or balanced terms. In many cases, the Government or a powerful non-state actor denies them access to vulnerable communities. In 2009, towards the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka, the Government denied United Nations aid agencies and humanitarian workers access to camps for internally displaced persons and to civilians trapped in the ongoing conflict between the military and the terrorist group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Also in 2009, al-Shabaab, a terrorist militant group controlling most of southern Somalia, banned several international aid groups from the region, resulting in widespread famine.

As noted in the book United Nations and Changing World Politics: "In many ways international humanitarian law seems to have been formulated to deal with a different world -- one populated by governments and regular armies whose interests were often served by respecting the laws of war." Sovereignty is also often a big sticking point. General Assembly resolution 46/182 reiterates that "the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and national unity of states must be fully respected in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations", which makes it difficult to operate in situations where the affected country denies access.

To address the challenge of the international community's responsibility to act in the face of grave human rights violations while respecting the sovereignty of states, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty was established in 2000. The Commission formulated the concept of responsibility to protect (R2P), which states that the international community must protect the population of a state if its own Government fails to do so. It also allows for the use of military force if peaceful measures prove inadequate. Co-chairs of the Commission, Gareth Evans of the International Crisis Group and Algerian diplomat Mohamed Sahnoun, wrote in Foreign Affairs: "If the international community is to respond to this challenge, the whole debate must be turned on its head. The issue must be reframed not as an argument about the 'right to intervene' but about the 'responsibility to protect'." The R2P doctrine was finally incorporated in a United Nations outcome document in 2005, and was hailed by international affairs specialists as a new dawn for peace and security.

Since then, the R2P principle has been applied in Kenya, following the post-election violence in 2008, and more notably in Libya in 2011, following former leader Muammar al-Qaddafi's brutal crackdown on its people during the revolt against his regime. While R2P advocates welcomed the NATO-led military intervention, others questioned the hypocrisy of intervening in one country, while the regimes of neighbouring countries used violence and intimidation to suppress mass uprisings, notably in Syria and Bahrain. Moreover, it's far from clear if the humanitarian military intervention in Libya would be able to guarantee a better and peaceful future for its people. Experts like Micah Zenko at the Council on Foreign Relations argue that "mismanagement and overreach" in Libya has made future intervention on the grounds of R2P uncertain. Although NATO claimed to be an impartial actor in the conflict, he says, "Its actions -- allowing the rebel forces to smuggle weapons into the country and fly aircraft in the no-fly zone and coordinating its air strikes with their military operations, for instance -- proved otherwise".


While coercive military intervention in the future will prove difficult to achieve, a military component of some kind has become increasingly necessary in most humanitarian crises. Adam Levine, Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine at Brown University who worked on providing emergency aid in Libya says, "You can't have healthcare without security". According to Levine, humanitarian aid in Libya would have been difficult to provide without the security cover provided by the presence of NATO.

As the need for a securit y presence for humanitarian relief work grows, the role of United Nat ions peacekeepers expands as they are considered more neutral than the military of any one country. However, peacekeepers hardly enjoy an unblemished reputation: they have been accused of sex crimes such as rape and sexual exploitation in many countries, including Haiti, Liberia, Côte d'Ivoire, Somalia and t he Democratic Republic of the Congo. Therefore, the human rights risks accompanying the behaviour of security forces from any particular country also apply to peacekeepers from many different countries. The United Nations must investigate thoroughly all allegations, prosecute those alleged to have committed crimes, and hold accountable the countries from which those peacekeepers found guilty came.

To the extent that humanitarian aid must take place under the security of the gun, the United Nations will also have to consider other issues in order to improve its response. Levine says there needs to be better coordination between security providers and aid workers so that areas can be secured for humanitarian aid delivery. There will have to be better mutual understanding of cultures and systems between humanitarian aid workers and troops, so as to develop mutual respect. To do this, it would be useful to put in place an ongoing programme of strategic and operational discussions at all levels.

Except in situations where humanitarian workers have no access to vulnerable areas or populations, the military should not normally engage in providing aid. Provision of aid by the military undermines neutrality, and is hardly the most effective way of providing humanitarian assistance.

Some experts have also recommended reducing the number of non-governmental organizations in humanitarian emergencies to only those that abide by a certain set of standards, such as the Red Cross Code of Conduct. Greater emphasis on the same set of standards for all organizations working in emergencies will help in streamlining aid. This process must start now, says Levine, because once a humanitarian emergency occurs "it's almost too late in some ways".