Toward Cooperation Between Humanitarian Aid
And Military Forces
Sergio Vieira de Mello
Director of Policy Planning and Operations, United Nations High Commission for Refugees


In recent years, the United Nations has experienced both qualitative and quantitative changes in its activities related to peace, security, and humanitarian endeavors. While some intractable ideological regional conflicts have been resolved, different ones have emerged with the end of the Cold War. Micronationalism is a new name for self-determination and a threat to the integrity of modern states. Attacks on and uprooting of civilian populations have often become objectives of war, as we have witnessed in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Such attacks have caused human suffering on an unprecedented scale. These forced movements of populations constitute a threat to international security and peace and reflect policies and practices that are essentially destabilizing and intolerable.

Such a tragic worldwide state has led to closer cooperation between political, military, and humanitarian facets of international concern. Today, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) protects and assists over 27 million people in more than 140 countries, including refugees, internally displaced persons, victims of war, and people who have returned to their countries but still require our care. In recent years, UNHCR has worked closely with military forces in humanitarian actions, both within and outside the framework of United Nations peacekeeping and peace-building operations. These actions have given us opportunities to examine, review, and reflect on the relevance of humanitarian principles and on the most desirable working relationship between UNHCR and military forces.


Addressing Human Suffering. As an unfortunate result of our operation in the former Yugoslavia, humanitarianism is now perceived as merely "relief operations." Yet humanitarian action is significantly more than the delivery of relief goods. Humanitarian principles stress the primacy of action to address human suffering and the right of civilians under international law to be protected from discrimination, violence, torture, and other serious violations of human rights; they also stress the right of civilians to receive, in exceptional circumstances, material assistance necessary for their survival. Independence, impartiality, and neutrality are central to achieving these goals and must be respected during humanitarian operations in conflict areas such as the former Yugoslavia and Somalia.

Consent to Humanitarian Action. Humanitarian protection and assistance must be provided to civilians impartially, on the sole basis of need, without regard to race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, or political opinion of the victims; by definition it must also be provided without in any way contributing to the military or political effort of any party to the conflict. This has become a serious predicament in Bosnia-Herzegovina and in and around Rwanda. Humanitarian actions require the consent of the parties to the conflict, and assume that when the parties consent, they will abide by fundamental principles. We all know that this is not the case in Bosnia.

While military action to remove obstructions to humanitarian operations may be justifiable on moral or political grounds, military enforcement of humanitarian aid is neither compatible with humanitarian principles nor realistic in terms of actual efficacy. UNHCR learned one critical lesson from its operation in Bosnia-Herzegovina: close involvement with the military requires increased attention to ensuring that humanitarian action is not only neutral and impartial in intent, but also perceived as such by the conflicting parties. Unfortunately, in protracted and bitter conflicts such as the one unfolding in Bosnia, humanitarian assistance eventually is perceived by both parties as aid to their enemy, with fatal consequences.

Temporary Military Operations with a Protective Intent. In conflicts where consent to humanitarian action is denied, a military operation may be the only way to create conditions under which massive human suffering can be alleviated. The creation in 1994 by the North Atlantic Council of heavy-weapons exclusion zones in and around Sarajevo and Gorazde is an example of a credible military threat effectively used to end intolerable shelling of civilian targets. Such military action, and the use of force it may entail, however, is entirely different from humanitarian operations. We are keenly aware of the consequences of each use of NATO air power under the exclusion-zone regime and therefore show restraint in its use except for self-defense. This restraint by the political leaders and military commanders of the U.N. Protection Forces (UNPROFOR) has been often criticized.

Our experience in Bosnia has also unfortunately demonstrated that exclusion zones, ultimatums, and cease-fires become eroded and ineffective over time in the absence of progress in the political settlement of the conflict. These measures are temporary and stabilizing, as is the deployment of peacekeeping forces such as UNPROFOR, and have a protective intent. None of them, however, is a substitute for political negotiations.


Operational Principles. Based on our experience, UNHCR, together with other United Nations humanitarian agencies, has identified broad operational principles for military support in humanitarian operations. These principles, which follow, are particularly important when humanitarian organizations are required to operate in war zones.

Practical Examples. Three recent actions are examples of NATO military support based on the above principles; the first two illustrate the fragility of combined military and humanitarian arrangements in the face of security threats.


Development of Service Packages. In view of the type and magnitude of military support granted by various countries to UNHCR in the Rwanda operation and of the problems encountered, particularly the lack of specification of what UNHCR needed, our office worked to develop a mechanism for close and efficient cooperation with military forces. The result of this study was the creation of so-called Service Packages, namely, military and civil-defense support that can be provided at the request of UNHCR for humanitarian emergencies. Service Packages, which have been developed for 20 defined sectors of assistance, are not substitutes for UNHCR's emergency response mechanism and are not assumed to be automatic. Rather, they constitute an enhanced cooperation mechanism that brings expertise to deal with humanitarian crises, in particular military forces' massive and rapidly deployable capacity to save lives. Service Packages are also tools that may be used, by UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies, to enhance planning and increase predictability in dealing with large-scale human suffering.

The U.N. Rapid Deployment Brigade Initiative. I would like to briefly allude to an initiative that has caught my attention in recent months. Several countries, in particular Canada, the Netherlands, and Denmark, have put forward a proposal for the creation of a U.N. Rapid Deployment Brigade. I believe that the availability of such a force, which the Secretary General welcomes, would increase the ability of the Organization, Secretary General and Security Council alike, to swiftly react to emerging political, military and humanitarian crises. I am not suggesting that this type of operation would be in any way a panacea. It would be acceptable and effective only in certain instances. But it deserves serious scrutiny. If nothing else, it would fill an important gap--the swift mobilization of resources by the Department of Peacekeeping Operations--when a crisis situation emerges and the political will to act exists. It would also assist us in overcoming the tedious debate about "humanitarian intervention" and provide the Secretary General and the Security Council with a rapid military-reaction capability for political and humanitarian preventive and containment purposes.

I suggest that the following restrictive criteria be applied to the eventual use of such a military resource. The force should be used only:


The protection of Iraqi Kurds in Northern Iraq through multilateral intervention, and the belated but nonetheless welcome "Operation Turquoise" in Southwestern Rwanda, are sui generis. They deserve mention for their "humanitarian jurisprudence" for, however disputable, they represent effective attempts at countering ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Prevention of such humanitarian crises is, however, preferable. UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and OSCE are now preparing for an international conference on refugees, returnees, displaced persons, and other types of population movement into, within, and out of CIS and neighboring countries. At this conference, we will strive to address conflict prevention and an array of legal, economic, social, and humanitarian issues from a non-political perspective. Our objective is not only to resolve existing problems, whether caused by conflict or not, but to prevent the occurrence of new ones that will have consequences for regional and international security and stability.

Can Partnership for Peace help us achieve that ambitious goal? I leave you with that question.

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