Humanitarian Action and Political Action — Don't Confuse the Two

An Interview with Dr. Jean-Hervé Bradol, president of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières in France.

An Interview with Dr. Jean-Hervé Bradol, president of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières in France.


Photo © MSF


Some are calling for armed intervention in Darfur in the name of humanitarianism, while others are careful to set themselves apart from that position. The "humanitarian universe" seems divided. But is this really a political crisis among humanitarian actors? While no one can claim a monopoly on the use of the word, says Dr. Jean-Hervé Bradol, president of Médecins Sans Frontières in France, it is important to again clarify the distinction between humanitarian action and political action. At issue, he says, is the ability of humanitarian actors to provide aid to victims.


Is the Darfur issue dividing the humanitarian community?


The current debate on Darfur highlights two very different positions. The U.S.-based organization Save Darfur and the French-based Urgence Darfour are leading a campaign in support of military intervention in Darfur, to be imposed by force if the Sudanese government refuses to accept it. Several humanitarian organizations providing aid in the field have publicly expressed their disagreement with the group's position. Save Darfur is a broad coalition of religious and political advocacy organizations using humanitarian and human rights rhetoric to bring about a political and military intervention. Their arguments have a humanitarian ring to them, but this is clearly a political matter, which is not unreasonable if we acknowledge it for what it truly is. The unease on the part of humanitarian aid actors stems from this "false advertising." When humanitarian action is manipulated to serve political and religious interests, the resulting blurring of lines can cause aid in the field to fail, as we have seen many times. Aid operations today are feeding and providing water and medical care to two million people who have been displaced within Darfur or have taken refuge in Chad.


Some claim the opposite, charging that humanitarianism has lost its sense of commitment to the victims.


That is clearly the question: what is the most effective way to aid victims? Two schools of thought have long existed within humanitarian organizations, as within human rights groups. The first, which takes an "interventionist" stance, holds that we are responsible for ensuring that certain values (including justice, democracy and human rights) are observed everywhere, for preventing crises and for resolving them. According to that thinking, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) may legitimately impose the "good," including by relying on the major powers. The concept of the "right of humanitarian intervention" falls squarely within that school of thought. As I see it, this raises a moral question about the role that outside actors can and should play in a crisis. It also raises a practical one: who has the political legitimacy today to create order in the world in the name of these values?

The other school can be described as "pragmatic" and reflects MSF's position. It is more modest and realistic in its aims, which hold that the role of a humanitarian organization is to provide the highest quality aid possible. To do that requires complete independence from governments. Our only goal is to provide aid to populations in crisis situations, irrespective of the political agendas of States. This does not mean that we have no social or political responsibility. When we sound an alarm about a crisis situation, we do not violate our role, but we do when we venture to prescribe political — let alone military — solutions. In 1994, MSF supported armed intervention during the Rwandan genocide, but that was an exception. Since Kosovo, political actors have continued to wage war in the name of humanitarianism, and humanitarian organizations themselves have called for war to be waged. This presents a problem of legitimacy and competence, as well as for realism.


"Actions" but not "solutions" — isn't that a very limited definition of the scope of operations for humanitarian organizations?


It can be frustrating, but if we are to be effective, we must take that position. How can we maintain legitimacy if we are not neutral? How can we remain neutral if we call for war? We are dealing with a very significant contradiction. We may use only peaceful methods, but that does not mean that we are necessarily pacifists and opposed to war on principle. However, by our very nature, we cannot call for combat — which would create new victims — in the name of humanitarian principles. Let's keep the issue of competence in mind, too. Humanitarian actors know how to provide aid, but they are not diplomats or military strategists. We are not the best-suited to arbitrate among various political and military solutions.

That said, when various interests support a particular political solution based on a mistaken reading of the situation, we may warn the political actors involved based on our experience in the field. In the case of Darfur, we are acting legitimately when we describe the reality in the field as we see it, which is very different than the one Urgence Darfour is promoting in the media. That group's campaign is based on the image of an imaginary Sudan, reduced to an empty stretch of land where Arabs and Africans, or moderate and extremist Muslims, clash. The decision to launch a military intervention belongs to political actors. Humanitarian actors may warn them about the realities in the field and the impacts of such intervention on the ability to provide aid to victims.

We have observed that even when the number of victims is high, it is much more difficult — and under certain circumstances, even impossible — to provide aid when we are perceived as linked to one or another of the parties to a conflict, resulting from the blurring of the line between humanitarian and military action. There is no hard and fast rule. Some military interventions have improved the situation populations faced, as was the case in East Timor and Sierra Leone. But we only need look at Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq today to see that such intervention can have severe impacts on the population. Such a decision deserves careful analysis of the reality in the field and should be made on that basis, without being draped in the humanitarian flag.