Intervention, Protection and Humanitarian Assistance at a Crossroads

Delivered by Joelle Tanguy, U.S. Executive Director, MSF, at the World Affairs Council, San Francisco

Delivered by Joelle Tanguy, U.S. Executive Director, MSF, at the World Affairs Council, San Francisco

Thank you for inviting me today to discuss humanitarian issues, especially those brought about by the concept and practice of military intervention.

Many of you, many of us, are wondering about the long-term meaning of the Kosovo (and East Timor) interventions. Do they set a new precedent? With Kosovo, did we witness a fundamental shift in the way the international community, led by the United States, responds to crises, taking on the role of enforcer of human rights? Or was this an exception, a fluke?

Are we moving towards a "new world order" where, in the words of Strobe Talbot, " how a government treats its own people is not just an internal matter when universal values and regional peace are at stake"? The end of the Westphalian era of absolute sovereignty? But then where do Chechnya and a half dozen conflicts in Africa left un-addressed fit in the new paradigm?

These are very good questions. Not completely new, though. They were already raised after the Cold War by the Kurdistan and Somalia interventions, but dropped from the agenda as the failures and inertia of the international community became blatant in the face of genocide in Rwanda. They have resurfaced with the Kosovo intervention questioning the paradigm of international relations in the making.

As a humanitarian practitioner, I cannot give a definitive answer to these questions. I can only share the observations of our teams around the world. I can only express thoughts drawn from first-hand observations around the Kosovo and Timor crises, and the plight of civilian populations under fire in lesser known conflicts in Chechnya, Sierra Leone, Angola, the Sudan, Congo, Burundi and many more, far from the limelight, far from the attention of mainstream media.

I will limit my comments to three kinds of observations. First, I would like to comment on the fallacious and oxymoronic concept of "humanitarian military intervention" or "military humanitarianism" and set the record straight, separating clearly the humanitarian from the political and military issues, and clarifying how military and humanitarian intervention differ.

Second, I will highlight the challenges and paradox of civilian protection at large, making the case for not less but more political responsibility to be exercised in assistance to populations in danger around the world.

Finally, I will illustrate paradoxes and challenges in humanitarian interventions, and advocate for a specific model of humanitarianism. Once that seeks to protect independence from the political and military. One that is politically astute but not politically-driven. One that charts a course of vocal impartiality: refusing not only to take sides but also refusing to keep silent in the face of massive violations of human rights and humanitarian law.




What I want to start with is the most uncomfortable and most outrageous for me. The rising, dangerous slogan of "military humanitarianism".

Humanitarian intervention, grounded in the Geneva conventions, was defined over the years by the practice of independent, impartial humanitarian actors. It conveys the civilian action to provide assistance in the face of the consequences of crises, it does not include the political and military actions deployed in response to the causes of crises.

Humanitarianism seeks not to stop or influence the outcome of a war but to provide a modicum of humanity at the heart of the war, to assist the most vulnerable, to limit the impact of conflicts on the life and dignity of men, women and children caught in the war-zones. The words "Humanitarian intervention" do not describe the political and military intervention whose aims, while potentially complementary, are clearly distinct as the military and political may seek to prevent conflict, enforce peace or ensure accountability of governments towards minorities rights.

States have used noble motives for centuries to justify armed intervention into the domestic affairs of other states. Sometimes for less noble motives than stated. New age "military interventions"—defined as deployments of military might undertaken in situations involving mass crime or terror—may be at times not only appropriate, but necessary, required, just, desirable, maybe even effective; they could also become legitimate and accountable with a little help. But that does not make them humanitarian.

The expression itself "humanitarian military intervention" and its associated legalistic rationale the "right to intervene", or "authority to intervene", mix two approaches which, though not mutually exclusive, weaken each other when they are combined. Both approaches may be necessary, but in order to serve their purposes, we believe that humanitarian and military work must carried out independently.

More than an oxymoron, more than confusing slogan, it is a dangerous one. Do we really believe that a forceful and well-planned humanitarian action can stop a war, resolve a conflict? Ask the Rwandans and the Chechnyans. The other obvious danger is the legitimate suspicion that would then be cast on humanitarians on the ground, that they and the intervening military forces and their political coaches are no different, that aid workers are the infantry of the NATO or other intervention forces. This suspicion, were is to rise, would lock forever access to the needy civilians in the war zones and make relief workers undesirables, even hostages or targets.

It may even, in a monstrous misinterpretation, mean killing in the name of humanitarianism as I witnessed in Somalia.

Let's agree to talk about humanitarian intervention when referring to civilian action, military intervention when referring to military action, and to forget the fallacious slogans of military humanitarianism, and military-humanitarian interventions.

Now that I got this off my chest, I'd like to move on and bring you to the next set of issues: the plight of civilians in war zones and protection issues.




Specifically, I want to highlight the challenges and paradox of civilian protection at large, making the case for more political responsibility to be exercised in assistance to populations in danger around the world.

In a world where conflicts have less to do with territory than with economic control and identity of a nation, civilians have become both pawns and targets for the belligerents.

Our volunteers are witness to the fact that the toll on civilians is extraordinary. In 1990, civilians represented 90% of war casualties, almost half of them children. Civilians have become the prime targets of opportunistic violence, raiding, looting by militias and military troops. Even worse, they have become strategic stakes in these uncivil civil wars. Forced displacement, sieges, starvation, indiscriminate bombing, massacres and even maiming campaigns and rape, have become frequent tools of war.

Forty million people are displaced by conflicts, most of them resourceless and traumatized. Eighty percent of them are women and children. Displacement easily leads to 30 fold increases in mortality. The children under 5 are the first to die. Their elders, if they stay alive, are often stripped of their dignity and rights. Surviving on humanitarian assistance is no great solution. In public health terms, being a refugee in a camp, being dependent of food aid, is a most precarious condition that often leads to excess mortality and morbidity. In human terms it's unbearable. Some of our patients, children and adults alike, the most traumatized, cannot face their fate, cannot even ask for help, cannot even receive help, they sit and stare and let themselves die.

I need not say more about the plight of civilians caught in the violent collapse of their countries, of their communities, witness and victims to mass crime or terror. It is those very situations that the new age "military interventions" would seek to address. Military deployment would seek to root out the causes of the massive mortality and suffering whereas humanitarian assistance only acts out as a palliative. In the ideal case, before military deployment, political initiative should be taken, to prevent or resolve the conflict. And of course, when violence mounts, a chance should be given to civilians to escape and seek refugee status in another country.

Alas, while the need is dire, there are a lot of paradoxes in the way the international community is addressing the civilian protection issues. I will have to be brief and note issues that would warrant much more attention. So let me state them in the form of questions:

  1. If we are really committed to the safeguarding of human rights even with military intervention, why are we so stingy on other means of protections of civilians?

    Why for example are we eroding the right of refugees to seek asylum, with increasingly restrictive immigration policies being implemented in Europe and North America, while—as a consequence around the world we are witnessing dramatic examples of the denial of refugee rights.

    Why has the United States been so reluctant to join the international landmines ban? Landmines are killing and maiming millions around the world. As of May 24, 1999, the Mine Ban Treaty had been signed by 135 countries, and ratified by 81 nations. In the Americas, only the United States and Cuba have not signed the Treaty. The other recalcitrant nations, including Russia, China, Iraq, and Iran, continue to hide under the shadow of the non-signature of the United States. Why let this happen?

    Why also has the United States dragged its feet in supporting and enabling the development of the International Criminal Court, which can offer real and tangible solutions to benefit populations in danger?
  2. If we are really committed to the safeguarding of human rights even militarily, is it really compatible with a war doctrine in which we're willing to kill but not to die? The Kosovo intervention actually brought about a lot of questions in this area. When the military must be immortal, and only civilians, journalists and aid workers are allowed to die in a conflict, the military strategies are limited. So-called "surgical strikes" in Serbia did not provide the protection needed on the ground in Kosovo and actually precipitated the sudden and massive deportation of Kosovars, rising the spread of civilian violence in the region while actually provoking the humanitarian crisis that the intervention sought to prevent.
  3. If we are really committed to the safeguarding of human rights even militarily, shouldn't we have the instruments to make intervention legitimate and accountable? The NATO intervention in Yugoslavia is quite challenged, not having sought the blessing of the Security Council. Worse, is the Security Council a credible arbitrator for peace? And even Security Council initiated operations have limited accountability and transparency mechanisms. Peacekeepers have repeatedly breached human rights and humanitarian laws themselves! But maybe more of a challenge is the necessity to actually bring some consistence in intervention choices, and as a community define what is a legitimate and a necessary intervention. Why Kosovo? Why Kosovo and East-Timor only? What about the West Timor camps then, what about Chechnya now and the half dozen dramatic situations on the African continent?

I have said enough to make the point that while the plight of the civilian population around the world warrants some significant political initiatives to guarantee their protection, in fact the international community—the US included—still has quite unclear political will, very fragmented national and international frameworks and approaches, very fragile legal instruments, and very confusing ways to go about resolving these issues.




Where does that leave humanitarian actors? Well. Inevitably hard-pressed to make sure that in this confusing and unkind world, at least humanitarian teams can reach populations in danger, assess independently the needs, deploy assistance impartially, and monitor the impact of their work to make sure it helps the most vulnerable. That's what we call ensuring "humanitarian space" at the heart of the conflicts. In many of the countries where the 2500 Doctors Without Borders volunteers provide assistance every year, we are acting in the heart or periphery of latent or blatant civilian conflict.

Just as its visibility rises, humanitarianism is under threat. How? In several ways, that all have to do with humanitarian actors becoming the instrument of political and military strategies, whether they are local or international. That is what humanitarian actors must be more vigilant about.

  1. Humanitarian action is often enrolled by states as a substitute for political action.1

    Repeatedly, and especially in Africa, aid is the window-dressing instrument of a "policy of having no policy" in Africa. It becomes the figleaf for political inaction.
  2. It is sometimes enrolled as an actual channel for political action.

    As I said earlier, politicizing humanitarian aid would make it the object of negotiations, of bargains, of diversions. In other words, it can reduce the scope of action within which relief is provided. When it is politicized, humanitarian action may be perceived as interference and loose access and the potential to maintain humanitarian space.
  3. Unless carefully discriminative, aid can fuel the very war whose effects it seeks to mitigate2 Every situation requires careful analysis.




"Independent humanitarianism is a daily struggle to assist and protect. In the vast majority of our projects it is played out away from the media spotlight, and away from the attention of the politically powerful. It is lived most deeply, most intimately in the daily grind of forgotten wars and forgotten crisis. Numerous peoples of Africa literally agonise in a continent rich in natural resources and culture. Hundreds of thousands of our contemporaries are forced to leave their lands and their family to search for work, food, to educate their children, and to stay alive. Men and women risk their lives to embark on clandestine journeys only to end up in a hellish immigration detention centre, or barely surviving on the periphery of our so called civilised world."3

That is why Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières stands and advocates for a specially conscious kind of humanitarian action:

  • One that seeks to protect independence from the political and military.
  • One that is politically astute but not politically-driven.
  • One that charts a course of vocal impartiality: refusing not only to take sides but also to keep silent in the face of massive violations of human rights and humanitarian law.

Silence has long been confused with neutrality, and has been presented as a necessary condition for humanitarian action. We know that is a mistake. We are not sure that words can always save lives, but we know that silence can certainly kill.

Our volunteers and staff live and work among people whose dignity is violated every day. These volunteers choose freely to use their liberty to make the world a more bearable place. Despite grand debates on world order, the act of humanitarianism comes down to one thing: individual human beings reaching out to those others who find themselves in the most difficult circumstances. And they reach out one bandage at a time, one suture at a time, one vaccination at a time. And for MSF this means also telling the world of the injustice that they have seen. All this, in the hope that the cycles of violence and destruction will not continue endlessly." 4

So, to conclude and to leave you food for thought on humanitarian intervention and military intervention, I will quote Condorcet. This 18th century mathematician and philosopher wrote:

"Of all the words which console and reassure men, Justice is the only one which the oppressor does not dare to pronounce, while Humanity is on the lips of all tyrants."


  1. The outpouring of aid to the Rwandan Refugees Camps in the summer of '94, in contrast to the abandonment of that crisis in the spring when genocide was taking its toll, is a typical example of humanitarian aid used as political fig-leaf for non-intervention, for political inaction.
  2. Humanitarian intervention can fuel the crises it seeks to alleviate, and all the more so since the number of NGOs and their funding multiplied in the 1990's. Aid can be taxed, hijacked, looted, racketeered. Interventions can be manipulated to build internal or international legitimacy, to freeze military gains, to sustain ethnic cleansing, to enforce population displacement, to support famine policies. Already in the 1980's, Doctors Without Borders volunteers were faced with such intractable dilemmas as feeding the Khmer Rouge along the Thai-Cambodian border and watching aid used as a tool of the brutal forced migration policies of the Mengistu regime in Ethiopia. These debates shaped much of our approach to the crises: rather than duck the issues, we seek to confront them and bring them the public debate. When confronted with the dilemma of fuelling a war economy or sustaining political or military strategies, we must strive for a lucid and responsible approach that might involve minimalist programming or even abstention, but remains essentially concerned with preserving humanitarian space.
  3. Nobel Peace Prize address, James Orbinski