Regarding "The Responsibility to Protect"

Delivered by Catherine Dumait-Harper, MSF Delegate to the UN, at the International Peace Academy's Symposium for the Launch of the Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty "The Responsibility to Protect"

Delivered by Catherine Dumait-Harper, MSF Delegate to the UN, at the International Peace Academy's Symposium for the Launch of the Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty "The Responsibility to Protect."

I would like first to thank the Chair of the symposium, David Malone, and the International Peace Academy for inviting Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to participate in this discussion on the launching of the report "The Responsibility to Protect."

The report tackles very important issues and, should its recommendations be implemented, one has to recognize the report's broad impact. Since there are so many issues and facts raised, I will try to convey the perspective of a humanitarian organization, and offer some comments most relevant to our work as a humanitarian actor.

The Secretary General and a number of international NGOs have initiated, since the fall of 1999, a serious debate on the issue of protecting civilians in conflict. Canada took the lead in raising this issue, especially during its presidency of the Security Council in April 2000. Invited to the Security Council meeting that month, MSF reiterated the right and responsibility, as spelled out in international humanitarian law, for impartial aid agencies to provide humanitarian assistance. Such activities should be kept separate and independent from the kind of armed intervention, often labeled humanitarian intervention, carried out by political and military bodies.

When humanitarian action is coopted or subsumed into broader military and political intervention, it may be perceived as interference. This is precisely what made us hostages in the Northern Caucasus, targets in Burundi, and undesirable in Belgrade during the Kosovo war. It may even mean killing in the name of humanitarianism. In Somalia, for example, women, children, and humanitarian aid workers became targets of "friendly fire". Such attacks increased once American troops arrived. And after the US bombings started in Afghanistan in October, UN offices in Islamabad were attacked and burned down the very next day. MSF had to pull out its international staff from most of Afghanistan, not because of the bombings, but because of the danger caused by rising "anti-Western feelings" that did not distinguish between humanitarian agencies and other actors. This is why MSF criticized the US military's airdropping of so called "humanitarian food rations" in Afghanistan as a propaganda operation. Dropping food alongside bombs put humanitarian action in question and danger, and raised doubts among the population as to the real goals and actions of international humanitarian NGOs.

Carrying out our activities in war zones, we encounter enough problems without artificially creating additional ones. Confusion is not acceptable. Unfortunately, the blurring of lines between humanitarian and military intervention has seriously increased these past years, making our work to impartially access and assist populations in need even more difficult. The report makes an important step towards eliminating confusion by naming what are now often misleadingly called "humanitarian interventions" "military intervention for human protection purposes". We however must go further. This is why MSF would object to the last recommendation, in para. 4/F of the operational principles of the Synopsis, that calls on intervention forces to have "maximum possible coordination with humanitarian organizations". When working in countries surrounding Kosovo during the NATO offensive against Yugoslavia, MSF refused to work in refugee camps where the armies were involved, and we refused funding from NATO members for our programs in the region. Independent and impartial humanitarian organizations cannot associate themselves with any of the parties, even if the intervention is carried out for "human protection purposes". We have to be very careful and understand that choosing to march under the same banner means that at the first serious challenge to the political or military agenda, non-coercive humanitarian action will be the first to be jeopardized, and that populations at risk will be the first to suffer.

I would like to also briefly touch on the part of the report that mentions the role of NGOs in informing and influencing the decision-making process. Operational organizations like ours have a lot of information regarding the situations in which we are working. MSF is usually quite vocal in denouncing any breach of the international humanitarian and human rights laws, but we can also be more "discreet" in our "temoignage"/advocacy. Today's speakers made references to prevention and diplomacy. In the 90s, preventive diplomacy and conflict resolutions were very fashionable in academic fora. Unfortunately, humanitarian aid workers don't see many changes from what should have been "lessons-learned". MSF has made efforts to alert the international community about the grave situations our teams have witnessing in the field. Regarding Rwanda, we met with the Ambassador of New Zealand in April 1994, then the President of the Security Council, to describe the massacre that took place in the hospital at Butare. And later, near the end of June 1994, MSF Directors of Operations met with a US Deputy Representative, who told us that Ambassador Albright was in Washington, and that he himself could not spend much time with us because of a "crisis with Haiti". That was when Member States and the US in particular refused to use the word "genocide" to describe the terrible events taking place in Rwanda. And in July of 1995, the President of MSF informed Mr. Kofi Annan, then Under Secretary General for the DPKO, about the fall of Srebenica. Our team was desperate and did not want to abandon the population of the enclave. We know now that the political aim to implement the Dayton Peace Agreements was more important than protecting the population of Srebrenica, although there was a clear mandate to do so. These are moments one cannot forget, and although I am glad to see the publication of this report, it is difficult not be skeptical about the implementation of this serious study's recommendations. In realpolitik, the protection of populations is still a secondary objective for most Member States, in particular for the Security Council, unfortunately less important than other concerns like "national interest."

One recommendation of this report, cited in the next steps, is to write a new international convention, or even amend the UN Charter itself. Another recommendation, given in the synopsis, is to strip veto power from the 5 Permanent Members of the Security Council when voting on resolutions that authorize military intervention for human protection. The world needs the UN, but with its international organizations profoundly restructured. The postwar order has been turned upside down, yet the structure of the UN has stayed the same. The makeup of the Security Council, the discretionary use of the veto, and the lack of a military force are some of the constraints that paralyze the UN. Addressing these concerns would lay the foundation for a true right of intervention, which would not be an instrument subject to the arbitrariness of great powers or regional authorities but rather a force for peace capable of resisting massacres, supporting democratic movements, and, most importantly, protecting civilians. 1

Setting objective criteria and thresholds for human protection interventions will not be enough if there is no political will to respect and carry them out. We would all like to believe in "never again", but can we really?

Thank you.

  1. These considerations were developed in an article by Rony Brauman and Philippe Biberson, published in Le Monde in November 1999, "Le Droit D'ingerence, Slogan Trompeur et Ambigu."