Briefing to Security Council members on the protection of civilians in situations of conflict

Thank you for inviting MSF to speak today at this meeting of Security Council members. We very much welcome the fact that members are considering the role of the Security Council vis a vis the protection of civilians in times of armed conflict. From our field perspective as an independent humanitarian organization, the best protection that the Security Council can give to civilians begins with a clear recognition of certain key issues: the causes underlying the need for humanitarian assistance, the conditions that require humanitarian protection, and, separately, the need for public security. It also begins with the clear separation of humanitarian concerns from the legitimate political concerns for international peace and security. Protection of civilians in armed conflict can no longer be limited to protection of convoys and personnel, nor can it be confused with a situation of security and order.

International humanitarian law provides for assistance and protection in times of war (where security and liberty is obviously limited). Its starting point is the specific vulnerability of civilians related to the nature of violence and conditions of war. Humanitarian action is much more than the provision of simple technical or material assistance. To be protective, humanitarian action must be specific to civilian needs and vulnerabilities. It must also be perpetually analytical of the violence and conditions of war as they affect the status and well-being of the civilian. Such conditions may include the deliberate targeting, deprivation and suffering of civilians in order to increase the flow, manipulation or diversion of aid, or efforts to achieve some strategic advantage or political objective.

It is crucial that humanitarian organisations insist on respect for the status of individuals in times of war and resist, for example, forced displacement, forced starvation or forced regroupment. The humanitarian actor must monitor and respond to the specific violence or conditions that threaten persons. In certain circumstances, concerns for order may even contradict or imperil the protection of civilians. This was the case in Somalia, when the use of force authorized by the UN in the name of humanitarianism directly targeted civilians.

Almost invariably, the causes and conditions of conflict are political. They must be viewed differently from their humanitarian consequences. Here, the central task in achieving protection of civilians is to clearly define problems and solutions - not to settle for vague problem definitions that mask political causes and responsibilities, nor to settle for imperfect but feasible solutions. Such clarity will not obscure or deny the political causes that create humanitarian need, and will lift the humanitarian veil that often hides political inaction.

In 1994 in Rwanda, the existing order pursued genocide and left one million dead. This political crime precludes - by definition - any form of humanitarian action for the protection of civilians. Only a military action that forcefully countered the willful genocidal acts of the Rwandan state could have stopped the systematic killing, and therefore protected civilians. This was technically possible in April 1994. General Dallaire - the UNAMIR force commander - made this demand on April 21, 1994. On that same day, instead of increasing the UN force, the Security Council reduced it by 90%. In the days before, some 1400 Belgian, Italian and French troops had been deployed to extract their expatriates, and more American troops were available in Burundi.

It was not until June 22, 1994 that a Security Council resolution acknowledged not a genocide but a humanitarian crisis, and authorized a French-led Chapter 7 intervention. Yet, only four days before, arms for the genocidal state had been flown into Goma by French arms suppliers. Operation Turquoise effectively allowed the genocide to continue outside the established safe zone and allowed les genocidaires to escape to both Goma, Zaire and Nyngara, Tanzania - taking millions of Rwandan civilians with them.

By mid-July 94, (Western public concern around) a cholera epidemic among the Goma refugees led to the deployment of thousands of foreign troops to assist in managing the epidemic. Less than a kilometer away, in Rwanda, civilians were still being killed. The persistent use of humanitarian language to address what was at root a political crisis, sanitized both the criminality of the crisis and the political responsibility for dealing with it.

The failure to acknowledge what was so obviously a genocide - a political and not a humanitarian crisis - the failure to implement what was not only a correct but also a technically feasible Chapter 7 solution, and the intervention that did occur, all, in fact, encouraged the killers in their genocidal project and worsened, rather than enhanced, the security of civilians.

Today, the Secretary General is proposing preventive deployment of peace keeping forces. The lesson learned from history shows that the UN's political analysis is often good but the solutions are lacking.

A well-defined problem is sometimes better than a bad solution. When clarity on the nature of the problem is lost by compromising on the solution, all hope of solving the problem can be lost. For example, the Goma refugee camps were in reality military sanctuaries holding refugees hostage.

In November 1994, the UN Secretary General concluded that the "most effective way of ensuring the safety of the Rwandan refugees and their freedom to return to Rwanda would be the separation of political leaders and former Rwandese government forces and militia from the rest of the refugee population"

He acknowledged that the camp situation posed a security threat to Rwanda, as well as to the security of refugees and humanitarian personnel. He proposed choosing between two different scenarios and mandates for the deployment of a UN peace keeping force to the Goma camps. One scenario required 5,000 troops under a Chapter 6 mandate. With the consent of the Zaire government, this would provide safe passage for the refugees return to Rwanda. The other scenario required 10,000-12,000 troops under a Chapter 7 mandate and would separate the refugees from those responsible for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

By January 25, 1995 the Secretary General had consulted over 60 different potential troop contributors. Only one answered. These scenarios had to be dropped as "not-feasible". What was decided as the only feasible solution was for the UNHCR to pay the Zaire government one million dollars a month to enhance security in and around the camps. It did not matter that this feasible solution did not solve the problem of insecurity but, in fact, fueled it by encouraging the viability of the camps as military sanctuaries.

A similar pattern was evident for the protected areas of Bosnia. The Security Council made clear that adequate security would require 34,000 troops to effectively deter attacks on the safe areas. Instead, the Security Council authorized only a light option of 7,600 troops for Bosnia. In the end, the fall of Srebrenica and the massacres of civilians resulted.

The failure to deploy a Chapter 7 force in Rwanda and the failure to implement a real solution in the Goma camps actually worsened the security of civilians by accepting, on the one hand, a sanitized description of the problem and, on the other, a feasible, rather than an actual, solution.

In the case of Srebrenica, the fate of civilians was effectively sealed with the decision to deploy a light option of some 7,000 troops.

In each of these cases, the hazard lies at the decision-making level where states can act at the same time on behalf of their own national interests and in the name of the international community interest without any possibility of clarifying or distinguishing the two. The lesson learned shows that the right solution was available in a timely manner within the UN structure.

The question remains about the ability of the Security Council to commit to results and not simply to good intentions.

In the case of Chechnya, it is notable that the Security Council has not even been able to discuss the issue of protection of the civilian population. When considering protection of civilians the Security Council should adopt new rules related to the use of the veto and to the rationale behind each states' vote.

There has been a great deal of discussion about the need for preventative action in relation to conflict itself and to protection of civilians in armed conflict. This usually refers to diplomatic, political or military actions that intend to de-escalate situations of potential or actual conflict. In this context, it is important to remember that material humanitarian assistance can have preventive impact when carried out according to operational humanitarian principles. Somalia is a good example of this.

Famine most commonly occurs in situations of political crisis - and Somalia between 1990 and 1992 was no different.

UN agencies withdrew from Somalia in December 1990 because of insecurity. They were fully aware of the looming famine in late 1991, yet they made no real effort to take risks in meeting people's need for food. Here, in the midst of a political crisis, a failure to achieve early, effective and sufficient delivery of humanitarian assistance - specifically food aid - led to an escalation of both humanitarian need as well as of the political crisis itself. The rest - Baidoa, the subsequent enormity of humanitarian need and the deepening of political crisis - is consequent.

We are not saying that providing food would have been a sufficient response to the political crisis. However when such a need is identified by the UN or NGOs, UN humanitarian agencies have a duty to meet the needs early in the crisis. This was a situation in which it was possible for experienced and politically independent humanitarian actors to act - as ICRC proved by delivering 200,000 tons of food between 1991 and 1992, while the UN humanitarian agencies had delivered only 12,000 tons to June 1992.

The same urgent requirement to get food to people in need exists today in Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia. But this will not require a simple technical solution like food drops.

The key, from the point of view of an independent humanitarian organization, is to open up a space for humanitarian action through dialogue and negotiation, no matter what the political status of the interlocutor. This requires that the humanitarian actor be absolutely impartial and politically independent, and that aid is not simply given to the government or official authorities.

It means an active field presence that confronts the on-the-ground challenges and realities of meeting the need for humanitarian assistance and protection. In practical on-the-ground terms, this is being able to access and target the most vulnerable, being able to monitor the distribution of food and being able to ensure that aid operations will not fuel a war economy or encourage the deliberate starving of population to attract aid.

Although the humanitarian nature of some UN agencies is asserted, it remains difficult for them to enjoy the absolute political freedom required to be called "independent and impartial humanitarian organizations." This difficulty is aggravated when the UN is also engaged in measures such as sanctions or peacekeeping operations.

This is the case when the country is run by non-recognized authorities (as for example in Afghanistan today), when the state itself has collapsed (as with Somalia), when the UN refuses to recognize or deal with a given faction for various reasons or when the UN imposes sanctions on a given group.

This has been the case in numerous situations, such as Sierra Leone and Angola, where UN humanitarian agencies have not set up programs in areas controlled by a faction upon which the UN system was applying political pressure.

As well, UN security regulations often limits their ability to function effectively in such situations. For instance, from May 1997 to February 1998, following the coup by the military junta in Sierra Leone, three independent humanitarian organizations (MSF, ICRC and ACF) maintained an international expatriate presence in the field while UN agencies had left Sierra Leone. They were therefore unable to fulfill their humanitarian mandate meant to alleviate the human suffering which was in part caused by the embargo imposed by the Security Council on that territory. Today in Sierra Leone, if the PKO encounters difficulties, will the UN humanitarian agencies have to evacuate once again?

UN humanitarian agencies have been typically constrained by the apparent political implications of their actions. Yet, under international humanitarian law, negotiation with Non-State-Actors does not confer any legitimate political status to those actors. UN Agencies should be permitted to function on the ground in situations of humanitarian need as independent humanitarian actors which, by definition, is independent of political considerations. Here the Security Council, in our view, must recognize and then insist that the humanitarian must remain independent of the political.

When the Security Council is seized of a matter, the current trend at the UN is to take an integrated approach and incorporate humanitarian issues into a global security or political framework. This is aimed at addressing the causes of conflict and facilitating its settlement.

Humanitarian NGOs have been under increasing pressure to coordinate with the UN - which in practice means coordinating under it. While this might be politically efficient or expedient, it jeopardizes the necessary political independence of humanitarian action. We are not advocating a chaotic anarchy of independent humanitarian actors. However the notion of a cohesive international humanitarian community is not only illusory and elusive, it is counter-productive, given that it currently seeks to merge different actors, actions and interests. The unacceptable result is that humanitarian activities are subordinated to concerns other than humanitarian.

We welcome the Secretary General's efforts to address issues of protection of civilians in conflict situations and thank you for inviting us and for listening to our perspectives.