Hugo Slim, a former aid worker and leading humanitarian academic, said in this interview that he believes humanitarian agencies can disregard state consent in pursuit of accessing populations in need of assistance, as in the case of Syria. “It seems ethically acceptable to me at that point; if a government is not accepting more humanitarian agencies, for humanitarian agencies to go cross-border in such a situation,” he said.
Mr Slim said that, in terms of international law, it is clear "that we live in a world of law which recognizes the rights of individuals and not just the rights of states. Therefore, these people who are not being reached by the cross-line operations have a place in international relations; they need to be reached. The law is not to just cover states—the law is for the peoples in those states."
On the question of impartiality, one of the three principles of humanitarian action, Mr. Slim said, “I’ve never worked in a situation where I felt, ‘Oh great, everything is fine, we are being completely impartial.’ It doesn’t exist, because humanitarian action is always a struggle for access, a struggle for those values in wars which are competing over other values. So, you never get complete impartiality, but you have to aim at it, and you have to say it’s what you want and what you think is right.”
Mr. Slim said he believes the value that humans place on all human life is sometimes overridden because, “it’s not the only thing we feel as human beings, because sometimes we absolutely hate each other, sometimes we feel deeply frightened of one another, sometimes we feel deeply threatened.”
“And sometimes—very often in war this happens, but I have no doubt that the essential feeling of the value of the human life, of the sadness of the human death is universal, and that’s why it is a global agenda.”
The interview was conducted by Jérémie Labbé, Senior Policy Analyst, International Peace Institute.
Listen to interview (or download mp3):
Jérémie Labbé: I am here today with Dr. Hugo Slim, former aid worker and leading humanitarian academic, who published numerous articles and books on the practice, politics, and ethics of humanitarian aid and on protection of civilians. Hugo, thanks for joining us today on the Global Observatory.
First: what is your take on the debate between cross-border and cross-line humanitarian assistance in Syria that created much discussion lately within humanitarian circle? To give some background to our listeners, this debate is about how best to deliver aid to populations in rebel-controlled areas. Some aid agencies recently denounced the imbalances of humanitarian assistance that would go mainly to government areas and call for stepping up humanitarian operations across borders in opposition controlled areas, despite objections from the Syrian government. Can humanitarian actors afford to disregard the requirement of state consent which is central to the existing normative humanitarian framework?
Hugo Slim: I think they can. I don’t have a problem with cross-border humanitarian action, and I don’t think humanitarian agencies traditionally have a problem with cross-border humanitarian action.
But you have to do it for good reason, and it has to be ethically, and in a way, legally legitimate. In this case, my understanding is that for several months—now years—a wide variety of humanitarian agencies have offered aid to the Syrian government to work with the Syrian government on that side had been refused. At the same time, it’s quite clear that the passage of humanitarian aid to all parts of Syria has been deeply problematic, as it often is in war. And therefore, there are large parts that are uncovered still and unreached on a regular basis, while the war is still very hot. So, it seems ethically acceptable to me at that point; if a government is not accepting more humanitarian agencies, for humanitarian agencies to go cross-border in such a situation.
JL: You say it is ethically possible, or maybe even ethically compulsory, for some of these aid agencies to go cross-border. But can they legally do that, given the existing legal framework for humanitarian action?
HS: Well, my view is that international humanitarian law makes it clear that aid is acceptable from a humanitarian, and neutral, impartial humanitarian organization. So, all agencies have an obligation under law to be neutral, and impartial, and humanitarian that they must do if they are working anywhere, but especially if they are working cross-border. In terms of international law, for me as well, it's also quite now that we live in a world of law which recognizes the rights of individuals and not just the rights of states. Therefore, these people who are not being reached by the cross-line operations have a place in international relations; they need to be reached, the law is not to just cover states, the law is for the peoples in those states.
JL: Promoters of cross-line humanitarian action in Syria, or humanitarian organizations that are operating from Damascus—like say the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)—argued that it is very fine to go cross-line. But if it is without the consent of the Syrian government, they might just face even more obstacles to deliver aid in the country and probably still in the majority of the country that is controlled by the Syrian government. And so they argued that they would then lose access to a substantial part of the population that is also potentially in need. What do you reply to that?
HS: I would trust whatever the ICRC says. I think that if they say that they are potentially facing limited access and compromise of some kind because of other agencies going cross-border, that must be a genuine problem. But I think a judgment has to be made; so again, I think we need to trust the judgment of the agencies who are working cross-border—they do so in such a way is discreet, is generally neutral, and impartial—but it is not about building up unfair military or political advantage for one side or the other. And I think judgments have to be made.
JL: Let’s move out of Syria and maybe to a more general description of humanitarian aid. The humanitarian system is growing ever more ambitious, and it seems to be inclined to become some sort of global welfare system that would be, to quote an article that you wrote in 2007 as “fair and effective as the combined ambulance, police, and fire services of a modern state.” This goes towards the transformative agenda that seeks to address the roots causes of crisis, and firmly step in the political realm in order to make these changes possible. Is this compatible with the supposedly apolitical tenets of humanitarian actions based on the principles of impartiality, neutrality, and independence?
HS: I think one of the great things—in my lifetime as a humanitarian worker and academic—is there is no doubt the reach, and coverage, and scale of the humanitarian agencies in the humanitarian system has grown extraordinarily.
And there is now a high chance—wherever you are in the world—there is a high chance that if you face natural disaster or a conflict, you will come into contact in some form with humanitarian agencies. So that is great progress, although, obviously it’s not guaranteed, as we’ve been discussing in Syria. And it’s not surprising in that way; the system should begin to formalize and become built around the institutions. But I think the most important thing is that we find ways to enable local humanitarian capacities so that local agencies, local community groups, local Red Cross organizations, local churches, local Islamic networks, are able to be the first responders in some way.
I don’t think that is a threat to the humanitarian vision or project, I don’t think it’s a threat when governments are meeting their obligations, and organizing health, food delivery, and protection.
On one level, humanitarian action is very basic politics; it’s about keeping people alive, and keeping them alive in dignity. So I don’t worry that because humanitarian action is getting bigger that it will automatically become political, as you say. I think it needs to remain impartial, working on needs alone and working very clearly around lives, dignity, and protection of people.
JL: To be more concrete on the same discussion, you mentioned the need to be impartial, is it possible from your point of view to be impartial, and neutral, and independent that are often considered as operational tools to make this impartial delivery of aid possible. Is it possible to be impartial in context of broader UN integrated missions that have obvious political objectives, and where humanitarian actors are considered by some to be subsumed to those broader political objectives?
HS: I think this is a real issue. I think it has always been an issue for humanitarian action when it works with armed conflict. Always the resources of aid, the legitimacy that aid brings, there is always an attempt by one or both sides in a conflict or all sides to manipulate that.
I don’t think it’s a new problem; it’s a persistent problem for humanitarian aid. What’s new, particularly in recent years, is that the main donors of humanitarian aid worldwide through the UN and Red Cross and large Western NGOs are now themselves at war, so they are belligerent donors. And this does bring particular problems, and it has brought particular problems.
JL: Humanitarian principles are claimed to be universal by the promoters, yet they are often perceived as an excuse for interference by affected countries. And as you mentioned, the main donors of humanitarian aid happen to be mostly Western countries. Do you think humanitarian principles are genuinely universal, that they are shared widely across cultures, and are their values shared by most cultures?
HS: Yes, I have no doubt in my mind that the values of compassion, the values placed on human life, the idea that every person is precious and unique in some way. I have no doubt that that is a universal idea and conviction, and actually a universal feeling that we all feel. But it’s not the only thing we feel as human beings, because sometimes we absolutely hate each other, sometimes we feel deeply frightened of one another, sometimes we feel deeply threatened. So, our humanitarian instincts and our humanitarian intuition can and often is overrideen. And sometimes—very often in war this happens, but I have no doubt that the essential feeling of the value of the human life, of the sadness of the human death is universal, and that’s why it is a global agenda.
JL: But what about this notion of impartiality, which for a layman deserves to be a bit explained, the idea that humanitarian aid should be directed where the needs are, and without any discrimination, considering each human life as equal, and that priority should be given only according to the needs of the population?
Do you think that this principle, for instance, is truly universal; I’m thinking about Islamic charities that are playing an increasing role—we can see that in Somalia, for instance—but that are also it seems motivated to bring help, assistance, protection to their fellow Muslims, which is legitimate as it is. But is it compatible with this idea of impartiality, in your view?
HS: I think being impartial in humanitarian work and war is always very difficult. I’ve never worked in a situation where I felt, “Oh great, everything is fine, we are being completely impartial.” It doesn’t exist. Because humanitarian action is always a struggle for access, a struggle for those values in wars which are competing over other values. So you never get complete impartiality, but you have to aim at it, and you have to say it’s what you want and what you think is right.
In terms of religious agencies: you know, it’s also a fact that I think the majority of people in serious need of humanitarian action and aid tend to be Muslim populations. So, I mean I think it’s perfectly legitimate and important that Muslim aid agencies and humanitarian organizations reach out very clearly to their own constituencies. I don’t know that religion is by nature partial actually, so that any Christian organizations have reached out widely beyond Christian communities; Jewish organizations have reached out widely beyond Jewish communities; Muslim organization… I think we have British organizations like Islamic Relief in many places. And anyway, I don’t think that there is anything wrong if you are meeting the needs of a community who have needs. I think it would be wrong if you are selecting people on the basis of religion, because that would be a violation of impartiality.
JL: Last, but certainly not least: the UN Secretary-General is intending to bring together a World Humanitarian Summit that should take place in 2015. What are, in your views, the 3 or 4 main issues that should be discussed during this World Humanitarian Summit, what are the burning issues that needs to be addressed by then?
HS: First of all, I welcome the humanitarian summit. I think it’s a really important idea, I think the humanitarian world—as you said in the beginning, and as you had written, Jérémie—has developed fast in the last 20 years. I think it’s a good opportunity to think about where we wanted to go in the future. So, I think that 2 or 3 important things are: the first one is consensus; we can reach through this process a new international consensus about what is the moral and legal goal of humanitarian action so that it is recognized as a part of international society, international politics; that would be extremely important, if we can find some new consensus that might come through a declaration document, and through a process or discussion.
I think the second thing as a part of that: I do think we need to distinguish between humanitarian action in wars and humanitarian action in natural disasters, and areas of chronic need, and chronic vulnerability, like Sahel, chronic food insecurity. We need the distinction between these two things, because frankly, the ability and the desire one might have to work with government, build up local structures around natural disaster or chronic vulnerability, is very different to the way humanitarian ideals might want to work with governments and nonstate actors in a conflict. So I would like us to see some clear ethical and legal distinction between different context, ones of armed conflict and ones of vulnerability and disaster.
The third thing that I am worried about, and I think it brings great opportunity and great threat, is cyber war, if you like. There’s a lot of attention on drones and robotic weapons; they are very sexy to talk about, they are being used and explored as smart weapons, and they are important. But for me, the bigger strategic threat to civilians suffering is cyber warfare and the ability of networks to be shut down, banking systems to be closed overnight, as we’ve seen in Cyprus. Near to a crisis a country can be brought if its banks close, if money has to be air lifted in, and if cash points are only delivering 200 Euros at a time; it becomes very fragile. That kind of thing is becoming very alarming to me.
So, cyber threats are a possible area of massive civilian impact, but on the bright side, there’s also huge potential for us to get much more smart and technologically savvy in the way we support people in crisis. And that we’ve learned a lot from humanitarian aid through cash deliveries and this sort of thing. So, I hope that the 2-year process of the summit will also get us thinking about innovation and new ideas as well.
JL: Hugo, thank you very much for being with us today.