International Affairs, Peace & Human Security
"Beyond 11 September: Assessing Global Implications"
28 November - 1 December 2001
Annex VII

Humanitarian Questions

Military actions in Afghanistan raise many questions for the provision of humanitarian assistance to a population in need: can assistance be delivered in time to prevent a large-scale humanitarian catastrophe? what will be the relationship between military and civilian humanitarian work in the months ahead? what will be the long-term implications for the international system of humanitarian response? what does this crisis mean for responsibility-sharing? for emergencies in other parts of the world? for the future of the international system of refugee protection? Just as crises in Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Iraq and Kosovo changed the way in which the international community responds to emergencies, decisions made now about humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan will have long-term consequences.

Serious Humanitarian Needs

The humanitarian needs in Afghanistan are urgent. Before 11 September, Afghanistan was suffering a grave food shortage as a result of drought and continued civil conflict. Over one million Afghans were internally displaced; another 3.5 million lived in exile, mostly in neighboring countries. By late October, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) estimated that some 7.5 million Afghans were in desperate need of food aid. According to an FAO/WFP assessment mission, a decade-long destructive war with the Soviet Union followed by 13 years of civil strife devastated the country's infrastructure. Irrigation systems are in ruins. The presence of millions of land mines have meant that thousands of hectares of prime agricultural land have been taken out of production. Destruction of roads, bridges and other communications facilities have cut communities off from the rest of the country. Fruit trees and forests, once a major source of foreign exchange, have virtually disappeared. Livestock production has been severely reduced. Wheat production has fallen by half. The current military operations against Afghanistan coincide with the planting season for wheat, which accounts for 80 percent of the country's total cereal production1.

WFP estimates that 52,000 tons of wheat must be distributed in Afghanistan each month for the next six months to stave off mass starvation. While sufficient food stocks and relief items seem to be available in the region, the logistical difficulties of transporting assistance into Afghanistan are formidable given treacherous roads and the approaching winter. But the biggest obstacles are uncertainties about the political future of the country and the continuing military operations. The relationship between military and civilian humanitarian operations is once again a major issue.

Mixing humanitarian and military operations

From the very beginning, the US-led coalition's military operations in Afghanistan were accompanied by humanitarian assistance. Bombs and food parcels were dropped by planes from the same country in the same area2. While the food parcels were never intended to meet all the humanitarian needs of the estimated 7 million Afghans in need of food assistance, they were intended to reassure the Afghan people that the US was not at war against the Afghan people. Unlike Kosovo, military actions in Afghanistan were not justified on the basis of preventing widescale human rights violations or (unlike Somalia) on humanitarian grounds.

Military operations have military objectives. When military forces engage in humanitarian assistance, it is generally in support of those military objectives. In contrast, humanitarian organizations - whether UN, Red Cross/Red Crescent, NGOs or churches - approach humanitarian assistance from a different starting point: providing assistance to people in need. When humanitarian organizations accept military escorts or work side by side with the military to deliver relief assistance in refugee camps, that neutrality is questioned and their scope of operations may be reduced. In Kosovo, for example, relief organizations working with NATO in the distribution of assistance were often not seen as neutral, but rather as allied with military forces.

It is still unclear what shape humanitarian operations will take. Will coalition military forces provide protection and military escorts for humanitarian agency workers? Will they construct camps for displaced Afghans? Will they actually run the camps? Will they play a coordinating role in humanitarian assistance (as they did in Kosovo) or will their role be one of supporting UN coordinating efforts? How will UN agencies and NGOs relate to the military forces? Will donor governments insist that NGOs and churches from their countries cooperate with military forces? While the outlines of civilian-military cooperation in Kosovo are still uncertain, it seems clear that NGOs and churches will once again be confronted with the question of how much to cooperate with the military.

In some recent emergency operations, humanitarian agencies and NGOs had little choice but to cooperate with the military - if they wanted to provide humanitarian assistance. Many NGOs welcomed such cooperation and particularly the logistical support for their activities. But the consequences of such cooperation are far-reaching. For most humanitarian organizations, neutrality and impartiality are central to their work, enabling them to work with victims on both sides of a conflict. When they accept military escorts or work side by side with the military to deliver relief assistance, that neutrality is brought into question and their scope of operations may be reduced. Camps for refugees or displaced people which are run by military forces have the risk of being perceived as associated with those forces and thus as military targets for the opposition.

Over the past decade, Western military forces have dramatically expanded their capacity to carry out humanitarian operations. Specialized military units have been created, large-scale military humanitarian exercises have been carried out, and countless policy papers produced on new humanitarian roles for the military. Many discussions have been held between humanitarian agencies, NGOs and military officials to strengthen collaboration in future emergency situations. Some humanitarian agencies, NGOs and churches accept this military role as a fait accomplit while others continue to challenge the military's involvement in provision of humanitarian assistance on both moral and operational grounds.

What impact will operations in Afghanistan have on future cooperation between the military and humanitarian organizations? Will future military operations always have a humanitarian component? What does this mean for the identity and independence of humanitarian organizations?

Access and Security

Access to affected populations continues to be limited because of the military operations. Presently the main impediment to delivery of relief goods is the difficulty in finding lorry drivers willing to risk the long trip into Afghanistan given the already-treacherous roads, continued air strikes, and fighting. A major breakdown of law and order inside Afghanistan could severely hinder relief efforts. Lawlessness and banditry, evident in other complex emergencies, is a daunting obstacle to the provision of relief assistance. In desperately poor countries, relief supplies are a valued commodity; when there is little to prevent those with weapons from seizing and using the relief supplies for their own ends, delivery of humanitarian assistance to the most vulnerable is extraordinarily difficult.

Security of humanitarian staff is a major issue on many levels. Most UN agencies, NGOs and churches depend on local Afghan staff to deliver the goods and to manage local operations. Given the recent history of Afghanistan, local staff are experienced, well-connected and have the necessary skills to operate efficient distribution mechanisms. However, there is concern that in the present highly-politicized environment within Afghanistan, local staff of western organizations are at heightened risk. In all of the discussions about humanitarian staff security in numerous high-level UN working groups, the question of the responsibility of international agencies for local staff has been a sticking point. Most international agencies and NGOs operating in war zones have contingency plans for evacuating their international staff when the situation becomes very dangerous. But few of these organizations are able to evacuate local staff when the situation becomes dangerous. If the political/military situation suddenly deteriorates, will international agency staff once again be evacuated? Will their local staff be at increased risk because of their association with international agencies? Are contingency plans adequate to protect local staff?

The question of using armed guards for delivery of relief supplies has been a major problem for humanitarian agencies and NGOs since Somalia (1991). In Afghanistan, this will most likely have two dimensions: questions about relying on coalition military forces and problems of dealing with local/national security forces - particularly in periods where it is not clear which armed group has responsibility in the country or region. What are the consequences in Afghanistan and for future relief operations elsewhere of relying on coalition military escorts? Should international NGOs working through local Afghan organizations be concerned about the security measures used by the local organizations? What kind of arrangements will be necessary for working with local military leaders - whether part of a national police/military force or independent armed groups?

Many church-related organizations have a long history of working in Afghanistan (Church World Service, for example, has been working in Afghanistan since 1954) and have established solid relationships with local authorities. Those relationships, however, may be called into question by the present situation. While NGOs insist that the case of Shelter Now was a unique one, nonetheless there are particular concerns about the security of Christian organizations working in the country. Are Christian NGOs at any greater risk than secular NGOs in Afghanistan? Will there presence increase or hinder the possibility for greater inter-faith understanding?

In the longer term, what will be the impact of (once again) hundreds of Western NGOs flocking to provide emergency assistance in a Muslim country as they have done before in Somalia, Northern Iraq and Kosovo?

Landmines revisited

Afghanistan is littered with landmines from previous conflicts and new landmines have probably been laid in the past two months. In addition, we know that unexploded cluster bombs and possibly other unexploded ordinance have been dropped. Who will clear the landmines and unexploded ordinance? Will the international community make the necessary funds available to carry out this task?

Closed borders

All six of the countries bordering Afghanistan have officially closed their borders to Afghan refugees. On 10 September about 2.5 million Afghan refugees were in Pakistan with an additional 1 million in Iran. Pakistan and Iran have hosted refugees since the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; from a high of 5.5 million in the mid-1990s, the number has fallen, largely as a result of the efforts of host governments to encourage refugee returns. In spite of international promises, Pakistan and Iran have had to shoulder much of the burden of assisting the refugees. In the mid-1990s in an effort to force the refugees to return, food assistance was suspended in the camps in Pakistan, except for vulnerable groups. While this action led many refugees to return to Afghanistan, it also led many Afghans to decide to seek refuge in other countries. While most of the refugees in Iran do not live in camps, public hostility towards the refugees has increased in recent years and they too have felt pressure to return to Afghanistan. Presently some 40 countries have received asylum-seekers from Afghanistan, most coming through Pakistan or Iran.

In spite of intense international pressure, neighboring governments have kept their borders closed, although some 135,000 Afghans entered Pakistan without official recognition. Many of these refugees are reluctant to access assistance for fear of being apprehended and deported by the authorities. Camps have been set up inside Afghanistan near the Iranian border for those would-be refugees who are not permitted to enter Iran. But this "solution" of internal camps raises fundamental questions of sovereignty and international law. What right do humanitarian agencies have to assist people without the fundamental acquiescence of the host government? What happens if the government changes and permission for the camps to exist is withdrawn? What is to prevent one political force or another from forcibly recruiting soldiers in the camps or in preventing people from reaching the camp or in levying a tax on those seeking to enter the camps? Who is responsible for protecting the refugees? The government from which the refugees are fleeing? International agencies undertaking cross-border operations?

With the changing political regime in Afghanistan, pressures will undoubtedly increase for the refugees in Pakistan and Iran to return home. Will these returns be voluntary? Will the returnees be assisted to re-build their lives? Will they be able to contribute to the construction of a new political reality? Or will they be a de-stabilizing force? Is the international community prepared to make the necessary long-term commitment to reconstruction and rehabilitation necessary for successful refugee repatriation?

Will other emergencies be forgotten?

One of the implications of the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan - like previous crises in Kosovo, Rwanda, and Somalia which were highly visible in the media - is that other on-going emergencies drop even further away from the world's attention. While food parcels are dropped over parts of Afghanistan, the war in Angola has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and dragged on for 30 years. Oxfam estimates that 3,000 people a day died as a result of conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. While Western governments have pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to support humanitarian work in Afghanistan and its neighbors, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is closing 11 offices in Africa this year largely because of lack of funding. Before 11 September, Afghanistan too was a forgotten emergency, with UN programmes there funded at about 40% of their targets and the ACT appeal for victims of the Afghan drought funded at only 18%.

Have emergencies in other regions witnessed a decrease in funding and in international attention as a result of the Afghan situation? Will Afghanistan too return to the list of "forgotten emergencies" in a year or two? What role can the UN, governments, NGOs, churches and especially the media play in redressing these imbalances?

Border control

Governmental efforts to prevent the entry of terrorists into their territories will have consequences for refugees, migrants and asylum-seekers. Expressions of xenophobia and racism directed against people of Middle Eastern and South Asian origin have already been manifest in many Western countries. In some cases, profiling of would-be terrorists is becoming part of immigration policy, as in the recent decision of the United States to add increased security checks for visa applicants aged 18 to 45 from certain Middle Eastern and Asian countries. Increased border surveillance, more rigorous security checks, enhanced cooperation between governments to control entry, and development of a common European definition of terrorism are all examples of measures intended to keep terrorists out - but which will also make it even more difficult for asylum-seekers to reach safety. Given the extensive interviews and background checks and the long delays in asylum processing, it seems unlikely that would-be terrorists would use the asylum route when other avenues for migration are so much easier.

Even before 11 September, the international system of refugee protection had been weakened by more stringent border controls and implementation of policies designed to deter would-be asylum-seekers from arriving3. These trends seem likely to intensify in light of governmental security concerns. How can governments' legitimate needs to control the entry of those seeking to do harm be reconciled with the right of individuals to seek and enjoy asylum in other countries?

The US Refugee Resettlement programme has been suspended, pending a security review. The suspension affected 20,000 refugees who had already been approved for travel to the USA. Continued suspension will, of course, affect many more. While refugee resettlement meets the needs of only a small percentage of the world's refugees, it has been important as a concrete expression of responsibility-sharing. If resettlement is scaled back or becomes even more onerous as a result of enhanced security precautions, what message does this send to governments of countries hosting far larger numbers of refugees for longer periods of time?

Questions and more questions

Questions of humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan are inextricably linked to the need for peace and for a long-term political solution in the country. Obviously, it is always easier to deliver assistance when conditions are stable and basic security is assured. Less obvious is the fact that the way in which humanitarian assistance is provided can shape political developments. If aid is politicized - disproportionately delivered to particular ethnic groups or regions, for example - it may serve to exacerbate conflicts. The presence of a large humanitarian community, with their vehicles, sophisticated equipment, and money can cause distortions in the local economy and society. An interpreter for an NGO, for example, may be paid more than a senior government official or a medical doctor in a public hospital. The balance between local and international NGOs may create resentment. While international NGOs are generally better-resourced, local NGOs will remain in their communities for the long haul. Many of the church-related agencies associated with WCC and ACT usually work through local churches or ecumenical organizations in both emergency and long-term development. This characteristic sets them apart from other international NGOs. But in the case of Afghanistan, the operations of these church-related agencies will of necessity, lose this distinctive nature. Like other international NGOs, church-related organizations will either have to be operational or work through existing (or perhaps newly-created) Afghan NGOs. This has also been the case in other countries where there are no church-related partners. But this too has long-term consequences for the NGOs involved. Is there any difference between church-related agencies and secular NGOs in emergency situations where there are no existing ecumenical or church-based local partners? Are all international NGOs motivated by the need to be visible in such emergencies in order to attract more funds? What would be the consequences for church-related agencies of deciding not to get involved in an emergency situation where they offer no distinct ways of working?

Humanitarian issues are generally seen as less 'political' than questions of security, military operations, and human rights. Delivering food, digging wells, and providing medical care are usually considered to be non-political acts. Yet the humanitarian emergencies of the past decade have raised awareness of the fundamentally political reasons for and consequences of international humanitarian assistance. While we cannot predict the lasting consequences of the international community's response to the humanitarian needs in Afghanistan, we can at least raise some of the questions.

Elizabeth Ferris
International Affairs, Peace & Human Security
World Council of Churches

  1. For the complete report, see   back
  2. Amazingly, the food parcels were the same bright yellow color as unexploded cluster bombs. After this was publicized, the US military agreed to change the wrapping of the food parcels.   back
  3. The example of Australia is illustrative of these trends. Within the past three months, the Australian government has turned back boatloads of would-be asylum-seekers, re-defined its national territory to exclude certain portions from its 'migration zone,' affirmed its mandatory policies of unlimited detention, intensified its reliance on regional processing centers in other countries and established that asylum-seekers who are found to be refugees upon arrival on Australia's territory will only receive temporary visas.   back

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© copyright 2000 World Council of Churches. Remarks to: webeditor