'The Politics of Humanity' by John Holmes

Tuesday, March 12, 2013 - 18:00


  • Sir John Holmes, Director of the Ditchley Foundation, former UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Co-ordinator
  • Dame Barbara Stocking, Chief Executive, Oxfam
  • Lord Malloch-Brown, former Minister of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Administrator of the UN Development Programme and UN Deputy Secretary-General
  • Rt Hon Hilary Benn MP, former Secretary of State for International Development, current Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

Chair: Peter Riddell, Director, Institute for Government

Sir John Holmes explained that the starting point for writing about his experience as the former UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator was putting oneself in the place of someone in the middle of disaster, someone for whom all familiar anchors – family, village, house and livelihood – have gone. That is the uncomfortable reality of his book.  

Humanitarian aid that is provided in these situations is guided by four basic principles of humanity, independence, impartiality and neutrality. It was Sir John Holmes’ job to practice these principles even in situations where governments did not find it easy to understand or abide by them. He was also responsible for ensuring that humanitarian activity was well coordinated, effective and available where needed in the midst of a well-intentioned but fragmented system of UN agencies, Red Cross organisations and NGOs with overlapping mandates and different ideas.

Sir John Holmes identified three examples of particular disasters and conflicts which illustrate the problems and dilemmas of humanitarian assistance in contemporary practice – in particular where the humanitarian imperative ran up against political realities.

The first example was Darfur, in which humanitarian efforts continued on the ground despite the politically-motivated expulsion of 13 NGOs. The situation in Darfur exposed difficult questions about when humanitarian organisations should draw ‘lines in the sand’ and whether humanitarian efforts can contribute to prolonged conflict by protecting warring parties from facing the human consequences of their actions.

The second example was the North East of Sri Lanka in 2009, when the government forces defeated the Tamil Tiger rebels. This conflict – in which many thousands of civilians were killed during government airstrikes – raised further questions about whether the humanitarian community is capable of setting firm conditions about its presence in the face of state-sponsored brutality.

The third example was when Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar in 2008. Despite the devastating human consequences, the military regime in Myanmar initially refused aid due to fear of an international presence in the country. The eventual entry of NGOs to provide emergency aid raised more positive questions about whether the presence of NGOs in a humanitarian capacity can contribute to longer-term political change.

Sir John Holmes finished with five conclusions:

  1. Donor governments must understand and respect the four principles of humanitarian aid, and humanitarian organisations must do their best to explain them.
  2. Talking to governments and non-state actors is almost always better than shouting at them. 
  3. Armed interventions must be approached with enormous care and must always be a last resort.
  4. Preventing natural disasters should be given higher priority than it is now.
  5. The need for humanitarian resources will continue into the future – particularly in the face of natural disaster and the effects of climate change – and remains a cause worthy of support.

Rt Hon Hilary Benn MP reflected on his time as Secretary of State for International Development and highlighted the many dilemmas and questions that humanitarians face. These include the difficulties of remaining impartial in highly political crisis situations; whether great crisis and disaster can lead to positive political change; and the ethics of who to engage with on the ground in a time of crisis. He then discussed some innovations that have improved humanitarian activity. For instance, the Common Emergency Response Fund which created financial resources that the UN and others could rely on in crisis situations where time is of the essence, rather than having to rely on ‘flash appeals.’ But there remain challenges in reaching those in need, for instance capacity on the ground in instances of disaster is often limited. These capacity shortages could be alleviated by operating ‘call-down’ commitments with national governments – e.g. having governments pledge the loan of helicopters or other equipment in times of urgent need.

Dame Barbara Stocking reflected on the role of NGOs in disaster situations and in particular whether the partnership between the UN and NGOs could work better. In some senses NGOs have more freedom to speak freely than the UN, although NGOs must still take into account the safety of their staff on the ground. Dame Barbara then went onto discuss the interlinked nature of politics and humanitarianism. Even natural disasters are often political situations in which poor people suffer more than others for reasons of power and poverty that have only political solutions. A longer-term understanding of humanitarian crisis is needed. Real progress and solutions sometimes can take up to twenty years to emerge and require the long-term engagement of international actors. Though, the need to engage local people as well as international actors should not be forgotten either. Examples such as Rwanda and Northern Ireland both demonstrate how important communication with and between local people is to achieving long-term change.

Looking to the future, Dame Barbara described the new scale of crisis brought about by climate change disasters. These disasters require states to further develop their own capacity to manage weather events such as floods and droughts. Finally, the humanitarian sector must consider how to accommodate and manage the increasing number of bodies, organisations and volunteers working in the humanitarian field, all of whom have differing skills and levels of experience.

Lord Malloch-Brown started by examining improvements in the humanitarian field. Innovations such as the Common Emergency Response Fund have made it easier to provide assistance in a time of crisis. Skills and expertise have also increased; for instance, the quality of nutritional work in refugee camps has greatly improved. The world is a less violent place. But set against this is the increase in the number of natural disasters caused by climate change. More of these disasters will take place in cities, but humanitarian expertise relates mainly to rural areas. As Haiti showed, the challenge and skills needed are very different in urban settings. Lord Malloch-Brown went onto examine the changing circumstances in which humanitarians operate. He argued that in the 1970s there were clear rules about humanitarianism. Combatants would not target humanitarian workers. Humanitarian organisations could talk to all sides of a conflict to negotiate the safety of local people. This has changed. Using the example the US government’s threat to withdraw the visa rights of humanitarian staff who interacted with Hamas, Lord Malloch-Brown outlined how humanitarians have been drawn into political responses to disasters. He concluded by saying that whilst the techniques of humanitarianism have improved, the neutral space, the independence that was such a crucial part of a humanitarian response to disaster has been lost.

Questions focused on the roots of the politicisation of the humanitarian sector; the changing nature of international conflict; whether peacekeeping should be separate from humanitarianism; partnership with the private sector and engagement with diaspora communities.