When humanitarian groups go bad

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and other aid organizations came under fire Monday as Professor Michael Barnett delivered a lecture entitled When Humanitarian Organizations Go Bad as part of Concordia’s ongoing Peace and Conflict Resolution series.

“There are a disturbing number of incidents that suggest that humanitarians can be, if you will, un-humanitarian,” said Barnett. “There are reports where humanitarian organizations turn their back on basic human rights norms, violate humanitarian principles and leave vulnerable the very populations for whom they have responsibility.”

While acknowledging the difficulties and dangers inherent in aid work, Barnett, a political scientist and director of the International Relations Program at the University of Wisconsin, criticized what he called the “underside of humanitarianism.”

As examples, he cited a number of cases where the United Nations (UN) and other aid agencies were either complicit or actively involved in human rights abuses, including genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda, and the forced repatriation of Rohingyan refugees to Burma.

“The UN, the repository of the Genocide Convention, believed because of the institutional ideology of impartiality it was permissible and acceptable to do nothing in the face of genocide,” said Barnett institutional bureaucracy of aid agencies and their constantly evolving and expanding role in conflict intervention and resolution. The sheer number of aid organizations has exploded since the 1980’s and especially since the end of the Cold War. Barnett attributed much of this shift to the fact that it’s easier for governments to fund aid agencies than it is for them to actually address the root problems of a given conflict.

He divided aid organizations and the people who staff them into two camps; the fundamentalists, who believe there can be no compromise on the legal rights of refugees, and the pragmatists, who believe it is sometimes necessary to compromise when dealing with states and the political realities of the world.

“Humanitarian organizations can develop an organizational culture that leads them to act in ways that violate their humanitarian principles,” said Barnett, taking particular aim at what he called the refugee “repatriation” culture of the UNHCR.

“The UNHCR does incredible work under really horrendous conditions,” Barnett said before lambasting its role in the forced repatriation of Rohingyan refugees to Burma in the mid-1990s.

One possible solution suggested by Barnett and others would be for humanitarian organizations to clearly define their role on the international stage, and/or to scale back their efforts to providing the basics of survival to those in need.

“We need to think not only about how humanitarian organizations change the world, but also how the world can change humanitarian organizations,” Barnett concluded.

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