Hugo Slim sets me straight on the state of humanitarianism

October 11, 2017

     By Duncan Green     

I wrote a gloomy piece on the state of humanitarianism recently, and got put straight by some excellent comments from Ed Cairns, Paul Harvey and others. Here’s a particularly erudite rebuttal from humanitarian guru Hugo Slim, who (among other things) is Head of Policy at the International Committee of the Red Cross. (I’ve added a few links):

Welcome to our world, Duncan.

I’m glad you stuck it out at the recent London conference on protracted conflict. It is very useful to have your development perspective on the challenge of responding to the millions of people who are enduring the suffering and impoverishment of long wars.

A few points to get out of the way early.

First, the inter-governmental “Development Set” can be posh too – meeting in suits and eating canapés. So, I don’t think the “disorienting gulf” between gentility and misery is unique to humanitarian policy circles.

Secondly, development is also dominated by arcane “international machinery”: DAC for one; the many intermediate objectives, indicators and review mechanisms of the SDGs for another. So, in terms of inter-governmental superstructure, we have a lot in common.

Thirdly, a lot of humanitarian work is poverty work – conflict impoverishes people deeply and fast. Today’s “war poor” are usually left furthest behind.

But I want to focus on two very important points you raise: that the humanitarian system is very “top-down”, and that IHL is merely a “dead hand”. You are absolutely right on the first count and wrong on the second, but both are importantly related.

I wish humanitarian action was more a people’s movement than it is. Like you, I believe that activist social movements have done so much to transform the way poverty is framed and responded to by States and international development policy. The principle of “rising up” has always been critical to the anti-poverty movement.

Such upwards movement is always there in people’s response to armed conflict and chronic violence but not perhaps as obviously as in your mass demos. People act courageously on their own initiative, form associations and risk death to help each other. But you are right that their space and their oxygen is often taken from them. Sometimes by the violent force of parties to the conflict, sometimes by expeditionary international agencies.

This is why the current move to “localization” in humanitarian policy is so important to get right. Social movements inspired by humanitarian principles from the ground up are often profoundly creative and resilient. But old problems in development run deep in humanitarian action too: the risks of capture and suppression.

Localization will not be real if it is a power shift captured by elite civil society alone. And many conflicts have the suppression of social movements as one of their core objectives. This means that even when national and grassroots humanitarian action blossoms, it will still need complementary international action by organizations like the ICRC. Sometimes access is only granted to neutral, impartial and independent organizations who have the support of international law and interested States.

Now your point about “the dead hand of IHL”. You suggest that IHL deadens a more imaginative response to civilian suffering because it is out of date and top-down.

IHL is not out of date. Its rules are good. People imagine that it used to work much better in the “good old days” of international armed conflicts between States, and it now cannot keep up with modern times. Such golden age thinking bears no scrutiny. It has always been a real struggle to ensure respect for IHL in inter-state wars as well as non-international armed conflicts. No time was easier than today, and today is no more difficult than times past.

Ensuring people’s protection in armed conflicts is a continuous struggle with significant successes every day (wounded healed, hungry fed, people safe, families reunited, prisoners visited and water services repaired) and many striking televised failures in which people are forcibly displaced, summarily executed, raped and bombed in their homes.

So your development movement and my humanitarian IHL movement share the principle of struggle. But you are right to suggest that our struggle looks top-down. This is partly because of the dangers of capture and suppression I have already described. It is partly because there are so many guns and bombs around this struggle as to make it truly existential for many people wanting to organize.

It is also because IHL itself does not lend itself easily to a global movement akin to that around climate change, land rights, labour rights or gender equality. IHL is a set of complicated rules which require interpretation in practice. Successful bottom-up global humanitarian movements have not been in the name if IHL itself but for particular slices of IHL rules: the protection of hospitals; the abolition of land-mines, the prevention of sexual violence, the protection of children and education, and most recently a ban on nuclear weapons.

I hope this may change and that people will make IHL itself a global issue. I would be delighted if a global movement arose with banners demanding that the principles and rules of the Geneva Conventions – recognized universally by States – must be respected. We get close sometimes but still have nothing of the depth and scale of environmental concern, or your own movement to end poverty.

So, I hope your development set may join us. You know a lot of the moves already, and we certainly need support on responding to the deepening poverty created by armed conflicts.

Hugo Slim

October 11, 2017
Duncan Green