Reflections on Humanitarian Action

Principles, Ethics and Contradictions

1 April 2001

Humanitarian action has become a subject for serious debate in light of recent conflicts across the globe. The contributors to this volume provide a systematic overview of the issues involved from a wide range of viewpoints.

Humanitarian action has become a subject for serious debate in light of recent conflicts across the globe. The debacle in Somalia, the policy intervention in Bosnia, and domestic conflicts in the West over interventions in Kosovo have given rise to many complex questions surrounding humanitarian action. The contributors to this volume provide a systematic overview of the issues involved from a wide range of viewpoints.

This book examines the central problems of Humanitarian Action: the judicial question and the right to humanitarian assistance; the ethical framework of humanitarian action; the challenge of coordination of all the actors involved in humanitarian action; the recipients in the aid chain; the link between aid, development and emergency action; the role of the media; and concludes with a practical evaluation of Operation Lifeline Sudan.

Originally published in Spanish in 1998 with Icaria Press, Humanitarian Intervention is the result of a joint project between the Centre for Peace Research in Madrid, Doctors Without Borders-Spain and Duesto University in Bilbao. During the final stages of publication, the NATO intervention in Kosovo began marking the first war justified on 'humanitarian' grounds, which necessitated the quick insert of a forward articulating the significance of this 'intervention.' Reflections, was republished in April 2001 in association with the Transnational Institute (TNI), the Humanitarian Studies Unit and ECHO (European Commission Humanitarian Office).

TNI Fellows David Sogge (Amsterdam) and Mariano Aguirre (Spain) working within the Peace & Security Programme at TNI contributed to this collection. Sogge's piece, Subalterns on the Aid Chain de-links the aid chain with the intention of discovering whether the 'target group' actually benefits from the aid while examining the role and behavior of aid agencies throughout the process. On their way to towards people in distress, chains of aid can attract and affect many different interest groups and although some involvement is harmless, but too often, according to Sogge, it has actually helped spread, intensify and prolong the distress that the aid was intended to relieve.

Aguirre's, The Media and the Humanitarian Spectacle examines the way the media covers humanitarian crisis and (re)presents the specificities of these crisis. The reaction to an emergency, according to Aguirre, is established in the gap between its location and the emotional response of the everyday citizen who is lives far away. Local and international actors (states, multilateral organizations and NGOs) try to fill that gap with messages and it is here where the media plays an important role. Aguirre is also particularly interested how local and international humanitarian organizations interact with and communicate their messages to the media throughout these crises.

Other contributors are associated with several organizations including Medicin Sans Frontieres, the University of Duesto, Fundaction, and Centre de Investigation para la Pax.


    * Introduction by the Humanitarian Studies Unit

   1. Humanitarian Principles in International Politics in 1990's, by Adam Roberts
   2. The Right to Humanitarian Aid: Basis and Limitations, by Joana Abrisketa
   3. The Ethical Framework of Humanitarian Action, by Xabier Etxeberria
   4. The Complex Nature of Actors in Humanitarian Action and the Challenges of Coordination, by Francisco Rey
   5. Subalterns on the Aid Chain, by David Sogge
   6. Relief, Development and Humanitarian Intervention, by Joanne Raisin & Alexander Ramsbotham
   7. The Media & the Humanitarian Spectacle, by Mariano Aguirre
   8. Chronicle of Ajiep, Bahr el Ghazal, Sudan, 1998, by Médicins Sans Frontières

April 2001
Humanitarian Studies Unit (eds.)
ISBN/ISSN: 0 7453 1726 x

About the authors

David Sogge

Based in Amsterdam, David works as an independent researcher and writer. As an associate of the Norwegian think-tank NOREF, he currently focuses on public control over transnational flows affecting societies on the global periphery. Professional activities since 1970 provided a basis for books and articles on the politics of foreign aid, and on Africa, particularly Angola and South Africa. Evaluative research assignments have taken him to Vietnam, Eastern Europe and countries of the former Soviet Union. Trained at Harvard, David earned his graduate degrees from Princeton and the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague.

Follow David on twitter: @DavidSogge

Mariano Aguirre

Mariano Aguirre is managing director of the Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre (NOREF). A journalist and analyst on the Middle East, US foreign policy, international conflicts, peacebuilding and peacekeeping, he has written, co-authored and edited several books, among them: La ideología neoimperial: La crisis de EEUU con Irak (Icaria/TNI/CIP 2003), co-authored with Phyllis Bennis and "Humanitarian intervention & us hegemony: a reconceptualization" in Achin Vanaik (Ed.), Selling US Wars, Interlink publishing / Transnational Institute (2007). His most recent contribution is a chapter in Megacities. The Politics of Urban Exclusion and Violence in the Global South , eds, Kees Koonings and Dirk Kruijt, Zed Books, 2009.

He is a regular contributor to La Vanguardia, El País, Radio France International, OpenDemocracy, The Broker, Le Monde diplomatique, and other international media.

Aguirre holds an MPhil in Peace and Conflict Studies from Trinity College, Dublin, and was a programme officer for the Ford Foundation in New York. He is a fellow of the Transnational Institute, Amsterdam. He is professor in postgraduate studies at the Autonomous University of Lisbon, The Human Rights Institute at the Deusto University in Bilbao, and the Ortega y Gasset Institute in Madrid.

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