A brief review of overall trends in humanitarian action following the end of the Cold War is followed by examination of UNHCR's evolution from a narrowly focused, non-operational organization to one with a wide field presence and whose concerns are not limited to refugees. Three changes are highlighted: the increase in the range of UNHCR's interlocutors; the shift from never questioning causes to an explicit concern with them; and the impact of the field presence. The conclusion suggests that humanitarian action that is not accompanied by political action to address causes may eventually face insurmountable problems, and that while UNHCR will continue operate in unstable environments and for mixed caseloads, its unique responsibility for refugees must override wider interests and concerns.

1. Introduction

Before venturing some thoughts on the evolution of humanitarian action, a brief examination of the current use of the adjective “humanitarian” may be helpful. At the narrow end of a wide range lies the Red Cross definition – alleviation of human suffering in a way that meets specific principles – and the description of the laws of war (a particular source of confusion). At the broad end lies the characterization as “humanitarian” of diverse measures or actions whose intent is seen or claimed to be just or good. As recent examples, military action, the task of preventing war, verifying disarmament, and assistance to post-war recovery have been so described. Some usages can create difficulties for humanitarian organizations, whose principles require them to be – and whose security may depend on their being perceived as – clearly distinct from political and particularly military actors.

Whatever the understanding of “humanitarian”, the central problem remains how to prevent or stop human suffering in the first place. The evolution of the action of humanitarian organizations has in part been driven by an increasing focus on underlying problems and the conviction that something must and, particularly post-Cold War, could be done to address them.

After a short review of overall trends in recent decades, I shall identify a few of the many factors that I believe have influenced the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and draw a conclusion for the future.

2. Overall trends

During the Cold War, most humanitarian organizations saw a need to separate humanitarian action within the traditional framework of neutrality and impartiality from action that sought to right wrongs, help remove the causes of suffering and promote just solutions. Maintaining this distinction was a condition for much traditional humanitarian action, even if the action was not always as neutral as was assumed. Humanitarian organizations generally operated on the West's side of Cold War fault lines, and were usually dealing with a host government that had some incentive to respect the requirements for their activities. With the exception of the International Committee of the Red Cross, international humanitarian organizations rarely worked in conflict areas.

As the Cold War ended, and particularly as intra-state conflict increased, humanitarian organizations became more engaged in conflict areas and with those who exercised control there, whether legitimate state authorities or not. The profile of humanitarian action and the organizations engaged in it increased significantly. Some began to highlight the abuses and injustices that were making their interventions necessary, and often more difficult, and to campaign for remedial action. At the same time, more asylum-seekers from such conflicts were approaching western states directly.

In recent years some humanitarian organizations have narrowed their focus to just the alleviation of suffering. The case for doing so is made eloquently and at length in David Rieff's 2002 book A Bed for the Night , whose sub-title is Humanitarianism in Crisis . 1 Other humanitarian organizations have extended their concerns, arguing for example that they are better placed to discharge some of the responsibilities of an occupying power, as in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some have advocated military action as the only way to halt large-scale abuses. For their part, states have tried to co-opt humanitarian action to political ends. While this is not new, the polarizing nature of aspects of the response to international terrorism has further threatened independence and neutrality. Within the UN, the more difficulty the UN Security Council has in agreeing on political action, the more prominence it gives to the need for humanitarian action. For its part, the UN secretariat has occasionally appeared ready to subordinate humanitarian action to political imperatives.

3. Within UNHCR

Turning to UNHCR, in the early 1970s the main causes of refugee movements outside Europe were the liberation struggles in Africa, conflict in Asia and repressive regimes in Central and Southern America. UNHCR had been established as a non-operational organization, and was still largely non-operational, with few staff based outside capital cities. With some exceptions, for example in the Sub-Continent and Cyprus, UNHCR's concerns were limited to refugees.

Already in the 1980s it was becoming clear that many victims of conflicts and abuses who were unable to flee across an international border had needs for protection and assistance that were as acute as those of refugees, and that the problems of refugees could not be resolved in isolation. By the early 1990s UNHCR had a major operational field presence and, with the Balkans a high-profile example, was ready when necessary to try and address the acute needs not just of refugees but also of those still within their country, whether displaced or not. Material assistance remained vital for many of those affected, but their over-riding need was often for security.

There were many changes over this period. They responded to different circumstances and the evolution was not the linear progression this selective and simplified overview may imply. I shall highlight three.

3.1. New interlocutors

First, UNHCR's interactions were no longer just with the central bodies of host governments (and donor ministries). As UNHCR established a presence outside the capitals, regional and local authorities and even security forces became key interlocutors. As operations extended to areas of internal conflict, UNHCR needed to deal directly with those influencing events on the ground whatever their status. And as a more situation-specific interest from outside states replaced the alignments of the Cold War, UNHCR was increasingly engaging directly on a political level not only with states but also with a variety of other non-local actors. These included regional bodies, ad hoc groups of concerned states, special envoys, the UN Security Council, and outside military forces. From 1991 onwards UNHCR was interacting with allied coalition forces outside the framework of UN Peace Keeping Operations (PKOs). Within that framework, in 1992 and for the first time, a UN force was established with a primary purpose of supporting humanitarian action: that led by UNHCR in the Balkans. This force's composition was, however, closer to that of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization than that of a traditional UNPKO.

3.2. Causes and solutions

A second significant development was the evolution in UNHCR's approach to causes and solutions. In an unpublished 1980 paper, Professor Freda Hawkins of Toronto University wrote of:

a vital principle which might be described as “Never ask why”. UNHCR, responding to an unending series of refugee crises, moves in like an ambulance, picks up the victims, provides immediate protection and assistance … But it never asks what caused the accident. Thus the same sequence of events can take place over and over again without any serious enquiry as to the “root causes” of these occurrences. 2

The reasons for this approach were illustrated by the reception given to former UN High Commissioner for Refugees Sadruddin Aga Khan's 1981 Study on Human Rights and Massive Exoduses for the UN Commission on Human Rights, 3 despite his sensitivity to the concerns of states.

By the early 1990s UNHCR was much less reticent. Its concern with causes and prevention was a matter of public record, albeit carefully articulated. Emphasis was placed on the inability of humanitarian action to resolve underlying problems. The need for that resolution was generally clearly implied rather than directly argued, without comment on what form it might take.

Similarly, UNHCR's approach to solutions had evolved from awaiting the conditions for repatriation, for example such major changes as post-colonial independence or the overthrow of repressive regimes, to the promotion of action that could help create suitable conditions in contexts where sudden major improvements were unlikely and the status quo was becoming untenable.

How did UNHCR come to be able to express its concerns notwithstanding their highly political and sensitive context? The original constraints were of course a function of the realities of the Cold War and the organization's genesis. (As a relevant parenthesis, in the paper from which I quoted earlier, Professor Hawkins also wrote of UNHCR having “succeeded over the years in mildly pacifying or reassuring the Soviet Union and its allies about the need for international refugee management”. 4 But there seems little doubt that Sadruddin Aga Khan's role as High Commissioner was a factor in the 1981 Soviet veto of his candidacy for UN Secretary-General.)

Where humanitarian action was substituting for an effective political response from the international community and was under high international media scrutiny, again as in the Balkans, not asking why would have been all but impossible. Drawing attention to the increasing role of non-state actors in the creation of refugees was generally less sensitive for states. This role was sometimes state-sponsored or hard to separate from state responsibility, so an examination of causes that was limited to non-state actors became evidently incomplete.

UNHCR staff's presence on the ground as direct witnesses of large-scale violations of human rights led to the organization being seen as a source of objective information. Presentation of bare facts would often point inescapably to responsibilities and the inadequacy of humanitarian action as the international community's sole response. In the Balkans in the early 1990s the combination of reliable information, articulate and credible spokesmen and women, whose news and views the international media urgently sought out, and UN High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata's own approach combined to create a dynamic that altered expectations thereafter. But, as the increasing attention paid to refugees and their rights by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and others showed, and with concern for human security starting to challenge absolute state sovereignty, perhaps this shift was simply necessary and inevitable, even overdue.

3.3. Field presence

A field presence was central to the practical response of UNHCR as it became more operational and is the third development I shall touch on. While there had been temporary field deployments before, for example during repatriations to Algeria in the early 1960s and to southern Sudan in the early 1970s, the first routine assignment of field officers was in 1975 in Thailand. UNHCR's first evaluation officer, Robert Chambers, who had forcefully drawn attention to the number of refugees in Africa who were out of sight to UNHCR, successfully championed the need for a proper field presence.

As this presence became standard practice, the resulting first-hand and timely information allowed swifter and better-targeted interventions, both locally and centrally. This was particularly important for practical protection and the prevention of refoulement . UNHCR no longer just interacted with its operational partners in the capitals, but directly in the refugee camps and with many more refugees. A presence much closer to the refugees highlighted the need for UNHCR to provide leadership in the actual delivery of services and to engage operationally with an expanding range of partners. The guidance and standards set out in the first edition of the UNHCR Handbook for Emergencies in 1982 were one outcome. Looking back, these developments may seem predictable. At the time some were seen as almost revolutionary and their impact was considerable.

3.4. Problems

The changes brought problems too. Before closing I shall mention three. First, the gap between what UNHCR sought to achieve and its ability to influence outcomes widened markedly, and created unrealistic expectations on all sides. Second, for humanitarian action in situations of unresolved conflict perceptions become critical. Full respect for humanitarian principles counted for little if those in a position to harm humanitarian action perceived it as against their interests, as many did and do today. Third, the old certainties as to what should be done were increasingly replaced by the dilemmas of choice between bad and still worse options, as the challenges in the Great Lakes in the 1990s showed so starkly.

4. Conclusion

A general conclusion for the context most challenging to humanitarian organizations is that without effective political action to end a conflict and/or stop grave abuses, humanitarian action to alleviate the consequences is likely to face mounting and finally insurmountable problems. UNHCR will, however, continue to need to operate in unstable environments, and for mixed caseloads. That said, the defining uniqueness of UNHCR across the whole range of humanitarian action is of course its responsibility for non-nationals. Come what may, this responsibility must not be subordinated to wider interests and concerns, and the independence necessary to discharge it must be preserved.

D. Rieff, A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis , New York, Simon and Schuster, 2002.
F. Hawkins, “UNHCR and the World Refugee Crisis: Options and Restraints”, unpublished paper, 1980, 3.
E/CN.4/1503, 31 December 1981. The case studies intended to accompany this were never made public.
F. Hawkins, “UNHCR and the World Refugee Crisis: Options and Restraints”, op. cit ., 1.