One People Oration 2001

Not Saving but Drowning - Humanitarian Intervention that fails

Speaker: Mr Richard Dowden

Monday, 2nd July 2001 at 6.15 PM

Imagine you are going down a road, somewhere in Africa. It's a track of dusty red earth, pot-holes every few yards and lush greenery on either side. You are in a local taxi. The driver desperately wants your dollars but he's worried about where you want to go. People are walking towards you, streams & rivers of them. Women carrying children on their backs and chairs, mattresses and cooking pots on their heads. An old grandmother is being transported in a wheelbarrow.

The people look tense. They walk wearily but fast, sweating heavily in the heat, their eyes fixed ahead. You stop a group and ask: 'Where have you come from? What is happening there? How far is it? Is it safe to go on?'

You listen to their replies and decide to take a risk. Go further. There is smoke ahead, burning houses or vehicles.

You know what you are probably going to see in the village ahead and you brace yourself. You usually smell death before you see it. Bodies go foul quickly in the African heat. Among the smashed and looted huts there will be corpses. You will have to try to count them. Were they fighters or civilians? How did they die? Caught in crossfire or executed? They may be horribly mutilated.

You will probably meet men with guns who will tell you that their enemies did it. Perhaps their smiling commander is himself the killer. How can you know for sure?

When I am a long way from home in situations like these my heart still quickens with relief, even pride, if I see certain flags: the United Nations blue or a Red Cross or, in some places a discreet Union Jack.

They make me think: 'safety and salvation has come'. I feel safer.

I say 'still' when admitting to this sense of security because when I think back to the places where I have watched humanitarian interventions at close quarters, they have had uncertain outcomes at best. In many cases they've ended, not in safety and salvation, but in failure and the flight of the interveners. The people who they were sent to save are as insecure as they ever were ' or worse. The lifeboat came for them but then sailed away - leaving them even more vulnerable than they were before.

Humanitarian intervention ' outside powers sending troops to help civilians who are under threat, is ambiguous from the word Go. Do the motives of the intervening power have to be pure? What if they also have a self-interested motive? And what is the aim of the aid agencies, the Non Governmental Organisations? Is it to save lives now or to work towards a solution that lasts? Sometimes those aims may contradict each other.

I want to approach these questions through my own experience as a journalist working in Africa and sometimes in the Middle East for the past 20 years. The previous speakers who've given the One People Oration have had political or military power, they have been responsible for taking decisions for others. A journalist has no such power and is only responsible for reporting. But we journalists do not act alone. We are bound into a relationship with aid agencies, our audience back home and political leaders who read our words, see the images we select - and hear the appeals that we amplify.

It is a symbiotic relationship, we feed off each other. Each of these participants generally regard the relationship as a fruitful one, in which journalists report disaster, the public is moved, donations pour in, the government too sends aid ' perhaps soldiers as well ' and thousands of lives are saved.

It is, it seems, a benign circle.

As a journalist trying to cover a war or a disaster you head for where the action is. That's not always the best place to find out what is actually going on but it's a start. You hear stories, perhaps only rumours and you catch glimpses but you often have no idea of what's really happening. So you try to find someone who knows more. You're in a strange place and you don't speak the language, so you look for the Red Cross, the UN or NGOs like Medecins sans Frontierers who work at the sharp end of wars. And you hope that they can explain who is who and what is what. Sometimes they can't. Or they won't: 'We are purely humanitarian' they say, 'We don't get involved in politics.'

At one time organisations like the Red Cross were too exalted to talk to journalists. In the early 1980s in Beirut I was told by the Red Cross chief to telephone their headquarters in Geneva if I wanted to know what they were doing in Lebanon. All that changed in the late 1980-s when the aid business took off. The aid agencies found that a picture of a hungry or miserable child on the Nine O'Clock News was the best fund-raising advertisement anyone could want. If that hungry child was having food pushed into its mouth by someone wearing a T-Shirt with your aid agency's logo on it, you really did hit the jackpot. Several NGOs employed attractive young women as press officers - the aid angels we called them.

Indeed in the early 1990s the public seemed to admire the image of aid agencies so much, that one large food and drinks packaging company carried out a quiet survey to see if it could improve its brand image if it distributed its products to starving people in front of the TV cameras.

The need for funds changed the relationship between journalists and aid workers. Previously aid workers helped journalists as a favour. Now it became a necessity. Suddenly the Red Cross were offering free flights to disaster zones. When you got there, frontline aid organisations lent you a car and a local translator. In some places they even gave you a bed and food and, most helpfully, a satellite telephone.

And journalists got what they looked for ' information. The local NGO or UN directors began to talk to the media. It is the same with the military. If you are British and the British army is there, you try to find them. In many cases you may have been flown in by them and told by your editor to report on the exploits of 'our boys'. They invariably get a good press.

Journalists should be natural outsiders, imbued with a sceptical and questioning spirit. In these disaster zones we suddenly found ourselves taking down every word from aid agency or army press officers and transmitting it to our viewers and readers as Gospel. It was partly an assumption that the NGO or the army, was unquestionably doing good and therefore must be speaking the truth, and partly it was a tribal response. In a world of strangers and violence, you instinctively move closer to your own folk and trust them more.

Covering wars can be exhilarating. Most war correspondents enjoy the thrill of being at the edge of death. They get the excitement of breaking bad news and they get the feel-good factor of knowing their pictures or words might actually get someone to act, to do something to help.

We can all remember Michael Buerk's reporting from the Ethiopian famine in 1984 and some of us can remember the horrific pictures from the Biafran war in the early 1970s. They drew that now famous line of from President Lyndon Johnson: 'I don't care what you do' he is reported as saying, 'Just get those goddam nigger babies off my TV screen'.

The classic response from the cynical politician.

In those Cold War days such images and appeals brought in food aid and medicine. Nowadays the cry 'something must be done' can achieve even more. Because since the end of the Cold War a consensus has developed, - unsteadily but inevitably. There's an expectation that, if television cameras and reporters can get somewhere so can food and medicine. Globalisation of information, of money and goods, also means the globalisation of human sympathy.

Outsiders can now intervene to stop the suffering. The sovereignty of the state is not an absolute any more. Governments can no longer defend what they do to their own citizens by simply saying it is no business of anyone else. So if a government fails to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe - or worse - creates one - and violates its citizens' rights, other governments feel permitted, even obliged, to intervene.

There is no provision in the United Nations Charter to legalise such intervention on humanitarian grounds but the precedents of Somalia, Bosnia and East Timor have created space for them.

Intervention is driven by that benign circle: ' journalists report, aid agencies appeal, the public is moved, governments act.

These days would we tolerate someone like Idi Amin in Uganda. The murder of his critics and the destruction of the country was well-reported at the time but no one suggested intervening. General Amin was accepted as legitimate. When Tanzania did invade Uganda in 1979 and chucked out Amin, the UN and the powers that control it, kept quiet. No one even congratulated Julius Nyerere, let alone helped out Tanzania which had almost bankrupted itself trying to save its neighbour.

The principle of humanitarian intervention was so far off that Tanzania did not even try to justify its intervention in terms of the protecting civilians or stopping the murder and suffering.

You can tick off the horrors that took their course unimpeded in that period:

the massacres in Rwanda in 1963 or 73 or 1980 or in Burundi in 1972 or 1988.

Indonesia got away with seizing East Timor in 1974 and in the same year Morocco grabbed Western Sahara. Both involved massacres of civilians.

When Vietnam intervened to overthrow Pol Pot in Cambodia in 1979 it was condemned.

So now it may possible to begin to build a world in which human rights are internationally enforceable. Those magnificent shining words of the UN Charter can at last, - more than 50 years after they were written, be made a reality. I'll read them:

'To save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.'

We now have the chance to implement those words but do we have the courage and wisdom to use that chance well?

Situations that cry out for intervention ' where the government is incapable of maintaining peace and security or is actively oppressing people - fall into three categories of response:

The do-able

The don't touch

And the don't want to

The doable are those which Western governments take seriously ' places like northern Iraq, Bosnia, Macedonia. East Timor. The UN Security Council mandates an intervention force and expensive First World Armies roll in.

In the don't touch category are those places that merit intervention but it is opposed by a powerful party. The Palestinians will get no UN peacekeeping force to protect them because America will not allow it. The Russians will not allow intervention in Chechnya.

Then there are those where the need is obvious but the powerful countries don't want to get involved. The problem is not strategic interest but lack of it. If they get anything at all, these countries get ill-equipped and ill trained second and third world armies and underfunded operations. They occur, almost exclusively, in Africa.

I sometimes wonder what future generations, our children and grandchildren, will condemn us for. Just as we look back on previous generations and recoil in disbelief: how could they have tolerated slavery? How could they have fought the First World War? - what is the equivalent crime of our generation? Something we accept as inevitable or beyond our power to do anything about which but future generations will be appalled by? I think it will probably be the way in which we are allowing Africa to slip further and further away from the rest of humanity.

Those great words of human solidarity in the UN Charter are being betrayed in Africa. The reasons offered are things like

'We can't do them all,'

'African solutions to African problems,'

'Regional peace keeping is best'

They all amount to the same thing ' we are not going to send our troops there. Take the concept of regional peacekeeping ' the idea that the locals should act as firemen for their region. That is a simple betrayal of the UN charter's words on human solidarity. In the end they mean America and Europe will look after the parts of the world they care about and Africans will be left to fend for themselves.

Economists have a theory that globalisation means that the price of goods tends to even out across the planet. It's called market equilibrium. It is probably true for coffee, or oil, indeed for most tradeable goods - but there is one exception: human beings. The price of human life varies so hugely that it is sometimes hard to believe we are all the same species.

The media is crucial here. Can anyone tell me why we get day by day coverage of a small land dispute at the far end of the Mediterrenean in which a few thousand people have been killed in the past 20 years, while not so far away in Sudan at least two million people have died. Yet Sudan gets a hundredth of the coverage of Israel and Palestine. Human dignity seems to have a different price depending on who it is and where they live.

It is not just the space that is given, it is also they way those people are portrayed. And those perceptions are created by journalists and aid agencies.

Sometimes they're presented as less than human ' purely as victims. That is seen as the best way of raising money to help them. I mentioned earlier Michael Buerk's reporting from Ethiopia. Later he admitted that he omitted one important element from those biblical scenes. He did not mention the war. Yes, there was a drought at the time but the reason that people were starving was war. Michael Buerk says he left it out because he thought people back home wouldn't respond if they thought the famine was just caused by another stupid African war. He had the best of motives. By presenting the people as victims of an act of God, a drought, he thought he could inspire more sympathy and raise more money.

For me the turning point in that relationship between journalists and NGOs occurred in Goma, eastern Congo in late 1994. No NGO delivering emergency aid could afford not to be in Goma after the huge exodus of more than two million Hutus from Rwanda to Eastern Congo following the genocide in Rwanda. They camped in appalling conditions not far from the border town of Goma. Cholera broke out and people began to die in their hundreds. The aid agencies came rushing in ' some 130 of them - each doing their own thing, completely uncoordinated and desperate for media attention.

They held daily press conferences chaired by a representative of the UN High Commission for Refugees. He would introduce each NGO in turn to give an account of what was happening but after a while he found that each would quote a death toll higher than the previous speaker.

It had become an auction. He who gave the highest death toll and told the worst news, won. His words got on the Nine O'Clock News.

And the aid agencies had plastered the town of Goma with their banners and stickers. It was like Times Square or Piccadilly Circus. I tried to imagine an exhausted refugee staggering into Goma, overwhelmed by this astounding display of marketing. I imagined him thinking right ' 'I'll have breakfast with Care. Then lunch with World Vision, then I'll pop across and collect some medicine from the Red Cross and then collect some plastic sheeting and a blanket and bed down with UNHCR.

Of course the refugee was not the targeted consumer. The target was the TV cameras and the consumers were the people back home. That benign circle was working alright but it was beginning to look a little less benign. It had excluded one group - the very people it was supposed to help.

Nowhere were the people and their real needs ignored more than in the American intervention in Somalia in 1992. George Bush senior, wanted to end his presidency on a high moral note. After Kuwait he thought he could save Somalia too. He dispatched an intervention force in December that year to hold back what were described by the journalists as warlords and he believed the job could be done and everyone home for Christmas with no casualties.

There had been a famine in Somalia, caused by war, but by September, things were settling down and people were getting food. There was still a job to be done but not in Mogadishu where feeding centres were coping well. There was starvation in the South West of the country because the war and the looting militias had passed twice over that area and stripped it bare. But death rates had peaked in July and been falling ever since. What was needed was medical supplies, anti malarial drugs and measles vaccines. What arrived was food and not always the sort of food that Somalis usually eat.

Right from the start the incompetence of the American operation was laid bare. Hundred of journalists had gathered in the city and were invited by the American advance party to witness the landings. No one told the Marines. They arrived in the middle of a beach expecting warlords and found instead hundreds of journalists.

A few days later I interviewed General Robert Johnston, the US Marine commander, and asked him what would happen if the Somalis united against the interveners. He was puzzled. 'Why should they do that when we've come to help them?' I pointed out that the Somalis were about the proudest people on earth and could turn quite xenophobic. I pressed him. Eventually he said simply: 'We have superior fire power.'

On the night of October 3rd, 1993 they decided to use that superior fire power and seize General Aideed. The planning and orders for the mission were drawn up in Florida and the local troops were not even on standby to act as a back up. It was an appalling oversight that resulted in the deaths of 18 US Rangers. Their superior fire power did indeed prove devastating. About 1,000 Somalis died that night, most of them civilians hiding in their homes from the deadly fire poured down from American gunships.

The Americans had thought they would ride into town like a posse in a western, blow away the baddies and leave a grateful nation saying 'and we never even knew his name'. Instead they fled, leaving Somalis more divided, more impoverished, in every way worse off than when they had arrived. Aid agencies that had managed to survive there before the Americans arrived, were now so identified with the American force that they had to leave. The whole operation had been under a UN flag so the UN was discredited. When the Americans pulled out so did the UN troops and with them the UN agencies. In the old days imperial powers were accused of divide and rule. This was a case of divide and quit.

It was not just a case of failing to plan a fairly simple military operation ' the Americans had not bothered to try and understand what Somalia was, who Somalis were. They had not asked what Somalis really needed or devised a plan to deliver it. There was an alternative plan but they ignored it. They could in fact have carried out a low level cross border feeding operation to south west Somalia from northern Kenya. A few troops could have protected convoys and feeding centres and the whole modest operation could have been over in weeks.

Somalia asked the question. What was the intervention for? Was it to make us all feel good ' or at least to remove starving Somalis from our TV screens? Was it to demonstrate American power? Or was it to meet the needs of the people there?

The secondary victims of the American disaster in Somalia were the million Rwandans who were to die the following year in the fastest genocide in the history of mankind. There was a UN force there at the time and its Canadian general, Romeo Dallaire, had warned that genocide was possible. When it started he told his masters in New York that more troops could save lives. In the Security Council America - still suffering from its trauma in Somalia - demanded that the UN force be withdrawn. Britain suggested that it should be made smaller not larger. Both countries refused to allow the word genocide to be used because that would, under UN rules, have forced them to act.

The trail from Somalia to Congo has not been a very edifying one.

But since then I am glad to say the better aid agencies have drawn up a code of conduct and many of them have more modest views of what they can achieve. At the most sensitive end of the aid business a new philosophy has been adopted: 'Do No Harm.'

Do no harm seems an extraordinary motto for those who are supposed to do nothing but good. But it is a far better starting point than the assumption that because our inner motives are pure, everything we do is right. Perhaps governments should adopt it too. The mottos they should also adopt are: know who you are helping, understand what you are doing.

Colin Powell inadvertently put his finger on the problem shortly after the Somalia debacle: He said: 'As long as I am chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, I will not agree to commit men and women to an unknown war, in an unknown land, for an unknown cause.'

Unknown? This is a strange word for the chief of staff of the most powerful country in the world to use. If I were an American I would be asking for a rebate on my tax if a government that prides itself on being the world's leader talks about parts of the world as 'unknown'.

But knowing and understanding are what it's all about. The amorphous images of suffering people presented by the media fixes them as victims. Some UN agencies and aid agencies still pretend that humanitarian assistance is purely humanitarian and that absolves them from responsibility for the effect of their aid. Yes people do need food, medicine, blankets tents when disaster strikes but that is only the beginning. That only addresses the symptoms, not the causes. If you are going to intervene you need to understand the causes and your assistance must address those as well as the symptoms. If you do not do that you had better not go at all.

This may sound like a fit of political correctness but what I am saying is practical not ideological. If interveners do not understand the causes of the disaster, if they do not understand the people they are trying to help, the intervention will not succeed. It may make things worse.

In too many places by providing only the first step, the humanitarian actors actually prevent the people they are trying to help from moving onto stage two. They keep the victims in a permanent state of dependency removing their capacity to rebuild their lives.

Let us go back to the people on that road somewhere in Africa. They are not just tired and hungry, they have not just lost their homes. They have lost their livelihoods and they have no security. If we really want to help them we have to help them build security ' material and physical. We need to know what they need now and what they will want next week, next month, next year. You have to get alongside them, understand who they are, work with them not just for them.

The interveners must ask if their presence and assistance are contributing to a solution or not. It may be difficult to see a way forward and the answers may be ambiguous but all those interveners must constantly patrol the boundary between intervention and interference. They must walk humbly with these questions continually in their minds. Does each bowl of food, every drop of medicine help or hinder the future of those it goes to. And who is it going to? Is it going to help a starving widow or to a warlord? Maybe it goes to both.

This is not the politicisation of aid. Aid is already political; the only difference is that aid agencies and journalists have been pretending it isn't.

In many places in recent years intervention has looked good, felt good but actually made things worse. In Sudan and Angola aid has allowed the wars to keep going. Food has been stolen by armies, either used to feed soldiers or removed so the soldiers can draw civilians to places where they can make them dependent and under control. The operations need a complete rethink ' maybe they should be abandoned altogether.

Sierra Leone

If British troops had not been sent to Sierra Leone last year, the country might now be ruled by people who chop off hands and feet of children. Britain has made many mistakes in Sierra Leone in the past but did the right thing. I cannot say in the end because these situations do not have an end.

What happens next? How much effort is going into addressing the symptoms of Sierra Leone's disease and how much going into the causes? Is the presence of so many outsiders doing things to the country, making Sierra Leoneans more dependent, less able to do things for themselves? The intervention was right but the continuing presence is ambiguous. It needs to be constantly reviewed.

My experience of being on that road in Africa, seeing those people fleeing past me - hearing their stories has left me with a very simple lesson. Yes go to help, send the lifeboat and send troops too if there is no other way. But the sea is rough out there and if you do not know who you are helping or what you are doing, you will not save them but drown them.