Network Papers

No. 21 May 1997

Humanitarian Principles: the Southern Sudan Experience

by Iain Levine

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This paper describes the way in which Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS) has sought to integrate humanitarian principles and the protection of civilians within its mandate and operations. It details the ways in which these laws and principles were promoted in practice through negotiation, advocacy, dissemination and training and the monitoring and follow-up of violations and abuses. In discussing these experiences, it seeks to distill specific lessons to be drawn from working with armed opposition movements, as opposed to sovereign governments, and in particular the concern of humanitarian agencies that they might provide or be seen to provide legitimacy to those who treat their populations badly.

Aid agencies working in south Sudan have sought to place the protection of civilians and the integrity of humanitarian assistance at the centre of their mandate. This approach sees complex emergencies as social and political phenomena which are as much crises of human rights as of humanitarian need. In such situations, the victims of conflict require not only humanitarian assistance (food, health care, shelter and water etc) but also protection of their safety, dignity and basic human rights. A fundamental assumption of the paper is that, as pointed out by the detailed evaluation of the Joint Evaluation of Emergency Assistance to Rwanda (1996), lack of coherent political and policy leadership amongst humanitarian agencies has led to many of their programmes failing those whom they seek to help.

Protection of civilians is achieved through the application of human-rights law, international law and internationally recognised principles such as the primacy of the humanitarian imperative, neutrality, impartiality, accountability, transparency and the protection of victims. The challenge lies not simply with the definition of the legal and ethical standards but in their implementation and enforcement.

The example of this particular initiative will be used to highlight broader dilemmas confronting the international humanitarian community. These include the lack of coherent political leadership in most humanitarian programmes, the role of sovereignty, the trade-offs between protection and assistance, the role of coordination in defining and protecting mandates and the conditions under which the withdrawal of assistance might be considered morally acceptable.

Underpinning this paper is the assertion that humanitarian principles and standards should lie at the centre of such programmes. While recognising that political authorities are ultimately responsible for protecting civilians and the integrity of humanitarian assistance, implementing agencies and those who fund them need to address these issues more coherently and consistently. The study is divided into two parts with an introductory background section. Part I is a descriptive analysis of the workings of the war economy, its effects and implications, while Part II focuses on the experience of NGOs in Liberia and the possibilities that exist for them to respond to the realities of the conflict using advocacy and other non-traditional policies.

Recommendations for further action include the need for more detailed research on particular aspects of the war economy, as well as the need for the humanitarian community to lobby donors and other actors to increase their understanding of its mechanisms.

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