I ducked under the thin blue rope on the dirt road that borders Sudan and South Sudan. In the year It was 2013 and I was there to investigate the humanitarian situation in the Nuba Mountains.
The scorched earth practices of current Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for genocide in Darfur, destroyed food stocks and disrupted planting. As the Nuba starve, Khartoum cuts off cross-border aid flows from Sudan and South Sudan.
However, desperation breeds wealth. Nuban refugees in South Sudan leave food parcels on the thin blue line, leaving little of their own. Their families and relatives were cowering in caves, emerging at night to escape border patrols and find life-saving food.
The more daring NGOs joined forces. They deliberately inflated the refugee statistics in South Sudan, knowing that some of them had returned to the Nuba, to give a wider picture. Donors turn a blind eye to smuggling.
And even while the United Nations Security Council was breathing, international organizations such as the UN and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent were prevented from crossing the border between South Sudan and Sudan, so a humanitarian movement was created.
I was previously a UN humanitarian coordinator, including Operation Lifeline Sudan, a massive cross-border airlift of food from Kenya to South Sudan, similar to Berlin Airlift during the Cold War. As the northern government and southern rebel forces battled, I managed to get the mighty Nile River opened up, and some roads detonated to allow ground relief corridors. These cross-border and cross-border humanitarian deliveries were not my personal achievement but my official position, which commanded the respect of the warring parties and was supported by the mandate of the Security Council.
I was reminded of this when the Security Council debated in July to agree to a short-term extension of cross-border aid from Turkey to Syria. But honoring official status alone is not enough unless it is backed up by trust and innovation.
As a special adviser to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, I learned that the previous civil war had created widespread food insecurity. India’s offer of one million tonnes of wheat to be transported across the border through Pakistan was unacceptable to the latter. A wide-ranging rapprochement between Kabul, New Delhi, Islamabad, Tehran and the World Food Program’s Rome headquarters followed. This Indian donation led to the diversion of WFP stocks held elsewhere and then sent directly to Afghanistan through Iranian ports.
The spirit of that arrangement is a recent UN-brokered and Istanbul-brokered deal with Moscow and Kiev to send Ukrainian grain to help alleviate world hunger.
Cross-border humanitarian operations are only considered when it is realistically easy to reach geographically isolated people, or because combatants on the home front are blocking aid access.
Crossing international borders raises questions of sovereignty. Therefore, the agreement of both aid receiving and aid transmitting countries is required. Where this is voluntary, cross-border programming is not controversial. But when a host country unreasonably withholds authorization despite the urgency and scale of a humanitarian crisis, only the Security Council can order its presence.
Cross-border humanitarian service delivery was the norm. Many conflict-ridden nations such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Cambodia, Somalia and Myanmar have received aid from across their borders for decades when global and regional geopolitics were as contentious then as they are today. But earlier, perhaps, despite other differences, there was a greater consensus that alleviating humanitarian crises was a shared moral obligation.
That era is over, Russia is redefining itself, China and India are rising, and national assertiveness is growing everywhere. Humanity is no longer valued at all. Although human empathy is universal to all cultures, its various expressions are not seen as independent and, therefore, not often debated.
The norms of the Western dominant model of humanity and its institutions and rituals are being challenged more than ever. This is because how conflicts are fought has changed, so that it is not just a matter of armed forces, but of society as a whole. We see in the Russian-Ukrainian war that the International Committee of the Red Cross was challenged to protect non-combatants under the Geneva Conventions.
Thus, despite the increasing number of crises requiring international cooperation, new transnational humanitarian efforts are largely rejected by the Security Council. Without such formal authority, international humanitarian agencies cannot function legally.
The Syrian cross-border effort was renewed only because of an earlier agreement. Even then, new restrictions were added. Whether this will be extended in six months is causing great anxiety for the 4 million Syrians who rely on this lifeline.
Meanwhile, 23 million people in Yemen are dependent on humanitarian aid arriving on the front lines and across the borders. That intervention has become a deadly art of bureaucratic delays and disruptions and attacks on aid workers. Turning humanitarian aid on and off has been a weapon of choice in the decade-long war.
The situation is even worse for the people who are completely blocked by their opponents. Perhaps the worst tragedy is that of the 7 million people of Tigray whose homeland has been embroiled in a civil war with the Ethiopian government. Humanitarian aid corridors’ pleas were ignored, with only token aid arriving haphazardly in Tigray.
Civilian suffering caused directly or indirectly by armed conflict is the new normal in our fractured world. A recent analysis by the Geneva-based research group ACAPs found that humanitarian access is severely or severely limited in at least 37 countries experiencing severe crises. Contemporary global and regional politics mean that multilateral institutions and frameworks cannot be saved on a secure footing.
What should be done as humanitarian disasters increase? There are some tips and tricks for penetrating access barriers that would otherwise be impenetrable. Technologies such as low-flying drones are already being used to deliver medicines to overcrowded health facilities. Communications via the Internet allow monitors outside the crisis zone to direct relief efforts to local humanitarian workers and volunteers. Electronically transferred cash allows needy consumers to get what they need economically and efficiently, while encouraging local enterprise and giving them the dignity of their choice. The days of lumbering convoys stuck at enemy checkpoints must be largely over.
The irony is that the technologies and weapons that have revolutionized warfare, allowing it to be conducted more accurately than at safe distances, have also changed human action. The main obstacle to a more effective humanitarianism is not only borders but also the closed mentality of humanitarianism.
If they have the opportunity to build the resilience of local crisis-affected populations, they will permanently underestimate their resources. However, previous humanitarian business models are hampered by the fact that these multi-billion dollar humanitarian corporations aim to maximize middleman roles.
A variety of inefficiencies, corruption, politicization and monopolistic or self-serving practices have contributed to increasing distrust in humanitarian efforts. It plays directly into the nefarious plans of any warring groups looking for an excuse to cut off humanitarian services. This makes sense – albeit distorted – in an era where wars are generally not won on the battlefield, but instead by inflicting great suffering on civilians.
Traditional norms limiting war are being challenged by new doctrines and new doctrines and non-prohibitive tactics that accommodate contemporary geopolitics. Similarly, major barriers to humanitarian access are expected. Just whining about the fact that it is not a solution.
Instead, humanists must be smarter than warmists. They have the tools and technologies to do this, but they need to change their mindsets, believe in their users the way they want to believe in themselves, and adjust their processes and institutions to better serve those in need.
Solutions to infinite conflicts may elude us, but limiting human suffering through borderless humanity is well within our grasp.
Published: August 22, 2022, 4:00 am