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Home arrow Sociology arrow Humanitarian ethics : a guide to the morality of aid in war and disaster


Korem 1985

In 1985, a policy of forced resettlement by the Ethiopian government took place around the IDP camp at Korem in northern Ethiopia, an area that was severely affected by war and famine. Destitute people seeking humanitarian services came to live in the camp and began to be forcefully rounded up at night and deported south against their will in the government’s national resettlement programme. The programme ostensibly aimed to relocate people from the drought-stricken northern highlands to the wetter southern lowlands. It also seemed to aim at the removal of some of the rebels’ natural popular support base. The situation in Korem was the founding moment of MSF’s moral commitment to humanitarian "abstention” in extreme situations of this kind. Rony Brauman was President of MSF at the time and a frequent visitor to Korem. Interviewed many years later in 2008, he recognized the need for agencies to withdraw aid and abstain in certain situations: "If we accept that aid could be used against the people it is meant to assist, we must accept the possibility that in certain cases abstention or withdrawal may be preferable to action.”30 The problem of aid being used in this way as a bait or magnet to attract people to deportation or even death is truly problematic. It became still more intense in the Bosnian war when people complained of becoming the "well-fed dead”, fattened up at aid distributions only to be killed in sieges or ethnically cleansed. But would it, therefore, have been right for agencies to withdraw from Bosnia, and were people ready to starve to death in preference to ethnic cleansing? More likely, their complaint was urgent propaganda to encourage military intervention than it was a condemnation of food aid and a desire to die hungry.

Brauman must be right in principle about the ethics of humanitarian abstention, but it is a hard principle to enact without genuine consent from the affected population. Even in Korem, hungry people still felt bound to risk the camp. During bouts of resettlement activity IDPs fled to the surrounding hills but would then gradually return. Many severely malnourished children stayed in Save the Children feeding centres and adults remained in MSF’s in-patient facilities. Save the Children was also running a large dry ration distribution programme deliberately intended to support people living away from the camp. This was serving two or three villages per day from the surrounding area that was militarily contested in frequent fighting. Agencies could not yet move further into the Sekota area to extend distributions and people were walking for up to two days to reach Korem and collect their family ration. Even with the threat of resettlement, people were still prepared to move in and out of Korem because their survival options were still so limited. Gradually, international pressure was building against the resettlement programme, partly thanks to MSF, which meant that round-ups operated in erratic bursts rather than continuously.31 All these conditions combined to make abstention and withdrawal unethical for Save the Children, not least because there was also no guarantee that strong advocacy and programme suspensions by all agencies would stop resettlement. Instead, it might just make existing agency working conditions subject to more punitive bureaucratic reprisals involving travel restrictions, threats to local staff and a reduction in aid.

Save the Children’s mental stance was not positively responsive in any way that adopted and accepted sustained forced displacement and deportation. Neither abuse was ever condoned by Save, who routinely advocated against them. But working with and alongside the Ethiopian authorities was accepted as a necessary condition to save lives. In both cases, MSF and Save the Children were doing more than merely consorting with potential wrongdoers: they had also to cooperate with political authorities and with line ministry officials. Some of these ministry technicians as medics, engineers or administrators were political moderates and sensitive to people’s suffering. Privately, they too did not condone wider policies. But others were hardliners and were organizing resettlement directly. In this case, compliance and coercion seem more accurate ways to describe agency responsiveness.

In situations like Korem and Darfur, humanitarian agencies often seem to be faced by implicit conditional threats of the kind that Oxford philosopher David Rodin describes as setting traps for people with good intentions.32 Like a robber who stands with a gun and shouts "Your money or your life!”, so does the inhumane government or armed group seem often to say "Your aid or their lives!” This is coercive extortion and explains why humanitarian workers often feel blackmailed somehow. In Darfur and Korem, the mental stance of humanitarian agencies might best be characterized as reluctantly tolerating a wicked ambiguity that was forced upon them and that, partly but not wholly, distorted some of the consequences of their actions. In view of these consequences, how grave were the various dimensions of their contribution? How essential was their aid to the wider wrongdoing?

It is easy to think that humanitarian aid was a necessary condition of forced displacement in Darfur and deportation round-ups in Korem. But this is doubtful. If there was no aid in either place, the authorities would most likely have continued with their strategies regardless. Without rescue in IDP camps in Darfur, people would have eventually died, informally regrouped (only to be attacked again) or would have kept walking for Chad. The current Sudanese government has consistently shown a very high tolerance for large death rates among its own civilian popula?tion and would probably have accepted tens of thousands more deaths from destitution. In Korem, the Ethiopian government had other more significant means of collecting and coercing civilians for resettlement, and the majority came from non-displaced communities.33 Aid bait in Korem was not essential or significantly central to the whole programme of forced resettlement. The relief camp at Korem certainly did play a contributing role in the deportation of hundreds of people, but the government also ran its own food distributions at Korem. It could have continued to do so for some weeks with additional food requisitioned from NGOs if both agencies had left. The role of international agencies in Korem was not so central as to be determinative. In Darfur, agency resources were much more central. The proximity of agencies in the causal chain of creating displacement was weak. The temporality of their response was long after original political and military decisions to create displacement and the irreversibility of agency response was not high. The humanitarian system has repeatedly shown its preference for policies of return over policies of long-term encampment, and would be able to help finance and implement return whenever it is permitted. Humanitarians could and would reverse their role in the problem. They had not played a "turnkey” role at the outset and were not "locked in” by their own actions and intent.

Complicity needs to be taken seriously by humanitarian agencies as they evaluate the morality of their role and impact in the many wrongdoings created by others that form part of their operational environment. When working in the midst of wrongs it is an ethical requirement to have a good sense of one’s place and rationale within them, and set appropriate strategies of prevention, mitigation and remedy to one’s contributions. It is, however, foolish to overstate one’s contribution because it allows the parties who are truly responsible to take cover behind a smokescreen of blame that circulates around humanitarian scapegoats rather than themselves.

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