The Case for a “Humanitarian Pause” in Libya

Recent efforts to get emergency assistance to civilians in the midst of the battle for Libya point to an ongoing debate at the United Nations and beyond—how to reconcile the urgent goal of bringing immediate assistance and protection to civilians with the imperative of keeping humanitarian aid neutral and impartial. Although the “militarization” of humanitarian assistance might ensure immediate access to a needy population, it is also likely to backfire and be detrimental to civilians in the long run.

On May 18, 2011, Valerie Amos, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator for the United Nations, reiterated her call for a temporary suspension of hostilities to facilitate the delivery of aid into Libya. The statement, delivered in Geneva at the launch of the revised humanitarian appeal for the Libyan crisis, denounced the worsening humanitarian situation in the country, in particular in the city of Misurata, in the Western Mountains, and in and around Tripoli. This echoed a previous call on May 12th by Josette Sheeran, Executive Director of the World Food Program, for an “immediate ceasefire” to enable the delivery of food assistance.

One month before, on April 18th, the press reported that the European Union had drawn up a plan for the deployment of military forces in Libya to secure the delivery of aid supplies in the country. This plan was rejected by Under-Secretary-General Amos. She justified her reluctance by expressing her desire to explore all civilian options for the aid operation before seeking military help–in accordance with the principle of “last resort” that governs civil-military coordination in relief operations.

Under international humanitarian law, states have the obligation to facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief for civilians in need, which must be impartial and neutral in character in accordance with the UN General Assembly Resolution 46/182 of 1991.

Yet, impartiality and neutrality, which are most important in situations of conflict, are as much a matter of behavior and attitude by humanitarian actors and their donors as they are a question of perception by the population and authorities in a given context.

As disinterested and altruistic the European offer may be, one might question the perceived neutrality of European forces on the ground in Libya when EU member states are also participating in the hostilities under NATO command. Although it has the legitimate goal of protecting Libyan civilians, in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1973, participants in NATO’s operation are parties to the conflict between the Libyan government and the rebel forces.

Deployment of ground troops from European nations to escort humanitarian actors might have the immediate effect of facilitating the delivery of humanitarian assistance to populations that are currently in dire need. However, as warned by the Director-General of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on May 10th, one should consider the perverse subsequent effects that “militarizing” humanitarian assistance might trigger for the very populations the international community is trying to protect.

The risk that humanitarian actors be perceived as siding with military forces considered hostile by the Libyan government could very well backfire on aid workers, impeding the delivery of aid. Militarizing humanitarian convoys or facilities can transform them into military targets, as a number of tragic accidents in Somalia, Darfur, Afghanistan, or Iraq have shown. As a result, all government-controlled areas might end up out of reach to the obvious detriment of the civilian population there.

Humanitarian actors not only deliver humanitarian assistance in kind (food, water, medicines and medical equipment, sanitation structures, shelter and other non-food items), but they also play an important role in protecting civilians by encouraging warring factions to respect human rights and humanitarian law, by treating the sick and injured, or by facilitating their evacuation to the appropriate facilities. Although UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated on May 19th that attempts to secure a comprehensive ceasefire in Libya have failed, the international community has an interest in supporting the efforts of the Emergency Relief Coordinator to secure a temporary suspension of hostilities, or a “humanitarian pause.” A mere truce for humanitarian purposes agreed upon by the different parties is arguably easier to achieve than a proper ceasefire, as it would not necessarily have to be put in writing. Nor would it have to formalize de-escalation measures or establish monitoring and dispute settlement mechanisms.

In this respect, there are some successful precedents. Agreements over “days of tranquility” allowed repeated vaccination campaigns in a number of contexts throughout the past two decades (such as Angola, Salvador, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Afghanistan). Similarly, a ceasefire agreement negotiated by the ICRC in August 2009 facilitated the treatment and evacuation of cholera victims from Shawalikot district in Kandahar province, Afghanistan.

A “humanitarian pause” would not satisfy all needs in the conflict affected areas, as it would not last longer than one to three days. However, it would allow humanitarian actors to relieve the pressure on populations in need, whatever their political affiliation might be, while avoiding the specter of the politicization and militarization of aid that would be dangerous to aid workers and harmful to civilians in the long run.

Pending a more comprehensive agreement to restore peace in Libya, key states and regional organizations that have been involved in negotiations between the Libyan government and the rebels (particularly Turkey and the African Union ) should support the efforts of the UN to reach an agreement for a temporary suspension of hostilities for humanitarian purposes. Such an agreement would undoubtedly contribute to the overarching goal set out in Security Council Resolution 1973, when it authorized member states and regional organizations to take all necessary measures to protect civilians under threat of attack in Libya.