How Humanitarians Protect Populations Against Mass Atrocities (With Limits)
IPI Global Observatory
10 December 2013
Humanitarian organizations can sometimes play a critical role in keeping people alive when populations are subjected to genocide and mass atrocities. For example, in Darfur, Sudan, international humanitarians and their local partners protected around two million civilians displaced by mass atrocities committed by Sudanese government forces and their allies, the now notorious Janjaweed militia, in 2003-4. So effective was the humanitarian response to the crisis in Darfur that by 2005, the region’s overall mortality rate had fallen to pre-war levels.1
When the storm of mass atrocities breaks, humanitarian agencies are often the only international presence on the ground. This was certainly true of Darfur, of Sri Lanka five years later, and of Syria as I write. But the relationship between humanitarian action, atrocity prevention, and the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP) has been fraught with difficulty. This piece briefly explores why and what can be done about it.
- Humanitarians have been reluctant to embrace RtoP for a number of reasons, not least differences of principle, concerns about access and local cooperation, and fears that controversial political concepts might make humanitarian work more difficult—and dangerous.
- Putting atrocity prevention and protection work and humanitarian action into different policy silos has not always delivered good policy.
- Progress should be based on respect for humanitarian principles, recognition of the preventive and protective effects of work already undertaken, and acknowledgment of the fact that it is for individual organizations themselves to judge how they relate to the goals of RtoP and atrocity prevention.
Read the full briefing.