Humanitarian Aid, Blocking of

By David Rieff 

The aid workers who trucked relief supplies from Metkovic in Croatia to the ruined towns and villages of central Bosnia and on to Sarajevo knew they were engaged in a game of humanitarian Russian roulette.

For the fighters, the humanitarian convoys were resupplying their enemies. That made the aid workers enemies as well. “You say you are helping women and children,” I heard a Croat fighter say bitterly to an official of the Danish Refugee Council at an improvised checkpoint in western Herzegovina. “You are doing nothing of the sort. You are helping the Muslims.”

The Danish official only shook her head. “You’re quite wrong,” she said. “We are taking no sides; our aid is neutral.” The Croat soldier’s only response was a bitter laugh.

We waited at the checkpoint for a long time. We would wait for just as long at half a dozen others before we finally arrived in the town of Travnik, controlled by the Bosnian government. The Croats stopped us along the road. The Serbs shelled us from the hills. That was what pushing a humanitarian convoy through was usually like. At the checkpoints, the law counted for little. As the Danish official put it to me, “In this war, not only do the fighters not obey the law, they don’t even know what we’re talking about when we speak of humanitarian requirements.”

And yet the need for humanitarian interventions to alleviate the worst of consequences on civilians is one of the few questions about which almost all people outside Bosnia could agree. There was no consensus about the rights or wrongs of the conflict, let alone how to resolve it. But there was real determination to see that humanitarian aid got through, and real indignation when it could not. When the Serbs closed the Sarajevo airport, or convoys were blocked, all outside parties were outraged. Humanitarian aid was supposed to be beyond the politics of the war, beyond all questions of military or psychological advantage. It was something that was unarguably good, and, as such, something that must not be interfered with.

The legal bases for this view were already powerful with the passage of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949. It imposed on all its parties the obligation to allow “the free passage of all consignments of medical and hospital stores” and of “all consignments of essential foodstuffs, clothing and tonics intended for children under fifteen, expectant mothers and maternity cases” even to its military adversaries. The 1977 Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions further cemented both the obligations of belligerents and the rights of noncombatants. Article 69 imposes on occupying powers the obligation to provide relief supplies to the population of its adversary “without any adverse distinction,” to ensure that population’s physical survival (it also called for the provision of articles necessary for religious worship). Article 70 requires belligerents to treat offers of relief not as interference in the conflict, so long as the relief effort was “humanitarian and impartial in character,” but as a duty imposed by international humanitarian law (IHL).

On the ground, and not only in Bosnia, things have been more complicated. In a war of ethnic cleansing, the last things fighters want to do is make it possible for the civilian populations of their adversary to remain, let alone be decently housed and fed, or be allowed to worship freely. In so many cases, the violation of IHL was the norm, and respect for it the exception. In northern Bosnia, the Serbs did not provide articles of Muslim religious worship, they systematically blew up mosques. And the more convoys they blocked, the likelier it was that the Muslim population would flee, bringing about the ethnic cleansing that had been the goal of the war in the first place.

The bitter truth was that to stand for international laws governing the free movement of humanitarian aid was to stand against the war aims of the Bosnian Serbs and, to a lesser extent, the Bosnian Croats, and their respective masters in Belgrade and Zagreb as well. For the fighters of the Croatian Defense Council (HVO) to allow a humanitarian convoy into Bosnian government–controlled East Mostar, for example, was to sanction the continued physical presence of Muslims in that part of Bosnia-Herzegovina. And all the killing and destruction had been undertaken precisely with the opposite goal in mind. In this sense, when we who accompanied the aid convoys watched representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or the private aid groups plead for access, all of us—the aid workers, the fighters at the checkpoints, the civilian beneficiaries, and, of course, the journalists—understood that what was really at stake was the continuation of the war itself. In other words, what in IHL often constitutes a war crime was, for the fighters, the essential tactic of their fight.

But even on strictly legal grounds, the situation was not always clear in a place like Bosnia. The Fourth Geneva Convention and the 1977 Additional Protocols are encrusted with exceptions on the subject of blocking humanitarian aid. That is because the Bosnian conflict is not at all the kind of war either the framers of the convention or the additional protocols had anticipated. Article 23 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states that an army must be satisfied that there are no “serious reasons” for fearing that relief supplies will be diverted from their intended destination and recipients, or that control over distribution will not be effective, or that the enemy will not derive some substantial benefit to its war effort or have its economy shored up. Article 18 of Additional Protocol II emphasizes the “exclusively humanitarian and impartial nature” of all appropriate relief efforts. The guarantee of access comes with the right of belligerents to inspect convoys to see that the aid is what it purports to be and is destined for populations that are entitled to it.

In wars that pit not armies but armed populations against each other, such guarantees are almost impossible to ensure. Fighters on all sides use humanitarian relief supplies for their own purposes, and the laws do not adequately come to grips with the problem of a war in which the distinction between soldier and civilian is unclear, if it exists at all.

It will be a long time before such questions are resolved, for ultimately they are political and moral as much as they are legal. In the Bosnian context, the loopholes in the law making the blocking of aid a war crime could easily be exploited to prevent aid convoys from getting to where the needs are greatest. None of this, of course, is of much comfort to the civilian populations trapped in wars of ethnic cleansing for whom humanitarian aid remains almost the only hope.

Related posts:

  1. Ethnic Cleansing
  2. Gray Areas in International Humanitarian Law
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