Mark Duffield visited Croatia and Bosnia between January 9 and 22, 1994, as part of a study of complex political emergencies. Joe Stork spoke with him on January 28, 1994.

In your field report you refer to the failure to provide protection as representing a political failure of historic consequences.

Following the safe haven policy in Kurdistan, there was a sense that at last the West was going to take human rights, humanitarian issues, seriously. In former Yugoslavia, the international community has run into trouble trying to use military force solely to protect humanitarian aid. Bosnia is perhaps the most monitored war in history. UN forces have stood by and recorded abuses of human rights on an unprecedented scale. Despite a few gestures, such as setting up the Human Rights Commission, it is clear to people there that there is no political will to enforce humanitarian rule. The UN is in fact retreating. That is the political failure. In Africa, faced with similar atrocities, the international community has been able to claim lack of evidence or neutral observers. In Bosnia that is not the case. We have entered an era when the international community is willing to let wars rumble on in less strategic areas of the global economy.

Some would argue that even in areas of some strategic importance there is no enforcement. Yugoslavia is of more consequence than Rwanda.

Yes, the Europeans have been unwilling to enforce human rights, and at the same time they’ve erected barriers to refugees moving across borders. This has accompanied a significant change in UNHCR policy. Since Kurdistan we have seen a policy of attempting, through safe haven-type operations, to internalize refugee movements within the country of origin. This can only work if the UN will follow up with enforcement. Otherwise people see it — correctly — as a lethal trap.

The argument has been made that military engagement to protect humanitarian aid will spin out of control and the conflict would widen. Or are you arguing for military protection even though this risks widening the conflict and forcing a choice of escalation or withdrawal?

I have several views on that. NGOs have worried about politicizing the humanitarian program by providing protection in both Somalia and Bosnia. All aid workers become identified with the military. Yet at a practical level, because of the level of violence and insecurity in certain areas, the NGOs realize it is impossible to work outside that system. The issue is deeper than protection or non-protection. There is a fundamental problem with the nature of relief aid that relates to the issue of neutrality. In a natural disaster, NGOs always argue that relief programs should be developmental in nature, should incorporate institution-building aspects. In the context of war, relief agencies have felt that any developmental program indicates political bias. So they opt for commodity supply — basic food, medicines — externally managed. You wait until the conflict stops before beginning reconstruction. That policy has been a disaster in Africa. After a decade of neutral relief programs, indigenous public and social sector capacity in many countries has been destroyed. We have to find ways of engaging existing government or professional structures in the context of an ongoing war to preserve that capacity.

In Somalia it seemed that there was sort of a consensus, at least among many NGOs, as to how military intervention should and should not have happened. Is there any kind of consensus in Bosnia?

I have not come across one. Former Yugoslavia was a bit like Iraq — it was new ground for this type of operation. Neither the NGOs nor the UN had field operations in that area. This forced some of the UN specialist agencies and bilateral donors to become operational themselves to an unprecedented extent. So I do not get the feeling that there is the consensus found in Somalia, precisely because many agencies had been in Somalia for some time.

Is there a prevailing view that UNPROFOR should be, should have been, more assertive militarily?

Oh yes, I think that is a widely held view.

Is it also the view of UNPROFOR people themselves? Are they being restrained externally?

A lot of the officers feel this, yes. There have been a lot of problems between the past two senior commanders and UN Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali about the inability to enforce their mandate. Outside UNPROFOR the feeling is generally that if they are there they might as well do something. Being there and not doing anything is the worst.

Did you find any reasonable explanation as to why there is this restraint from New York?

I found the signal coming from New York quite hard to understand. One can interpret more easily the difference between the Americans and the Europeans. In Bosnia there is a feeling that the Europeans have dithered and handled this situation very badly. Now, to bring the thing to an end, they are pressing the Muslims to accept a disastrous situation. The Americans do not seem to think that just when the Muslims are getting their act together they should be pressured to stop fighting.

Is that a valid interpretation?

I think so.

Many have suggested that, in cases where humanitarian intervention seems imperative, the first resort should be regional, like the OAU in Africa, the EU in Bosnia. The other principle that a lot of NGOs have expressed is that military intervention should always be under a UN mandate. Some have further argued that NGOs themselves form a new element, they represent non-governmental linkages dealing with people and civilian structures rather than with the state, and that NGOs should influence policy on these questions of intervention.

All these views seem symptomatic of the rapid changes of the last two or three years. If one looks at the various complex political emergencies now recognized as such, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Angola, Somalia, Bosnia, Liberia and so on; if one looks at the UN and NGO configurations in each of these areas; if one looks at the organizational structures addressing these — they are all totally different. In south Sudan, UNICEF is the lead agency. In Angola, the UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs is the lead agency. In Bosnia, UNHCR is the lead agency. All have very different relationships among UN, NGOs, donors and so on. Policy is still sorting itself out. At the moment we have a regional/multilateral mix, different in different regions. Some people in the NGO community — especially Medecins sans Frontieres, which is the cutting-edge European agency both in terms of program and in terms of analysis — profoundly distrust the regional solution. Look at regional approaches now in operation, in Liberia and Bosnia. Regional actors tend to have vested interests. Leading NGO sectors do tend to support multilateral solutions, but the key issue comes down to protection and the mandate that surrounds it. In principle they support protection, but the way that the present mandates are drawn up has caused huge problems.

It seems that globally we are not talking about evolution but rather degeneration.

What is happening, in my view, is that the global economy is being restructured around regional blocs centered on North America, Western Europe and East Asia. The end of the Cold War has made that process more visible, exposing the collapse of formal economies, especially in Africa and the former Soviet bloc. We have passed into an era of unstable war economies.

How do you see that coming out of the global economic restructuring?

These humanitarian safety nets are a feature of the contemporary North-South confrontation. In the more marginal areas of the global economy, with the emergence of war economies, autonomous structures have found ways of existing outside of conventional nation-based economic relations. In south Sudan, militia groups support themselves by stripping the assets of other groups — capital, grazing land, water. These elemental resources become important — as the formal economy collapses — in ways that reinforce ethnic identity. Somalia has always been subject to periodic conflict; a closer look shows that each bout relates to a reorganization of the asset base. In the case of Somalia, the struggle for land has been an important sub-theme in the recent rounds of fighting among clans. These war economies seem to be growing in importance. In more marginal areas of the former Soviet empire, you are seeing similar resource wars as in Africa.

But economic collapse in former Yugoslavia is a result of war and political conflict, no?

No, the economic crisis preceded the political crisis. Like Africa, former Yugoslavia and the former Soviet bloc failed to adjust to structural changes in the global economy in the 1970s. In former Yugoslavia, the growing economic crisis of the 1970s forced up the value of land, reinforced regional ties and promoted regional competition and economic fragmentation — preceding the political fragmentation. This global restructuring is promoting the emergence of proactive, survivalist war economies.

What I call the international humanitarian safety nets — UN/NGO structures — are increasingly assigned to tackle these problems. This whole debate on regional versus international, unilateral versus multilateral, the different uses of protection — that debate is stemming from the fact that there are autonomous political forms emerging which have a very destructive potential.

The international community has shown itself unwilling to tackle this problem in a systematic way, thus allowing these war economies to function as long as they pose no strategic threat. At most they are humanitarian crises which attract the attention of the media and politicians. Some argue that the style of intervention we are seeing at the moment, through UN protection forces, is actually the cheapest option available. It does not do much or commit much. The definition of these problems solely as relief problems, requiring just food and shelter, does not tackle the infrastructure problem, or the erosion of the human resource base.

One can see from the 1980s to the present day that as this problem has emerged the international response has also evolved organizationally. In the mid-1980s, a key factor was the conflict in Ethiopia. As USAID and the Europeans became familiar with that war, they switched from supplying governments to supplying NGOs. Then the subcontracting relationships between donors and NGOs were quite informal. By the late 1980s, they started to take the form of written contractual relationships. As conflicts spread and worsened in Africa and Bosnia, we see the emergence of more elaborate security policies, new links between agencies.

I definitely see an evolutionary process. What makes this interesting is that the politicization is coming from two directions. One is the involvement with military force, but there has been no external military force involved in Angola or south Sudan. These operations are becoming more sophisticated in the way that they can intervene and pull out, move with the ebb and flow of the conflict. That, in itself, is pushing their militarization. This seems to be part of the shift from East-West to North-South confrontation. It is matched by the shift of military policy from concern with nuclear war to conventional ways of disciplining the Iraqis and the North Koreans. The protection of humanitarian aid lies somewhere in this realignment. That is another reason why I think these safety-net structures have an evolutionary quality to them — in an organizational sense, not in the sense of getting better or understanding the situation. They are at the cutting edge of a redefinition of North-South relations.

How should we approach the question of intervention under these circumstances?

The biggest problem at the moment is this paradigm of neutrality, the idea of only intervening in these situations with neutral aid. If we carry on that way, we are not only not going to stop the fighting, but we will allow these war economies to continue to develop. We have to find a new ethic for working in conflict situations that can identify and find ways of working with popular or democratic structures or organizations which exist in these societies. There are losers in these war economies and these losers have interests. We have to find ways of getting past neutrality to identify and work with structures that can provide a platform for peace in these areas. There is a danger of just using humanitarian aid — Bosnia is the classic case of this — as a smokescreen to hide political failure.

Some have made a very good case that in Bosnia democratic institutions are well developed and deserve the protection of military intervention. Still, the modalities of such intervention have been left rather vague.

I have nothing against intervention in principle. There are occasions when it can and must provide a useful role. At the moment, though, it is a loose cannon. All sorts of politicians want to fire it off without much thought as to what they are firing at.

How to cite this article:

Joe Stork "An Interview with Mark Duffield," Middle East Report 187-188 (March/April 1994).

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