20 August 2011

Who is for Humanitarian Intervention?

By Marguerite Finn

Yesterday (19th August) was World Humanitarian Day – not that you would know from the lack of coverage given to it in the media. World Humanitarian Day is a celebration of people helping people. The day recognises the sacrifices and contributions of those who risk their lives to give others help and hope. It is also about inspiring the spirit of aid work in everyone – like the Egyptian trauma surgeon currently on the front line in Somalia. Omar Saleh was leading a peaceful and comfortable life as a trauma surgeon and university lecturer in Egypt when the call came from the United Nations health agency announcing that surgeons were urgently needed in war-torn Somalia. He did not have to think twice. “I should be where I’m needed,” he said. “I’m a trauma surgeon. This is a conflict. Trauma is everywhere. I must be there”, he told the UN News Centre by telephone from Somalia, where he operates under the auspices of the UN World Health Organisation (WHO). Dr Saleh is just one of many hundreds of people who, at some point in their lives, devote themselves to helping other people.

The United Nations humanitarian chief – Under-secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, Valerie Amos - stressed the need to further scale up efforts to assist the millions of people suffering in Somalia and the wider Horn of Africa, warning that more lives will be lost to famine and disease without urgent action. There are 12.4 million people across the wider region, encompassing Kenya, Djibouti and Ethiopia, who are in need of food and humanitarian assistance owing to the effects of the worst drought in decades. The UN and other agencies are on the ground in all countries in the Horn of Africa and are doing their best to combat famine and disease. Possibly the main humanitarian agency is the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and since the beginning of July, the WFP has reached nearly 8 million drought-hit people in the Horn of Africa with food assistance. WFP is the world's largest humanitarian agency fighting hunger worldwide. Each year, on average, WFP feeds more than 90 million people in more than 70 countries. But WFP’s Horn of Africa appeal remains $250 million short of the funds it needs for the next six months.

These are just two examples of positive humanitarian aid aiming to save lives. Another kind of humanitarian aid is so-called “humanitarian intervention” such as is currently happening in Libya, where NATO and its Western allies have launched an air war ostensibly “to protect civilians”. Many civilians are unfortunately being killed as part of the “collateral damage” that is a direct result of the air strikes. This type of humanitarian intervention tends to morph into one of “regime change” and becomes a full-scale war. Libya is a case in point. There is a difference between war and humanitarian intervention. The attacks on Libya were intended for humanitarian ends but the means used are those of war. The risks of war are several. First, people get killed -often those very people who are supposed to be protected. Secondly, a country’s infrastructure is damaged or destroyed, greatly increasing material hardship. Thirdly, war is always polarising, constructing extreme versions of ‘we’ and ‘them’ and guaranteeing the continuation of military action.

The only sector to profit from military action is the military-industrial complex and the arms trade. This deadly industry is not concerned with the humanitarian theme of “people helping people” but rather with fuelling wars and frequently arming both sides in a conflict. Where does the arms industry get its money? Pension funds and church investment are two sources that should know better than to invest in death. Another source of funding was highlighted by The Independent newspaper recently and that is British high street banks, including two that have been bailed out by the taxpayer. It appears that the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), Lloyds TSB, Barclays and HSBC are investing hundreds of millions of pounds in companies that manufacture cluster bombs – despite a growing global ban outlawing the production and trade of the weapons. Cluster bombs come in a variety of different forms and are usually dropped from aeroplanes or fired in artillery shells. The spinning shell breaks away to release multiple bomblets which disperse over a wide area. The bomblets often contain a copper cone for piercing armour and incendiary zirconium for starting fires. The legacy of these pernicious weapons is that unexploded ordinance continues to kill and maim decades after the bombs are dropped. One third of cluster bomb victims are children and 60 percent are civilians.

One year ago this month, Britain became an active participant in the Convention on Cluster Munitions, a global treaty that bans the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of cluster bombs. To date 108 countries have signed the treaty, which also forbids parties from assisting in the production of cluster weapons. Yet the Coalition Government has made no attempt to rein in banks and investment funds from continuing to finance companies that manufacture the weapons. The state-owned RBS is the UK’s worst offender. Taxpayers now own 83 percent of the bank but that has not stopped it from investing millions of pounds in the arms trade. The other partially state-owned bank – Lloyds TSB – which was bailed out by the UK taxpayer with an injection of £20billion of state funds, also invests in Lockheed Martin, the US arms giant with a long track record of making cluster bombs. Surely the public has a right and a duty to insist that the government acts to prevent these banks from investing in weapons that the government itself has signed a treaty to ban? After all, what could be more inhumane than a cluster bomb - or a human who makes money out of such inhumanity?

But, as The Independent tells us: “Despite clear indications that high street banks are continuing to invest in cluster bomb manufacturers, the government has refused to intervene. Anti-arms groups have called on Parliament to legislate against such investments, or create a code of conduct that UK banks could follow to make sure that tax-payers money is not inadvertently invested in cluster bombs. Yet sources involved in negotiations between the ministers and the banking sector have told The Independent that there has been virtually no movement in the issue since the Coalition Government came to power.”

However, one large institution is prepared to act in a humanitarian way; Aviva, the world's sixth largest insurance company has formulated a ‘black list’ of firms engaged in the manufacture and/or production of cluster munitions. In December last year Aviva executives wrote to a host of defence companies around the world seeking assurances that they were not involved in the production of cluster munitions or key components. Those who failed the test or refused to respond were blacklisted, meaning Aviva will not invest any of its own money in those companies.

This is another example of “people helping people”.


  1. Thanks Marguerite.
    I am broadly sympathetic with your column, but concerned that you are not giving the intervention in Libya a fair crack of the whip. Could you provide some evidence please for your assertion that 'many civilians' have been killed by NATO bombs..? Clearly some have, and any death is terrible. But the only 'evidence' (sic.) that I have seen that 'many' civilians have been killed by NATO is completely-disreputable reports by the criminal Gaddafi government.
    Do you have any actual reliable evidence that more than quite a small number, probably running into tens and not hundreds, of bona fide civilians have been killed by NATO in Libya? If so, I'd need to see it, and so to re-appraise my view somewhat.

  2. Mr Read, you really are something. If the U.S. government were saying civilians weren't being killed you'd have a field day. It is very hard to get evidence from a war zone on the number of civilian casualties when everything is chaotic and the fighters often don't wear identifiable uniforms. Rest assured many hundreds of innocent people will have died.
    Clearly you think that a war you are in favour of is a 'clean surgical strike' kind of war as sold to us by the establishment - the sort you've doubtless written pages denouncing as indiscriminately killing civilians, and being based on establishment figures that are not at all trustworthy.

    NATO has a horrendous track record for killing civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps Libya is different? Of course, who will report on civilian casualties caused by NATO? Any reports from the Libyan side you will dismiss as 'unreliable'. So you can hardly lose, can you?

  3. I want evidence. Not silly semi-personal attacks.

    Meanwhile, the rebels, brilliantly, have made a bid to take Tripoli itself and end this conflict. I strongly welcome that, and I hope all right-thinking people will.