The Madrid Summit - Creative debates

10 March 2005

Over the last two days of the Madrid Summit, twenty panel discussions have been running, covering subjects from ‘Stopping the spread of WMDs’ to ‘Terrorism and the travel industry.’I was also there for part of the panel on Democracy, Terrorism and the Open Internet. There were lots more panels, and I was the note-taker on a couple of these: ‘Protecting the Humanitarian Space in the Face of Violence and Terror’ and ‘Women, religion, terror, democracy.’ I’ll tell you a little about the first.

The panel on ‘protecting the humanitarian space’ explored how the underlying principles of humanitarian action [neutrality, impartiality and independence] have been increasingly eroded. Humanitarian actors today are often seen as puppets of the West, NGO’s as ‘non-kinetic attack weapons.’


Why is this so? Denis Caillaux, Secretary General of CARE International in Belgium, looked into the dangers of too closely integrating political, military and humanitarian responses to crises. (At lunch he also told me that just before his mother died she handed him a bag of all the letters he had ever written to her, and how beautiful this was, but that is another story).


‘Integration’, said Caillaux, in reality often means the co-opting of humanitarianism for political purposes, or at least its perceived politicisation. For humanitarianism, an independent image is key, enabling aid workers to operate safely, and negotiate access with warring parties to the victims of conflicts. This is becoming increasingly difficult and people are dying as a result.


And what to do about this? Everyone acknowledged it was never going to be easy to work out solutions and that humanitarianism has always been racked with such dilemmas.


Mary Robinson, former Irish President and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, stressed from the floor (not literally) that International Humanitarian Law provided a vital legal framework for humanitarian action and the protection of civilians and urged states, as signatories to such treaties, to take seriously their obligations and not surrender them in the so-called ‘War on Terror.’


Accountability was also flagged as key. Humanitarian agencies must answer to their target populations, not just to donors.


To renew trust in the independence, neutrality and impartiality of humanitarianism, agencies must work far more through local actors and civil society groups.


Hany El-Bana, Founder and President of Islamic Relief, UK, also said something about King Solomon being an egg, but I didn’t quite understand what he was talking about.

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