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Diplomacy in Action

Saving Lives, Securing Interests: Reflections on Humanitarian Response and U.S. Foreign Policy

Eric P. Schwartz
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
U.S. Institute of Peace
Washington, DC
September 28, 2011


As Prepared

Thank you George. And thanks also to Jean-Marie Guehenno, who will be part of our subsequent discussion. George, who served not only as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs but also as our Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, and Jean-Marie, who is one of the foremost experts on the protection of civilians in conflict and was probably the most thoughtful and effective UN Undersecretary General for Peacekeeping since the position was established. In fact, it’s rather humbling for me to be the featured speaker today.

I also want to thank our colleagues at USIP, including my friend and former colleague Tara Sonenshine; as well as Beth Cole for helping to create today’s partnership, and to David Smock and Amanda Mayoral for all their assistance and support in organizing today’s event.

I can’t begin this talk without considering the humanitarian tragedy in Somalia and the Horn of Africa. Over 13 million people in the region are now in need of humanitarian assistance. Of the 3 million people in crisis in southern Somalia, 2.6 million are facing emergency and famine conditions in the six areas that currently meet the criteria for famine. These areas are mostly under the control of al-Shabaab, and have been largely inaccessible to humanitarian assistance organizations. Tens of thousands are already thought to have perished, and some 750,000 people are at risk of death by the end of this year.

A crisis of this dimension brings into stark relief the systemic challenges facing those committed to alleviating suffering and promoting the conditions for peace and stability. Indeed, in Somalia, progress in alleviating human misery will be measured by the very same indicators that will test us in future crises: our capacity and our will to address the political and security issues that create most of the world’s humanitarian suffering; our capacity and our will to include in the international system of humanitarian response new partners that bring new resources and capabilities; our capacity and our will to equip peacekeepers with the ability to protect civilians; and our capacity and our will to promote more effective and coherent international response – and, within the U.S. Government – to better organize ourselves for the challenge.

In short, the immediate and urgent imperatives we face in Somalia all relate directly to the broad challenges that will occupy much of the focus of my talk this afternoon.

And what about the humanitarian challenges we can expect in the future? While trends in this area are notoriously difficult to measure, it appears that widespread suffering continues unabated. In addition to massive displacement, death and destruction caused by disasters resulting from natural hazards, we have seen in recent years substantial new or ongoing displacement in places like Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Yemen, Kyrgyzstan, and Afghanistan.

We also face a range of protracted refugee situations where the stakes for human security and well-being are also substantial and significant. In addition, from the Roma in Europe, to Dominicans of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic, to the Rohingya in Burma, stateless people – which number as many as 12 million worldwide – suffer from marginalization and neglect.

These situations create a dizzying array of dilemmas, but progress on each and every one of them is achievable – and generous U.S. financial support for humanitarian response is critical, as an expression of our values and in recognition of our interests.

First, there is the moral imperative – the simple policy goal of saving lives. Our supporters in Congress well understand that our entire annual civilian humanitarian assistance funding is only a small fraction of the less than one percent of our federal budget that is dedicated to overseas assistance.

Second, we have a key interest in sustaining U.S. leadership worldwide, which enables us to influence the development of international humanitarian and refugee law, programs and policy, and to leverage critical support from others. And of course, our influence comes not only from the wisdom of perspectives, but also from the magnitude of our aid.

Third, our humanitarian assistance can help to promote reconciliation and well-being in circumstances where despair and desperation may threaten stability, and ultimately, our own national security interests.

For example, about two million refugees in Africa returned home over the past decade, and the United States provided important assistance for the return effort. Similarly, there are still some 1.7 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan with the potential to contribute to instability both in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Our support of ongoing voluntary repatriation, along with our advocacy and our funding of community support programs that build capacity and services not just for refugees but tie into ongoing efforts to increase services within Pakistan’s host communities who have supported refugee families for decades have been critical in sustaining Pakistani tolerance for Afghan refugees and helped forge creative thinking within our government on how we can work with Pakistan on relief to development activities.

And in the Middle East, we support the UN Relief and Works Agency that assists Palestinian refugees with food, health care, rental subsidies, rebuilding expertise, and education programs promoting tolerance. If UNRWA didn’t exist, the international community would have to build another institution to do the job.

So if our rationales for assistance are sound, how do we better ensure that our actions and activities are as effective as they can possibly be?

First, humanitarians must sustain and strengthen our involvement in policy advocacy. Within our own government and in our engagement with governments hosting populations at risk, we must be relentless, formidable, and highly effective advocates for victims of persecution, violence and human rights abuses. We must be emboldened by a very broad conception of our humanitarian and protection mandate; in short, we must be skillful and aggressive humanitarian diplomats, both at home and abroad.

For example, in Sri Lanka in 2009, my visits with displaced Tamil civilians interned in camps in the north helped me to more deeply appreciate their challenging circumstances and informed U.S. efforts to provide them with assistance. But it was just as critical that I pressed their case with the President of Sri Lanka, with the Defense Minister and with other senior officials – for freedom of movement and return of these IDPs to their homes, and for reconciliation.

In Iraq, Jordan, and Syria, my visits with Iraqis who had to flee their homes have informed our efforts to provide relief, but they have also provided critical opportunities to encourage senior Iraqi officials to develop strategies to promote return, local integration and reconciliation, all of which provide a foundation for enduring peace and stability.

In Israel, I was deeply moved by the testimony of a young Eritrean woman I met in a Tel Aviv shelter, who talked to me about dreadful abuses to which she and her very young son were subjected by migrant smugglers in the Sinai. Our conversation enriched my understanding of ways our assistance programs might help such victims. But we also owe it to her and to other victims to use the insights we gain by such encounters to encourage senior Egyptian and Israeli officials to more effectively combat smuggling and provide aid to victims – as indeed we have done.

And in Kenya, my visits to refugee camps in the remote northeast of the country, which now host nearly 500,000 Somalis, reaffirmed my conviction about the critical importance of opportunities for self-sufficiency – including education and permission to work – among the hundreds of thousands of long-term refugees. During my trip to Dadaab last month with Dr. Jill Biden, I was inspired by a meeting with a young Somali woman who grew up in the refugee camp, speaks excellent English, and was among the few refugees to be given the opportunity for higher education outside of the camp. She’s now giving back to her community through her work as a facilitator for an NGO in the camp and as a volunteer assisting new arrivals.

The reality, however, is that greater opportunities for long-staying Somali refugees in Kenya will – understandably – require the cooperation and support of the Government of Kenya – hence the critical importance of our sustained policy dialogue with Kenyan officials, from the President and the Prime Minister to Kenyan officials involved in humanitarian response.

Without compromising the impartiality of the programs we are supporting, responsible humanitarian action also requires engagement in broader governmental discussions of policy on political and security issues. Whether it is improving political and human rights conditions in places like Burma, Libya, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or security conditions in Chad with the withdrawal of the MINURCAT peacekeeping mission, these issues have serious humanitarian implications; humanitarians should be offering both advice and assistance at the decision-making table. If not invited, we should be pounding on the door of the rooms where these decisions are being made.

An emboldened and broadened concept of our humanitarian mandate goes hand-in-hand with a more integrated and coherent U.S. Government approach toward conflict prevention and response, one of the key objectives of the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review that the Department of State and USAID are now implementing. And we have two critical challenges ahead of us: first, to implement the Secretary of State’s goal for enhanced conflict prevention and response capacity within the Department; and second, to enhance coordination and ensure integration of effort between the work of the Department of State and USAID. We have begun that process, in part through the creation of a Humanitarian Policy Working Group that brings together all of the civilian agencies and offices engaged in humanitarian policy work, but there is much more to be done.

Strengthened coordination will also enhance our ability to anticipate and respond to a changing humanitarian landscape that demands new approaches on issues like urban refugees; protracted refugee situations; and the protection of particularly vulnerable populations, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons. It will also better enable us to implement ambitious objectives of President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and USAID Administrator Shah to promote the empowerment of women – through a National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security; through support of UNFPA and its efforts to provide reproductive health services in conflict settings; and through efforts to combat discrimination against women in nationality laws.

As part of the QDDR implementation process, we must also work with our military colleagues to best utilize their unique capabilities – especially in quick-onset emergencies that outstrip the short-term capacity of civilian providers – and to develop shared understandings of the principles that should inform and define their engagement.

Let me also emphasize that if we are to be credible interlocutors with foreign governments, we must practice at home what we preach abroad. So, for example, we have sought to ease the burdens faced by newly arriving refugees by expanding our assistance to them in their first weeks after their arrival and we have engaged with the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) in its efforts to address domestic migrant detention practices. But we must do more. For example, while enhanced refugee admissions screening procedures have been important in ensuring that we do not permit entry of persons who would pose security risks, we now must address the major challenges these procedures have imposed on our ability to promptly resettle deserving refugees.

Beyond our efforts to enhance our national capacities in humanitarian response, we must give genuine substance to our expressions of support for multilateral organizations – which can marshal the support of dozens of donors for more effective and comprehensive action. Our bureau provides the bulk of U.S. Government support to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Organization for Migration, and the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. Core program support gives substance to our policy commitment to multilateralism, and enables the United States to influence and enhance the character and capacity of these organizations. For instance, the ability of both UNHCR and IOM to respond quickly to the migration crisis in Tunisia and Egypt that resulted from conflict in Libya was in no small measure due to the capacity that core funding had enabled them to develop over the past many years.

But from Haiti to Somalia, problems in effective delivery of aid and protection have demonstrated that the multilateral humanitarian system has a long way to go. In a conversation with me earlier this month, Secretary Clinton put it very well, expressing her concern that we have yet to develop a consistently effective and predictable template for crisis response.

First, the United States and other donor governments must take aim at serious challenges that are bedeviling the system, including failures in coordination between UN and non-UN assistance providers; limited ability of donor governments to influence decisions made by the UN-led humanitarian coordination structure; and uneven performance by some agencies vested with interagency leadership responsibilities in crisis response.

Second, we must further encourage support from nontraditional donors, while seeking to ensure their participation enhances coherence and effective response. The crisis in Somalia has demonstrated the importance of working with new donors and civil society groups, both for the resources they have at their disposal and for their ability to work in areas that may be inaccessible to established relief organizations. But a proliferation of groups operating independently can also risk creating obstacles to effective delivery to those in need – and these issues must be carefully managed. Also, as we move toward greater inclusion, we must do so with a keen understanding that from the Middle East to Asia to Latin America, governments we ask to provide support to/for international humanitarian organizations will reasonably expect to play a role in shaping further evolution and development of the international humanitarian response system.

Third, just as humanitarians in our own government must engage those of our U.S. Government colleagues who are working on peace and security issues, we and our humanitarian counterparts in international organizations must encourage the further development of civilian protection capabilities in other parts of the UN system, and, in particular, among peacekeepers.

Finally, the U.S. Government itself must make greater efforts to promote greater effectiveness and coherence among international humanitarian agencies – and within the international humanitarian response system overall. We have punched below our weight and we must do much better. No matter how much we enhance our own national capabilities, it will be the major international organizations – the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance, the UNHCR, the World Food Programme, and so many others – that determine the character of the worldwide response to humanitarian suffering.

Allow me to close on a personal note as I prepare to leave the Department of State. Since July 2009, I have worked each and every day to justify the trust and confidence of the President and Secretary of State, and to serve as a responsible steward of the humanitarian brief – traveling to dozens of countries where our humanitarian diplomacy and assistance has made a difference in safeguarding lives, visiting with vulnerable women, men and children in some of the most difficult environments, working to sustain our world leadership in international humanitarian response and our strong support from the Congress, and strengthening the policy engagement and the operational capacity of a bureau – PRM – that has some of the most dedicated and skilled professionals I have ever encountered.

As I prepare to move on, I leave with a deep conviction that U.S. support for international humanitarian assistance is money well spent: It saves lives, it promotes our leadership, and it can create conditions for peace and reconciliation. And while the challenges that characterize this work are daunting, we must not underestimate our collective capacity to improve the human condition – to provide food, shelter, education, basic protection and real hope for a brighter future. In sustaining focused and skillful efforts to promote the principles of international humanitarianism, we demonstrate our commitment to these honorable objectives, and we keep faith with millions of vulnerable people around the world.

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