Friday, January 27, 2012

Humanitarian Space

Humanitarian space "is  often used to denote areas to which humanitarian agencies have safe and protected access, in order to provide urgent relief assistance. This is generally dependent on the consent and cooperation of the controlling authorities," according to

One of the goals of this blog, in addition to sharing personal experiences and keeping me from tearing my hair out, is to share the work I do, and to give people a better understanding of what the humanitarian sector is, and what it means to be a part of it. One of the questions I am often asked is how I choose where I will work. While I am not at a point in my career where I get to choose explicitly where I will work, I can turn down any assignment I like. It occurred to me the other day that the places I wouldn't consider working all have something in common, the humanitarian space in those countries (or some cross-border conflicts) is shrinking or practically non-existent, which in turn would make it difficult to accomplish whatever my task was, but it would also have the potentially to considerably increase the personal danger of the assignment.

Some argue that humanitarian work can be traced back to the Red Cross, workers could run onto battlefields, after the fighting was over, to aid those who were injured on either side of the fight. That is an excellent example of protected humanitarian space, you aren't associated with fighting forces on either side for offering medical and other aid. However the lines between fighting forces and humanitarian groups have continued to be blurred, especially over the past two decades, to the point where humanitarian workers may be in just as much danger as members of the military, except they don't get bullet proof vests or guns. You've heard about humanitarian workers being kidnapped or killed in conflicts where they were working, this is the ultimate violation of humanitarian space, where, for whatever reason, one armed group believes that a humanitarian group is aiding the other side, and is therefore classifiable as an enemy combatant. 

There are overt and covert ways that humanitarian space can be compromised. The most recent overt example is where individuals identifying themselves as employees of USAID (the US Agency for International Development - intended to be a state run humanitarian organization) were later identified as spies in places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq. USAID is not only an organization that does work of its own, but also funds a litany of organizations all over the world. With the connection now confirmed between the CIA and USAID, the ability of USAID and anyone funded by them to claim neutrality in a conflict in which the US has an interest is diminished.

Above is an example of when partisan influences work their way into the humanitarian sphere, but another important way that humanitarian space is compromised is when members of fighting forces participate in humanitarian work. If the US military is in Afghanistan handing out food or blankets or stoves or what have you, they are are generally doing it to build goodwill and help gain the support of the local population. But then suppose I work for the Norwegian Refugee Council and the next day I'm giving out out blankets and stoves; there can be confusion in the minds of local people where the line between the military and the humanitarian spheres lies. What this can lead to is that humanitarian workers are assumed to be partisan, rather than the opposite.

Humanitarian organizations that expect to be granted humanitarian space in which to provide assistance are expected to abide by the principles of impartiality, neutrality, and independence. This means that they should provide assistance to both sides of the conflict, should not do anything to support or diminish the capabilities of either side, and should not be susceptible to outside influences. Many organizations do not take grants or donations from large organizations or governments as it could compromise their impartiality in the eyes of others, as well as their independence as they may be beholden to this funding their activities.

It is in places where humanitarian space has diminished the most: Somalia, Iraq, or Pakistan among others, where humanitarian workers are most at risk, and where you are most likely to hear of them being kidnapped or killed (in my experience, I do not have data on this, but this article addresses related research). One last element that has contributed to greater compromises in humanitarian space is the nature of war. Humanitarian space finds its jurisdiction in international law and the Geneva conventions. But today more wars are between non-state actors, or non-state actors and the state, and these groups are less likely to be held accountable for upholding the Geneva conventions, as they technically are not a party to them. 

We all have our limits, and realizing that mine are based in reality, rather than simply in fear, is comforting to me. In most places I have worked humanitarian workers are viewed as a nuisance (another survey!) at worst, and with gratitude at best. I think humanitarian workers themselves absolutely have a role to play in maintaining their neutrality, but governments must also realize that they put hundreds of thousands of people at risk when they blur the lines by having the military engage in humanitarian work, or ask humanitarian workers to engage in non-neutral activities. There are conflicts where all outsiders are seen as the enemy, as is shown clearly in In the Land of Blood and Honey (please see my post of January 9, 2012 for my review of the film), where Serbian forces attack UN peacekeepers, associating them with outside forces attempting to end the conflict. It is only through ongoing respect of and persistent maintenance of humanitarian space that those employing that space can do their jobs safely. 

However, an important question is that given that the nature of war is changing, and non-state actors often decline to abide by international law, how can this space be protected? The International Red Cross wrote an article addressing this question in Afghanistan. Also the Forced Migration Review dedicated an entire issue to non-state actors and displacement. I have much to learn about the subject, but for the time being will continue to avoid locations where being an American means being associated with the military. And as an aside, this is in no way a judgement of humanitarian workers living in working in places where humanitarian space is diminishing as we speak. You are brave; you are doing good work; and just because the military is active in a particular place does not mean people there are any less deserving or in need of support. Stay safe. 

Monday, January 9, 2012

Review: In the Land of Blood and Honey

The Global Fund for Women invited members of its mailing list to attend a screening of In the Land of Blood and Honey at the Metreon. At first I was a bit reluctant, despite Angelina Jolie's work with refugees I'm not her biggest fan and this is the first movie that she has written and directed. But, unable to turn down a bargain (the New Englander in me) and trying to meet my goal of seeing several movies a month in the theatre, I RSVP'd for two. A fellow public healther who also made her way to the left coast said she would come with me. I've been to screening put on by NGOs before, usually there's 20 or 30 people, if you're lucky. When I arrive at about 5:45 with the movie starting at 6:30, there were at least 100 people in the VIP line (those of us with reserved tickets) and several hundred people waiting in line to try to secure unreserved seats. I was astonished. Did this many people want to see a film about genocide on a Thursday night? Did they like free movies? Or was it Angelina Jolie's star power and willingness to rent out an entire AMC screen? Either way the room was packed, with two entire rows filled with press. Little did I know we were attending the West coast premiere of the film!

I can't tell you to go see this film. It's not that it wasn't good, but it portrays war and its accompanying atrocities in such a vivid way that I would recommend you think long and hard before you go see it. Neither my friend nor I got much sleep the night after seeing it, and she jokingly emailed me that she has a little PTSD with loud noises after the fact. But also note that I am particularly affected by films, I don't sit back and assess what is unrealistic about them, but rather believe it all and let myself by drawn in. So with that said, here's what I thought without many spoilers just in case some of you do choose to see the film after it's February 12 general release date.

In an effort to keep this short and sweet, here are three initial thoughts after seeing the film:
1. The setting and elements of the film outside of the main story are incredibly well done. The entire film is in Serbian and Bosnian with sub-titles. The film was shot on location. All the actors are of the ethnic backgrounds they represent. Additionally, scenes meant to convey what it feels like to live inside of a war zone do just that (from what I've heard and read). The constant, the arbitrary nature of punishment, and feeling of powerlessness. If you have ever wondered what it would be like to live in the middle of a war where a slew of war crimes are taking place, I think this film will give you an idea.

2. I'm glad this film wasn't set in Africa. Now hear me out. Angelina could just as well have chosen to document a different war where genocide occurred and rape was used as a weapon, this war was not unique in that. However, I think that the portrayal of Europeans committing such acts against one another, solely because of politics and religious differences makes the horrific nature of the crimes more difficult for some people to dismiss. I have heard many people say things about genocide or rape or war 'over in Africa'. There is a view that 'those things happen there'. But those things happen in many places, and I think that having perpetrators of crimes against humanity who look like me or many of you has a different impact. This doesn't lessen the importance or inhumanity of such acts in Africa, but I think that once people see how horrific such a conflict is in a culture to which they can relate, perhaps they are more likely to realize it is equally horrific among people with whom they have more difficulty identifying.

3. The main plot. I am a bit conflicted about how I feel about the main plot of the movie, essentially Danjiel, a Serb, and Ajla, a Muslim, go on a date before the war and hit it off. Then the war begins, but they end up meeting again. The main conflict in much of the movie is how they choose to and are forced to interact given that they are technically enemies, but in fact have romantic feelings for one another. I think the plot itself is a stretch, but I also feel like it provides a glimpse of humanity in the midst of atrocity. There is rarely purely good and purely evil during conflict, and many people are 'assigned' to a side which they may not wholly support. The plot is absolutely a stretch at times, I could imagine a skeptic watching it and finding it unbelievable. But finding a love story in the midst of tragedy is also difficult, and just watching one war crime after another would quickly go from engaging to nauseating without breaks where the humanity of people is shown. There is an adage in the humanitarian community that it is easier to make someone care about one child in danger than a country full of children in danger. So it goes with this film, seeing one person struggle with choices, engage in and be tortured, change due to the things they do and witness is easier to understand than watching populations go through the very same circumstances. While it may not be entirely believable, I think Angelina succeeded in making perpetrators and victims of war crimes personable, which is a quite a feat.

As a final note, I know far less about this conflict than others that were taking place around the same time, Rwanda for instance. I cannot attest to the accuracy of the portrayal of the actions of the various factions. However, I can say that the perspective was not entirely unbalanced and I think learning about a war, where ethnic cleansing was occurring, in which the US avoided intervening for years because they said 'we don't have a dog in that fight', is useful, whether through this film or other means.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Happy New Year and Wanderlusting 2012

Happy New Year everyone! Most people who know me know I love making resolutions at the beginning of the new year. One of my resolutions last year was to post more than I did in 2010. Mission accomplished, I posted 23 times in 2011 vs 20 in 2010. I also had more views of the blog, with people from all over the world taking a look (thanks google analytics) with 132 page views in December alone. What this tells me is that my loyal readers (hi friends and family!) are still reading, but that Reckoning with Wanderlust is also getting viewed by people who don't know me (!) and are reading the blog for the material. So blog related resolution for 2012? Let's grow the blog and make it a little more consistent. This means that I'll still be letting you know where I am and where I'm going, but I'm also going to try to keep posting when I'm home.

Also, based on a 2011 resolution to read at least one book a month (I read 39!) I'm going to start doing book or movie reviews at least once a month. This way, should any readers be interested in finding about more about topics somewhat related to what I do, they'll know where to look. As always, for my readers who receive this blog as an email, this is the time of year where I offer you the opportunity to get off that list, especially because there will hopefully be more blog posts this year, which means more emails to you.

Lastly, thanks to everyone who reads, I can't believe I'll have been blogging for 4 years in May! Your support and comments are invaluable. And of course, as I know you're all amazing and talented, anyone who would like to do a guest post about something related to this blog should email with your ideas.