The Independent Commission: Origins and Impact

Welcoming participants to the conference, the Director of Chatham House explained that the purpose of ‘Winning back the human race’ was to take a close look at the ideas, recommendations and contemporary relevance of the Independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues (ICIHI), which had completed its work in the mid-1980s. In that respect, it was a particular pleasure to welcome HRH Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan, co-chair of ICIHI, and Lord David Owen, one of the Commission’s members.

The meeting had been inspired by the sad loss of Zia Rizvi, the Secretary-General of ICIHI, a visionary thinker who had devoted his life to the task of protecting the victims of armed conflict, communal violence, human rights violations and natural disasters. It was an enormous privilege to welcome Zia Rizvi’s wife and members of his family to the conference, and to thank them for the important role that they had played in the organization of the event.

The Director explained that the human dimensions of security had been central to the work of Chatham House for the past 30 years, and formed a specific focus of the International Law Programme, which was established 12 years ago. “The issues championed by the Commission sadly remain as relevant today and in some respects are now even more pressing.” The humanitarian dimensions of security had been pushed to one side in many respects, as seen by recent events in countries such as Myanmar, Syria and Yemen, as well as the apparent demise of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ principle which had been unanimously endorsed by all UN member states in 2005.

In order to analyze these developments in more depth, Mark Lowcock, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, was invited to present the conference’s keynote address, titled ‘Contemporary armed conflicts, humanitarian action and the laws of war’.

In his presentation, Mr Lowcock explained how the complexity of modern conflict poses particular challenges for humanitarians and outlined the progress made in developing a normative framework to protect civilians in conflict. He then set out three areas where more action is needed to reduce civilian suffering: changing the behaviour of belligerents; holding perpetrators to account and ending impunity; and ensuring that humanitarians can stay and deliver where they are needed, even as fighting continues around them. A copy of this presentation can be found as an annex to this report.

Following Mark Lowcock’s keynote address, HRH Prince Hassan observed that the ICIHI had been established with the purpose of addressing three types of situation: those in which mankind was fighting mankind; those in which mankind was fighting the forces of nature; and those in which mankind had created its own disasters.

With respect to the question of armed conflicts, the hopes once placed in the Security Council could no longer be sustained. The Council was moribund in many respects, and its Permanent Members were directly or indirectly engaged in a number of armed conflicts, especially in the Middle East. As a result, a disproportionate number of the world’s refugees and displaced people are to be found in that region of the world. Unfortunately, he said, “frontiers have been closed off and walls are being built” in response to the movement of refugees.

At the same time, the delivery of humanitarian assistance to displaced, besieged and war-affected populations is in many cases being deliberately obstructed by the belligerents and their supporters. As the Commission had asked, is it not possible to establish a declaration on the right to humanitarian assistance, setting out the basic principles that the parties to armed conflicts should respect?

Looking to the future, it was difficult to know what the shape of armed conflict might be. Enormous sums of money are being spent on the development and purchase of arms, and it might only be a matter of time before we see the deployment of lethal autonomous weapons systems.

With respect to mankind’s fight against the forces of nature, the issue of access to water is certain to become an increasingly pressing one, as the ICIHI had pointed out in its work on desertification, deforestation and famine. Unilateral approaches to the question of water will only increase the potential for conflict between states and inequality within them. It is now time for the issue to be given a more elevated position on both international and national agendas.

While we might label such issues as ‘humanitarian’, they raise important issues about the distribution of political and economic power. In autocratic states, demands for the poorest sections of society to enjoy a more equitable share of the cake might well be regarded as subversive and resisted by those at the top of the pyramid of power. At the international level, famines and food insecurity are self-evidently not a result of ‘natural disasters’, but are at least in part the outcome of decisions taken in relation to issues such as deregulation, financial speculation and the manipulation of global markets. Ironically, the Prince concluded, “the people who are hungriest are those who have dedicated their lives to food production.”

In his presentation, Lord David Owen underlined the significance of ICIHI. On one hand, it had identified a number of growing global issues, subjected them to rigorous analysis and set out a coherent set of recommendations as to how they might be most effectively addressed. On the other hand, and in this respect the Commission was ahead of its time, ICIHI had put a great deal of thought into the way the results of its work could be communicated to a wide public audience. Zia Rizvi, he pointed out, had been a driving force behind this dimension of ICIHI’s activities.

Lord Owen went on to provide an overview of some of the ways in which the Commission had disseminated its findings and recommendations. First, he recalled that the co-chairs of ICIHI (Prince Hassan of Jordan and Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan) had insisted that the Commission’s work should not come to an end with the publication of its final report, ‘Winning the human race’. Members of the Commission were expected to propagate its findings and recommendations in their own countries, regions and networks, and to incorporate the principles promoted by ICIHI in their future work. A striking example of this approach was to be found in the case of Sadako Ogata, an ICIHI Commissioner who went on to serve as UN High Commissioner for Refugees for a decade-long period. 

Second, Lord Owen drew attention to the fact that ICIHI had not limited itself to the production of reports. “There was huge informational work to be done with the general public and media,” he said, explaining the rationale for ICIHI’s decision to produce six documentary films for TV under the name of ‘Humanitas’. Lord Owen reminded the audience that social media did not exist at this time, but that newly established cable and satellite outlets such as the Discovery Channel were eager to access new content. As a result, the Humanitas films were “broadcast day and night, reaching an audience of millions in the process.”

Third, the work of the Commission formed the basis of several other initiatives intended to prolong and deepen the discourse on humanitarian principles and action. The University of Liverpool, for example, agreed to sponsor a series of lectures in Liverpool as well as Belfast and Dublin, at a time when the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland were threatening the lives and rights of many people. And in order to give this initiative an international and comparative perspective, a particular effort was made to identify the lessons that could be learned from South Africa’s experience in dealing with the issues of inequality and justice. In addition, the Commission inspired the establishment of a Diploma in International Humanitarian Assistance, an initiative based at Fordham University in New York and which continues today.

Finally, the Commission was significant in its strong orientation towards the Middle East, the Moslem world and the Global South, as demonstrated by the leading role played in the initiative by Prince Hassan, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan and Zia Rizvi. Many of the world’s most pressing humanitarian crises are to be found in the ‘arc of crisis’ that stretches from Bangladesh to Libya, incorporating countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Any effort to promote humanitarian principles and enhance the effectiveness of humanitarian action must now build on the lessons to be learned from recent experience in that part of the world.

During a lunchtime session, the conference continued to consider the work, impact and contemporary relevance of the work undertaken by ICIHI.

One speaker pointed out that the international community is still grappling with the issue of aid effectiveness. An enormous amount of time, effort and money had been devoted to this issue since the Commission sat, particularly after the Rwandan and Balkans crises of the mid-1990s.

But has the impact of humanitarian action been reinforced in a commensurate manner? More specifically, are aid agencies making use of relevant evaluation methods? Has coordination and leadership improved amongst the multitude of actors now engaged in humanitarian emergencies? Are funds disbursed with sufficient speed and used to meet the most serious and urgent needs? And why do the women and children who are supposed to be prioritized by humanitarian assistance programmes continue to experience so much abuse and exploitation?   

While agreeing on the importance of such questions, a second speaker suggested that there was also room for optimism, given the progress that has been made in certain areas since the Commission did its work. In the 1980s, for example, the question of climate change and related issues such as desertification and deforestation did not generate a great deal of political or public interest.

That is no longer the case. Few political leaders or commentators would now dispute the fact that environmental degradation is a transnational issue, with the energy policies pursued by the industrialized states having a decisive impact on developing countries and the planet world as a whole. By raising awareness of these issues, ICIHI had played an important role in reinforcing the principles of multilateralism and global governance.

While those principles have come under attack from some quarters in recent years, the Commission’s key message was one of hope. As the planet’s key challenges are essentially man-made, it concluded, “our future is essentially in our own hands.” And while ICIHI was focused on the big picture, it also emphasized the role of local communities, actors and structures in averting and addressing life-threatening events.

In that context, it was of particular significance that the successor to ICIHI, the International Bureau on Humanitarian Issues, had focused its attention on local capacity-building in specific communities, assisting officials, educators, community leaders and minority populations to be aware of the rights to which they were entitled. In the pre-internet period, this was a laborious task, requiring relevant documents to be identified, translated, printed, disseminated and explained to people at the grassroots level.

Concluding the lunchtime discussion, a final speaker underlined the way in which technology is changing the face of humanitarian action, a development that the Commission could not have envisaged back in the 1980s. It is now possible, for example, to solicit the views of refugees, to provide them with information and even to distribute cash to them through the medium of mobile phones. Similarly, drones and satellite imagery can be used to assess the situation in disaster and war-affected areas that are beyond the physical reach of aid organizations.

At the same time, the speaker emphasized, the issues examined by ICIHI will not be resolved by means of technology alone, especially at a time when so much ground has been lost with respect to humanitarian principles. In Syria, for example, there has been no effort to establish the kind of humanitarian consensus that was once established in Afghanistan. Sadly, many of the parties to the Syrian conflict have been prepared to sacrifice humanitarianism principles to their political, military, security and ideological interests. 

Such developments, the speaker explained, had an important impact on Zia Rizvi’s thinking. Zia came from a generation that was enjoying the first fruits of his country’s independence from colonial rule, and had a great deal of confidence in the capacity of governments to change lives for the better. That generation was somewhat sceptical about the role of civil society.

As his life progressed, however, Zia became increasingly disappointed with the performance of governments, recognizing that they were often captured by elites who had little interest in looking after the marginalized sections of society. “If Zia was with us today, he would say that we cannot entrust states with the task of resolving the Syrian conflict. He would be appalled by the way that the Security Council has captured the humanitarian agenda. He would want mobilize the outrage and indignation of civil society in order to put pressure on political leaders. His appeal to us would be to go out and fight so as to win back the human race.”