An interview with Sir John Holmes

Article published on April 15, 2013.

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Sir John Holmes was UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs from 2007-2010 and has served as Overseas Affairs Adviser to prime ministers Tony Blair and John Major. His new book, The Politics of Humanity: The Reality of Relief Aid, is a superb analysis of the political and practical challenges in bringing emergency and development aid to the world’s poorest, most oppressed peoples. 

Q: You describe yourself in your book as an ‘accidental humanitarian,’ a career diplomat who unexpectedly found himself the UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC), but obviously you became deeply committed to humanitarian affairs during your time as ERC. Was there any particularly striking moment when the reality of suffering in disaster-prone areas and the importance of providing effective humanitarian aid really hit home for you?

A: My first trip in the job was when the reality came home to me first in very stark form. It was a two-week visit to Sudan, Chad and the Central African Republic, and a real baptism of fire. I saw the misery of the camps in Darfur, the despair of those who had fled across the border into Chad, but were still living with daily insecurity and privation, and the appalling living conditions of poor villagers in the CAR who had fled an attack by local armed rebels and were so traumatised that they were still in the bush more than a year later. We were able to help in all three cases, but there was so much more to do that it was almost overwhelming.

Perhaps my single worst moment was a visit to the Panzi hospital in Bukavu in eastern Congo to see women who were being treated for the effects of the unspeakable sexual violence perpetrated by some of the militia groups there. It was hard to believe human beings could be capable of such cold-blooded acts.

Q: The subtitle of your book, The Reality of Relief Aid, suggests that you believe the challenges of delivering humanitarian aid are widely misunderstood. What do you think are the most significant misconceptions people have about relief aid?

A: I fear the principles of independence, impartiality and neutrality which must underpin humanitarian aid are not properly understood. Too many people, including some who should know better, think they are just nice theories which don’t stand up to reality, when in actual fact respect for them is fundamental to the safe and effective delivery of emergency relief. Of course some governments and militias are actively and wilfully trying to obstruct humanitarians when they are in sensitive areas and seeing things these organisations don’t want to be seen. But too often there is lack of understanding of the vital requirement not to use humanitarian aid for any political or other reason, and to stick to delivering aid purely on the basis of need, irrespective of race religion or politics, even in highly politicised contexts like Afghanistan and Gaza.

The other fear many people may have is that humanitarian aid does not reach those for whom it is intended because of corruption or diversion. Naturally I cannot guarantee that 100% of humanitarian aid gets through, but the levels of corruption and diversion are usually very low because the money is channeled not through governments but through committed organisations and individuals with high levels of both integrity and outside accountability.

Q: One of the things I admired in your book was that it faced the hard dilemmas of relief aid without flinching and I’d like to ask you a couple of questions about some of these dilemmas. In the chapter on Darfur, you suggest that humanitarian aid may actually be prolonging the crisis because the Sudanese government can let the international community deal with the consequences of the violence it perpetrates on its own population. How do humanitarians respond to the idea that acts of charity and kindness may play a role in sustaining a greater evil?

A: It is a source of agonising at times. But in the end the humanitarian imperative has to prevail. In other words it is impossible to stand by and let people suffer just because you are worried about the potential wider consequences of providing aid. We have to accept that humanitarian aid in conflict can only ever be a kind of sticking plaster. At the same time it is vital to make sure that you are keeping aid dependency to a minimum, so that people do not lose the ability to look after themselves as soon as conditions allow. One of my answers to the general problem was to try to put as much private and public pressure as I could on the governments and rebel movements concerned to find lasting political solutions – without of course specifying what these solutions should be, since that would have been stepping too far into politics.

Q: Another dilemma you confront in your book is the tension between peace and justice. Obviously, war creates much of the suffering that requires relief aid, but peace often demands negotiating with or pardoning war criminals and terrorists. In your book you seem to favour negotiation and diplomacy and value peace ahead of justice because peace will save more lives. In relation to Joseph Kony and the LRA, however, you essentially argue that the Security Council should put out a “Wanted: Dead or Alive” poster and authorise anyone in a position to do so to take them out. Is there a line in your own thinking when justice can no longer be ignored for the sake of peace?

A: My position on the need to do something more active about Joseph Kony was driven by what I had seen and heard of the appalling suffering he had inflicted on so many, not only in northern Uganda, but long after his expulsion from there, in Congo, southern Sudan and the Central African Republic. His crimes of child abduction, sexual slavery, and arbitrary and cruel violence are truly dreadful, and continue to terrorise hundreds of thousands of innocent people. He has been responsible for much more death and suffering than Osama bin Laden.

At the same time, I was not and am not at all against negotiation with the LRA. OCHA was indeed part of a long-running attempt to negotiate a deal with Kony, which almost succeeded – he refused to sign the agreement at the last minute in 2008 and returned to his old violent ways, in large part I believe because there was an International Criminal Court indictment out against him which could not be removed without Security Council approval – which was never going to be forthcoming. This was a classic case where peace and justice did not go hand in hand. I would still much prefer that the peace agreement be revived or that he face justice, but the fact is that these are not objectives which are easily compatible with each other in his case – and in any event neither looks at all likely to happen for the foreseeable future. Hence, as I expressed it in the book, the desirability of ‘taking him out’ one way or another.

So I think I am consistent in arguing for humanitarian dialogue with all governments and groups, whoever they are and whatever they may represent. But there may be situations when another solution is the only way forward.

Q: There is often a palpable sense of frustration in your book when you write about those situations in which politics prevented aid reaching those in need. Was there ever a moment when you felt completely powerless to help? You mention, for example, that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon felt most at a loss about Somalia because he didn’t know where to even begin tackling its many problems.

A: The feeling of helplessness was worst as the Sri Lankan Government’s war against the LTTE Tamil Tigers was coming to an end in early 2009, and hundreds of thousands of civilians were trapped in the war zone and being killed and injured in large numbers without us being able to do anything effective about it, despite intensive contacts with both sides.

Somalia was certainly extremely frustrating too, but there the frustration was not so much about being unable to get aid in, difficult though that was, but because there seemed so little hope of political progress. In practice things have improved a little in the last couple of years, but I remain sceptical that we are yet anywhere near the real stability needed to allow people to rebuild their lives.

Q: On a more positive note, you must have met a lot of inspirational people fighting to bring some light to the darker corners of the world. Who were the humanitarians who most inspired you to keep going in your own work?

A: Almost everywhere I went I was struck by how many people were prepared to risk their own lives and survive in terrible conditions, in order to bring some relief to others at their moment of greatest need. I was particularly impressed by the number of young women ready to take great risks in very vulnerable contexts. That was why I was always so angered by occasional media accusations of indifferent humanitarian workers living the high life in developing country capitals, and doing nothing effective to relieve the suffering of those around them.

It would be invidious to single out any individuals from the international aid community, but one person I admired enormously for the work he was doing was Dr Mukwege of the Panzi hospital in Bukavu, which I mentioned earlier. He was not only repairing broken bodies but also helping begin the equally essential and even more difficult task of psychological recover. He gave the women he treated renewed hope and dignity, and a place to rebuild their confidence, even when they had been rejected by their own communities, as was so often the case.

Q: What is your single proudest or most satisfying achievement as ERC?

A: There were not many really good moments, because there was always continuing suffering, and so much more help needed, even when we thought we were doing a good job. But one moment I do remember clearly was the meeting when the former head of the regime in Burma/Myanmar, General Tan Shwe, gave to UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon the agreement we had been desperately seeking, to allow international aid workers into the delta area to help the victims of Cyclone Nargis in 2008. It was a triumph for careful diplomacy and dialogue which many had told us could not work. And what is more Tan Shwe kept his word, though not without many difficulties along the way.

Q: What are the most important lessons you hope humanitarians, politicians, and the general public can take from your book?

A: I hope all these people will conclude that humanitarian aid is worthwhile and worth supporting, despite the difficulties; that they will accept that the basic humanitarian principles must be respected by all concerned, without political interference of any kind; and that they will recognise the unpleasant reality that climate change is already producing more and more intense natural disasters, and this can only get much worse.


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