The Politics of Humanitarian Intervention Detailed in New Book by Former UN Aid Chief

Security Council Meeting: The question concerning Haiti.
John Holmes addressing a UN Security Council
meeting on Haiti in 2010 (UN Photo)

March 11, 2013 – A new book from John Holmes, former UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, discusses the politics involved in humanitarian aid and also provides some insights into Ban Ki-moon.

Holmes, who was the UK ambassador to Paris before coming to the UN, served as the top international aid official from 2007-2010, a period that covered the politically charged humanitarian crises resulting from Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza and the brutal end to Sri Lanka’s civil war.

In ”The Politics of Humanity,” Holmes writes of Ban, that, “In my experience, he was hardworking to a fault, totally honest, absolutely committed to the UN and its role and determined to make a difference where he could. His political instincts were usually sound and his readiness to tell his frequent senior visitors what they did not want to hear much greater than often supposed from the outside.”

“He has his weaker points, of which he is well aware, himself,” Holmes adds in the 400-page book released earlier this month. “He is not charismatic or a great strategic thinker. Like his predecessors he is not in a position to tell the big powers what to do nor to fix their disagreements (of course, they themselves do not really want a strong secretary-general whatever they claim in public.)”

The book’s title reflects the central theme of the often conflicting interaction between politics and humanitarian work Holmes experienced during during his stint, including the Security Council’s unwillingness to put Sri Lanka on its agenda and Ban Ki-moon barring him from speaking to Hamas officials about humanitarian aid delivery.

He calls it “absurd” that Sri Lanka was not on the Security Council’s agenda. “The Russians, Chinese, and others, no doubt with an eye to their freedom to attack their home-grown terrorists, were not prepared to agree that the situation went beyond an internal dispute,” Holmes writes.

He also says he advised Ban not to visit Sri Lanka immediately after the government’s military victory over the Tamil Tigers lest it be seen as tacit support for the government and their tactics, but to no avail. Ban, he writes, “liked being the first international leader on the scene after dramatic events.”

On Gaza, Holmes says he was “unable to talk directly to senior members of Hamas myself since the UN had decided, most unwisely in my view, to adhere to the 2006 ban on such contacts, agreed by the so-called Quartet of the US, EU, Russia and the UN, until Hamas met certain political conditions.”

“The ban should not have excluded humanitarian dialogue, but the sensitivities were considered too great even for that,” he states.

On his final visit to Gaza in 2010, the former British diplomat writes, “I tried again to persuade Ban Ki-moon that during this visit I should meet senior representatives of Hamas, to discuss humanitarian issues with them. This would have been entirely in line with the usual humanitarian policy of talking to anyone about getting aid through, and about their responsibilities under international law.”

Ban wouldn’t budge. “He continued to believe, contrary to the views of many UN officials, that the Quartet had some influence on the peace process … The American under secretary-general for political affairs, Lynn Pascoe, also believed strongly in the boycott of Hamas.”

Gaza and Sri Lanka are just two of the crises discussed in Holmes’ minutely detailed account of his time as the UN’s top humanitarian. Most of the 14 chapters are situation specific and there are sections on Afghanistan, Sudan, Haiti, Mynamar, Darfur, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The “Politics of Humanity” is published by Head of Zeus and is available on Amazon, Kindle edition, $5.99.

Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

UN Cancels Gaza Marathon After Hamas Bans Women Competitors

March 5, 2013 – Next month’s Gaza marathon has been canceled after Hamas banned women from participating, the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) said Tuesday.

Some 551 local people, including 266 women, as well as 256 international runners, including 119 women, were registered to compete in the race or one of the associated events which included 2km and 10km walks. Gaza children attending UN schools were also set to take part in marathon relay teams.

“UNRWA regrets to announce that it has cancelled the third Gaza marathon which was to be held on 10 April,” the agency said in a statement Tuesday. “This follows the decision by the authorities in Gaza not to allow women to participate.”

Last year’s race was won by Nader el Masri, who is from Gaza and participated in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He had been helping UNRWA train locals for this year’s event, the agency said.

Hamas, who have ruled Gaza since 2007, previously banned women from riding on the back of motorcycles and banned men from working as hairdressers for women as part of what is called the group’s virtue campaign.

Funds raised from the marathon were to aid a summer program for Gaza’s children. 

The marathon course was planned to start at one end of the approximately 25-mile long Gaza Strip and end at the other.

– Denis Fitzgerald

Iceland Takes on Israel and Iran at UNGA

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Sept 29, 2012 – Saturday morning is far from top billing at the UNGA but Iceland’s Foreign Minister Össur Skarphÿinsson delivered one of the more creative speeches of the 67th General Assembly in his 9.30am slot. (photo by UN Photo)

In Skarphÿinsson’s own words:

“[T]he first letters of the themes I have broached here today – Palestine, Energy, the Arctic, Climate Change and the Economy, form the word we should all hold dearest here in this hall and towards each other, whatever our differences – P-E-A-C-E, Peace.”

Nice, though if he makes headlines it will likely be for the ‘I” part of his speech when he delivered tough messages to the Israeli and Iranian leaders.

“I listened to Mr. Netanyahu’s speech on Thursday, and I have a comment to make on behalf of the Icelandic people: Don’t bomb Iran. Don’t start another war in the Middle East. At the same time I say to President Ahmadinejad and the Iranian leadership: Don’t build a bomb. Let diplomacy work, not rabblerousing or fearmongering. Let’s work for peace together.”

When he spoke last year, he told the Assembly that the Icelandic parliament would vote to recognize Palestine as a sovereign, independent state: “I’m happy to tell you today, that we have fulfilled that promise. What’s more, not a single member of the Icelandic Parliament voted against the recognition of Palestine,” Skarphÿinsson said Saturday.

He had strong words too on the Gaza blockade saying, “I have visited Gaza and I met with fishermen who are not allowed to go fishing in the waters off Gaza – and it hurts my heart, being an old fisherman myself. I met the children of Gaza whose lives are made impossible by poverty, violence and a blockade that by others than myself has been described as an open door prison.”

And on the West Bank barrier, invoking a politician of times past, Skarphÿinsson said: “I have seen for myself how the human rights of the people of the West Bank are violated every day by a man-made barrier cutting through their roads, their lands, their lives. When I was in Qalqilya the words of a former statesman we all know rung in my head. Mr. Netanyahu – tear down this wall!”

As for the U.N. Security Council: “We must reform it, so as to make it a tool, not a hindrance, for progress in situations such as in Syria this year, or – as we saw last year – concerning the Palestinian application.”

He finished by addressing the sparsely filled GA hall: “Thank you for your beautiful silence.”

– Denis Fitzgerald 

Full text (as prepared) and video of Skarphÿinsson address.

(His strong support of Palestinians was evident too in January 2009 when he refused to meet with Israel’s Minister for Education Yael Tamir who was touring Europe to explain Tel Aviv’s version of its invasion of Gaza, according to a classified U.S. cable released by Wikileaks).