The Future of War and Challenges for Humanitarians

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Written by C. Naseer Ahmad

Changes in technology landscape and world events present a host of challenges. Humanitarians who play a critical role in helping bad situations from getting worse face increasingly daunting challenges.

The Woodrow Wilson Center for the scholars held a seminar in collaboration with the Europa Institute—represented by Dr. Andreas Kellerhals—at the University of Zurich to discuss the “Future of War and the Challenges for humanitarians.” Dr. Robert Litwak, Senior Vice-President, Wilson Center moderated the seminar in which everyone in the distinguished list of speakers had something to contribute by their words, prior experience and the questions asked.

The seminar also marked the Fifth Annual Swiss Day at the Wilson Center giving particular weight to the topics discussed because of the unique role Switzerland plays in world affairs and because the country is the birthplace of the International Committee of the Red Cross and many other platforms that help humanity.

Before discussing the future of war and the challenges for humanitarians, it is helpful to understand what it means to be a professional humanitarian. The Journal of Humanitarian Assistance at Tufts University while explaining the roots of humanitarianism highlights three traditions: (1) private charity and caring for those who suffer, (2) provision of relief to alleviate hardship after and during war and (3) to act in a neutral way and not to seek to affect the outcome of the fighting.

The roots of these traditions are traced back to Henri Dunant who was the key Swiss personality motivated to relieve human suffering during armed conflicts. These traditions have found roots across the ocean. Take for example Clara Barton—founder of the American Red Cross—who risked her life to bring supplants relief to the soldiers in the field during the Civil War. Florence Nightingale, inheriting a liberal-humanitarian outlook from both sides of her family—became an icon in the persona of “The  Lady with the Lamp” making rounds of care for the wounded soldiers at night during the Crimean War.

The cries of human suffering found voice in modern times during the Balkan Wars. “The Cellist of Sarajevo” by Steven Galloway focused on the struggle to maintain humanity in an inhuman place.

The Balkan Wars as well as many ongoing tragedies like the carnage in Congo remind us the quotation of Albert Einstein in the “Cellist of Sarajevo”: ‘we cannot despair of humanity, since we ourselves are human beings.’

From this perspective, Swiss Ambassador Martin Dahinden brings hands on experience with his prior role as Director of the Geneva Center for Demining.

Peter Maurer, President, International Committee of the Red Cross since 2012, and the keynote speaker, brought deep insights into the discussion with his vast experience in diplomacy as well as humanitarian relief which includes being elected the Chairman of the Burundi Configuration of the UN Peacebuilding Commission. Describing the changing nature of wars, he talked about the complexities created by new actors such as non-state actors and factors such as climate change.

There is an unprecedented “vast scale of need…with 65 million people displaced” by armed conflict and violence, said Maurer. In his estimate the loss is around $14 trillion roughly 12-15% global GDP.

While discussing the major challenges faced by humanitarians, Maurer mentioned that “conflicts are compounded by structural risks” such as income inequality, drug trade, unemployment and civil unrest.

Speaking about the challenges, he listed the drastic changes brought about by the fourth industrial revolution. Furthermore, he commented that “today’s actors don’t behave in the same way” as in the past where hierarchy played an important role. However, challenges also provide opportunities for partnerships by pooling expertise. He cited an example of partnership with Novo Nordisk—the Danish multinational pharmaceutical company for “assisting diabetic civilians” trapped in conflict zones.