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La Pietra Dialogues On the World On-Line
Simon Jackson on Humanitarian Aid in Syria
Wenqi Yu, NYU 17
Florence, Italy
February 26, 2014

In your opinion, to what extent is humanitarian aid involved with politics? Can it be achieved totally independent from politics? And if it is driven by political incentives, how will the country’s sovereignty be harmed?

Humanitarian aid is always already political in a broad sense. But we need to be attentive to how that works in each case. Some organizations, like the International Committee of the Red Cross, have an approach to politics based on stringent efforts to remain politically neutral in exchange for access. Other groups are affiliated with nation-states or have religious ideologies. But all are political in a broad sense. That doesn’t make them ‘bad’; there’s no such thing as ‘purely’ humanitarian action or organization. Our job as researchers is to understand how and in what ways they are connected to politics, since it’s different in every case.

Given that fact, humanitarian activity is always connected to the wider network of relationships that influences levels of sovereignty. Despite the international legal principles around national state sovereignty, in practice absolute sovereignty is constantly compromised and renegotiated from case to case. Think of European countries that concede some of their sovereignty to the European Union or the ways very big and powerful countries compromise the sovereignty of small neighbors. Humanitarian aid and action is part of that wider process.

Finally, there are now some emerging legal norms in international law around the ‘responsibility to protect.’ You can look this up, but it allows for types of international intervention in sovereign countries in cases where, for example, genocide is imminent.


As for the case study you gave at the dialogue, do you think it is possible to carry out the same kind of philanthropic acts that Charles Corm did in the past? Specifically, given the current Syrian situation, what kind of institutions or individuals is able to offer aid that will most effectively improve people’s living conditions?

Yes, many organizations and individuals are trying to deliver food relief in Syria right now, although they do so in a much more difficult situation, with the conflict ongoing. Corm was in a post-war situation in 1918.

One example of an organization working on these issues now is the World Food Programme of the UN. Check out this story for a look at their work.


As Syrian authority is blocking almost all the outside resources from entering the country, it seems that nobody cares about their people suffering from hunger and diseases. If humanitarian acts must be supported by political policies to be carried out, what would it turn out to be if the lives of ordinary Syrian people were to nobody’s interests? Should the international community just watch people suffering without coming up with any feasible solutions to help?

It’s not true that “Syrian authority is blocking almost all the outside resources from entering the country.” A lot of resources are entering the country but they are not reaching certain areas for political reasons, especially in areas besieged by government forces or areas controlled by rival opposition groups. That explains why food prices are so varied even in two adjoining parts of the same city.

In areas that are under siege or isolated, awareness of the situation, as reported by the media, increases public pressure on politicians around the world, and makes the issue important for other countries. In addition, the rival sides in the civil war have made those situations part of their negotiations, as recently in Geneva. But clearly such suffering has not provoked massive external intervention to guarantee humanitarian relief. One reason for that is the risk that massive intervention may itself cause much greater suffering across Syria. So there are no easy answers, only careful political negotiation.


I think for most people, humanitarianism is more of a moral concept than a political one. So what is humanitarianism really about?

I refer you to the definition offered by Johannes Paulmann in the attached article, notably pages 215-217.


Recently the United Nations called for as much as 6.5 billion dollars, the biggest humanitarian donation in history to help Syrian people. In your opinion, how can the donations be distributed in the most effective way? Will financial aid from outside the country really help the people within?

It certainly will, since very large numbers of people have been displaced from their homes and are living in tents, lacking water, food, and other basics. There are a large number of organizations in the country with experience distributing food and other supplies, with good established supply chains and so on. These resources can do a lot of good. But ideally they should be distributed in conjunction with a real international political effort to find a political resolution to the conflict that will allow Syrians to return to their homes and start rebuilding. Syrians are resourceful and talented people, and will be able to start over if given a chance.


Do you think that the power of media will eventually change Syria’s public opinion on their authoritarian regime? How would you predict the future of the country?

It’s difficult to predict the future in such a complex and conflict ridden moment, but the Syrian public has long been critical of the Assad regime. Right now in Syria the media serve many purposes, especially social media, which are used to raise money, raise profile, and distribute propaganda. There is a lot of censorship in the country, on TV for instance, which has always supported Assad, and it is also difficult for foreign news organizations to report from there – all this means the media landscape is a strange one.

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