The United States response to the displacement crisis in Georgia resulting from the conflict with Russia over the status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia is a blatant example of the increasing militarization of humanitarian action. Refugees International has been expressing deep concerns about this trend in Africa, but the Georgia response takes it to a new level.
Humanitarian response is supposed to embody the following principles: humanity (responding where the need is greatest; independence (responding based solely on the vulnerability of the individuals in distress rather than reflecting the priorities of other actors); impartiality (responding without applying political criteria or supporting any particular government or political movement).
Describing the U.S. response to the current situation in Georgia as a "humanitarian mission" is therefore a serious distortion. The President and the Secretaries of State and Defense, while insisting on the humanitarian nature of the U.S. response, chose to have the Pentagon lead it, with the Air Force organizing relief flights and joining with the Army in distributing the supplies. While the Air Force in an August 14 press release pays lip service to supporting coordination by the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development with Georgian officials, the face of the relief effort is clearly a military one.
While the Pentagon insists, according to the same Air Force press release that its "sole goal is to safely and rapidly deliver humanitarian aid … to alleviate human’suffering and save lives," these goals could have been accomplished through U.S. support to humanitarian agencies such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, both of which have the logistical capability to respond quickly to emergencies in Europe. A senior Pentagon official quoted in The New York Times was more honest: the relief effort was intended "to show Russia that we can come to the aid of a European ally, and that we can do it at will, whenever and wherever we want." Secretary Rice told her Russian counterpart that the presence of American troops in the aid mission will allow the U.S. to monitor Russia’s adherence to the cease-fire agreement brokered by France’s President Sarkozy.
We are far outside the realm of humanitarian principle here. The needs of the Georgian people could have been met through a normal aid response mounted by the UN system, the Red Cross, and non-governmental organizations, all of which have been present in the country for many years. This is not a tsunami-type disaster that deman’s special logistical assets to bring in supplies or reach vulnerable people. U.S. military involvement was only necessary to provide political support to an ally in danger. If this is in the strategic interest of the United States, so be it. But don’t use humanitarian action as a cover for what is obviously a political-military support operation.
What’s disturbing is that no one in the public realm is challenging the Bush Administration on its manipulation of humanitarianism. Judging from press accounts to date, Pentagon leadership in the response to civilian needs in Georgia is being taken at face value, as something that is appropriate under the circumstances. This undercuts the civilian arms of the U.S. government and ultimately jeopardizes the overall effectiveness of relief efforts, as well as threatening the integrity and safety of independent humanitarian organizations