Oxford Committee for Famine Relief

Oxford Committee for Famine Relief - Comments

7) Links to the military

-As far as the links with the military are concerned, the rhetoric of Oxfam does not always fit the reality. To limit the impact of wars, Edmund Cairn recommended to: 1) curb the arms trade by combating illegal trafficking, banning antipersonnel mines and adopting an international code of conduct to prevent exports to places where weapons are most likely to kill civilians; 2) bring war criminals to justice, especially with the International Criminal Court; 3) promote peace by auditing all international trade, aid and investment policies which may affect vulnerable countries, 4) uphold the rights of refugees and other civilians through conflict prevention, emergency relief and asylum laws. These two last points are analysed in the following parts dealing with economics and institutional learning.
-Oxfam’s position about arms trade became sharper as years went by. When it started, the Oxford Committee simply asked for a prohibition of all weapons exportations and followed the most absolutist trends of the pacifist movement. Despite the reservations of the Charity Commission and some members of the organisation in 1975, Oxfam-UK’s director, Brian Walker, decided for instance to fund the “World Disarmament Campaign” of General Michael Harbottle, a former chief of staff of the United Nations peace-keeping force in Cyprus. In 1982-1985, again, the Oxford Committee supported the CAAT (Campaign Against Arms Trade). As for the other national sections, they focused on the denuclearisation of the Pacific for CAA or the dismantlement of the Pershing II missiles for Oxfam-Solidarité in Belgium. Later on, the movement asked for a regulation instead of a complete prohibition of arms trade: both by pragmatism and by concern for efficiency. Indeed, Oxfam missed the international campaign to ban antipersonnel mines, a diplomatic success that led to the signature of the Ottawa Treaty in 1997. Since then, the movement has restricted its demands in order to be more efficient. Together with Human Rights Watch, International Alert, the World Council of Churches and Amnesty International, Oxfam thus participated in the launching of a global campaign to stop the proliferation of light weapons, at Lake Couchiching in Canada in August 1998, and in the formation of a specific lobby, IANSA (International Action Network on Small Arms), at The Hague in Holland in May 1999. Unlike the Ottawa Treaty of 1997, this process did not lead to the signature of a binding convention. So when Debbie Hillier published a study on the issue in October 2007, Oxfam tried to focus only on African States that couldn’t control arms trade and prevent massive violations of the humanitarian law.
-Regarding the second recommendation of Edmund Cairn, i.e. bringing war criminals to justice, Oxfam adjusted its position according to circumstances, political likings and the necessity to protect its humanitarian workers on the field. In Biafra in 1968, the movement ended up working with only one camp and assimilated to a war crime the blockade by the Nigerian troops. On the contrary, in Ethiopia in 1985, it intervened on both sides of the front lines and chose not to denounce the deportations of a dictatorship which aimed at isolating and fighting the guerrilla. As a result, Oxfam was sometimes at odds with its commitments for the defence of human rights. For instance, the organisation criticised the warrants of the ICC (International Criminal Court) for the arrest of the leaders of the LRA (Lord Resistance Army) in Northern Uganda in 2005. According to Oxfam, such a decision was to prolong the conflict, disrupt peace conciliation and interfere with relief operations by preventing the guerrilla to surrender and negotiate an amnesty. Likewise, warrants issued in The Hague by the ICC led the Sudanese government to expel humanitarian organisations from Darfur in 2009. After supporting the establishment of the International Criminal Court in 1998, Oxfam-International therefore produced in April 2010 a compendium note on the issue. From then on, it refused to cooperate with the ICC, pass information to the Prosecutor’s Office, comment on any specific investigations or prosecutions, or accept funds from the ICC Trust Fund.
-Yet, in some cases, the organisation admits the necessity for the international community to send soldiers to protect populations that risk being exterminated. With ICG, AI and HRW, it launched in February 2008 in New York a think tank, the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (GCR2P), to promote a better understanding of such humanitarian interventions without infringing state sovereignties. Oxfam-International tolerates peace operations only if they are approved by the United Nations and controlled by civilian governments. Thus, the Oxford Committee, which had lobbied the British Parliament to support peace talks between Nigeria and Biafra in 1968, asked for a military intervention of the United Nations in Eastern Pakistan during the Bangladesh independence war in 1971. The organisation also claimed for a military intervention of the international community to put an end to the famine in Somalia in 1992, the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the siege of Sarajevo in 1995, the war in Congo-Kinshasa from 1997 onwards and the fighting in Liberia in 2003. In a tribune of the Guardian on April 16, 1994, Oxfam-UK’s overseas director, Stewart Willis, requested for instance the deployment of a peace-keeping force in Kigali to prevent what the Oxford Committee finally called by the name of genocide in a press release of April 28. Not without contradictions, as David Rieff points out, the organisation asked at the same time for a ceasefire, the end of the slaughter and the sending of more soldiers! In May 2003, again, it requested a military intervention of the United Nations in Bunia, in the northeast of Congo-Kinshasa, where the Ugandan occupation army had just withdrawn and where Hema and Lendu militias were fighting against each other. In November 2008, it addressed a similar request to the European Union for sending peace soldiers in North Kivu. But in July 2009, it asked the United Nations to stop supporting the deadly offensive of the Congolese army against the Hutu rebels of the DLR (Forces démocratiques pour la Libération du Rwanda), who participated to the genocide in April 2004.
-Indeed Oxfam is opposed to operations that do not clearly meet humanitarian objectives. In October 2001, for instance, the organisation asked the United States to stop bombing Afghanistan in order to allow the distribution of food aid, but to no avail. Likewise, in March 2003, Oxfam sharply condemned the deployment of American troops in Iraq without the approval of the United Nations. In September 2007, again, the organisation asked Paris to reduce its military contribution to the European Force that was to be sent to secure refugee camps in Chad and the Central African Republic near the border of Darfur. As a matter of fact, France was not neutral in the region and its soldiers could also be used to repel the rebels and consolidate the power of allied regimes in N’djamena and Bangui.
-To implement its relief programmes in war-torn countries, the organisation had nonetheless to compromise with governmental or rebel forces. It sometimes collaborated with western militaries. In 1946, the British troops in Germany distributed the clothes given by the Oxford Committee; in 1979, the Australian Navy escorted provisions of the organisation from Singapore to Cambodia in a sea prone to pirates attacks; in 2002 and 2003, Oxfam-Australia was still supported by the army of its country… In developing countries too, the movement had to deal with governmental forces; in 1994, for instance, its partner ACORD used Malian military escorts to travel in Tuareg rebel-areas. The same goes for guerrillas. In 1965 in Senegal, the Oxford Committee refused at first to set up cross-border clandestine operations with the PAIGC (Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde), which was fighting against the Portuguese coloniser in Guinea-Bissau. Later on however, it started to work with rebel movements like the EPLF (Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front) in Ethiopia in 1977. From 1976 onwards, its Belgian counterpart cooperated with the Polisario Front in Western Sahara, while the Australian section gave money directly to South-African activists of the ANC (African National Congress) in exile in Zimbabwe in 1973. At the end of the Cold War, the organisation even went as far as paying combatants or private security companies to protect its assets and its convoys in countries like Somalia in 1993. In 2003, for instance, Oxfam-America hired guards in Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s regime had been overthrown by the Americans. Such decisions gave rise to many internal debates and protests. Quoted by Rebecca Buell in 1996, Oxfam’s workers in war-torn countries suggested to adopt a code prohibiting the payment of armed protection and the running of risky programmes without qualified staff. According to Peter Warren Singer in 2006, Oxfam is now one of the few humanitarian organisations which has an internal memo to manage its relationships with private security companies, like the ICRC and Mercycorps.