Never Again

I don’t think I can specifically recall the last time there was something other than “Syria” as the leading headline on Alertnet.  I notice this because Alertnet is pretty much my first online stop of the day, pretty much every day. Sure, there are plenty of other things going on in the aid blogosphere. DAWNS and Humanosphere are excellent resources that keep my reader feed alive with the trendy topic of discussion du jour. And of course AidSource is a nearly never-ending source of scintillating conversation related to relief and development work. But as someone who deals with disaster response and humanitarian crises of various kinds as a full-time day job, there’s really no better source that I’ve found for getting at a glance what’s going on in the world that will probably affect my world in the near future than Alertnet. And for what seems like a really, really long time now, Alertnet has had a single story as its homepage headline:


I totally get where Ed Carr is coming from in his angst-ridden rant about students who don’t know there’s a famine on (more than one, actually), or why it matters. But the truth is I sort of gave up on ordinary citizens a couple of years ago. I make my living knowing about famines and massacres, Sphere standards and the nuances of humanitarian accountability. It’s not really fair to expect everyone on the street to have the level of knowledge and understanding that Ed or I do. The IT department, for example, exists precisely so that people like me don’t have to know all about IP address authentication or whatever. I’m sure they roll their eyes, too, when I show up time and time again, unable to make my computer do what it’s meant to do.

And so I suppose I’m not particularly surprised or perturbed that ordinary citizens, like Ed’s students, aren’t busily crunching the numbers on Syria and marching on the US Capitol demanding change, any more than they are hot and bothered about the famines currently ongoing around the world.

What does perturb me, however, is the absolutely pathetic – the less than pathetic reaction (it’s not even a response) by the global humanitarian community. I mean, for how many more concurrent weeks is Alertnet going to report the discovery of another town full of dead bodies, and the response simply be the UN or the ICRC or maybe a random French diplomat opining that the situation is ‘intolerable.’

Really? That’s all you got? That’s all we got?

Yes, I understand that the context is mind-numbingly complicated. I’m not at all saying that one side or the other is wholly pure. Nor am I suggesting that the members of the UN Security Council deploy troops and roll tanks.

But on the other hand, negotiations by the Chinese and the Russians are clearly not helping. Tens of civilians are being killed daily, sometimes hundreds in a week. Forgive my righteous outrage, but I have a hard time fathoming that we (the Whole World) are just sitting by and letting it happen, hiding behind the language of diplomacy.

This is pretty much how I feel:

In Washington DC there’s a Holocaust Museum. In Kigali there’s a Genocide Memorial Centre. In Phnom Penh there are the Toul Sleng Genocide Musem and the Killing Fields. In all of these places you pay admission to look at gruesome photographs or maybe actual human remains, hear stories that make you cringe or perhaps weep, and generally face head on the reality of the dark side of humanity. And at the end of each one you’re confronted with a (rightly) impassioned assertion that we need to never let it happen again. “Never again” is a phrase you see a lot.

Let’s remember that in each of those instances, among a great many others, they all went down in pretty much public view. The world sat by as we’re doing now, watched the numbers escalate, watched reporting new atrocities or massacres the day after, and still managed to have a hundred “good reasons” for not intervening.

I fear that in five years we’ll all look back that this period right now and shame ourselves for having done so pathetically little for those in Syria right now.

Leave a comment


  1. Very well said. My cynical side says that there will be no leadership on the issue as long as Russia and Syria oppose most actions. The UN could not lead its way out of a paper bag so no surprise there. Europeans feel they “did there duty” in Libya and don’t have the stomach for a fight again. And of course Obama just wants the Middle East to go away until after November – he is mute and is just praying the Israelis behave. All this leaves the Syrians feeling free to shoot and kill and shoot and kill. In my mind Syria knows it has a free hand for at least the rest of the year. Was very interesting to read in Washington Post that Iran has admitted to sending troops to fight with the Syrians. So the veil is off that is is not just a one state war… no action will happen, the streets will continue to run red and as you said at some point in the future the world will apologize for standing by while people died at the hands of the Syrian government forces.

    Having been an ngo security adviser in the past in the Middle East and Africa I do pay attention and do wonder how I might get more involved myself.

    great post will be following future postings.

  2. Without debating (too much) the arguments of the post, of which I have some, it would be appreciated if the author(s) could have acknowledge the work of the humanitarians – national and international – in Syria and the neighboring countries that every single day work to meet the needs of those affected by this conflict.

    Perhaps those responding on the ground could do better, but I am not on the ground, nor am I walking in their shoes. I am not privy to the difficult decisions that need to be made, especially when it comes to placing humanitarian staff into harms way.

    The solution to this conflict and the limitations the author speaks are most likely, if not overwhelmingly, due to political reasons, not humanitarian. The argument in this blog does not make this distinction clear enough, nor recognize the practical and dangerous realities humanitarians on the ground must deal with.

    • Okay. Sure – easy enough to critique a blog post like this one for all of the things that were not said. Yes, of course, I acknowledge the work currently being done by humanitarians on the periphery of this crisis, often at great peril, on behalf of those who manage to trickle out.

      However, quoting you: “The solution to this conflict and the limitations the author speaks are most likely, if not overwhelmingly, due to political reasons, not humanitarian.” Well, I’ll just go ahead and disagree. It seems to me, more than a year and how many civilian deaths later, the solution is very obviously not political. I don’t claim to know what the solution is, but I can see from direct observation what it is not.

      I’m aware of the realities on the ground in Syria. They’re not nice realities. Helping those people will not be easy or safe. But then, easy and safe is not exactly the point, now, is it?

      Your comment feels like a hundred ‘good reasons” for doing nothing.

  3. For those following this discussion, you may be interested in an IRIN article that was released today on “Why humanitarians wary of “humanitarian corridors”

    “For many frustrated by the lack of action at the Security Council, a so-called “humanitarian” corridor seems an obvious solution. But the concept makes many humanitarians uncomfortable. Here are a few reasons why:

    Corridors are, by definition, limited in geographical scope and thus “not an ideal solution,” according to Ruba Afani, spokesperson of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Jordan.

    The government would have to agree to a corridor… and then abide by its agreement. Many observers are skeptical. “I would expect the Assad government to bombard or starve any such territory,” said Ian Hurd, an expert in international law and associate professor of political science at Northwestern University in Illinois.

    The massacre at Srebrenica is a good example of why a corridor would require a protective military presence to be effective. Who would police a corridor in Syria?

    At the moment, there is no Security Council resolution authorizing such an intervention. “Despite their neutral character, the success of humanitarian truces, zones, or corridors will inevitably rely on the international community’s political will to take coercive action in protecting civilians in Syria,” writes Claude Bruderlein, director of the Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research at Harvard University.

    Syria is increasingly perceived as a theatre for proxy war and struggle for influence between Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, and Shia countries like Iran. A unilateral intervention by Turkey or any other country could spark a whole other series of problems, and could well be seen as a declaration of war.

    Aid workers worry that humanitarian rhetoric could be used to further political aims. “There are certain interest groups that would like to have a humanitarian corridor because it would improve the position of the opposition,” one aid worker told IRIN. Slaughter’s proposal involves arming the Free Syrian Army, composed of defected soldiers, to protect the “no-kill zone”.

    A humanitarian corridor would presumably allow Syrians to flee safely, but is freedom of movement a major problem? “What we have actually found is that the majority of Syrians who wish to leave have been able to leave,” said one senior aid worker, noting that Syrians have travelled to Jordan from as far north as Idlib and Aleppo. “We’ve been able to speak to people – even in areas under siege – who have been able to leave, but many of them did not want to.”

    The debate over the militarization of humanitarian access jeopardizes negotiations for humanitarian access. “By calling a political and military intervention “humanitarian”, Ms Slaughter blurs the lines and makes it more difficult for humanitarians to do their jobs,” wrote [ link ] Béatrice Mégevand-Roggo, head of operations for the ICRC for the Near and Middle East.

    “If humanitarian actors are not perceived as neutral and impartial, it’s impossible for us to help those in need,” said Amanda Pitt, spokesperson of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in New York.”

  4. Raad Harrison

     /  August 31, 2012

    Interesting debate; J says “I don’t claim to know what the solution is, but I can see from direct observation what it is not….’ Lon responds that the ‘UN could not lead its way out of a paper bag so no surprise there” and then J responds to 7piliers post by saying ‘feels like a hundred ‘good reasons” for doing nothing”…

    None of the posts offer a solution; J says the response is pathetic, Lon more or less agrees, and the other says humanitarians are doing the best under the circumstances. The IRIN article at least describes why one option, humanitarian corridors, isn’t a good option either.

    So easy to be critical, but any chance someone has a novel way of how humanitarians could better respond? I don’t….

  5. Ron

     /  September 1, 2012

    I agree with most of what you say. So today as I read some headlines I find myself feeling very cynical about any action by anyone on Syria and Iran. Just looking at the headlines today (Sept 1). And I really see the lack of any US actions or leadership in any of those headlines – just the one about the US pulling back from the big missal drill in October in Israel. More headlines about Iran -Syria over cooperation and mutual defence talk. And now overt news about Iran – N. Korea aid agreements. From my own country relatively little words except that of pull back and no confrontation. Syria – people will continue to be slaughtered and no action is my prediction in the next few months by any western nation.

    If I was just sitting on a fence watching these event unfold. I would guess reasons for lack of action on Syria and Iran either complete apathy or fear (or what would happen if military action taken). To be honest most US people I listen to don’t see any need for US to take any significant military action towards Syria. At the same time Obama is fighting for his political life – You can bet every sr admin person has his orders, there will be no distractions and no actions that take away from his campaign. All this to say cynically I come to believe, minus any other proof that Israel you are on your own when it comes to Iran and the same for the free Syrian people opposing Assad . Assad has a free hand as long as he only kills a few hundred a day and does not lose control of his chemical weapons he can do as he likes. Israel you are on your own when it comes to Iran – there is little trust and no will to take action during the election cycle.

    Waiting for the next headlines.


  6. Yeah, my question is the same as many of the comments above… what can be done? I know that the agency I’ve been working with has discussed and plotted and visited and so far come up empty. They’re not giving up, but so far not doing much either.

    (btw, just a random factoid. In the Eastern Syrian city of Deirezoor, there is a museum from the Armenian Genocide – this isn’t the first time those lands have seen such pain, making this whole story just more painful)

  1. Never Again | Global Health Hub: news and blogosphere aggregator

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