Academic Webinar: Complex Humanitarian Emergencies

Wednesday, March 6, 2024
Ahmed Zakot/SOPA Images

Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

Maria Casa

Director, National Program and Outreach Administration, Council on Foreign Relations

Academic and Higher Education Webinars

David J. Scheffer, senior fellow at CFR, leads the conversation on complex humanitarian emergencies.

CASA: Welcome to today’s session of the Winter/Spring 2024 CFR Academic Webinar Series. I’m Maria Casa, director of the National Program and Outreach department at CFR. Thank you all for joining us.

Today’s discussion is on the record and the video and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org/academic, if you would like to share them with your colleagues or classmates. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.

We are delighted to have David Scheffer with us to discuss complex humanitarian emergencies. David Scheffer is a senior fellow at CFR, where he focuses on international law and international criminal justice. He is professor of practice at Arizona State University, working out of Washington DC, and was previously a professor of law at Northwestern University, where he is director emeritus of the Center for International Human Rights at the Pritzker School of Law. Ambassador Scheffer served in both terms of the Clinton administration. During the second term, he was appointed the first-ever U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues. And he led the U.S. delegation to the UN talks establishing the International Criminal Court. Of particular interest to this group is his book, All the Missing Souls: A Personal History of the War Crimes Tribunals, published by Princeton University Press in 2013.

Welcome, David. Thank you very much for speaking with us today.

SCHEFFER: Thank you, Maria.

CASA: If you could begin by giving us a little bit of context, defining complex humanitarian emergencies, and maybe giving us a few examples.

SCHEFFER: I will certainly do so. And it’s a great pleasure to be with everyone here today. This is a large audience and a very distinguished one, of students, of professors, of deans, and others in this space in our life, which is an interest in humanitarian needs and causes and emergencies around the world. What we’re going to talk about today is complex humanitarian emergencies. And it’s not too complex a definition. By using the word complex, we really mean that these are humanitarian needs—which usually look to issues of food security, to habitat, to safety, and security, and one’s livelihood—that enables one to live and thrive where one permanently lives and thrives.

But then we have humanitarian emergencies. And they get complex when people are being displaced from where they normally live and nominally thrive as normal human beings. They get displaced by armed conflict, or by economic disparities, extreme poverty, or by climate change, or by political upheavals and rivalries within their countries, particularly targeting particular ethnic groups. That creates a complex situation because in order to solve it, you have to think not only of the basic necessities of life to solve it, but you have to think about war, how to solve that, or the climate crisis, how to solve that, or extreme poverty, how to solve that. And that makes it an extremely complex problem.

What I want to do is speak for about maybe eight, nine minutes or so, and then open this up for a fulsome discussion among our many participants. And that means not necessarily asking me a question, but perhaps delivering a comment of your own—brief, of course, because we have a lot of people on this—so that you can contribute to this and add to the educational value of this for students now, and in the future. I want to point out the very latest list of humanitarian emergencies that have been identified by the International Rescue Committee. And their latest report, I think is—you know, in 2024 is a very, very enlightening one. And I encourage everyone to link on to it at some point after this discussion to look at it.

The top ten are as follows: Sudan, the occupied Palestinian territory—which, of course, many countries would regard as the state of Palestine. More than 130 countries recognize that territory as the state of Palestine. But nonetheless, it’s now in the number two position, which is probably obvious to everyone on this webinar, given the news since October 7. South Sudan is number three. Burkina Faso, number four. Myanmar, number five. Mali, number six. Somalia, number seven. Niger, number eight. Ethiopia, number nine. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, number ten. And then, without ranking, but in the eleven through twenty slots are Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Chad, Ecuador—for the first time—Haiti, Lebanon, Nigeria, Syria, Ukraine, and Yemen.

So, among those twenty countries, you can see that there’s a tremendous challenge. Now, interestingly, the total number of people who are regarded as being caught up and trapped in humanitarian emergencies actually declined slightly or somewhat, from 2023 to 2024. In 2023, that number was about 363 million people in the world were trapped in humanitarian emergencies. In 2024, it’s estimated to be about 300 million. But that’s an incredible number. And I think in our recent understanding of humanitarian emergencies, remember that in Gaza two million people live. And they were not really on that list prominently until this year.

I want to emphasize that the three major components that we typically see in humanitarian emergencies of this character, the engines of them, are: armed conflict, climate change, and economic shocks. And sometimes there’s a combination of them, where you will see a country and it’ll be identified—for example, Syria, Somalia, and Ethiopia, are described as humanitarian crises or emergencies driven by both conflict and climate change, coming together as sort of a double power punch at the people to forcibly displace them from their homes.

I think in the readings—one of the most interesting readings that we offered to you on the list is the one regarding Sudan, which is kind of a sleeper now because it’s overtaken by the situation in Gaza and in Ukraine in the last couple of years. But Sudan is getting worse and worse and worse. And it is now at the top of the list. You’ll recall that in 2003 we were struggling with genocide in Darfur in Sudan. And that has actually resurrected itself in the last year or so in terms of continued genocide in Darfur. But that’s just part of the entire conflict in Sudan, which is an armed conflict. And it is driving tens and tens of millions of Sudanese across the borders into Chad, into South Sudan, forcibly displacing them within Sudan itself. So that is a true emergency.

I want to point out a couple of sort of larger cosmic issues for you all to think about. One, you know, since after—well, in the early 2000s there was a tremendous amount of focus—and I was part of this—put on creating this principle called “responsibility to protect” (R2P). And it was memorialized in an outcome summit statement of the UN General Assembly in 2005, you know, in two paragraphs—I think it was paragraphs 136-137. But it was focused on the responsibility to protect populations who are victimized by atrocity crimes. Not by climate change, not by economic shocks, not by armed conflicts, per se. But rather by atrocity crimes—genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and they also listed ethnic cleansing specifically, even though that is part of crimes against humanity.

But the point is that the world’s focus was on a duty to prevent—or a responsibility to protect—exposed populations to those crimes, a responsibility both domestically and then, if it’s not done domestically, the international community has to put that focus on it and ultimately work through the Security Council to address the problem. I would suggest that we’ve reached a stage now where, first of all, the responsibility to protect principle has come under great strain, particularly given the fractured character of the Security Council, to the extent that it’s not achieving the promise that it originally held.

But we need to start thinking about what I would call a responsibility to survive, R2S. I’m just throwing this out at you. Because the humanitarian emergencies of our time are enormous. And they require very, very rapid action. And they require a focus on the responsibility of governments to address these humanitarian emergencies, both governments that have to address them domestically because they’re happening inside those countries but, of course, also the world community to try to staunch the egregious sort of assault on the humanity of various populations.

And I just think we’ve reached that stage now where we have to have a responsibility to survive principle out there that holds governments accountable. And that takes me sort of to the next cosmic point I want to point out, which is I have—because my career has been in international criminal justice for decades now, and I’m always looking at, you know, who’s the next war criminal. And we just got that announcement yesterday out of The Hague with respect to indictments on two Russian military officials with respect to war crimes and crimes against humanity against the Ukrainian people during the winter season in that conflict. So that’s good. That’s good. Accountability for atrocity crimes is definitely part of our system now. It doesn’t work perfectly, obviously, but it’s there.

What we are missing is holding accountable what I would call burden shifters. These are leaders who just dump burdens on the rest of us. They’re just dumping. A humanitarian emergency is a burden on the rest of the international community. That’s not a critical step. I mean, I’m just—obviously, we have to react to that and deal with it. But I always marvel at how certain leaders think that they can just act in a manner that shifts an enormous burden for taking care of just the basic necessities of life of tens of millions of people—they can just sort of dump it on to the international community.

And so, we don’t have a system politically where we call out the leaders who—they might not be doing anything illegal, per se, but they sure as heck are shifting an enormous burden off of their shelf of responsibility and governance onto the rest of the world. And I think we should more clearly identify those individuals. We should figure out a way to identify burden shifters among leaders, strongmen or otherwise, around the world.

And finally, I want to just make a final comment about Gaza, which of course has seized our attention so much particularly since October 7. What I have found disconcerting in analyzing this from an international law perspective is that I found myself in October-early November, rather easily stating principles of law pertaining to the right of self-defense, how one engages on a daily basis in combat in terms of recognizing principles of law that focus on proportionality, distinction, necessity, humanity, in how one wages combat between two combating forces. And to keep the fate of the civilian population, you know, front and center in how you engage on a day-by-day basis in combat.

International lawyers, military lawyers, we can all talk about this. And there are lots of principles. It’s sort of a microscopic aspect of international law. We’ve got the Geneva Conventions of 1949. We’ve got the 1977 protocols to them. We have the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. We’ve got the statutes of the other tribunals of the last thirty years, all focusing on how, particularly judges, would determine, have war crimes been committed? Has a crime against humanity been committed? Has genocide been committed? That can all be determined on a sort of classic, day-by-day basis. It’s very granular. It can get very, very granular, in the courtroom particularly.

But what international does not have—international law has not done yet is what we see in—what we haven’t accomplished a structure for yet is what we see really unfold in Gaza, whereby even if one can justify a daily use of military force, there has to be some structure in international law that defines the totality of what is occurring, and whether that is justifiable under law. Namely, how long does a military assault take place in Gaza, against what collection of targets, with what impact on the civilian population? At what point would international law step in and say: There is a red line here that you cannot cross any further.

We don’t have that kind of structure in international law. It’s not there. That has to be a political decision. And you see that being played out now in the news, with the United States becoming more concerned, obviously, about the humanitarian situation there. Sort of coming late to the party. And the rest of the world being somewhat outraged by it. And yet in law, we don’t really have that structure for that totality analysis. And whether or not, when you start a conflict if you want to comply with international law—and, of course, you know, one could argue Hamas has no intention of complying with any law at all, so it’ll just proceed as it sees fit.

But if you’re a law-abiding force, then you might sit down and say, well, over the next two to three months if we use military force in the following way in order to defeat Hamas, what does that mean in terms of the totality of the destruction, the totality of deaths, the totality of injuries? And where does it leave the population at the end? Are they in a state of starvation? You know, what do we anticipate? Does law give us any guidance here? And so, I just want to put that position down on the table, that I have found it somewhat frustrating that in analyzing the humanitarian emergency of Gaza, international law helps to some extent it just doesn’t go far enough in giving us guidance beyond that. It really becomes very much a political dynamic, as opposed to a strictly legal one.

So let me leave it at that for my little introduction and let’s dive into it. People are free to share a comment or two. I strongly encourage students to participate. This is for you, the students, primarily. And so we want you to participate. Do not be shy. And obviously, we’ve got many other distinguished faculty members, deans, et cetera, on. And I welcome all of you for comment, for questions, but everyone should keep it short so that we can get as many people as possible.

So I turn it over to Maria.

CASA: Thank you, David.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

We will start out with a question from Jonathan Cristol, adjunct assistant professor of political science at Yeshiva University. Jonathan. You have the unmute prompt to accept. Oh, we can come back to you later, Jonathan.

Let’s go to Stephen Kass, adjunct professor at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University.

Q: Thank you, Maria. David, thank you so much for this very modest, self-effacing series of comments, and for all the great work you have done for the world.

My question is not about the second subject, Gaza, but about the first. You raised the R2S suggestion. The problems of conflict, and climate change, and economics that are driving the migration and the humanitarian crises you focused on are hard to pin on particular leaders. In fact, it’s the international community that, to a very considerable degree, has flooded the world with arms, and certainly has led to the extraordinary climate impacts that are driving people off their land. I agree that corruption is an issue, but it seems to me hard to pin responsibility for the first two significant causes of these crises on individual leaders, particularly in the developing world.

SCHEFFER: Stephen, I accept the premise of your question. I would simply add that really what I’m focusing on are those leaders that self-initiate, in particular, armed conflicts that drive—that are sort of power-seizing conflicts internally that drives so much of this. I mean, I could—you know, the Myanmar military would be, you know, sort of candidate number one.

But even on climate change, et cetera, I mean, I would look back at the presidency of Mr. Bolsonaro in Brazil, and ask during—you know, during his term what did he do with respect to climate change challenges in Brazil that either exacerbated the situation there or, you know, diminished them? Not necessarily for purposes of legal culpability, but I think to call them out, to essentially almost shame them under old human rights principles of shaming. That they were part of the problem and not part of the solution.

So it’s—I accept exactly what you’re saying. I’m just saying that I still think there should be some focus on the responsibility of leaders to get it as right as possible while they’re in governance, and not to sort of cross what I would call as red lines that clearly exacerbate situations that that can lead to humanitarian emergencies. That’s my basic point.

CASA: Thank you. Your comments on burden shifting has interested our audience. We have two written questions that I’ll put together for you.

One is from Fodei Batty, professor of political science at Quinnipiac University, who says: Dr. Scheffer points out leaders who dump their problems, burdens, responsibilities on the rest of U.S./international community. But don’t such bad leaders do so because the rest of the international community is complicit in their actions? Every bad leader has a powerful friend somewhere in the international community who offers them some level of protection because of their own national interests. How do you go around the problem? Should great powers be more responsible in who they regard as friends and who others consider bad leaders?

And second to that is a written question from Elke Zuern, professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College, who writes: My class is interested in a bit more detail on your interesting point regarding burden shifters.

SCHEFFER: Right. Well, let me—let me answer both of them. I think what you’re identifying is a clearly acknowledged point, which is the double standards involved. And I’m extremely conscious of that. The Global South in particular I think today looks at the actions of the major powers—whether it be China, Russia, the United States, the European Union—and their responsibility for climate change over the decades, and also for economic issues that they perhaps could have had much greater influence in solving rather than exacerbating, whether it be almost, you know, punitive tariff regimes, et cetera, that put a great burden on developing economies. So I get it. I’m not trying to exclude the great powers from burden shifting.

And I know it’s probably controversial to sort of place the United States in yet another position of responsibility in the world, but I think we always are recognizing the contribution the United States made, unfortunately, to climate change, and also to economic situations in various parts of the world that we try to solve, but that we also have to recognize sometimes we’re the cause of, at least partially, in the beginning. So yeah, it’s not—I mean, I’m not trying to establish legal accountability. I’m just trying to say that there must be a recognition in governance.

What is governance of a society? What does it comprise of? Does it comprise, regardless of double standards or whatever, dumping these problems on other countries? Is that good governance, or is that bad governance? How does one define governance today? It might sound a little simplistic, but I see it every day in the news. And so, I think that gets to the second question that I just want to emphasize. I find that in almost everything that I approach these days with international parties—whether they be in academia, in government, in journalism—that the double standards argument is constantly being made.

For example, I have tried for two years just on my narrow beat of the world—international criminal law—to work with others to construct a special tribunal on the crime of aggression against Ukraine. And yet, it has proven so difficult to do that because of the allegation of double standards, particularly by the Global South. That we’re paying attention to what has happened in Ukraine as opposed to paying attention to what has happened elsewhere in the world, even with respect to the crime of aggression. And in particular for the United States, you know, the first utterance is, well, what about the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003? Please explain. So that comes up again, and again, and again. And it’s a very, very difficult hurdle to jump.

CASA: Thank you.

We will take the next question from Clemente Abrokwaa, associate teaching professor at the African Studies Program at Pennsylvania State University. Clemente.

Q: Thank you so much for your insightful talk. I have two short questions.

And the first one is, the numbers that you mentioned, regarding the humanitarian crisis and so on, I could tell that—we could all tell that a greater number of it is from Africa. And I wanted to know why that is so. And second—my second question also is—echoes the first speaker, that mentioned about by the flooding of the—of guns or weapons at the international level that goes into Africa, and elsewhere. I know that Africa is—you know, they don’t really manufacture these guns. They buy them. So how can that be checked? Yeah, so basically those are my two questions. Thanks.

SCHEFFER: Well, thank you so much, Clemente. I will do my best to answer these. In terms of their first question, what we have seen in the last year in particular in Africa is the tumult and somewhat the collapse of democratic governance and stability in the Sahel region of Africa, the middle part of Africa. One country after another. And those countries are all popping up on the Humanitarian Emergency Register now. And it is driven by internal power struggles, internal armed conflicts. I don’t think I would—I mean, I could be proven wrong on this—but I don’t think we’re looking in the Sahel necessarily at cross-border armed conflicts. I think almost everything there right now is internal. I could be proven wrong on that. But, of course, you have the outside influence, particularly of the Wagner Group from Russia, and other nonstate actors, are ginning things up in the Sahel. And I think that shows the increased focus on Africa in the humanitarian emergency space.

As far as the weapons are concerned, I have found it rather ironic—and sort of understandably ironic, but still ironic—that when it comes to the flow of weapons, on the one hand we have an intense need—at least many of us would argue—for there to be arms manufacturing and arms transfers to Ukraine to defend itself from Russian aggression. That has—you know, in the human rights community we normally and naturally argue for regulation of arms transfers, for limitation of arms transfers. All of this is bad. However, in the last couple of years, I’ve seen a very clear shift in attitudes, whereby, frankly, the task of saving humanity actually requires manufacturing arms and delivering them to countries in need who are acting in self-defense.

And we didn’t really—you know, we didn’t have an adequate capacity to do that when the Ukraine war of 2022 broke out. And we’ve been catching up ever since. I mean, the stories out of Europe with trying to regalvanize their arms manufacturing plants, building new ones in order to meet this need—not only for Ukraine, but also in the future for the defense of Europe under NATO—is all an arms manufacturing, arms transfer issue. And of course, here in the United States it’s a huge issue now of gearing up the arms industry and paying them with public funds to actually provide all of these arms.

So then you come to Africa. And unfortunately, the spillover is a lack of focus on regulating arms transfers. There’s a treaty out there on arms transfers that is more or less been—you know, has laid fallow now. But it just means the focus has turned away from actually regulating arms transfers to ramping up arms manufacturing, and presumably legitimate transfers. But I think the blowback is, in Africa, you’re going to see a lot of that just gin up more availability of arms for conflicts, particularly non-international armed conflicts, which are not helpful to peace, security, stability, and good governance in Africa. So I’ll leave it there for that answer.

CASA: Our next question is a written one. It comes from Zoe Hughes, a graduate student at Stanford University: What value do legal frameworks of war hold in the now, if the global audience cannot confidently assess in the now proportionality and necessity? How do you recommend the global audience factors the laws of war into their response to wars?

SCHEFFER: That’s a very, very good question, because it makes even my job very difficult too. In other words, on a day-by-day basis how am I supposed to assess, sitting here in Washington, DC, the extent to which the Israeli Defense Forces have complied with the law of war and international humanitarian law yesterday in the conflict? How do I understand what Hamas has or hasn’t done in that respect? It’s very, very difficult for the public to know what, ultimately in a courtroom, would be the evidence of whether or not a military force has complied with the standard principles—which we do have in customary international law; we have it in rules of engagement, et cetera—of, proportionality, namely you don’t kill more civilians than is absolutely necessary to get at the military advantage of hitting that combat force you’re trying to hit at, and necessity, that the object here is to go after Hamas and no one else.

And distinction, between trying to identify between civilians, and, in this case, Hamas. If they’re in a residential building, do you know who’s the civilians and who are the Hamas fighters? How do you calculate that? And if they’re firing back at you out of one window, what’s the story with the window on top? Is that fair game? Who knows? Those are determinations of distinction. And then just basic humanity, which sometimes the military describes as fighting with honor. Namely, yeah, there’s an enemy. There’s combat. But there’s also the honor of doing it in a way that complies with law and, of course, preserves the civilian population to the greatest extent possible.

I think my point is, when I say, “the civilian population to the greatest extent possible,” yes, on any given day, with any given strike. But the question is, are you asking the larger—I mean, does one ask the larger question of, at what point is the civilian population, frankly, perhaps of more significance than totally defeating the enemy? Literally, at what point does that red line get crossed? And so that would be my response.

CASA: Next question comes from Otávio Cunha, an undergraduate student at Lewis University, who writes: With respect to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, what role, if any, is the United Nations Security Council playing in addressing the situation and promoting a peaceful resolution to the conflict?

SCHEFFER: Well, they have—they have been convening and holding sessions, and resolutions have been introduced calling—particularly those introduced by almost everyone other than the United States—call for a full ceasefire. And I think in the minds of many of those who introduced those resolutions, a permanent ceasefire. Now, the United States, as you probably know from reading the news of the last few weeks, has been shifting its position now to this term “ceasefire.”

I think has been somewhat confusing for the general public because I think most of the public sees ceasefire as a permanent thing. Whereas you can have a temporary ceasefire for humanitarian purposes as well, and it’s still a ceasefire, but for a temporary period of time. And that’s really what the United States has been supportive of. And I know that Vice President Kamala Harris recently emphasized in Selma on Sunday that the United States supports a temporary ceasefire of six weeks to get this humanitarian situation under control and to get the hostages returned. Those are the two big, you know, priorities.

But it’s that dispute within the Security Council over are you permanently ending the war or are you just temporarily. The United States has not been prepared yet to say under Chapter Seven authority of the UN Charter under the Security Council, Israel must completely, permanently cease all combat actions in Gaza. Why? Because of the threat of Hamas. But that is not how the rest of the Council sees it. And since the United States has a veto, there remains somewhat of a gridlock. But it is possible, ultimately, to work our way out of that gridlock in the Security Council if we sort of do two things, from the United States perspective.

One, just to almost ignore what the Russian ambassador is saying. He’s there to score points, as hypocritical as it is. And, you know, he’s just going to say whatever he wants to say. And let’s not get too worked up about it. But I think the other point is that we can actually start to use our leverage within the Security Council I think to get, if I may put it this way, Israel to the right place on all of this. And to make it clear that, you know, we’re not simply going to follow directions from Tel Aviv in terms of how—or, Jerusalem—in terms of how to conduct ourselves in the Security Council, because we need to meet the priorities that are in the best national security interests of the United States.

At this time, I would describe them as, obviously, the security of Israel, but also the humanitarian survival in good order of the Palestinian population in Gaza. And the two of them are going to have to come together as twin objectives and to be achieved as twin objectives. It’s not binary. It’s not one or the other. It has to be both. And that’s what the U.S. has to keep pressing for and persuading other Security Council members to buy into to that formula. And, of course, part of that formula, if I may say, is the end game, which is moving towards a negotiated outcome to all of this that resolves, in large part, this situation that is triggering so many humanitarian emergencies. And to solve it, shall we say, quote/unquote, “once and for all.”

CASA: Thank you. We have a lot of written questions. We would love to hear your voices. So please, don’t be shy about raising your hand and asking them verbally.

In the meantime, we’ll go to Evan Maher, undergraduate student at Buffalo State University, who writes in, asking: We have heard a lot about Palestine and Ukraine in the media lately. Why do you think that these receive so much attention while others, such as the conflict in Sudan, are also popping up? Would you say that it is due to these issues being in nations which the U.S. and the rest of the Western world interact with more?

SCHEFFER: Well, I would say that answers—or, the answer you provided more or less explains it. But I would take you back to, you know, there was a time in 2003, when the situation in Darfur was at the top of the list of attention by even the United States government. And that was in Africa. It was in Sudan. It was a genocidal situation in Darfur. So, it’s not as if just because something is in Africa it will not accord attention. I do think that it’s being out-competed by the urgency and, you know, the attention by everyone on what’s going on in Gaza, and before that, in Ukraine.

I mean, even the media exposure of what is occurring in both locations—in both regions is swamping us, particularly with Ukraine. And then once journalists could get closer and closer to see what’s going on in Gaza, it just—you know, there’s a shock value to that every single day. And politicians and government officials have to react to that. That’ll be issue number one at the morning meeting, you know. And you just—there’s no way of avoiding it. And that means that it’s going to be prioritized for action. But it also explains why you see someone like Secretary of State Blinken, even though there’s the continuing war in Ukraine, the conflagration in Gaza and Israel, you still see that he has to do his job dealing with other issues in the world, whether it be traveling through Africa, or traveling through South America. He does that, even in the midst of all of this, in order to address those issues.

But I have to acknowledge the point of the question, which is right now, the worst humanitarian disaster, emergency in the world is in Sudan. That’s where it’s happening. It’s also in Gaza. It’s also in Ukraine. But just in terms of sheer numbers, it’s in Sudan. And the modest proposal I’ve made, because I work the law beat on these things, is I do not understand why the United States is not taking a clear initiative in the Security Council to address charges of genocide in Darfur under the authority of the original referral by the Security Council of Darfur in 2005, I think, to address the issue of accountability for that crime. Well, that’s still on the books. It’s still alive and active. It can be reenergized, reactivated for the current situation that is hitting Darfur.

And so that’s a way for the United States to say, yeah, we recognize everything else going on, but we need to get back to a problem that has reignited. And that is genocide in Darfur. And it needs to be dealt with by this Security Council, in part to support the work of the International Criminal Court, which has been investigating the 2003 genocide and issued indictments with respect to it. But the United States can bring that to the forefront again and seek action in the Security Council.

CASA: We will now take a question from JY Zhou, who is executive director of the Center for Global Engagement at James Madison University. JY.

Q: Hi, can you hear me?

CASA: Yes.

Q: Hi. My name is Chris Nelms. I’m a student here at James Madison University.

And my question is, you mentioned the list of the twenty countries that are facing the humanitarian crisis. I wanted you to know if there were nations on that list—or that are there were countries that have left that list, and how they succeeded in getting off that list, and how other countries can learn from that. Thank you.

SCHEFFER: Yeah. Well, one of them, although it’s in the second ranking now, is Yemen. Three or four years ago, we put Yemen at the very top of the humanitarian emergency list. But there has been a truce in the armed conflict in Yemen. And, of course, this is where, as you know, the Houthis are operating in order to cripple the commercial shipping through the Red Sea in protest of what’s going on in Gaza. But nonetheless, despite the Houthi, frankly, attention to those kinds of issues, the humanitarian emergency in Yemen, while it’s still there, has greatly receded, and is not even in the top ten anymore. It’s in the top twenty.

So, I think I’ll leave it at that example. I don’t think, for example—well, I was going to say one that I see is now there. I think the interesting thing is what has newly arrived on the list in the top twenty, and that’s Ecuador. Who would have thought, you know? But the situation there is quite dire now, politically, and also with armed gangs and stuff. So that’s a very difficult one. And, by the way, I would also just make an editorial comment about Haiti, which is in the top twenty. Not the top ten, but the top twenty of the IRC list.

It is—it’s not as if millions or thousands of people are being displaced in Haiti. They honestly don’t have very much territory to go to, even if they were. But rather, it’s the state of life in Haiti as controlled by the gangs as opposed to a government in Haiti. And there’s—just to go back to the last question on the Security Council—the Security Council has been laboring for a long time now, to try to get some kind of law enforcement capacity into Haiti. Kenya offered peacekeepers for that purpose. And then there’s been some backtracking. Everything is now under discussion again.

But I have always thought, you know, because I dealt with Haiti during the Clinton administration and saw it upfront. I’ve always thought Haiti really is a special responsibility of the United States. It’s in our neighborhood. It was the first real surge of democracy in the western hemisphere. And we have a lot of immigrants from Haiti. And I just think if this country were to have some special responsibility for any particular nation in the world—in other words, responsibility to respond, to deal with the problems, to address the problems of Haiti, it’s the United States. And I’ve always been a little distressed that we don’t have a greater push domestically to address this terrible emergency that’s taking place quite close to our shores.

CASA: Ambassador Susan Page’s class at the University of Michigan is joining us, and they’ve written in: What do you think a new international law defining totality would look like? More specifically, would it be another atrocity crime or under a different designation?

SCHEFFER: Right. I don’t know if I would list it as an atrocity crime, per se. I think you might be able to get there eventually. But I would like to see something a little more towards the state responsibility construct to begin with, as opposed to just trying to pinpoint this on individual criminal responsibility. I would like to see more of a state responsibility treaty of some sort, whereby nations agree—it’s sort of like an extension of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, but primarily on a state responsibility platform. So that governments are on notice that once they go down this path of armed conflict, there needs to be a greater sense of the totality of the conflict and what their responsibilities are to acknowledge the realities of that totality, and not try—to put it quite bluntly, you don’t want to slaughter humanity in order to save humanity. There’s got to be a better balance.

And I think it’s an excellent question. And don’t assume I’ve thought this all through. (Laughs.) This has really occurred to me, frankly, from the Gaza experience of the last several months, that we have this great gap in international law. And I do think it could be filled with a better attention to what do we need more than just the Geneva Conventions in terms of a focus on the entirety of the conflict?

CASA: We have a raised hand now from Charlotte Langeveld, college lecturer at Ocean County College. Charlotte.

Q: Yes. Hi. Thank you for taking my question. And thank you for hosting this session. It’s very informative and important.

I worked as a humanitarian aid worker in the Sudan from about 1998 to 2001, and I saw the brewings of the genocide. And, you know, I didn’t see it happen. And I left and I saw it happen. And I’m like, oh, makes sense because, of course, there’s a lack of resources that people begin to fight over. In this case, I believe it’s water. And then—it was water, and then you had, you know, different ethnic groups from the north, and the animist Africans’ land being trashed, villages, et cetera. I just wonder, do we need to look at the political economy, the global political economy, and figure out how to stop gold as being the interest, then conflict minerals in the Congo? And, I don’t know, because as long as governments and corporations are connected, how is the United Nations going to make a difference in trying to address these things? I’m sorry, I’m a little passionate, but there you go.

SCHEFFER: Thanks, Charlotte. Very, very, very good question. And, you know, one of the readings that we assigned is by my friend John Prendergast, “Dirty Money is Destroying Sudan,” from February 27, only a few days ago in Foreign Affairs. And that article points to the very point that you’re making, which is that the source of a lot of the trouble in Sudan is, frankly, a race for gold. And those who are trying to influence that, and money laundering, and, you know, countries like the United Arab Emirates that are just knee-deep in—obsessed with the gold of Sudan. So that’s all very, very important.

But it actually gives me an opportunity to make a larger point, which is I’ve spent, oh, gosh, thirty years on not only accountability for atrocity crimes, but also the huge challenge of prevention of atrocities. And so there’s a lot of focus on that. You know, how do you prevent atrocities from occurring? Is it an armed conflict, where you can prevent war crimes from, you know, being the sine qua non of every day of fighting, et cetera? So that’s—we’ve got a lot of history with prevention of atrocities.

But we don’t have that same kind of sharp focus on atrocity—on prevention of a humanitarian emergencies. We respond to humanitarian emergencies. And there’s a huge school of thought and practice on how do you most effectively respond to humanitarian emergencies, whether it be the provision of food, dealing with refugees, employment issues, you know, political settlements that return refugees to their homes and their countries, et cetera. All of that is part of dealing with humanitarian emergencies.

But I’m not aware of a kind of a school of thought out there where we place a lot of focus on, well, wait a minute, how can we prevent this humanitarian emergency from occurring? We see it coming. And, yes, there will—there are—even the IRC report, if you were to look at it, will say, yes, we need to have, you know, better educational issues dealt with, we need to have better economic relations established, you know, better farming techniques—I mean, all sorts of things to address what could be a humanitarian emergency. And, of course, we need to deal with climate change.

But I don’t see it as a coherent sort of school of thought, or there’s no academy of prevention of humanitarian emergencies that I’m aware of. I could be proven wrong. It certainly has not come to my attention. Because I’ve been so immersed with prevention of atrocities that it occurs to me that one could also address prevention of humanitarian emergencies.

CASA: Thank you.

I think we can squeeze in one more question. Sebastian Kandakudy is an undergraduate student at Lewis University. Sebastian.

Q: Hi.

My question is, how should global actors navigate a delicate balance between the living essentials, humanitarian aid to vulnerable populations, and avoiding unintentional bolstering of oppressive regimes or prolonging conflicts in negotiations over aid access?

SCHEFFER: Yeah. Let me take one prong of your question, if I might. Which is, unfortunately, the reality of responding to humanitarian emergencies so often rests upon, you know, negotiating and getting relief to the oppressed, to the population that is in dire need of it. But in doing so, one can be bolstering the very regime that is causing the problem, because—that’s part of my burden shifting argument.

That, yeah, I know, we got to—we got to accept the burden now, and deal with this, and basically save your people because it’s our responsibility as decent international actors to do so and through our allegiance to, you know, the United Nations principles, our participation in the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, et cetera. But at the end of the day, it can actually be a facilitator for the survival of the very regime that’s causing the problem, because it doesn’t have to deal with the problem anymore. So I think I probably should leave it at that, Maria. A very rich subject to talk about.

CASA: Thank you. I’m sorry we can’t go to the rest of the questions. But, David, thank you so much for speaking with us today, and to all of you for your questions and comments.

The next Academic Webinar will take place on Wednesday, March 27, at 1:00 p.m. Eastern Time. Moisés Naím, distinguished fellow at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace will lead a conversation on authoritarianism. In the meantime, I encourage you to learn about CFR paid internships for students and fellowships for professors at CFR.org/careers; follow @CFR_Academic on X; and visit CFR.org, ForeignAffairs.com, and ThinkGlobalHealth.org for research and analysis on global issues.

Thank you again for joining us today. We look forward to tuning in for our next webinar on March 27.


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