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Are we using the right terms to describe the situation in Gaza?

Tribune de Genève

On 6 November, António Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations, called for an immediate halt to the bombings in the Gaza Strip, highlighting a nightmarish situation for civilian populations and referring to the context as “more than a humanitarian crisis. It is a crisis of humanity.” One could question the use of this terminology – humanitarian crisis – which was widely resorted to after the Rwandan genocide and sometimes seems inappropriate to describe dramatic events, as it can appear to sideline the responsibilities and political decisions that are the root causes of these crises, to focus solely on the terrible consequences they impose on individuals.

A convenient term?

The notion of humanitarian action emerged in the late 19th century to address the crisis in the political landscape at that time. Initially, it referred to aid for the war-wounded, before its definition was gradually broadened to become a more nebulous concept, encompassing relief actions in extremely heterogeneous national and international territories.

A few years after the deployment of United States troops to Somalia as part of  Operation Restore Hope, the White House — reluctant to become involved again in Africa — pushed the United Nations Security Council not to qualify the 1994 Rwandan conflict as genocide in Resolution 929. Instead, they favoured the term “humanitarian crisis,” leading to the deployment of the French-led Turquoise military operation intended to protect civilians.

The use of the term grew exponentially, particularly on the part of states involved in crises and in the media, to describe the impacts of events as diverse as natural disasters, epidemics, wars, famines, or population displacements. International organisations and aid groups were no exception, as the use of this concept eventually became commonplace among their communications.

A nebulous concept

While the use of the term undoubtedly serves to draw attention to often catastrophic human and health situations, it often tends to overlook the political responsibilities of the crises it seeks to describe. It oversimplifies complex situations and neglects the causal factors that led to the outbreak of a war or, for instance, the advent of a particularly lethal epidemic.

Rony Brauman, former president of Médecins Sans Frontières, highlighted the pitfalls of misusing the term “humanitarian crisis,” which would amount to calling rape a “gynecological catastrophe.”

In Gaza, the conflict cannot be reduced to describing the overall consequences of a so-called “humanitarian” crisis without addressing the nature and the origin of the ongoing violence, the injuries and deaths it causes, the risks of epidemics, traumas, shortages, isolation, and fear. Moreover, the improper use of the concept to describe the situation implies an immediate and urgent timeframe, thus neglecting the historical context as well as the risks of entrenchment and propagation of the ongoing war, and its social and political consequences in the near future.

A case of misidentification

As defining a situation in legal terms may not be within the purview of a humanitarian medical organisation like MSF, the utter need to provide aid to the civilian populations in Gaza should not overshadow the urgency to call for a ceasefire and to ultimately address the root causes of this disaster.

The main goal for medical humanitarian response is to provide care to the most deprived and vulnerable, and to create safe havens for humanity, a practically impossible task without an immediate halt to the current onslaught that has led to the collapse of the healthcare system. Humanitarian action however is not meant to serve as a smokescreen to conceal the responsibility of state and non-state actors who have made detrimental decisions, as no tragedy occurs out of nowhere.

The use of the term “humanitarian crisis” should not hamper the understanding and classification of current events in the Middle East by competent authorities. In this regard, it is our duty to use suitable terminology to describe the ongoing tragedy.

This article was published on 17 November in Geneva Solutions, in French in La Tribune de Genève and in German in the NZZ.


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