It is a commonplace to say that the world has changed since the tragic events of September 11. This also holds true for those dedicated to humanitarian action—to the prevention of death and the alleviation of suffering during crisis and conflict, irrespective of any consideration other than need. The cause of the change for us, however, is not so much the attacks themselves or their vicious character. Sadly, such great loss of life and willingness to inflict death indiscriminately upon innocent civilians is nothing new, as those of us who have worked in areas of conflict know only too well.
What has changed is that, as a result of these attacks, the leading international power, the United States, has declared a new global war on terrorism. This war, as it has been defined, pits terrorism against freedom, and those who would imperil humanity against those who stand to defend it. While the main focus, thus far, has been on Afghanistan, the repercussions have swiftly embraced the entire planet. Like the Cold War, this is an open-ended, global fight defined to uphold both interests and values. Yet unlike the Cold War, it is one in which alliances are constantly shifting, the enemy consists primarily of an ill-defined set of nonstate actors as well as their purported state sponsors, and territorial control is not necessarily an aim.
The U.S.–led war on terrorism poses a number of challenges for independent humanitarian action and the principles that underpin it. First, it seeks to subordinate humanitarianism to its broader purpose, undermining the ability of humanitarian actors to impartially reach out to all victims. Second, by questioning the applicability of international humanitarian law, the antiterrorism campaign could well threaten the fundamental restraints on the conduct of warfare, thus weakening the protection and assistance to which civilians are entitled. Third, there is a shift in attention to conflicts worldwide, and the victims they generate, making it more difficult to respond to crises at the margins of current priorities.