Preserving Humanitarian Space
Expected Council Action
In July, France is organising a ministerial level briefing on preserving humanitarian space as a signature event of its presidency. The meeting is expected to be held in person. Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, will chair the meeting.
Secretary-General António Guterres and Robert Mardini, the Director-General of the International Committee of the Red Cross, are expected to brief the Council. Lucile Grosjean, the Delegate Director of Advocacy at Action Against Hunger, is also expected to brief.
Background and Key Recent Developments
In recent times, the humanitarian situation in a number of countries on the Council’s agenda has become progressively dire. In Afghanistan, as many as 18.4 million people, almost half the population, are expected to require humanitarian assistance in 2021. This is a dramatic increase from the beginning of 2020, when 9.4 million Afghans were in need of humanitarian aid. Food insecurity in Afghanistan has also reached alarmingly high levels. Of the country’s 34 provinces, 27 are currently above the emergency threshold of acute malnutrition, and 14.1 million people were expected to be at crisis or emergency levels of food insecurity by the end of May.
Similarly, there are currently an estimated 13.4 million people who need humanitarian support in Syria, while the World Food Programme delivered food to 4.8 million Syrians in March. In Yemen, 20.7 million people currently require humanitarian assistance. Mark Lowcock, the former Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, recently informed the Council that five million Yemenis are “just a step away from starving”.
Despite the serious and widespread nature of this humanitarian crisis, the space in which humanitarian workers and organisations carry out their work is increasingly circumscribed. Many humanitarian personnel have been subjected to attacks that threaten their lives and endanger their physical well-being. In February and March, at least three staff members of humanitarian organisations were killed in Syria, including a worker who was killed while off duty in a tent at al-Hawl camp in Hasakah Governorate. In Afghanistan, ten employees of a UK NGO that clears war debris and five workers who were part of Afghanistan’s national polio vaccination campaign died in separate attacks in June. Other humanitarian workers were injured in each of these attacks, which appear to be part of a broader trend. According to the World Health Organization, total attacks on humanitarian personnel in the period from 2010 to 2019 were 117 percent higher than in the previous decade. Although the international community often responds with outrage when these attacks occur, perpetrators are rarely held to account, and impunity for violations of international humanitarian law remains an ongoing concern.
In addition to facing threats to their physical security, humanitarian workers and the organisations that employ them regularly encounter bureaucratic obstacles that prevent them from doing their work. Sanctions regimes and counter-terrorism measures, including laws designed to prevent the financing of terrorist organisations, can impair the ability of humanitarian staff to access areas where there are people in need of humanitarian assistance. Parties to armed conflict can also hinder access to populations that require aid.
The Council has adopted two resolutions that are related to this issue. In 2003, resolution 1502 urged all those concerned to allow humanitarian personnel unimpeded access and promote their safety, security, and freedom. It also strongly condemned all forms of violence against humanitarian workers. Resolution 2175, which was adopted in 2014, reiterated these points and urged states to ensure that crimes against humanitarian personnel are punished and that perpetrators of attacks committed on their territory are brought to justice.
Key Issues and Options
A key issue is how the meeting can serve as a springboard for enhancing the protection of humanitarian space in conflict situations. In light of the many difficulties encountered by humanitarian workers and organisations, the goal of the meeting is to provide an opportunity for member states to collaborate and share best practices regarding the protection of humanitarian workers, the facilitation of humanitarian access and the fight against impunity for violations of international humanitarian law, with a view to identifying concrete recommendations for preserving humanitarian space.
Council members are likely to discuss the Call for Humanitarian Action, which has been signed by 48 member states since it was introduced by France and Germany in September 2019. This document outlines a number of specific measures that states can implement to strengthen respect for international humanitarian law and facilitate principled humanitarian action. These measures include introducing legislation, rules of engagement and military training that comply with the obligations imposed by international humanitarian law; designing flexible counter-terrorism and sanctions regimes that allow for appropriate humanitarian exceptions; and supporting the capacity of national law enforcement agencies to conduct impartial and independent criminal investigations into potential violations of international humanitarian law.
Another option for Council members is to highlight the importance of collecting and preserving accurate data regarding attacks on humanitarian personnel.
France could also consider producing a chair’s summary to capture the main themes of the briefing.
The P3 are likely to highlight the importance of sanctions and accountability measures, including in the mandates of peacekeeping missions, as mechanisms for leveraging compliance with international humanitarian law. Other Council members are expected to mention that attacks on humanitarian workers can be considered war crimes that could be referred to the ICC under the Rome Statute and may encourage the ICC Prosecutor, Karim Asad Ahmad Khan, to be more proactive in relation to these attacks. The need for cooperation between national law enforcement agencies investigating possible violations of international humanitarian law could also be discussed.
In recent years, in various country-specific contexts, Russia has started to emphasise the UN guiding principles for humanitarian assistance adopted by the General Assembly in 1991, which stress state sovereignty and consent of the concerned member state.
The possible appointment of a Special Representative for Preservation of Humanitarian Space may be a topic of discussion. Some Council members hold the view that creating this position would help to sharpen the focus of the international community on the issues faced by humanitarian workers and organisations. Other members, however, consider a new position unnecessary and believe OCHA and the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs are already doing this work.
UN DOCUMENTS ON PRESERVING HUMANITARIAN SPACE
|Security Council Resolutions|
|29 August 2014S/RES/2175||This resolution condemned violence and intimidation against those involved in humanitarian operations.|
|26 August 2003S/RES/1502||This resolution condemned all violence against humanitarian and UN and associated personnel, recalled obligations to protect such personnel under international humanitarian, refugee and human rights law, and called for unimpeded humanitarian access.|