What's In Blue

Posted Thu 15 Jul 2021

Briefing on the Protection of Humanitarian Space

Tomorrow (16 July), the Security Council will convene in person for a ministerial-level briefing on the protection of humanitarian space under the protection of civilians in armed conflict agenda item. The meeting, which is a signature event of France’s presidency this month, will be chaired by Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs. The expected briefers are Secretary-General António Guterres; Robert Mardini, the Director-General of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC); and Lucile Grosjean, the Delegate Director of Advocacy at Action Against Hunger.

France prepared a concept note ahead of the briefing, which indicates that tomorrow’s meeting is intended to provide an opportunity for member states to exchange best practices regarding the preservation of humanitarian space, particularly in relation to the protection of humanitarian workers, as well as the facilitation of humanitarian access and accountability for serious violations of international humanitarian law. The overarching goal of the briefing is to identify concrete recommendations that will serve to better protect the space in which humanitarian workers operate.

The concept note describes several difficulties that humanitarian workers face in carrying out their work, including violent attacks, restrictions on their entry into and movement within conflict zones, deliberate interference from parties involved in conflict, and criminalisation of transactions that are necessary to gain access to people in need. Some humanitarian organisations have noted that the criminalisation of such transactions— which include making logistical arrangements with armed groups in order to gain access to civilians living under their control—is in some cases an unintended consequence of counterterrorism laws and sanctions regimes. The concept note also says that at least 169 security incidents involving humanitarian personnel were recorded in 19 conflict-affected states in 2020, resulting in the deaths of 99 humanitarian workers. As described in the concept note, most serious violations of international humanitarian law remain unpunished and impunity for such violations has become widespread.

The concept note sets out several guiding questions for the briefers and member states to consider, including:

  • How can information, knowledge, and good practices with regard to international humanitarian law be disseminated and integrated more effectively to better safeguard humanitarian space?
  • How can dialogue among humanitarian actors and parties to an armed conflict be facilitated in order to enable principled humanitarian activities (that is, humanitarian activities which abide by the four humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence)? How can the latter be encouraged to lift administrative impediments to the delivery of principled humanitarian aid?
  • What concrete measures can be taken to strengthen accountability for serious violations of international humanitarian law? How could UN sanctions regimes be better used against individuals or entities that attack humanitarian workers or impede humanitarian activities?
  • How could we minimise the potential unintended negative impact that sanctions may have on principled humanitarian activities?

At tomorrow’s meeting, the Secretary-General may discuss steps that the Council can take to help end impunity for attacks on humanitarian workers. In this regard, he might emphasise the importance of including measures aimed at facilitating accountability in the mandates of UN peace missions. Additionally, he may highlight the increasing incidence of attacks on humanitarian workers and the obstacles they face in specific country situations.

In his briefing, Mardini is likely to describe the negative effect that sanctions regimes and counterterrorism laws can have on humanitarian aid and may provide concrete examples that illustrate how they impede the ICRC’s work. In this regard, he may highlight the importance of including consistent humanitarian exemptions in counterterrorism laws and sanctions regimes. He might also discuss the problems that arise when humanitarian assistance is politicised.

Grosjean is likely to focus on the need for member states to systematically denounce all violations of international humanitarian law, especially those targeting humanitarian workers, regardless of the context in which they take place. She might argue for the introduction of universal humanitarian exemptions that apply to all counterterrorism and sanctions measures and may emphasise the harmful effects of politicising humanitarian work. Grosjean is also expected to call for the appointment of a Special UN Envoy for the Protection of Humanitarian Space. She may suggest that the Special Envoy’s responsibilities could include investigating whether states have introduced domestic frameworks that comply with their obligations to protect humanitarian workers and enable humanitarian access, collecting data regarding attacks on humanitarian personnel, identifying instances where states have failed to pursue accountability for such attacks, and facilitating dialogue among states by preparing reports in relation to these topics.

Some Council members may express support for the appointment of a Special UN Envoy for the Protection of Humanitarian Space. During France’s Fifth National Humanitarian Conference, which took place in December 2020, French President Emmanuel Macron noted that he “support[s] the idea of a Special Envoy…for the preservation of humanitarian space whose mission would be to facilitate, in a very concrete manner, dialogue between states and all actors in the field”. Several Council members might adopt a similar stance during tomorrow’s briefing.

Council members are expected to refer to relevant measures they have implemented domestically to protect humanitarian space. Norway, for example, has enacted provisions in its penal code which stipulate that all attacks on medical and health care personnel constitute war crimes, while the international humanitarian law manual used by the Norwegian defence force includes measures to ensure the protection of health care and humanitarian organisations. France has also introduced several domestic policies that are designed to facilitate humanitarian action and protect humanitarian space. The French Prudential Supervision and Resolution Authority has created a forum for dialogue between NGOs and the compliance departments of banks, which is intended to overcome issues that can arise for humanitarian organisations when commercial banks adopt a strict approach to compliance with counterterrorism and sanctions regimes. Other Council members have introduced government-wide training programmes that focus on the obligations of states under international humanitarian law. It is possible that Council members will refer to some of these measures as examples of best practice in their statements during tomorrow’s meeting.

Some Council members are also expected to emphasise the role that international mechanisms and bodies can play in deterring attacks on humanitarian workers and holding perpetrators accountable. They may urge the ICC to consider taking a more active role when such attacks take place within its jurisdiction, while others might refer to the need to strengthen the institutional capacity of the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission (IHFFC). (The IHFFC was established under the First Optional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions to investigate allegations of serious violations of international humanitarian law.) Others may highlight the deterrent value of sanctions designation criteria that explicitly refer to attacks on humanitarian workers, such as those that were recently introduced into the 1533 Democratic Republic of the Congo sanctions regime. Some members, however, might raise concerns about the negative humanitarian impact that sanctions can have on the ground. The collection of adequate data regarding attacks on humanitarian personnel is also likely to be a focus of the meeting.

Facilitation of humanitarian aid has been an issue in several country situations on the Council’s agenda, such as Syria and the Tigray region of Ethiopia, and has often proven controversial in the Council. Differences among Council members usually centre on how to balance host country sovereignty and the humanitarian needs of vulnerable populations. In recent years, several Council members, in particular China and Russia, have started to emphasise the UN guiding principles for humanitarian assistance, which stress state sovereignty and consent of the concerned member state. However, other Council members underscore the need to abide by the humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence in the provision of humanitarian assistance.