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Syria and beyond: Humanitarian challenges in today's conflicts

18-06-2013 Feature

The right of the wounded and sick to receive timely medical care and be protected from attack is spelt out under international humanitarian law. Yet in Syria and elsewhere, intimidation of health workers and attacks on medical facilities are taking place regardless.

ICRC director of operations Pierre Krähenbühl and Lord Hylton. 

ICRC director of operations Pierre Krähenbühl and Lord Hylton.
© ICRC / L. Thompson

To mark the 150th anniversary of the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement, ICRC director of operations Pierre Krähenbühl recently briefed Members of Parliament and of the House of Lords at Westminster. He described the ICRC's activities in Syria, now the organization’s largest operation in budgetary terms. He also discussed the changing nature of modern conflict and the challenges it presents for humanitarians working in conflict zones.

Focusing on the crisis in Syria, he stressed that one of the ICRC's biggest concerns is the systematic targeting of health workers and facilities by armed groups. He noted that 20 Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society members have lost their lives since the start of the conflict. In many cases they were victims of the deliberate targeting of vehicles clearly marked with the Red Crescent emblem. Equally worrying is the rise in deliberate attacks on health workers and facilities, which are protected under international humanitarian law. Other practices, such as placing military equipment within hospital grounds, endangering staff and patients, or carrying out reprisal attacks against health workers suspected of informing on opposition activity, have added to the burden on the health system.

Ann Clwyd MP and Jeremy Corbin MP (left) 

Ann Clwyd MP and Jeremy Corbyn MP (left)
© ICRC / L. Thompson

As a result, medical staff have fled abroad, leaving women to give birth in unsafe and unsanitary conditions, or people suffering chronic conditions unable to access treatment, noted Mr Krähenbühl. It is a repeat of the patterns seen in Iraq, where medical staff began to flee the country en masse in 2003.

Mr Krähenbühl addressed the issues for humanitarian organizations in the aftermath of major conflict in a second London appearance, at the Royal United Services Institute. He noted that attention often turns away from countries when international forces leave. But conflict continues, often at a lower intensity, or with less sophisticated weaponry, but with just as deadly effect.

Interparliamentary Union Room, Westminster. 

Interparliamentary Union Room, Westminster.
© ICRC / L. Thompson

In Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, the ICRC is responding to the impact on populations of continued insecurity and violence. The humanitarian response is as protracted, long-running and complex as conflict itself.

Why are modern conflicts lasting so long? Part of the cause, Mr Krähenbühl stated, lies in the loss of the UN system as a legitimate platform for resolving conflicts between States, for the simple reason that most wars today are internal. What is needed, said Mr Krähenbühl, is a decisive return towards more active political management of conflict by the international community. A failure to respond politically can result in the destabilization of whole regions over time, as seen in the Sahel and around Syria. But there is difficulty here in knowing who exactly to bring to the negotiating table, and with what incentive.

An additional difficulty for the ICRC and other organizations working in conflict is that there is not normally one front line, but many. 

Lord Rea and Dr David Harrison, Clerk to the International Development Select Committee 

Lord Rea and Dr David Harrison, Clerk to the International Development Select Committee
© ICRC / L. Thompson

Since the end of the Cold War era, we have seen a massive growth in the number of armed groups involved in a given conflict, Mr Krähenbühl observed. In eastern DRC, the ICRC needs to have a dialogue with 50 separate groups to be able to work. As the ICRC is mandated to talk to all sides wherever it works, it finds itself working across the spectrum from the best equipped and most sophisticated armed forces to the most improvised and ramshackle.