Global trends of war and their humanitarian impacts

17 October 2018
Global trends of war and their humanitarian impacts

 A perfect storm of converging trends in global warfare is changing how the ICRC needs to think about helping those caught in conflict. ICRC President Peter Maurer addresses the National Press Club after days of high-level meetings with officials in Canberra.

The ICRC works in more than 80 countries around the world and sees first-hand the suffering of people and communities caught in the crossfire of war and violence. We have almost doubled our budget and staff over the last couple of years and this growth has been supported by our key donors, including Australia.

Guided by the principles of neutral, impartial, and independent humanitarian action, we work towards practical solutions for people in extremely difficult circumstances: we negotiate humanitarian spaces by consensus of parties to conflicts and we broker agreements to bring aid and operate in close proximity to people coming under fire; we engage with belligerents to respect International Humanitarian Law. Key places in which we operate include Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and Myanmar and of course some of the key African Contexts and some of the neighbouring countries of these conflict regions. More recently, contexts of urban violence have become an increasing concern for the humanitarian sector and therefore our exposure in Latin America has increased. In the Pacific, we also entertain operations, including in Suva or the Philippines.

On my missions to many of these contexts, I've listened to men, women and children speak about the devastating impact of conflict and violence on their lives. And they are not alone. Today two billion people are affected by fragility, conflict or violence and by 2030, half of these people will live in extreme poverty. Last year a record number, 68.5 million people, were displaced due to violence and conflict. 120 million people worldwide depend on some sort of humanitarian assistance.

If it is true that overall the world population is healthier, wealthier and better connected, it is also true that we have some 20 theatres of conflict in hyper-fragility with massive impacts on people, systems, neighbouring countries and the international community.

From what I can observe, we are seeing some concerning trends converging: violence, terrorism, underdevelopment, injustice, exclusion and the impact of climate change. A perfect storm. More people are affected, for a longer time, through deeper needs, from food, water and shelter, to health care services, to economic opportunities. New needs are emerging in big numbers and are largely unaddressed: psychosocial concerns for traumatized populations in particular children; complex impacts of sexual violence on victims; and the need to connect families disrupted and displaced in increasingly large numbers.

We also see more people insufficiently protected from the impact of violence, suffering from violations of basic laws and principles, result of a lack of political leadership, corruption and governance failures first and foremost.

Let me briefly specify six trends of particular concern to us:

One, wars are lasting much longer than they used to 20 years ago. The ICRC – initially working on short-term emergency situations – is increasingly active in many places around the world for decades. In our ten largest operations, we have been on the ground for an average of 36 years.

Two, wars are more often fought in highly populated urban areas, and when high powered explosive weapons are used, large numbers of civilians are at risk of death, injury, but also of losing their infrastructure – water systems, electricity, and jobs.
These protracted, urban conflicts impact the basic health, water and sanitation systems, causing long-term, systemic impacts.

Three, increasingly, the root causes of violence are unclear and difficult to address – they are often a tangled web of politically–motivated violence, terrorism and disproportionate reaction by states, inter-community and social violence, which often go hand-in-hand with economic crime. This also defies traditional legal concepts (like IHL, criminal and anti-terrorism legislation) and challenges us with complex overlap between the legal frameworks.

Four, armed actors are more numerous, more radical but also less political and less structured. Our research shows that more than six times the number of armed groups have been created over the last six years than during the six decades before that. Today only a third of conflicts are fought between two belligerent parties, and a fifth of conflicts have 10 or more parties involved. In a city like Taiz, Yemen, our colleagues recently counted around 40 armed groups, all of them in control of some territory, population and authority, making consensual humanitarian approaches and negotiation particularly challenging. This makes core aspects of ICRC's work – engagement with belligerents on IHL and access to victims – acutely more complicated and problematic.

Five, wars often involve partners, allies and coalitions – leading to a dilution of responsibility, fragmentation of chains of command and an unchecked flow of weapons. There is also a trend of denying responsibility for IHL violations, including for direct or proxy partners – or of passing responsibility to someone else down the line. This only increases the climate of impunity and ultimately causes yet more suffering.

And finally, as you know, we are on the brink of a fourth industrial revolution with increasingly sophisticated and more deadly weapons, but also the potential to harness technology to find new ways to provide humanitarian assistance.
In this environment, we can't afford to stand still when the gap between needs of populations affected by war and violence and our ability to respond gets bigger by the day.

If I look at Yemen today, 22 million people, three-quarters of the population need assistance; one million more since June last year. Two out of three Yemenis are food insecure. I look at Syria: half of the population on the move and many of them displaced multiple times over the past years. I look at Myanmar, another highly internationalized context with its religious, security, economic and political divides.

The international community needs to move out of political deadlock and find answers to important questions of accountability, but also to find long-term political solutions. In many contexts, much more needs to be done to ensure the conditions of safe, dignified and voluntary returns are met. We must work simultaneously on supporting returns, but also avoid a situation where refugees live in indefinite legal and economic limbo for years. Medium to long term answers are needed to support people to access education, health care, and to restore livelihoods. After years of war the result is broken health systems, damaged infrastructure, and shattered economies. International humanitarian law and the dignity of human life has been systematically ignored.

Two weeks ago, speaking at the United Nations General Assembly, I called on parties to conflict and states that support them, to put in place measures to ensure respect for international humanitarian law. These measures include responsible arms transfers, vetting of armed groups, trainings in the conduct of hostilities and engagement with civilian populations, leveraging political influence to ensure compliance with the law and ensuring protective measures are taken when executing military action.

The gap between suffering and relief efforts is appalling. We must do more. And we need to work differently.

Many in this room know the ICRC's reputation for acting in times of crisis and in providing humanitarian aid. But we are also concerned with questions about how to reduce the impact of war on people. The ICRC is mandated to talk to all parties to a conflict and strives to engage with an increasingly complex array of non-state armed groups. This has become all the more important as we have seen a vast array of armies, Special Forces, armed groups, and criminal gangs now engaging in military operations - directly or by proxy, openly or secretly.

Currently, we are in regular contact with around 200 groups worldwide linked to our operations or our humanitarian concerns; and we are discovering that the increasingly complex structure of these groups mean that we need new approaches. We recently launched new research on the factors that lead to restraint in war, which has provided us unprecedented evidence on how members of State and non-State armed groups are influenced. We wanted to investigate what makes parties to conflict exercise restraint, rather than a more traditional approach of examining violations.

Of interest to this audience, the study was conducted with the support of the Australian military. The open-mindedness of the Australian Army allowed the ICRC to learn a great deal about soldiers' opinions on their main sources of influence and the types of training that are most effective in producing restraint. Putting these findings together with those from the military forces of the Philippines allowed us to explore the variations that can occur within similarly structured armed forces and hence increased our understanding of what we should be recommending to armed forces around the world. These findings are relevant not only for highly professional armies but also those with whom they are increasingly partnering in different operations around the world. We appreciated the assistance we received from the Army in facilitating the surveys and focus groups we undertook at the Royal Military College Duntroon as well as in Canberra, Singleton and Brisbane. And we are particularly indebted to General Angus Campbell, Chief of the Defence Forces, who allowed us to conduct this study in his former capacity as Chief of Army.

When it comes to non-state armed groups, the research found that a different approach is needed to embed humanitarian norms. These groups are influenced by command structures but also by many other factors - community, political, spiritual. While the ICRC seeks to better understand the dynamics of conflict, we are also looking to innovate in our service delivery and in our approaches to protecting populations. I am a strong proponent of developing new models of collaboration, drawing on the skills, resources and insights of partners from across many sectors. We cannot hope to prevent or to reduce the impact of suffering unless we work differently, diagnosing issues in new ways and conceiving of new solutions, which may encompass a broad bandwidth of activities.

We are partnering to test innovative funding streams, including market-based instruments based on an investment logic of paying back capital and eventually paying interest or measuring impact. Last year, I was pleased to launch the world's first humanitarian impact bond to create a new capital stream for new physical rehabilitation centres in Nigeria, Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The bond is designed on a pay-for-results model and involves private funders as well as governments. It allows us to test opportunities not only to modernise the existing model for humanitarian action, but also new economic models, designed to better support people in need.

We are also looking at new pathways to bring affected populations out of the dependency attached to emergency support, and to show the way to more sustainable livelihoods for families and communities. We are designing new mechanisms to support the poorest people and communities by building their capacities and skills.And we are working to harness the potential of new technologies.

Digital connectivity is allowing us to design more impactful solutions, based on people's self-identified needs, and for more efficient coordination between services. With business and scientific communities, we're working to use the potential of big data to analyse contexts and needs and to test new platforms for cooperation. Affected communities are increasingly connected, opening up tremendous opportunities for two-way information exchange. High-tech facial recognition technology is being tested to help ICRC to reconnect more families separated by war or displacement. The technology is allowing us to scan photographs provided by enquirers to recognise similar facial features in images in our database which we can then cross check with enquirers.

While the contact with families will and must always be one of compassionate engagement by our trained staff and volunteers, we hope that the automating part of the process will increase the numbers of people we can reunite. And of course, with advancing technology and data collection also comes the imperative to responsibly manage and protect these data, and to not put individuals at risk.

The flipside of advancing technology is the potential for harm and for it to be used to wage war. As new technologies rapidly give rise to unprecedented methods of warfare, ICRC is increasingly concerned about the potential human cost of cyber operations. Cyber military capabilities, like all forms of warfare and all kinds of weapons, must be capable of being used without violating IHL. If these general rules are adhered to strictly and in good faith, they can greatly contribute to limiting the human cost of cyber warfare. At the same time, we must also consider stronger, more tailor-made rules to protect civilians from conflict's future frontlines. The interconnectedness of military and civilian networks poses a significant practical and legal challenge in terms of protecting civilians from the dangers of cyber warfare.

The ICRC is urging governments and companies to deal with the humanitarian impact of conflict in the virtual world, and to address critical questions: what's a security incident vs. an act of war? How does proportionality apply? How can virtual attacks distinguish between civilian objects and military objectives? What are legitimate processes to assess attributions of attacks?

Another concern is the application of technology to weapons. Autonomous weapons, AI and machine learning are having a transformative effect by advancing how we analyze and act upon data from the world around us. It makes sense that this technology be considered for national security and defense purposes, which is why it's not a surprise that we are seeing many countries invest heavily in AI and in military robotic systems with greater autonomy. But when it comes to armed conflict, we must not forget that wars have limits. Governments defining the limits for autonomous weapon systems, need to ensure compliance with international humanitarian law and be firmly rooted in the principles of humanity and the dictates of public conscience.

Faced with the long-running conflicts and places of fragility in our world today, it would be easy to be pessimistic. What keeps me hopeful is that we have tools and approaches at our disposal to address some of the intrinsic problems. But in order to sustain hope, we need countries to proactively deal with some of the key challenges of the humanitarian sector, brought forward by today's frontline of war.

Let me just mention a few:

1. While the traditional approach to policy-making in the humanitarian sector is focusing on coordination and cooperation amongst different agencies of the humanitarian sector, experience of ICRC points towards the importance of another approach. Thinking about people and their needs, we see every day that needs are rarely falling along the lines, which normally separate bureaucratic institutions and credit lines of donor countries. People do not have humanitarian, development, peace and human right's needs: they have simple needs. The key question therefore must be, how best to serve those needs, in particular in fragile contexts, given such needs are short and long-term, individual and systemic, physical and virtual etc.

The other key question must then be: who has the ability to respond to, alone or in partnership with others, the broadest articulation of needs of people in the most fragile places and with the best chances for impact. We must also remember that people affected by violence and conflict are always their own first responders. So, how can we best build their capacity and enhance their existing mechanisms of self-protection, social support and entrepreneurship, to build pathways out of dependency on humanitarian aid.

Australia should be commended for improvements in the flexibility of its humanitarian funding. Can Australia take a leadership position and spearhead a new conceptual framework that is not founded in bureaucratic categories but rather in the realities on the ground, and adapt its policy and funding schemes accordingly?

2. In that sense, policy makers should have a critical look at where money from different credit lines end up, and whether these funds achieve the desired policy goals. Are we really servicing the most fragile contexts with the largest possible impact? Probably not. Figures suggest that looking only at humanitarian and development credit lines, substantive parts of donor money overall ends up in relatively stable development contexts, while the 15 to 20 most fragile contexts, which are at the core of international instability, get far fewer resources. Total development funding from the OECD countries is close to ten times what is given as humanitarian assistance. However, if we invest more, and earlier, in fragile contexts, to keep systems and vital services from completely breaking down, we have the potential to reduce the development costs down the track, of rebuilding societies after conflict.

Likewise, many donor countries today face difficulties supporting income generation programs at scale through humanitarian credit lines. This is despite the fact that we observe that one of the most pressing needs expressed by people in humanitarian contexts is the need for employment and ways to use their skills to support their families. Donors, including Australia need to take a hard look at their priority setting and build bridges between overarching objectives that are too often siloed into bureaucratic categories.

3. Many organizations in the humanitarian sector today are aware that "nobody can do it alone". Yet: How can Australia and other governments promote multi-stakeholder partnerships for humanitarian impact. How can funding be a driver to catalyze new solutions and new forms of engagement between stakeholders? How can the Australian private sector be a partner in international humanitarian efforts, either in finding innovative solutions or participating in market-based financing schemes?

4. If innovation and evidence of impact are key elements that are increasingly important to donors, the key policy question is, how can you allow greater flexibility in public financing to support innovation at scale? In order to create paradigm shifts to put people at the center of our processes, scale new solutions, measure impact and improve our effectiveness, we need the trust, support and space from donors to do so.

5. As the digital transformation changes all areas of life and work: what can Australia and other donor countries with a digital capacity do to support transformation of the humanitarian sector and those organizations able and ready to embark on this journey. Are there opportunities in developing digital products and services, backbone operations, facilitating accessibility of vulnerable populations to digital services or engaging on some key issues, like digital trust or data security, on which Australia could take a key role internationally.

6. Strategically one of the key areas of concern in the humanitarian sector is the support and development of skills and competencies to negotiate NIIHA spaces at the frontlines of today's conflict. ICRC is one of the key actors, has been at the origin of a multi-agency effort to enhance negotiating capacities amongst peers of the humanitarian sector and will publicize a manual on frontline negotiation by the end of the year. How can Australia support peer exchanges and capacity building for humanitarians or work with this group, contributing Australian expertise in order to strengthen political mediation in some of the key frontlines of today's conflicts.

7. Given the huge risks of arms exports without adequate safeguards against IHL violations, complex international military alliance warfare, and anti-terrorism activities and legislation, and the vast potential opportunities from science, research and digital transformation, it is crucial that policies and laws at national and international levels are designed to protect the people that governments have an obligation to protect.

The world currently faces a number of forks in the road. Our world will change rapidly over the coming years, through digitalization, methods of warfare and more complex global inter-connectivity. The exact nature of the changes will depend on the choices that we make now. How will countries like Australia choose to shape those changes? Not everybody has the liberty of influencing those choices, and yet everyone will be heavily impacted by the consequences.

You do have that liberty of choice and influence.

How will you use it?