Humanitarian space – or spaces – must be protected, without exception
UN Security Council Briefing
Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict: Preserving Humanitarian Space
16 July 2021
Minister Le Drian, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is an honour to be able to address you – in person – on a topic that is a major preoccupation of the ICRC. We welcome the considerable efforts by France, the EU and other States to put a much-needed spotlight on the protection of humanitarian space and humanitarian workers.
When we talk about "humanitarian space," we are not talking about an abstract concept. Humanitarian space is tangible: it is a prison, a hospital, a water network, a camp. But it is also normative: it is rooted in international humanitarian law and principles and aims to have effective and sustainable impact.
The Geneva Conventions, and international humanitarian law more broadly, mandate a licence to carry out impartial humanitarian action. This puts the onus squarely on parties to armed conflict to provide rapid and unimpeded access to people in need.
Access is more than allowing humanitarians to work. It is about ensuring that conflict-affected people and communities can reach what they need, in a safe and dignified way. And this requires us to stay as close to them as possible. Access is not static nor transactional and cannot be binary. It is negotiated by humanitarians with proximity on the ground. It can even be refused out of military necessity.
Proximity to people in need is not just key for access, it is key for trust. We know from experience that working in a neutral and independent way is needed to build trust and acceptance across frontlines. This helps facilitate agreements between the parties on practical measures such as evacuation of the wounded, or the transfer of human remains, for example.
While there may be different views on what humanitarian space is, there can be little doubt about what happens when there is no humanitarian space. My fellow briefers and I have certainly all seen this close up and, believe me, it is ugly. It is a dire lack of protection and assistance for those who need it most. It is humanitarian workers – including our own colleagues – in mortal danger, far too many of them traumatized, missing, maimed or killed. And that really is the bottom line. Humanitarian space – or spaces – must be protected, without exception.
And this is where some of our most pressing concerns lie. I would like to highlight just three.
The first – no surprise – is the politicization and manipulation of humanitarian aid. All too often, aid is used to justify, legitimize or help both States and non-State armed groups to further their particular objectives – be they political, military or economic. It puts humanitarian organisations under pressure, and effectively holds civilian populations to ransom.
Humanitarian space is created and upheld by respecting the law to which States have already agreed, by consensus. It is not about abusing the law to make a political point.
The second issue of concern relates to the resort to armed escorts. When States insist on armed escorts to ensure the safety and security of those delivering humanitarian aid, the result is often the exact opposite – less safety and more security incidents.
It is critical that neutral and impartial humanitarian organisations are allowed to do independent needs assessments and aid delivery. Access must not be unlawfully denied or withheld, especially when people's basic needs are not being met. As we have said before, the divisions in this Council – notably on access to populations in need – are increasing suffering on the frontlines.
The third issue of concern is the growing negative impact of sanctions and counter-terrorism measures on humanitarian aid. These measures come in many forms. In the absence of essential safeguards, the humanitarian impact is the same: preventing or restricting the ability of conflictaffected people to access the protection and assistance they need and which the parties owe them.
For the ICRC, such measures may curtail our ability to visit persons being detained by listed groups, recover dead bodies, train armed groups in IHL, and facilitate mutual detainee swaps. While the precise impact of this may be hard to measure, there is no doubt that people suffer just when IHL should protect them.
We see a clear trend of States and donors transferring the risks associated with operating in fragile or conflict environments to humanitarian and local actors. This is simply unsustainable and wrong.
These are some of our top concerns. In terms of how these issues can be resolved - we have three clear asks for States, including you as Council members.
One – ensure that humanitarian organisations are able to maintain close physical proximity to affected populations and sustained engagement with parties to conflict. Protecting the humanitarian space in physical, digital and normative terms means accounting for the specific risks and responsibilities facing local humanitarian actors. When they lose their capacity to be first responders or volunteers, civilians suffer more and the space shrinks. We want here to pay tribute to the relentless work and sacrifices of the millions of Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers worldwide.
Two – renew consensus around the key tenets of IHL and ensure that they are respected and implemented. This means ensuring that all the words spoken here in New York are translated into reality where they really matter, at checkpoints and on frontlines in armed conflicts around the globe.
To this end, understand patterns of harm and patterns of influence and find new entry points to influence those who are engaged in fighting. Find innovative ways to incentivise better behaviour – of your own armed forces but also your allies, partners and proxies. Appropriate IHL training and accountability are just part of this.
And three – consider, and mitigate, the humanitarian impact of counter-terrorism measures by putting in place well-crafted, standing humanitarian exemptions. In future resolutions, explicitly require States to adopt concrete, practical measures to facilitate the work of impartial humanitarian organizations. Carve out similar protections in sanctions regimes, as you did in the case of Somalia. We know it can be done. In the past few years, Switzerland, the Philippines, Chad, the EU and many others have adopted more protective language, contributing to improved safeguards for humanitarian action.
We stand ready to guide and support States and other stakeholders to take practical measures to achieve these goals. Decisive, bold action in these three areas would demonstrate much-needed political will to protect and serve the people who need humanitarian action and those who provide it. And it would help turn words about our commitment to humanity into meaningful deeds.