The humanitarian space is increasingly under threat as conflicts become more complex and State and non-State combatants ignore international law, target civilians, resort to siege and starvation as a tactic of war while deliberately hindering aid operations, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs told the Security Council today.
Briefing the 15-nation organ, Mark Lowcock, who is also the Emergency Relief Coordinator, said that 139 million people worldwide are in acute humanitarian need, most of them because of armed conflict. More so, today’s conflicts are also marked by more direct attacks against humanitarian and medical workers, as well as their facilities. “Let us not forget that accountability is required by international law,” he stressed, also adding: “Garnering greater respect for international humanitarian law is one of the most effective ways to safeguard humanitarian space.”
Many countries have signed up to the relevant treaties prohibiting or restricting weapons and enshrining international criminal law, he observed, emphasizing the importance of promoting policies and practices that strengthen adherence to international humanitarian law. Broadening the understanding of existing rules, including the Geneva Conventions and their additional protocols, along with providing training for armed forces and non-State armed groups on how to respect humanitarian law, is vital. Sanctions imposed by the Council can be a powerful tool to promote compliance, as well.
Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), underscored that the Geneva Conventions are not up for negotiation. The license for humanitarian workers to operate should not be up for debate; it has already been guaranteed. He called on the international community to fight any attempt to manipulate or politicize principled humanitarian action. The humanitarian space is about respecting the law. “When the principles of impartiality are breached, and humanitarian action is curtailed, families — like the ones I meet — go hungry, they go sick, they are left vulnerable to abuse,” he said.
Naz K. Modirzadeh, Professor of Practice at Harvard Law School, said that, when the regime of international humanitarian law crosses with counter-terrorism frameworks, tensions emerge. For instance, humanitarian actors may provide impartial care to wounded fighters under international humanitarian law, but several counter-terrorism frameworks would characterize these activities as illegitimate and unlawful. “In my view, the question is not whether counter‑terrorism measures might adversely affect principled humanitarian action, but the scope and scale of the impact,” she said. Citing recent research findings of a Harvard study showing that 69 per cent of respondents indicated that such initiatives had curtailed their humanitarian work, she called on the Council to prioritize its efforts to safeguard principled humanitarian action. “Far too much is at stake,” she said.
In the ensuing debate, Council members stressed the need to protect aid workers and ensure that the humanitarian space remains impartial, neutral and free from politicization.
The Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs of Germany and Council President for April, spoke in his national capacity, emphasizing the need to help humanitarian actors impart the necessary know-how about international humanitarian law, especially at a time when more and more non‑State parties are involved in conflicts. “Humanitarian aid workers need clarity about the legal framework within which they are operating,” he added.
The Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs of France, said the Council can play a role in ensuring that humanitarian workers are protected and are free to do their jobs without being arrested. On accountability, he expressed support for efforts to apprehend perpetrators of war crimes, noting that France and Germany have worked together to serve warrants on former members of the Government of Syria.
The representative of the Russian Federation said that humanism on the field of battle is a hallmark of civilized behaviour. Yet, some 70 years after the Geneva Conventions, the Council still has to address the issue of strengthening international humanitarian law principles and institutions. He also expressed concern over so-called medical and humanitarian organizations openly aiding terrorist organizations, as in the case with the White Helmets in Syria. This undermines the work of real humanitarians, he added.
The United States representative expressed grave concern over the accusations made by the Russian Federation against the White Helmets. As the single largest humanitarian donor, the United States has consistently called on the Syrian regime to abide by relevant Security Council resolutions and allow the passage of aid workers to reach those in need.
The representative of Equatorial Guinea said that the politicization of humanitarian action remains one of the most serious current challenges to promoting international law. Root causes of armed conflict must also be addressed, including the unjust international economic order, inequality and exclusion.
“Responsibility lies with us all to ensure that our actions are people‑centred,” said the representative of the Dominican Republic, adding that “impunity is a sign of indifference which can only lead to more suffering”.
Also speaking today were representatives of Kuwait, Poland, China, Côte d’Ivoire, Indonesia, South Africa, Belgium, United Kingdom and Peru.
The meeting began at 3:07 p.m. and ended at 5:28 p.m.
MARK LOWCOCK, Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said that conflict persists, with civilians continuing to bear the brunt. Wars have forced nearly 70 million people to flee their homes. Combatants have resorted to siege and starvation as weapons of war causing hunger levels to increase after decades of decline. Some 60 per cent of people affected by food crises are living in conflict-affected countries. Today’s conflicts are also marked by more direct attacks against humanitarian and medical workers, as well as their facilities. Meanwhile, protracted conflict and chronic crises have caused humanitarian needs to spiral. This year, 139 million people are in acute humanitarian need, most of them because of armed conflict.
Combatants deliberately hinder humanitarian operations, slowing them down, driving up costs and blocking aid from reaching people, he continued. International law is designed to minimize human suffering in war, including by safeguarding humanitarian activities. “Garnering greater respect for international humanitarian law is one of the most effective ways to safeguard humanitarian space,” he stressed, pointing out that many countries have signed up to the relevant treaties prohibiting or restricting weapons and enshrining international criminal law. Promoting policies and practices to strengthen adherence to international humanitarian law is therefore critical. Broadening and deepening understanding and acceptance of existing rules, including the Geneva Conventions and their additional protocols, is essential. Providing training for armed forces and member of non-State armed groups on how to respect humanitarian law can help, as well.
He also stressed the need to enable humanitarian and medical activities, underscoring that all parties should adopt clear and simplified procedures to facilitate humanitarian access. Those should include establishing civil-military coordination platforms or humanitarian notification systems to further parties’ respect for humanitarian operations. Sanctions imposed by the Council can be a powerful tool to promote compliance. In addition, States must do better in holding to account individuals when they commit serious violations of international humanitarian law. It is crucial to prosecute suspects where there is evidence. “Let us not forget that accountability is required by international law,” he emphasized.
PETER MAURER, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), said that, in many parts of the world the space for impartial humanitarian action is under threat. Human dignity is disregarded and humanitarian organizations are increasingly placed under pressure as both State and non-State armed groups hold civilian populations and humanitarian actors for ransom. “When the principles of impartiality are breached, and humanitarian action is curtailed, families — like the ones I meet — go hungry, they go sick, they are left vulnerable to abuse,” he said. International humanitarian law does not rely on reciprocity. It applies even if an opponent fails to comply.
The Geneva Conventions are not up for negotiation, he emphasized, adding that they are a tool, facilitated through a neutral and independent space. With political actors increasingly occupying the humanitarian space, humanitarians must find practical ways to fulfil the mission in an increasingly complex environment. He called on the international community to fight any attempt to manipulate or politicize principled humanitarian action. “We ask that you fight the double standards which delegitimize law and weaken its protective force,” he said. The humanitarian space is about respecting the law. He called on Member States to lead by example and train and instruct their troops so that they know the law and respect it.
With regards to the proliferation of arms, he urged that safeguards and precautions be put in place and that no weapon is transferred if there is a clear risk it would be used to violate international humanitarian law. ICRC sees the enormous civilian costs of bombing and shelling, including death and long-term damage. The noose is tightening on humanitarian action. “But, our license to operate should not be up for debate; it has already been guaranteed,” he emphasized.
NAZ K. MODIRZADEH, Professor of Practice at Harvard Law School, highlighted the intersections between international humanitarian law and counter-terrorism initiatives. Raising several key considerations, she underscored the importance of ensuring that such measures, including those adopted by the Security Council, do not inhibit principled humanitarian action. Counter-terrorism measures may be interpreted and applied in ways that might diminish commitments to humanitarian action. The Council should build on a recently adopted resolution that takes more robust and concrete steps to ensure the implementation of international humanitarian law protections for humanitarian action. In addition, particular attention must focus on settings where such measures overlap with armed conflict.
The assumption that the relationship between counter-terrorism frameworks and international humanitarian law is of alternative sets of norms aimed at solving the same problems can be misunderstood, she said, proposing a different approach that may require political solutions crafted by Member States. States have developed international humanitarian law as the primary legal framework to regulate the exceptional situation of armed conflict. Meanwhile, counter‑terrorism measures aimed at preventing, suppressing and punishing terrorist acts through an ever‑growing range of laws, policies and initiatives contrasts with the relatively narrow and specific purview of international humanitarian law.
When the two regimes cross, tensions emerge, she continued. For instance, humanitarian actors may provide impartial care to wounded fighters under international humanitarian law, but several counter-terrorism frameworks would characterize these activities as illegitimate and unlawful. Likewise, where principled humanitarian action is considered to constitute a type of illegitimate support to terrorism, counter-terrorism measures may inhibit or even impede their work in wide-ranging ways. “In my view, the question is not whether counter‑terrorism measures might adversely affect principled humanitarian action, but the scope and scale of the impact,” she said, citing recent research findings of a Harvard Law School pilot empirical survey study showing that 69 per cent of respondents indicated that such initiatives had curtailed their humanitarian work.
The Council itself had increasingly recognized some of these possibilities and the imperative to safeguard principled humanitarian action in counter‑terrorism contexts, she observed. That included the adoption of resolution 2462 (2019) on terrorist financing and its establishment of a limited sectoral humanitarian exemption in relation to the Somalia sanctions regime. The General Assembly, in 2016 and 2018, also urged States to guard against counter‑terrorism risks to humanitarian and medical activities. Yet, the Security Council is in a position to do much more. Its generic references to complying with international humanitarian law and other applicable rules of international law while combating terrorism do not sufficiently comprehend and address the diverse and consequential ways that counter-terrorism measures and international humanitarian law protections for related actions may conflict in practice.
She called upon the Council to expand upon and prioritize its efforts to safeguard principled humanitarian action, noting that counter-terrorism measures may prove to be difficult to amend once instituted. Nonetheless, any tension with the agreed-upon norms of international humanitarian law should be of urgent concern to the Council. In addition, counter-terrorism measures must respect, not degrade humanitarian action. Urging the Council to take several steps, she said it may guard against overly broad and vague notions of what constitutes unlawful support to terrorism, including its own practice concerning designated individuals and entities. The Council and its subsidiary bodies may ensure that none of the activities that underlie principled humanitarian action form part or all of the basis to subject individuals or entities to sanctions or other restrictive regimes. The Council may also urgently consider comprehensive exemptions for humanitarian action in line with international humanitarian law and uphold and ensure respect for hard-won legal protections for related activities amid the tumult of war. “Far too much is at stake for the millions of people suffering in armed conflict to pursue anything less,” she said.
SHEIKH SABAH AL-KHALED AL-HAMAD AL-SABAH, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs of Kuwait, said that, in light of the current global situation, implementing humanitarian law is more important than ever before. While the Geneva Conventions have long been ratified, parties continue to blatantly disregard those texts in some of today’s current conflicts. Meanwhile, humanitarian needs have reached record levels, with more than 130 million needing assistance around the world. Drawing attention to the Israeli occupation of territories, including Palestinian land, he said the prolonged occupation is a blatant violation of international law.
At the same time, the rule of law and international humanitarian law must be promoted during armed conflict, with the Council playing a key role in ensuring the full implementation of its resolutions, he stressed. The United Nations forces must also abide by all relevant laws, including humanitarian law, and accountability must also be ensured for perpetrators of violations. Voicing his support for the investigative mechanisms being used in Syria and Myanmar, as well as for cases involving Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh), he added that Kuwait had implemented a range of initiatives, among them, hosting a workshop on humanitarian law for judges.
JEAN-YVES LE DRIAN, Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs of France, pointed out that the Geneva Conventions and additional protocols are being flouted in many conflicts, with some parties deliberately including various violations of some provisions in their war strategies, such as the tactic of targeting hospitals and schools. The Council can play a role in this regard, ensuring that humanitarian workers are protected and are free to do their jobs without being arrested. Sanctions must be used more systematically, particularly for cases involving sexual violence.
The Council must also ensure that non-United Nations forces conduct operations in line with international humanitarian law, including the Group of Five for the Sahel (G-5 Sahel) joint force, he continued. Commending the work of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, he added that the Council must ensure the protection of humanitarian workers. On accountability, he expressed support for efforts to apprehend perpetrators of war crimes, noting that France and Germany have worked together to serve warrants on former members of the Government of Syria. For these and other reasons, he and his counterpart from Germany today announced the launch of Humanitarian Call for Action, he said, encouraging Member States to lend their support to the initiative.
JACEK CZAPUTOWICZ, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Poland, expressed strong support for the implementation of international humanitarian law, an area of global public law with the greatest number of multilateral treaties. However, each new Geneva Convention appears one war too late, with newer conflicts highlighting significant gaps and inconsistencies among the instruments. While respecting the heritage of treaties, Member States must think progressively.
For example, the Kigali Principles set out a framework for all Member States to improve the capacity of peace operations to protect civilians and could be considered as a code of conduct to be followed by all involved in peacekeeping operations, he pointed out. Poland also supports strengthening international humanitarian law, he said, calling on all States to support the establishment of a stand-alone forum to discuss related issues and sharing best practices. Close cooperation with ICRC provides a good example of partnership in the service of international humanitarian law, he noted, citing several national initiatives, including hosting the Warsaw Humanitarian Expo in June.
MA ZHAOXU (China) said that, while the international humanitarian law framework has made adequate provisions to protect civilians, its implementation remains fraught with problems. Addressing the protection of civilians must be done at the source. The Council should encourage preventive diplomacy and mediation to overcome differences among parties with a view to seeking a political solution, thus protecting civilians from the scourge of war, with the United Nations Charter can act as a guide. Commending ICRC for its efforts, he said all parties must meet their obligations under humanitarian law. All parties to a conflict should also implement Council resolutions related to civilian protection and humanitarian access. In addition, Governments must ensure the protection of medical personnel and humanitarian workers. They must also bring perpetrators of violations to justice, with the international community supporting such efforts as requested. For its part, China has contributed to humanitarian assistance and stands ready to help, he said.
IGOR V. KUZMIN (Russian Federation) said that humanism on the field of battle is a hallmark of civilized behaviour. Unfortunately, the Security Council has to repeatedly address the issue of strengthening international humanitarian law principles and institutions. Challenges arise because of the lack of determination to implement these laws. The protection of humanitarian workers rests on all parties. The Russian Federation has consistently called on all sides in a conflict to ensure the safety of those extending humanitarian and medical assistance, he said. He also voiced concern that data on determining who is responsible for humanitarian crimes has become less and less of interest to States. States must make sure that they themselves abide by the principles of international law. “It is unacceptable for so-called medical and humanitarian organizations to openly aid terrorist organizations,” which is being done by the White Helmets in Syria, he stated. This undermines the work of real humanitarians. He further commended ICRC for its work in humanitarianism.
JOB OBIANG ESONO MBENGONO (Equatorial Guinea) expressed concern for the increased complexity of armed conflicts and condemned attacks against the most vulnerable, including children, young people, women, the disabled and the displaced. States hold the responsibility to respect international humanitarian law. All parties in armed conflict must abide by international humanitarian law and the Geneva Conventions to prevent and limit humanitarian crises and the escalation of armed conflict. The protection of civilians in armed conflict is included in the mandate of many peacekeeping missions. Among the most serious current challenges to promoting international law remains the politicization of humanitarian action. In Africa, efforts could be more effective if Member States built on existing principles and customary law. He urged support for African initiatives on the protection of civilians and the African Union Peace and Security Strategy. Root causes of armed conflict must be addressed, including the unjust international economic order, inequality and exclusion. Avoiding the politicization of humanitarian work is crucial. Strengthening international humanitarian law must boost respect for sovereignty and the self-determination of people. Any humanitarian intervention must be approved by the concerned country, he added.
JONATHAN R. COHEN (United States) said the full implementation of international law is the best way to provide protection to civilians. “Unfortunately, we know that the laws of war are not always universally observed,” he added. As the single largest humanitarian donor, the United States has consistently called on the Syrian regime to abide by relevant Security Council resolutions and allow the passage of aid workers to reach those in need. Attacks on civilians and aid workers in South Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic remain of grave concern as are the accusations made by the Russian Federation against the White Helmets. He called on Member States to engage more closely with humanitarian and faith‑based organizations and to share best practices in a non-politicized manner. He also called on Member States to implement counter-terrorism and sanctions obligations in line with international law and international humanitarian law.
KACOU HOUADJA LÉON ADOM (Côte d’Ivoire) said the presence of new non-State entities has changed the very notion of the word “conflict”, with such actors operating outside the laws of war and perpetrating violations against schools, hospitals and civilians. Rather than waiting for such atrocities to happen, the international community must work to prevent them. Indeed, the recurrent violations are impediments to maintaining global security, he said, welcoming the Council’s decision to prioritize conflict prevention in its work. States must promote the rule of law and international humanitarian law, with a view to maintaining global security. In addition, efforts must ensure the full respect of international humanitarian law and encourage education about such frameworks. For its part, Côte d’Ivoire provides predeployment training and operates initiatives that raise awareness of international humanitarian law, he said, noting that the Charter has tools to protect the rule of law. He encouraged Member States to promote an international world order based on multilateralism and the protection of human rights, which remains the last barrier to protect humanity from barbarism and contributes to a peaceful and secure world.
DIAN TRIANSYAH DJANI (Indonesia) said preserving humanitarian space to facilitate assistance requires increased efforts and engagement with all parties involved in armed conflict. Against this backdrop, he highlighted several key points to foster progress, including building trust to ensure prompt and unhindered humanitarian assistance. The primary responsibility to protect the population rests with national Governments. Therefore, the international community must respect the sovereignty of States. Gaining trust from the affected Governments and people is also crucial, as is engaging with all parties to the conflict. Underlining the importance of collective efforts to guard humanitarian space, he said no single Government can resolve this problem alone. Flexible, inclusive approaches must be adopted. It was also important to protect humanitarian and medical personnel, who must be well‑equipped prior to deployment and must be able to discharge their duties. To this end, his country will hold a regional conference in 2020 on humanitarian assistance, providing a platform for sharing best practices and how to better protect medical and humanitarian workers.
JERRY MATTHEWS MATJILA (South Africa) voiced his concern regarding attacks on aid workers and medical practitioners in conflict situations. States should push back to avoid such incidents becoming the norm in conflict areas. As such, South Africa, partnering with ICRC, launched the public awareness campaign “Health Care in Danger”. Yet, the changing nature of armed conflict, from inter-State to intra-State, requires a need for all parties to non-international conflicts to ensure greater protection of civilian populations. All actors in armed conflicts, including foreign troops, must abide by international law. The United Nations could play several key roles, including assisting States, at their request and in cooperation with ICRC, in times of peace with initiatives for the domestication of international humanitarian law instruments. The United Nations should also continue to pay a vital role in monitoring compliance with such laws. For their part, States must adopt, ratify and codify national laws based on the Geneva Conventions and their additional protocols. South Africa’s contributions to various peace processes include co-hosting with ICRC an annual regional conference.
MARC PECSTEEN DE BUYTSWERVE (Belgium) said safeguarding humanitarian space remains a pressing challenge at a time when international laws are being flouted. Aid actors often deal with major obstacles in conflict areas. Promoting international humanitarian rules must broaden awareness. To that end, Belgium established a national commission on the matter. In addition, humanitarian issues are part of military training in Belgium. More broadly, counter-terrorism measures should avoid impeding the work of humanitarian workers in war zones. He also pointed out that sanctions regimes, while helpful in many aspects, can have a negative impact on humanitarian workers and their efforts. To address violations, States must ensure perpetrators are held accountable to deter future atrocities. That is why impunity must be eradicated, he said, noting that the Council has a role to play, including, among other things, in putting perpetrators in Syria on sanctions lists.
JONATHAN GUY ALLEN (United Kingdom) said that, time and time again — from Syria to South Sudan and from Yemen to the Democratic Republic of the Congo — the Council witnesses the human cost arising from the lack of respect for international humanitarian law. More attention should be paid to impediments on humanitarian work, including taxes and fines on goods and people, closures of crossings and the denial of entry to non-governmental organizations. “People suffer and die when the humanitarian space is not respected,” he said, adding that data needs to be gathered on the bureaucratic impediments. In that regard, his Government is supporting research to ensure that the attacks on health care are better understood through improved data analysis. He encouraged Member States to make public their humanitarian activities to help exchange best practices and boost transparency. Underscoring the need to enhance compliance in armed forces, he also said that commanders must fully understand their responsibility to protect. It is unfortunate that the Russian Federation chose to continue its “misinformation campaign” against the White Helmets, he said, adding: “Let us not have our attention deflect” from the attacks by the Syrian Government on aid workers. In addition to today’s meeting, it is important to gather data on humanitarian attacks and on the bureaucratic impediments to aid workers. Greater attention should be placed on humanitarian violations when drafting sanctions.
JOSÉ SINGER WEISINGER (Dominican Republic) said international humanitarian law violations have highlighted the need to defend those principles, while also calling on belligerents to abide by them. The Latin American and the Caribbean region is no stranger to non-traditional forms of violence. Many violent tactics were not around when the Geneva Conventions were drafted and may not even be covered by international humanitarian law. Hence, the Dominican Republic maintains strong collaboration with regional countries. Thousands of military personnel from neighbouring countries have been trained in the Dominican Republic on international humanitarian law. He emphasized the need to spread knowledge on international humanitarian law and the work of aid personnel and to foster a better understanding of humanitarian principles so that efforts are better coordinated. Stressing that “responsibility lies with us all to ensure that our actions are people-centred”, he underscored that “impunity is a sign of indifference which can only lead to more suffering”.
PAUL DUCLOS (Peru), pointing out that legal systems are constantly being violated, emphasized that the Council has a legal obligation to act and to put an end to the suffering of millions of people around the world. He condemned attacks against civilians, hospitals and schools, adding that it is critical to ensure accountability for atrocity crimes. He reiterated the importance of cooperating with the International Criminal Court and welcomed the Council referring more cases to the Court. He also commended the work of humanitarian aid personnel, adding: “They deserve the highest respect of the international community.”
HEIKO MAAS, Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs of Germany and President of the Council for April, spoke in his national capacity, noting that providing help where it is needed has become more and more difficult. “The humanitarian space is shrinking in many parts of the world,” he added, emphasizing that conflicts are more complex than ever before. Instead of being protected, the work of aid workers is becoming more dangerous. Their freedom of movement is restricted, while access is denied. In Yemen, 4 out of 5 people are now dependent on humanitarian assistance. “Despite this, humanitarian aid workers have to beg for access time and again,” he said. From Nigeria to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, providing protection and fighting Ebola is becoming more complex.
“We have to take action,” he stated, calling on all Member States to uphold international humanitarian law. As the second largest bilateral donor, Germany rejects any kind of political spin on humanitarian action, he said, underscoring that the humanitarian space must remain neutral and independent. Safe spaces for confidential exchanges of experiences with humanitarian negotiations can be useful. It is essential to help humanitarian actors impart the necessary know-how about international humanitarian law, especially at a time when more and more non‑State parties are involved in conflicts. States are bound by international humanitarian law. The law itself must not become the target of attacks. “Humanitarian aid workers need clarity about the legal framework within which they are operating,” he said.