22 June 2022
2022 Session, 27th Meeting (AM)

Reaching People in Times of Conflict, Strengthening International Law Focus, as Economic and Social Council Continues Its Humanitarian Affairs Segment

The Economic and Social Council continued its humanitarian affairs segment today with a high-level panel titled “Reaching people in need, supporting humanitarian assistance for all in times of conflict and promoting good practices in the application of international humanitarian law”.

Diego Pary Rodríguez (Bolivia), Vice-President of the Council, opened the meeting, moderated by Ghada Eltahir Mudawi, Acting Director of the Operations and Advocacy Division, of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and featuring seven panellists from United Nations agencies, regional blocs and international humanitarian organizations.

Panellists made presentations and addressed ways of supporting humanitarian assistance, facilitating humanitarian access and ensuring the effective delivery of aid to people in need in times of conflict.  They discussed trends, challenges and good practices related to the delivery of humanitarian assistance in past and present armed conflicts, considering practical ways to strengthen the application of international humanitarian law, facilitate access to people in need and put into practice fundamental protections which save lives and reduce humanitarian suffering.

Discussions included the ramifications of the war in Ukraine, and its impact on people and infrastructure, including how the most vulnerable — children, pregnant women, elderly people and people with disabilities — bear the brunt of the aggression.  Other violations of international humanitarian law happening in Syria, Yemen, Palestine and Tigray were also addressed, with panellists stressing that respect for international humanitarian law is not negotiable.

Other comments concerned the plight of refugees and internally displaced persons, including worsening humanitarian consequences and financial, logistical and geographical constraints in Africa, including the Sahel.  In all critical situations, speakers stressed that that neutral and impartial humanitarian organizations and their actors must be allowed to directly assess the needs of affected populations, while access must not be unlawfully denied or withheld, nor should Member States criminalize or hinder dialogue with parties to conflict.

Panellists further addressed the possibility of a review of counter-terrorism operations and sanctions regimes to include safeguarding of humanitarian operations, as international humanitarian law was seen as a relatively low bar in view of the often terrible and tragic consequences of military operations on civilians.  The humanitarian system can possibly scale up risk analysis, preparedness, early warning, early action and response in the face of the climate crisis, considering the lessons learned and good practices gathered so far.

After their presentations, the Council opened the floor to representatives of seven Member States and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) for an interactive discussion with the panellists.  Delegates noted the difficulties humanitarian actors experience in an increasingly conflict-plagued world, asking how they have adapted to the changed landscape, including the main challenges and risks faced in armed conflicts and the consequences for people in need.

The Council will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Thursday, 23 June, to hold a third and final high-level panel, titled “Humanitarian impacts of the climate crisis:  escalating risks, challenges and actions”, followed by a closing afternoon session with remarks by Mr. Rodríguez and Joyce Msuya, Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator in the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, a general discussion and action to adopt the Council’s humanitarian resolution.

High-level Panel II

Opening day two of its humanitarian affairs segment, the Economic and Social Council held its second high-level panel discussion, titled “Reaching people in need, supporting humanitarian assistance for all in times of conflict and promoting good practices in the application of international humanitarian”.

Moderated by Ghada Eltahir Mudawi, Acting Director of the Operations and Advocacy Division, Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, it featured panellists:  Janez Lenarčič, European Commissioner for Crisis Management of the European Union; Fatima Kyari Mohammed, Permanent Observer of the African Union to the United Nations; Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC); Manuel Fontaine, Director of the Office of Emergency Programmes of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF); Julien Schopp, Vice-President for Humanitarian Policy and Practice of InterAction; Françoise Bouchet-Saulnier, Legal Director, Médecins Sans Frontières; and Santiago Andres Cafiero, Minister for Foreign Affairs, International Trade and Worship of Argentina, and Pro-tempore Presidency of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC).

Ms. MUDAWI said it is a given that civilians trapped in armed conflicts have a right to relief and protection — and humanitarians must be allowed to reach them without obstructions.  Yet when people in the Central Sahel, Ethiopia, the Lake Chad Basin, Ukraine or Yemen need the international community the most, “we often find ourselves unable to reach them”.  According to the Aid Worker Security Database, 38 aid workers have been killed so far in 2022, 62 kidnapped and 37 wounded.  When attacked or threatened, staff are forced to temporarily relocate or scale back their response, meaning people have less access to assistance, services and protection.  “It is frustrating, and it is heartbreaking,” she stressed.  Also, when the bureaucratic red tape is rolled out, operations slow down or stall altogether, with endless layers of approvals for humanitarian movements; arbitrary fees and taxes; visa restrictions; and Kafkaesque non-governmental organization registration procedures.

More and more frequently, counter-terrorism and sanctions measures generate additional and considerable hurdles, with risks of heavy fines and even criminal penalties, influencing banks’ and companies’ willingness to work with humanitarian organizations.  The most complex of all constraints is the increasing politicization of humanitarian assistance, she stressed, as aid recipients must not become pawns in military strategies, and aid groups must not become pieces in these political dynamics.  She cited good practices including ways of engaging with non-State armed groups, negotiating days of tranquillity for vaccination campaigns, and getting humanitarian exemptions during COVID-19 lockdowns, calling for further investment even more in these capacities, and to help find predictable, workable solutions to ensure reaching those in humanitarian need.

Mr. LENARČIČ noted that in February the unthinkable happened as war re-emerged on the European continent when the Russian Federation attacked Ukraine and its people, with its army bombing and flattening cities, causing the loss of innocent lives and destroying schools, kindergartens and hospitals.  As in all conflicts, the most vulnerable — children, pregnant women, elderly people and people with disabilities — bear the brunt of the lethal aggression.  However, this kind of blatant violation of international humanitarian law is also happening in Syria, Yemen, Palestine and Tigray, to name a few.  Humanitarians are denied access to the people in need — often deliberately, he noted.  Civilian infrastructure is being destroyed intentionally, and violence against civilians, including sexual violence, is used as a weapon of war.  “We have to stand firm:  respect for international humanitarian law is not negotiable,” he stressed.  This is why the European Union has put respect for international humanitarian law across the globe at the heart of its foreign policy.  Voicing support for the key role of ICRC, as the guardian of international humanitarian law, he called for the international community to play an active role in preventing violations, and safeguard the principled humanitarian space — including when this involves humanitarian actors engaging with non-State armed groups.

Ms. MOHAMMED noted the Sahel has recently made headlines not for its rich culture, beautiful people and landscape, but for instability.  Along with climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, conflict due to acts of terrorism has left millions without shelter or food, in dire need of humanitarian assistance.  Many parts of Africa host refugees and internally displaced persons, with humanitarian challenges exacerbated by the erosion of respect for key humanitarian principles.  Security constraints and violence make it difficult to reach those in need and impede people from reaching assistance points.  However, she cited some progress as access has been negotiated in Niger, with the State playing a critical role.  The African Union’s humanitarian policy sets out to save lives and protect human dignity, while States remain the main actors in providing assistance.  She cited the importance of early warning monitoring systems, as well as assessing the degree of damage to guide humanitarian assistance.  The international community must share the burden imposed on host countries in areas of conflict, she stressed, with all parties under the obligation to meet needs of people in conflict areas.  However, in the Sahel, she noted the worsening of humanitarian consequences and financial, logistical and geographical constraints, with multiple armed parties involved.  One effective approach involves adopting peace and confidence-building efforts through bilateral and confidential dialogue with all parties, whether State or non-State actors.

Mr. MAURER noted that ICRC has operations in over 80 countries, addressing humanitarian access and delivery, and working to enhance respect for international humanitarian law — designed to provide guidance on the gritty realities of war.  To assist belligerents to understand their obligations, the organization maintains dialogue with the police and armed forces, as well as more than 460 non-State armed groups, in over 110 countries.  Increasingly, wars are fought in cities, with an appalling human cost when explosive weapons with a wide area impact are used in populated areas.  He stressed that States must take preventative and mitigation measures, working to implement drastic restrictions on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.  Additionally, he urged Member States to operationalize and said that Council resolution 2573 (2021), affirming that parties working in coalitions or support relationships, “must hold each other accountable”.  States must limit the humanitarian impact of counter-terrorism measures and sanctions through well-crafted, standing humanitarian exemptions.  He cited a positive development under resolution 2615 (2021), which created a standing humanitarian exemption in the Taliban sanctions regime allowing ICRC and others to continue to access vulnerable populations in Afghanistan.  It is critical that neutral and impartial humanitarian organizations are allowed to directly assess the needs of affected populations and maintain independent control over distribution of assistance.  Access shall not be unlawfully denied or withheld, he stressed, with Member States refraining from criminalizing or hindering the dialogue with parties to conflict.

Mr. FONTAINE said the frequency and complexity of humanitarian access constraints are UNICEF’s biggest challenge to ensuring the effective delivery of life-saving humanitarian assistance.  Both emerging and long-term armed conflicts are characterized by complex local and geopolitical dynamics, fluid lines of control with major security concerns, and a large presence of multiple non-State actors.  These factors continue to make sustained access to children a major challenge.  “In my 31 years as a humanitarian, I can say the last decade has been increasingly problematic and I’m not optimistic about the near horizon,” he said.  Highlighting general points crucial to the issue in question, he said host States and those with influence over them must abide by their international obligations and facilitate rapid and unimpeded humanitarian access.  He noted that bureaucratic delays and denials of visas are handcuffing the agency’s operations.  It is also imperative to engage with all parties to the conflict to facilitate the delivery of assistance to children.  UNICEF operates in an interagency setting, where it adds its comparative strengths — a child-centred focus and large operational presence.  All parties to armed conflict must comply fully with their obligations under international law, he stressed.  If parties respect the rules, humanitarian workers, their vehicles and supplies will be better respected, and this will undoubtedly facilitate assistance to populations in need.

Mr. SCHOPP, injecting the perspectives of humanitarian non-governmental organizations, warned against the expanding use of bureaucratic regulations and rules to impede humanitarian action and access to the populations in need.  When conflicts occur, States tend to change rules in what some call “a shift from the rule of law to the rule by law”.  Laws are created specifically to limit civil society activities and ultimately deprive the most vulnerable of assistance and protection, he said, stressing the need to engage at the local level with those Governments, parliamentarians, legislators and a broader public to ensure that the goal of alleviating suffering and protecting human dignity is a shared one.  There also needs to be some reviews of counter-terrorism operations and sanctions regimes to include safeguarding of humanitarian operations.  International humanitarian law is “a relatively low bar”, he noted.  Military operations, while abiding by international humanitarian law, can generate terrible and tragic consequences for civilians.  In this sense, rather than hiding behind legal obligations, it is important to follow ethical obligations of international humanitarian law, he stressed.

Ms. BOUCHET-SAULNIER said that despite the heralded political reaffirmation of the protection of the medical mission in Security Council resolution 2286 (2016), Médecins sans Frontières has marked the loss of 26 staff members in 10 separate events since 2015.  Citing a shift in types of attacks from massive bombings in Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria to pervasive violence, harassment and intimidation in Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic by State and non-State actors, she said while less “spectacular”, the latter threatens the security of personnel and the respect of the mission, patients and structures.  Allowing medical treatment to “the enemy” in situations of armed conflict is the cornerstone of international humanitarian law.  However, States are implicitly or explicitly contesting the applicability of international humanitarian law in counter-terrorism contexts.  The consequences of this are that the whole swathes of populations living in contested areas are no longer considered as legitimate beneficiaries of aid and that humanitarian organizations and personnel providing support to “the enemy” face a growing trend of accusation, arrest and detention.  She therefore stressed the need for a pedagogic approach to gain better understanding from Governments and armed forces about impartiality and neutrality.

Mr. CAFIERO said Argentina has a longstanding humanitarian tradition based on respect for the principles of international humanitarian and human rights law.  Solidarity based on multilateralism is vital.  In line with policies established by the Government, its humanitarian action is inclusive and does not discriminate regardless of religion, ethnic background and age, he said.  In March 2022, the Government enacted a decree to create the country’s agency for international cooperation and humanitarian assistance.  This body works under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and can roll out the humanitarian and development agenda effectively.  Its tasks include rapid response, dispatch of missions and relief aid, provision of technical cooperation and capacity-building for prevention and management of disasters, he noted, underscoring the importance of leaving no one behind.

Participating in the ensuing interactive dialogue were the representatives of Switzerland, United States, South Africa, El Salvador, Norway, Egypt, Morocco, Syria, Iceland and Canada.

A representative of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) also spoke.

Panellists Ms. MOHAMMED, MICHAEL KÖHLER (Director-General a.i., Directorate-General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid, representing Mr. LENARČIČ), LAETITIA COURTOIS (Permanent Observer of ICRC to the United Nations and Head of Delegation, representing Mr. MAURER), Mr. FONTAINE, Mr. SCHOPP and Ms. BOUCHET-SAULNIER took the floor for a second time in response.

For information media. Not an official record.