Brookings Event Focuses on Barriers to Access During Humanitarian Crisis

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February 28, 2011

On Feb. 15, 2011 the Brookings Institution held a discussion, Access During Humanitarian Crises: Barriers to Protection and Assistance. Noting that "Sometimes the aid groups are blocked by authorities, sometimes by non-state actors" the speakers  emphasized that access is a precondition for humanitarian action and highlighted the need for all parties to meet their obligations under International humanitarian law, and for aid groups to maintain their neutrality and independence from military and foreign policy objectives.  

Speakers included:

  • Amb. Claude Wild, Head of the Political Affairs Division IV, Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, The Swiss Confederation
  • Martin de Boer, Deputy Head, Regional Delegation for the United States and Canada, International Committee of the Red Cross
  • Ashraf Hadari, Ministry of Foreign Affairs Afghanistan
  • Buti Kale, Deputy Regional Representative for the United States and the Caribbean, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
  • Gerry Martone, Director, Humanitarian Affairs International Rescue Committee

A transcript & audio recording of the event are available.
A summary of the speakers’ comments below is provided by Omar Yousaf, Law Clerk at the Law Office of Sahar Aziz.

Ambassador Claude Wild, Swiss Federal Department of Federal Affairs
The first speaker was Ambassador Claude Wild, representing the Swiss Federal Department of Federal Affairs. Ambassador Wild began his speech by defining ‘humanitarian access’ as involving the free and unimpeded movement of humanitarian personnel to deliver relief services. It also implies the free and safe movement of humanitarian agencies to reach civilians in peril due to various conflicts and crises. Thus, ‘access’ is a precondition for humanitarian action. However, humanitarian access is often misperceived as ‘intervention’, and thus a threat to the sovereignty of a state, or to the dominant position of a regional non-state armed actor.
Ambassador Wild went on to discuss the challenges posed by armed conflicts. First, the increase of internal armed conflicts since the 1980s has increased the need to engage with non-state actors. Second, the proliferation of emergency relief and humanitarian aid actors has increased negotiation and coordination efforts with more actors than in the past. The third challenge is the engagement of the military in aid and relief operations. Fourth, humanitarian personnel have been targeted by conflicting parties. And the final major challenge is the use of private security contractors to for military or security operations to protect economic and humanitarian aid delivery.

Ambassador Wild went on to discuss how a donor country can help, using Switzerland as an example. First, there has to be a political will to help. In a 2009 meeting in Switzerland of experts on humanitarian access, two conclusions emerged: i) the need to develop practical instruments to improve humanitarian access; and ii) the recognition that there is a lack of clarity regarding the existing legal obligations related to the criteria for denial or constraint on humanitarian actors. The latter conclusion convinced the Swiss government to launch an initiative, in cooperation with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the Red Cross, and the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The initiative aims to develop a handbook on humanitarian access, and a field manual on humanitarian access. Another example is Switzerland’s concrete proposals, including those relevant to Gaza in 2007.

Ambassador Wild concluded his speech by discussing the importance of bilateral dialogues with difficult partners, including non-state armed actors. The ambassador stressed that these actors must know and understand the humanitarian norms, and that all should have humanitarian access, regardless of who is in charge
Martin de Boer of the ICRC
Next to speak was Martin de Boer with the ICRC. Mr. de Boer began his speech by discussing some of the obstacles currently faced. First, regional access to relief areas is often made difficult by the regional control of militant or hostile groups. Second, some states and non-state actors question international humanitarian principles and humanitarian actors. According to Mr. de Boer, this rejection of humanitarian principles is a by-product of correlating humanitarian aid to political and military objectives.

De Boer went on to discuss the ICRC’s response to such obstacles. Among them, is negotiation on local or social norms, often centralized around issues of reciprocity. Additionally, the ICRC believes that neutrality and independence builds trust; neutrality is here defined as ‘not taking sides’, and does not necessarily mean equal treatment, as support systems might be different. Additional points that Mr. de Boer went on to emphasize confidentiality, the importance of building relationships (as the ICRC is mandated to speak with all armed actors), matching words with deeds, and the decentralization of humanitarian movement. Humanitarian organizations must be self critical, and debate the consequence of their actions before they proceed.
Buti Kali, Office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees
The next presenter was Buti Kale of the Office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Mr.Kale began by endorsing much of what had previously been said. He went on to identify some impeding factors, including the vulnerability of the population, as they are completely dependent on whatever institutions they have access to. Mr. Kale identified three barriers to access. First, issues of safety and security often make it difficult for humanitarian access. The safety concerns vary situationally. For example, The Republic of Côte d'Ivoire has historically been plagued by highway robbers threatening humanitarian aid workers. Often, humanitarian personnel are forced to resort to military escorts. The two other barriers identified by Mr. Kale were the presence of civilians in remote and inaccessible locations, and perceptions of partisanship, rendering aid unwelcome in a politicized environment. Mr. Kale concluded his speech by re-emphasizing the goals of the UNHCR of protecting the security of its personnel.
Gerry Martone, Director of Humanitarian Affairs at the International Rescue Committee
The next speaker was Gerry Martone, the Director of Humanitarian Affairs at the International Rescue Committee. Mr. Martone began his talk by pointing out how contemporary wars are usually fought by people not trained in humanitarian covenants. As the War on Terror has created much anti-Western sentiment, the largest global beneficiaries of humanitarian relief are Muslim, but there seems to be little understanding of them as peoples. As such, aid is often viewed as a pretext to colonialism. However the main premise of Mr. Martone’s speech seemed to be focused on remote management. By delegating implementation of various relief operations to local workers and organizations, it is a step closer to empowering them. However, the drawback of this approach is the lack of direct oversight. Notwithstanding that, remote management has become the dominant method in light of increasing dangers to humanitarian personnel, where they are now attacked on an ideological basis for who they are, as opposed to in the past.

Ashraf Hadari, Political Counselor at the Embassy of Afghanistan
The final speaker was Ashraf Hadari, Political Counselor at the Embassy of Afghanistan. Unfortunately, Mr. Hadari’s time was cut quite short. He began by discussing the fact that the entire Afghan population is vulnerable to various conflicts and disasters. While agreeing with what was previously mentioned, Mr. Hadari stressed the importance of long-term investment in sustainable development in Afghanistan. He felt this was best for humanitarian access, because of the seeming impossibility of aid workers to help in continuous conflicts or crises. The solution to humanitarian access, according to Mr. Hadari, is prevention through institution building, and investing in the social progress of the country. It is interesting to consider that Mr. Hadari is the representative of a state, as opposed to the other actors.