Amid Spiking Humanitarian Needs, Security Council Must Use All Available Tools to Reverse ‘Relentless Wave of Attacks’ on Aid Workers, Experts Stress
Government Ministers Join Meeting on Civilian Protection to Demand Unhindered Access, as Some Raise Concerns about Impact of Sanctions
Today’s unprecedented global need for humanitarian assistance — in concert with escalating violence against those providing it — requires robust action by the Security Council, experts told the 15-member organ today, as delegates grappled with a shrinking space for aid delivery fuelled by persistent disregard of its resolutions around the globe.
Amina Mohammed, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, said that, in 2021, the United Nations and its partners will provide humanitarian assistance to a record-high 160 million people amid a “hurricane of humanitarian crises compounded by a relentless wave of attacks on humanitarian workers”. Noting that security incidents affecting such personnel have increased tenfold around the world since 2001, she reiterated the Secretary-General’s calls for the Council to take strong, immediate action to support its resolutions designed to protect civilians and the humanitarian space.
To that end, she pointed out that the Council has access to an array of practical tools designed to foster greater respect for international humanitarian law. Those include facilitating the training of national militaries, applying diplomatic pressure and imposing sanctions when no other remedies remain viable. She also stressed that clear lines must be drawn between military operations, political objectives and humanitarian efforts, and that counter-terrorism measures must explicitly ensure that humanitarian workers “are not punished for doing their jobs”.
Robert Mardini, Director-General of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), echoed that point, stating that the politicization and manipulation of humanitarian aid by States and non-State armed groups puts humanitarian organizations under pressure and holds civilian populations for ransom. Emphasizing that divisions among Council members over access to those in need increase suffering on the front lines, he stressed that words spoken in New York must be translated into reality in conflict zones and urged States to incentivize better behaviour by their armed forces, allies, partners and proxies.
Lucile Grosjean, Delegate Director for Advocacy for the humanitarian organization Action Against Hunger, noting that the Council has been unable to arrest the shrinking of the humanitarian space due to growing disdain for international humanitarian law, also emphasized that inertia and deadlock among its members threatens the lives of both those in need and those helping them. While the Council frequently expresses concern over humanitarian access, parties to conflict are often convinced that the organ will not follow up on its own resolutions. “We need swift condemnation followed by ambitious action when humanitarian space is ignored,” she emphasized.
In the ensuing debate, Council members voiced concern over increasing attacks on humanitarian workers, stressing the need to ensure accountability for the perpetrators of such crimes in order to end the cycle of impunity that persists from conflict to conflict. Many also pointed to the negative impact of sanctions and counter-terrorism measures on the delivery of humanitarian aid and stressed that such policies must not hinder the work of humanitarian workers and their organizations. Others emphasized the need for such operations to avoid politicization and spotlighted the primacy of national jurisdiction in protecting humanitarian workers, even as some called for referring cases to the International Criminal Court when States are unwilling or unable to prosecute offenders.
Ireland’s representative noted that, when the Council fails to call for accountability for violations of international humanitarian law, a culture of impunity can spread from one conflict to the next. “From Yemen to Syria to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, we continue to tolerate such impunity,” he said, urging the Council to ensure that clear, people-centred approaches are in place to protect civilians and the broader humanitarian space, especially as United Nations peacekeeping missions prepare to transition.
The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines cautioned that moral and legal obligations are not enough to secure adherence to international humanitarian law and, therefore, context-specific, pragmatic arrangements to secure access for aid are essential. She further called for increased monitoring and reporting on the impact that sanctions regimes have on humanitarian action, which can be undertaken by the Secretariat and should precede the establishment and renewal of all such measures.
On that point, the representative of the Russian Federation criticized the wanton practice of imposing flawed sanctions and blockades and rejected the use of unilateral sanctions to overthrow so-called “rogue regimes”. Expressing support for unhindered humanitarian access — so long as aid operations are conducted with the consent of the host Government — he raised concerns about the concept of so-called “humanitarian space”, which could, in practice, lead to breaches of State sovereignty. He also sounded alarm over the recent dangerous trend of launching baseless accusations against the Governments of countries mired in conflict, claiming without evidence that they are blocking humanitarian access.
Viet Nam’s representative also underscored the need for those delivering international humanitarian aid to respect the principles of sovereignty and non-interference, along with domestic law. He emphasized that the primary responsibility to protect civilians rests with the State, while calling for efforts to enhance local resilience, reduce humanitarian need and address the root causes of conflicts.
Raychelle Omamo, Cabinet Secretary for Foreign Affairs of Kenya, also highlighted the importance of building resilience, pointing out that many of the States to which people flee from conflicts are themselves fragile. Burden-sharing must go beyond the provision of financial resources to encompass a genuine sharing of responsibility. Stressing that humanitarian interventions should be temporary in nature, she called on the Council to collaborate more with regional organizations such as the African Union on peacekeeping mandates and the use of sanctions.
Also speaking were the Ministers for Foreign Affairs of France, Mexico, Tunisia and India, along with representatives of the United States, United Kingdom, Estonia, Niger, China and Norway.
The meeting began at 10:03 a.m. and ended at 12:09 p.m.
AMINA MOHAMMED, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, detailing a “bloody surge in humanitarian crises around the world” — including civilian casualties in Tigray, Afghanistan and Yemen — underscored that humanitarian needs have never been greater. In 2021, the United Nations and its partners will provide humanitarian assistance to a record-high 160 million people amidst a “hurricane of humanitarian crises compounded by a relentless wave of attacks on humanitarian workers”. Noting that security incidents affecting humanitarian organizations have increased tenfold around the world since 2001, she reiterated the Secretary-General’s call for the Council to take strong, immediate action to support its resolutions concerning the protection of civilians and the humanitarian space.
Noting that humanitarian organizations “are all too familiar” with Government strategies designed to hinder their operation — including restrictions on movement, long visa and customs procedures and high taxation of humanitarian supplies — she warned that such politicization curtails aid workers’ ability to deliver. The best way to protect the humanitarian space is by ending violence and conflict, which is why the Secretary-General first called for a global ceasefire to allow the international community to focus on its common enemy, the COVID-19 pandemic, in March 2020. The United Nations is engaged around the world in difficult negotiations to end conflict; meanwhile, measures are needed to protect humanitarian actors, as “humanitarian needs are outpacing our capacity to meet them”. The Council must do everything in its power to end attacks on humanitarian workers and their assets while ensuring accountability for attacks against them.
To that end, she said, the Council has access to practical tools both within and outside the chamber, aimed at fostering greater respect for international humanitarian law. That includes facilitating the training of national militaries, applying diplomatic pressure and imposing sanctions when no other remedies remain viable. Furthermore, clear lines must be drawn between military operations, political objectives and humanitarian efforts, and counter-terrorism measures should include explicit provisions that preserve humanitarian space and ensure that humanitarian workers “are not punished for doing their jobs”. She also called on the Council to use its influence to ensure that attacks against schools and hospitals cease immediately, adding that Member States should revise their military policies and practices to ensure such facilities are protected.
ROBERT MARDINI, Director-General, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), said the Geneva Conventions and international humanitarian law put the onus squarely on parties to armed conflict to allow rapid and unimpeded access to people in need. Humanitarian workers know from experience that working in a neutral and independent manner is essential to build trust across front lines, and while views may differ on what humanitarian space is, there is little doubt about what happens when it does not exist — “and believe me, it is ugly”. Absence of humanitarian space means a dire lack of assistance and protection for those who need it most and it puts aid workers in mortal danger. “Humanitarian space, or spaces, must be protected, without exception,” he said.
Highlighting some pressing concerns, he said the politicization and manipulation of humanitarian aid by States and non-State armed groups puts humanitarian organizations under pressure and holds civilian populations for ransom. When States insist on armed escorts to ensure the safety of those delivering aid, the result is often the opposite. Humanitarian access must not be unlawfully denied, especially when people’s basic needs are not being met. Emphasizing that divisions among Council members over access to those in need are increasing suffering on the front lines, he cited the growing negative impact of sanctions and counter-terrorism measures on humanitarian aid as another concern. “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,” he said, adding: “This is simply unsustainable and wrong.”
Going forward, he noted, States must ensure the ability of humanitarian organizations to maintain close proximity to affected populations as well as sustained engagement with parties to conflict. Protecting humanitarian space in physical, digital and normative terms means accounting for the specific risks and responsibilities facing local humanitarian actors. States must also renew consensus around key tenets of international humanitarian law and ensure they are respected and implemented. Stressing that words spoken in New York must be translated into reality in conflict zones worldwide, he urged States to find innovative ways to incentivize better behaviour by their armed forces, allies, partners and proxies, and mitigate the humanitarian impact of counter-terrorism measures. Council resolutions should also require States to take concrete steps to facilitate the work of aid organizations and include better safeguards for humanitarian action in their sanction regimes, he said.
LUCILE GROSJEAN, Delegate Director for Advocacy, Action Against Hunger, said that in the midst of conflict, climate change, inequalities and the COVID-19 pandemic, today’s humanitarian needs are unprecedented. Meanwhile, humanitarian space is shrinking due to a growing disdain for international humanitarian law. The Council has so far been unable to stop that trend, she said, emphasizing that inertia and deadlock among its members threatens the lives of those in need and those who are helping them. Some conflicts have been on the Council’s agenda for years, but little has been done. “We need swift condemnation followed by ambitious action when humanitarian space is ignored,” she emphasized.
Noting that the Council often expresses concerns about humanitarian access, she said parties to conflict are often convinced that the organ will not follow up on its own resolutions. She also underscored the impact of counter-terrorism measures and sanctions regimes on humanitarian personnel, saying that they can prevent humanitarian access, hamper dialogue with conflict parties and erode the neutrality of humanitarian organizations. The requirement by some donors that beneficiaries of humanitarian aid undergo screening is a red line, as it compromises the ability to work impartially.
She drew attention to the tragic, apparently endless litany of attacks on humanitarian workers, noting that 191 have been killed, injured or kidnapped so far in 2021. Many are nationals of the country in which they work. The Council must act and put an end to that deadly spiral and ensure that its decisions do not narrow humanitarian space any further. Sanctions and counter-terrorism measures must include humanitarian exemptions, and crimes against humanitarian workers must be collectively denounced. Stressing that violations of international humanitarian law cannot go ignored and combating impunity must be a Council priority, she welcomed the Secretary-General’s appointment of a special adviser on the protection and strengthening of humanitarian space, adding that humanitarian organizations stand ready to work with that person to reverse sinister trends.
JEAN-YVES LE DRIAN, Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs of France, Council President for July, spoke in his national capacity, expressing concern over the “extremely worrisome picture” painted by the briefers in their descriptions of the unprecedented shrinking of humanitarian space and increasing attacks on aid workers. Civilians are paying the price, he stressed, urging action to ensure respect for international humanitarian law. Troops engaged in peacekeeping operations must receive appropriate training. For its part, France is providing instruction to its forces in Africa’s Sahel region, in line with a newly adopted training plan on international humanitarian law. Noting that humanitarian workers do not distinguish between those they treat “based on reasons that are foreign to medicine”, he underscored that those impartial individuals cannot be prosecuted or convicted solely for conducting humanitarian operations that aided combatants. Humanitarian workers must be protected and perpetrators of attacks against them must be punished more frequently, both through national inquiries and prosecutions and at the International Criminal Court, which has jurisdiction over crimes against international humanitarian law, he said.
MARCELO EBRARD CASAUBON, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Mexico, stated that the aid provided by humanitarian workers in the form of medicine, food and psychosocial assistance is not only admirable, but is also indispensable to peacebuilding. However, despite the fact that the primary purpose of international humanitarian law is to protect those who are not participating in hostilities, attacks on humanitarian personnel are increasing in some places, including Afghanistan and Ethiopia’s Tigray region. National jurisdictions bear the primary responsibility for holding to account those that deliberately target such workers, but the Council must assess — based on the principle of complementarity — whether certain cases should be referred to the International Criminal Court. Noting the potential negative impact of counter-terrorism measures on the provision of humanitarian aid, he highlighted the importance of increased awareness of sanctions’ scope to avoid unintended consequences and mitigate such measures’ chilling effect on humanitarian operations. The main challenge facing the protection of humanitarian space is not a lack of norms, but rather the failure to implement them, he said, adding that national actions to address that problem are best carried out during peacetime.
RAYCHELLE OMAMO, Cabinet Secretary for Foreign Affairs of Kenya, said with the proliferation of humanitarian crises, “we are close to a dangerous tipping point, if we have not in fact already gone beyond it”. Humanitarian interventions should be temporary, not permanent outcomes from conflict, and the Council must collaborate more with regional organizations including the African Union in such areas as peacekeeping mandates and sanctions. Noting that many of the States to which people flee from conflicts are themselves fragile — and may be pushed to the brink while fulfilling their humanitarian obligations — she noted that Kenya has hosted one of the world’s largest refugee populations for decades. Burden-sharing must go beyond the provision of financial resources and reflect a genuine sharing of responsibility. More also needs to be done to protect humanitarian space and minimize its exploitation by terrorist groups. She also stressed the importance of resilience and proposed that the United Nations lead a vibrant conversation on a new global paradigm “seeking more capable States”.
OTHMAN JERANDI, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Migration and Tunisians Abroad of Tunisia, described the protection of humanitarian space as a joint responsibility. The international community must pool its efforts to help the suffering, address the root causes of conflict and push for peaceful resolutions. Efforts to end conflicts in Africa and other parts of the world must be stepped up, he said, pointing in particular to Israel’s continued presence in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Calling for a joint code of conduct for all humanitarian organizations — which would enable such actors to cope with crises and deal with parties to conflict, including non-State actors — he said that, to become more effective, those organizations should also define their prerogatives and areas of work and better coordinate their efforts. He also drew attention to the humanitarian impact of migration, noting that it poses security, economic and social challenges for both host and transit countries.
LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD (United States) said humanitarian workers are the world’s superheroes, risking life and limb to save lives and alleviate suffering. “Personally, I can only image how stressful that work must be, day in and day out,” she said, adding that the world owes them gratitude. Instead, humanitarian personnel find themselves being attacked, kidnapped and sometimes killed, as recently witnessed in Afghanistan and Ethiopia’s Tigray region. Against that backdrop, she called on Member States and all parties to conflict to comply with international humanitarian law and protect the independence and neutrality of humanitarian organizations. Citing particular cases, she said the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria has put too many conditions on the ability to deliver aid. In Venezuela, where one in three people are food insecure, the regime of President Nicolás Maduro Moros has only recently agreed to allow World Food Programme (WFP) deliveries. In the Tigray region of Ethiopia, essential needs are being denied. She joined other speakers in echoing the Secretary-General’s call for a global humanitarian ceasefire, adding that such an action would still allow for legitimate counter-terrorism operations to continue.
HARSH VARDHAN SHRINGLA, Foreign Secretary of India, recalled that Dharma-based norms for armed conflict in ancient India were founded based on the concepts of humanity and humanitarian principles, with many rules to protect civilians during conflict. Condemning the recent killing of an Indian photojournalist, Danish Siddiqui, during a reporting assignment in Kandahar, Afghanistan, he stressed that primary responsibility for protection and assistance during a humanitarian crisis lies with the country concerned. International humanitarian assistance, when provided, must be impartial. The Council must avoid the politicization of humanitarian work, he said, adding that humanitarian action must never be a ploy to undermine the territorial integrity of States. Calling for zero tolerance for terrorism, he noted that new and emerging technologies are making it possible for terrorist groups to obstruct humanitarian access. He went on to say that sanctions imposed in response to violations of international humanitarian law should have wider regional and international support.
BARBARA WOODWARD (United Kingdom) described attacks on humanitarian operations as an “assault on basic human values” that add to suffering by targeting those trying to alleviate it. In Ethiopia’s Tigray region — which stands on the brink of a man-made famine — parties to the conflict are impeding the delivery of aid, destroying civilian infrastructure and targeting aid workers. She pointed out that the situation in that region is not unique, as hospitals have been targeted in Afghanistan, humanitarian supplies have been destroyed in South Sudan and bureaucratic restrictions have delayed the delivery of lifesaving aid in Yemen. Welcoming the recent adoption of resolution 2585 (2021), which ensured continued lifesaving cross-border aid for millions in Syria, she urged the international community to work together to implement relevant resolutions and hold accountable those who attack aid workers, including by strengthening the use of sanctions. However, she warned that those measures — along with ones designed to counter terrorism — must not themselves hinder the delivery of assistance to those in need.
SVEN JÜRGENSON (Estonia) said the situation of humanitarian workers in Syria provides a vivid example of the danger such personnel face. Attacks against medical facilities have continued, with the Al-Atareb Surgical Hospital in western Aleppo under constant fire since 2014. In addition to bureaucratic and administrative impediments, various actors used COVID-19 as a pretext to restrict the movement of aid workers and have created an increasing cycle of impunity. He called on States to investigate all crimes affecting humanitarian workers and the delivery of aid, underscoring the unacceptability of some perpetrators being rewarded with high-ranking positions in the Government or public sector. If a State is unwilling or unable to carry out necessary investigations, other international mechanisms — including the International Criminal Court — must step in to ensure accountability. He added that Governments must proactively educate their armed forces on international humanitarian law prior to deployment to ensure adherence to standing rules.
DINH QUY DANG (Viet Nam), noting that an estimated 235 million civilians will rely on lifesaving humanitarian assistance in 2021, called on all parties to armed conflicts — both States and non-State armed groups — to comply with their obligations under international humanitarian law. Those include refraining from attacking, destroying or rendering useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population. Expressing concern that the vast majority of victims of attacks on humanitarian workers are national staff working to save their own people, he emphasized that perpetrators of such attacks must be brought to justice. It is also necessary to uphold the core humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence in order to build trust within host communities and among conflict parties. Similarly, the principles of sovereignty and non-interference, along with domestic law, must be fully respected. Reiterating that the primary responsibility to protect civilians rests with the State, he called for efforts to enhance local resilience, reduce humanitarian need and address the root causes of armed conflicts.
BRIAN PATRICK FLYNN (Ireland), noting recent violations of international humanitarian law in northern Syria, Afghanistan, Tigray and elsewhere, said Ireland has used its voice on the Council to consistently call for accountability. History has shown that when the Council fails to do so, a culture of impunity can spread from one conflict to the next. “From Yemen to Syria to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, we continue to tolerate such impunity,” he said, urging the Council to ensure that, as peacekeeping missions prepare to transition, clear, people-centered approaches are in place to protect civilians and the humanitarian space. He also pointed out that local medical and humanitarian staff — notably women — are often at the forefront of humanitarian responses and, while local actors’ insights and connections to their communities bring significant advantages, those individuals can face greater pressure than their international colleagues from local authorities, community members and security forces. Such challenges must be factored into planning for the security of all staff, he stressed, also calling on the Council to improve protections for humanitarian actors in United Nations counter-terrorism and sanctions regimes.
ABDOU ABARRY (Niger) said the debate surrounding humanitarian space must be depoliticized, even if someone once wrote that “humanitarian action is the continuation of politics by other means”. Humanitarian assistance should not be used by States to achieve foreign policy objectives, nor should it be deliberately politicized by humanitarian actors in response to challenges they face on the ground. Stakeholders must be encouraged to respect international humanitarian law and States should raise the issue of humanitarian protection to the level of national policy. He encouraged humanitarian actors to collaborate with security actors, particularly in the Sahel region, where the presence of multiple military actors — with mandates which are not necessarily harmonized — can sometimes hinder the humanitarian response. Meanwhile, he said, the highly controversial question of the impact of unilateral sanctions on humanitarian assistance also requires a closer look.
DAI BING (China) called upon the international community to practice true multilateralism and ensure the safety of humanitarian workers, as COVID-19, food insecurity, economic challenges and the increasing politicization of humanitarian operations have compromised the effectiveness of such work. He urged all parties to adhere to international humanitarian law, stating that Governments must assume the primary responsibility to protect the humanitarian space while the United Nations and international partners assist with capacity-building. Humanitarian aid should comport with the principles of neutrality and objectivity and must not become a “tool for political rivalry or manipulation”. Further, unilateral sanctions must be immediately lifted as they prevent access to necessary supplies and destabilize the economic order in targeted States. Describing attacks on humanitarian workers and facilities as a “regrettable byproduct of armed conflict”, he underscored the need to address the root causes of such conflict and urged countries “to take the long view” by prioritizing poverty reduction and sustainable development.
INGA RHONDA KING (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines) said heightened volatility in conflict-affected countries has led to an exponential increase in the need for humanitarian assistance, at the same time as violence against aid workers has escalated. Noting that moral and legal obligations are not enough to secure adherence to international humanitarian law, she underscored the necessity of context-specific, pragmatic arrangements for negotiating access. She also stressed that national and international counter-terrorism policies must neither criminalize the actions of humanitarian actors nor restrict their ability to work. To that end, there is greater need for systematic monitoring and reporting on the impact of sanctions regimes on humanitarian action, which can be undertaken by the Secretariat and should precede the establishment and renewal of all such regimes. Calling for adequate resources to protect the humanitarian space, she said aid groups must have access to funding for context analyses, negotiation skills training and improved communications equipment.
GENNADY V. KUZMIN (Russian Federation) said his country supports unhindered humanitarian access so long as aid operations are conducted with the consent of the host Government. Recently, however, there has been a dangerous trend of launching baseless accusations against the Governments of countries mired in conflict, claiming that they are blocking access. Many donors think they have a right to dictate their will on sovereign States, but State consent remains a fundamental principle under General Assembly resolution 46/121. Meanwhile, the concept of so-called “humanitarian space” raises many questions and could, in practice, lead to breaches of State sovereignty. Emphasizing that efforts to create safe conditions for humanitarian and medical workers must not undermine counter-terrorism efforts — nor should it be an excuse for States not to uphold their obligations to combat terrorism — he said national judicial organs of those States where violations occurred should play the main role in eradicating impunity. The Russian Federation supports the prosecution of those alleged to have violated international law, but referrals to the International Criminal Court and the establishment of ad hoc tribunals have proven to be a failure. He also criticized the wanton practice of imposing flawed sanctions and blockades and rejected the use of unilateral sanctions to overthrow so-called “rogue regimes”.
MONA JUUL (Norway) said humanitarian organizations must be able to carry out their work without interference or politicization. “We have all seen the deadly consequences when that is not the case,” she said. Noting the Council’s recent adoption of resolution 2585 (2021) securing humanitarian access to conflict-affected people in Syria, she said aid workers must be free to engage directly with parties to conflict, including non-State armed groups. Norway considers attacks on medical personnel and facilities war crimes under its penal code, she said, encouraging other States to consider ways to strengthen compliance with international humanitarian law. Alleged violations must be thoroughly and impartially investigated, she continued, adding that the mission and mandate of the International Criminal Court remains as crucial as ever. She went on to say that concerns over the unintended negative impacts of counter-terrorism measures and sanctions must be taken into consideration.
* The 8821st Meeting was closed.