Thursday, January 26, 2012

Humanitarian Space

Humanitarian space "is  often used to denote areas to which humanitarian agencies have safe and protected access, in order to provide urgent relief assistance. This is generally dependent on the consent and cooperation of the controlling authorities," according to

One of the goals of this blog, in addition to sharing personal experiences and keeping me from tearing my hair out, is to share the work I do, and to give people a better understanding of what the humanitarian sector is, and what it means to be a part of it. One of the questions I am often asked is how I choose where I will work. While I am not at a point in my career where I get to choose explicitly where I will work, I can turn down any assignment I like. It occurred to me the other day that the places I wouldn't consider working all have something in common, the humanitarian space in those countries (or some cross-border conflicts) is shrinking or practically non-existent, which in turn would make it difficult to accomplish whatever my task was, but it would also have the potentially to considerably increase the personal danger of the assignment.

Some argue that humanitarian work can be traced back to the Red Cross, workers could run onto battlefields, after the fighting was over, to aid those who were injured on either side of the fight. That is an excellent example of protected humanitarian space, you aren't associated with fighting forces on either side for offering medical and other aid. However the lines between fighting forces and humanitarian groups have continued to be blurred, especially over the past two decades, to the point where humanitarian workers may be in just as much danger as members of the military, except they don't get bullet proof vests or guns. You've heard about humanitarian workers being kidnapped or killed in conflicts where they were working, this is the ultimate violation of humanitarian space, where, for whatever reason, one armed group believes that a humanitarian group is aiding the other side, and is therefore classifiable as an enemy combatant. 

There are overt and covert ways that humanitarian space can be compromised. The most recent overt example is where individuals identifying themselves as employees of USAID (the US Agency for International Development - intended to be a state run humanitarian organization) were later identified as spies in places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq. USAID is not only an organization that does work of its own, but also funds a litany of organizations all over the world. With the connection now confirmed between the CIA and USAID, the ability of USAID and anyone funded by them to claim neutrality in a conflict in which the US has an interest is diminished.

Above is an example of when partisan influences work their way into the humanitarian sphere, but another important way that humanitarian space is compromised is when members of fighting forces participate in humanitarian work. If the US military is in Afghanistan handing out food or blankets or stoves or what have you, they are are generally doing it to build goodwill and help gain the support of the local population. But then suppose I work for the Norwegian Refugee Council and the next day I'm giving out out blankets and stoves; there can be confusion in the minds of local people where the line between the military and the humanitarian spheres lies. What this can lead to is that humanitarian workers are assumed to be partisan, rather than the opposite.

Humanitarian organizations that expect to be granted humanitarian space in which to provide assistance are expected to abide by the principles of impartiality, neutrality, and independence. This means that they should provide assistance to both sides of the conflict, should not do anything to support or diminish the capabilities of either side, and should not be susceptible to outside influences. Many organizations do not take grants or donations from large organizations or governments as it could compromise their impartiality in the eyes of others, as well as their independence as they may be beholden to this funding their activities.

It is in places where humanitarian space has diminished the most: Somalia, Iraq, or Pakistan among others, where humanitarian workers are most at risk, and where you are most likely to hear of them being kidnapped or killed (in my experience, I do not have data on this, but this article addresses related research). One last element that has contributed to greater compromises in humanitarian space is the nature of war. Humanitarian space finds its jurisdiction in international law and the Geneva conventions. But today more wars are between non-state actors, or non-state actors and the state, and these groups are less likely to be held accountable for upholding the Geneva conventions, as they technically are not a party to them. 

We all have our limits, and realizing that mine are based in reality, rather than simply in fear, is comforting to me. In most places I have worked humanitarian workers are viewed as a nuisance (another survey!) at worst, and with gratitude at best. I think humanitarian workers themselves absolutely have a role to play in maintaining their neutrality, but governments must also realize that they put hundreds of thousands of people at risk when they blur the lines by having the military engage in humanitarian work, or ask humanitarian workers to engage in non-neutral activities. There are conflicts where all outsiders are seen as the enemy, as is shown clearly in In the Land of Blood and Honey (please see my post of January 9, 2012 for my review of the film), where Serbian forces attack UN peacekeepers, associating them with outside forces attempting to end the conflict. It is only through ongoing respect of and persistent maintenance of humanitarian space that those employing that space can do their jobs safely. 

However, an important question is that given that the nature of war is changing, and non-state actors often decline to abide by international law, how can this space be protected? The International Red Cross wrote an article addressing this question in Afghanistan. Also the Forced Migration Review dedicated an entire issue to non-state actors and displacement. I have much to learn about the subject, but for the time being will continue to avoid locations where being an American means being associated with the military. And as an aside, this is in no way a judgement of humanitarian workers living in working in places where humanitarian space is diminishing as we speak. You are brave; you are doing good work; and just because the military is active in a particular place does not mean people there are any less deserving or in need of support. Stay safe. 

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