28th Mar 2023


Ukraine shows need to ensure humanitarians can do their jobs

  • The EU should cast the net wide in analysing the denial of humanitarian access in Ukraine and elsewhere (Photo: European Commission)
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In recent weeks, we have witnessed devastating scenes in Ukraine as civilians have come under sustained bombardment in cities across the country.

Mariupol and other cities have been encircled, preventing lifesaving supplies from being brought in, and people out, despite commitments to establish humanitarian corridors.

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The developments we are now seeing in Europe are reminiscent of the horrifying tactics used in Syria where civilians in cities such as Aleppo and Homs were cut off from vital aid as their cities were destroyed.

The deliberate denial or restriction of humanitarian access — a violation of international law — rarely attracts significant international outrage, despite the staggering human costs. Yet across the globe, the trends of civilian harm and humanitarian access denial in conflict are growing.

In contexts like South Sudan and Yemen, constraints on the ability of humanitarian actors to deliver aid and reach those most in need have had devastating consequences, contributing to widespread and severe levels of hunger. Humanitarian workers are also increasingly themselves becoming targets of violence.

In 2021, the number of countries facing the highest level of access constraints more than doubled compared to late 2020.

More than a quarter of the 20 countries on the IRC's Emergency Watchlist of crises at greatest risk of significant humanitarian deterioration in 2022 saw serious declines in humanitarian access: Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Mali, Myanmar, Nigeria and Somalia.

Denial of access for aid is not always as blatant as in Ukraine or Syria. The IRC has operations in 40 countries. On a daily basis we see the insidious use of policies and laws to limit and control the delivery of aid.

In Yemen, for example, restrictive bureaucratic controls in the north and south of the country mean it can take our teams months to secure the paperwork they need to deliver programmes. Counter-terror policies leave both financial institutions and NGOs fearful of facing criminal charges just for delivering aid or engaging with non-state military actors to negotiate access.

All these policies delay the delivery of urgent and often life-saving aid to those who need it most.

Next week, the European Commission and French Presidency will host the first European Humanitarian Forum bringing together leaders and civil society organisations in an effort to act on the unprecedented level of needs worldwide, and ensure the delivery of effective, efficient and principled humanitarian responses in coordination with humanitarian partners.

If this is to make meaningful progress, the EU and its member states must seize this chance to commit to taking three key actions.

Firstly, if denial of access is to be elevated and to receive similar outrage and condemnation as other violations of international humanitarian law — the set of rules that seek to limit the effects of armed conflict including protection of civilians and safe passage of humanitarian aid — then evidence is vital. It's now essential that the EU casts the net wide in its analysis and shines a light on contexts where humanitarian access is denied. This would be an important first step.

EU member states should also champion efforts in the UN General Assembly to establish an independent panel to monitor humanitarian access in Ukraine, with a mandate to report to the Assembly on a regular basis regarding the status of access to aid for people inside the country.

Secondly, EU member states must throw their full weight behind mechanisms that seek to hold perpetrators both responsible and accountable for violations. Having such tools in place has a clear impact — as does their absence.

For example, in Yemen, the only international, impartial, and independent body reporting on rights violations and abuses in the country was dissolved in October 2021. In the two months that followed, Saudi coalition bombing rates increased by 43%. EU member states should call for such findings to be presented at the UN Security Council and support the establishment of a new Organisation for the Protection of Humanitarian Access to call out the unacceptable strangulation and weaponisation of humanitarian aid in conflict zones.

Finally, as Europe positions itself for a new era of self-reliance, it must reinforce its commitments to the world's most vulnerable.

The EU's member states should increase their funding and international aid to states impacted by conflict, climate change or economic crisis. This is especially urgent with donor conferences for both Yemen and Afghanistan coming up this month. The EU must now demonstrate its ability to achieve the diplomatic objectives it has set itself of finding solutions to ensure the delivery of aid.

The dire situation we're witnessing in Ukraine today is abhorrent and yet another example of the Age of Impunity that has defined the past decade of conflict worldwide — an era where the laws of war are disregarded, and civilians always bear the brunt.

The first ever European Humanitarian Forum is an opportunity for the EU to set the bar high, and demonstrate it is capable of the diplomatic leadership needed to ensure that humanitarians can do their jobs and deliver aid to the people that need it most.

Author bio

Harlem Désir is senior vice-president Europe, International Rescue Committee, and former French minister of foreign affairs.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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