In this year “”, the global community was supposed to embark while tackling our most existential challenge: the . But 2015 might be best remembered for events that speak more to the basest elements of human nature.
Across cities from Aleppo to Maiduguri, from Bangui to Aden, civilians have borne the brunt of protracted conflicts that have raised grave questions over the enduring relevance of (IHL) and the . , , ; and while each new tragedy is condemned, impunity seems to cast an ever darker shadow.
For aid organisations, the sheer number of simultaneous crises has stretched to the limit. They have also found themselves being sucked into the complex geopolitics of the crisis that has overshadowed all others in 2015 – .
For Jan Egeland, former UN under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs and now head of the , the in Syria and Iraq is one factor driving the dangerous confluence between humanitarian and political agendas.
“I am afraid for access and I’m afraid for protection of civilians in an age of politicisation and militarisation of our work … I’m now a fundamentalist in reviving humanitarian principles because everybody is trying to instrumentalise our work,” he said, referring to the danger that governments or other actors might seek to make political gains from humanitarian assistance.
“It was catastrophic, in my view, when [some] western leaders said we will fight Isis with military, political, strategic, diplomatic and humanitarian means … How will it then be possible for us to help those poor souls in the so-called caliphate?” he says, referring to humanitarian work being carried out in areas controlled by Isis.
“It’s like we have to educate new generations of politicians and military leaders again and again to understand the importance of the humanitarian principles from ” he adds.
For Egeland, who lies awake at night worrying about his staff in Yemen, Central African Republic, and elsewhere, action must be taken now to rein in the impunity that results from blatant flouting of international law.
“I am much more political than many colleagues in saying we’ve got to be more explicit in calling a spade a spade,” he says.
“[President Joseph] Kabila and the Democratic Republic of Congo leaders have to be held accountable for so few on their side having … We should also demand that those countries that finally sit , who are giving arms and money to opposing sides, are responsible for holding the armed actors accountable in these situations. More can be done and more should be done on this because we are paying an unacceptable price,” he says.
Stuart Gordon, of the department of international development at , says routine, impartial investigations into incidents like the bombing of the , Afghanistan, should be considered, and he also suggests beefing up and reforming the so that it can play a greater role in monitoring compliance with IHL.
While there has never been a golden age for international humanitarian law, Gordon says counterterrorism legislation, particularly in the US, has made things even more challenging for humanitarian groups today.
“There are things today that make it strikingly difficult to ensure this form of [humanitarian] law is upheld: the by the US, [and] the rise of counterterrorist legislation, which has really restricted the ability of humanitarians not only to access communities on both sides of the confrontation line but also to … gain neutral space in situations such as Afghanistan and Syria,” he says.
Access is already complicated by the fragmented nature of armed opposition groups.
“For an NGO to function in those circumstances, it needs to engage in very active forms of humanitarian diplomacy with very localised commanders, and many [NGOs] are concerned that that form of engagement will run counter to, particularly, US counterterrorism laws. That in effect erodes the neutral space guaranteed by IHL,” Gordon said. “This disciplines humanitarians to only work in areas that are politically acceptable to northern or western forces. That’s incredibly problematic.”
He believes counterterrorism legislation, which can be “restrictive and very ambiguous” needs to be re-examined.
“Creating more forms of clearly defined humanitarian exemption to allow negotiations to gain access to all sides … will almost certainly address some of the issues of co-option and rejection that face the humanitarian community.”
Muddying the humanitarian waters further are growing efforts to stretch countries’ aid budgets to deliver national security objectives or fund responses to the global .
Britain has been open about refocusing its aid budget to reflect national security concerns. The prime minister, David Cameron, that Britain would target at least half its aid budget on stabilising broken and fragile states, as well as do more to help refugees closer to their homes. He placed aid firmly within the overall strategy “to keep this country safe”.
Britain has also seen a broadening of the government departments that can gain access to aid money. Gordon says there was a view, particularly among some officials in the ministry of defence, that aid could be used as “some form of developmental soft power weapons system”.
With aid now situated in that delicate area where the Venn diagrams of security and development overlap, there is a greater need than ever for a clear commitment to the principles of neutrality and impartiality and a firm respect for IHL, Gordon says.
“A golden age of humanitarianism … has never really existed. There have always been phenomenal challenges. I just think the challenges this decade are probably more severe and they come from the politics of co-option by the west and the politics of rejection from conservative Islamic groups in a limited number of countries … but that number is growing.”