On August 19, the United Nations marked World Humanitarian Day, a day designated to commemorate those humanitarian aid workers who risked and lost their lives while in the service of civilians in need. Under the tagline #NotATarget, this year aid workers and rights advocates called on international policy-makers to take action to protect all civilians caught in conflict – including children, the forcibly displaced, and other vulnerable populations – and the humanitarian and medical professionals working to provide them with assistance.
around the world continue to be disproportionately affected by armed conflict. Last year, scores of children were killed, maimed or otherwise seriously injured, raped or sexually assaulted, and forced to leave their homes. In fact, in 2017, the UN documented more than 21,000 violations by government forces and non-State armed groups globally, representing a significant increase from 2016. While these images and figures are rightfully jolting, what is perhaps most shocking is that bureaucratic measures preventing the delivery of much-needed humanitarian aid and the intimidation of aid workers are achieving many of the same devastating effects on children’s lives.
In 2017, civilians in several conflict-affected countries faced serious challenges meeting their basic needs as a result of what the UN Secretary-General has called “widespread and persistent constraints on humanitarian access.” Of these, the most severe constraints were bureaucratic impediments and attacks against humanitarian personnel.
Increasingly, parties to conflict in a number of country situations around the world are using the denial of humanitarian access as a tactic of war, employing a variety of measures to prevent civilians from meeting their basic needs. In late 2017, a de facto blockade on Yemen imposed by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition significantly limited the import of food, fuel, medicine, and other humanitarian supplies, exacerbating what the UN had already deemed the “worst humanitarian crisis in the world.” Watchlist’s research on South Sudan earlier this year found that Government officials regularly increased fees for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) trying to alleviate the effects of conflict and stopped humanitarian convoys from delivering life-saving supplies – measures designed to impede access to civilians in need. In his most recent report on the protection of civilians in armed conflict, the UN Secretary-General explains that, in 2017, additional registration requirements for humanitarian programming and activities in non-Government-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine compounded an already onerous process.
Attacks against aid workers and medical personnel are also preventing civilians from receiving much-needed assistance. According to UN data, 389 security incidents were reported in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in just the second half of 2017, limiting access to humanitarian assistance for more than one million people. In Somalia, 116 humanitarian workers were subjected to violence, with 16 killed and 31 abducted. And in Mali, security incidents involving humanitarian workers almost doubled, from 68 in 2016 to 135 in 2017.
Denials of humanitarian access have serious implications on the lives of war-affected children and their families. They impede children’s ability to obtain education, health care, and vital humanitarian assistance. In 2017, millions of children faced hunger and acute malnutrition as a result of famine in South Sudan and high risk of famine in northeast Nigeria, Somalia, and Yemen; these situations have been further exacerbated by denials of access, which have prevented much-needed food distributions and nutrition services from reaching affected populations.
Restrictions on access also significantly affect the quality of humanitarian services provided. Without unconditional and unrestricted access, humanitarian agencies cannot accurately identify and assess the needs of affected populations, or plan for contingencies; this, in turn, decreases the efficiency and effectiveness of service delivery and increases its costs. Protection services are perhaps most severely affected by access restrictions, leaving children and other especially vulnerable individuals in an affected population at even greater risk. Moreover, leaving protection monitoring and follow-up to national staff or local NGOs unduly puts them in danger of intimidation or attack.
The UN and its Member States should heed this year’s appeal, ensuring that conflict-affected civilians, including children, and the humanitarian and health care workers who serve them are #NotATarget. To better protect children and prevent attacks on humanitarian workers, the UN should continue to collect data on the denial of humanitarian access, as well as its effects on children. The Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict (SRSG-CAAC) can support country-level UN teams in these efforts by developing practical guidance on how to collect such data, in order to standardize and support their monitoring and reporting work. The UN Security Council and other influential Member States should additionally continue to put pressure on parties to conflict in countries such as Myanmar, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, to fulfill their obligations under international law by allowing and facilitating safe, timely, and unhindered humanitarian access to affected populations. And finally, Member States should take concrete steps to implement the Secretary-General’s recommendations on measures to protect health care (S/2016/722), including by supporting the UN’s data collection on attacks on health care in armed conflict through the Security Council-mandated Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism (MRM), and specifically to allow independent monitors unhindered access to affected locations and persons.
Humanitarian workers risk their lives on a daily basis in the service of others. Recognition of their work and efforts to safeguard them should not be limited to August 19.
To read more about Watchlist’s research on attacks on health care and denials of humanitarian access, visit: https://watchlist.org/about/report/.