The beginning of the 21st century saw a sharp rise in radical groups and new forms of conflict. One example is mass terrorism, which has led countries to seek to protect themselves by adopting drastic measures for tracking down perpetrators and blocking the sources of funding that enable them to act. These measures are referred to as “COTER”, a contraction of the phrase “counter terrorism”.
In addition to other conflicts, these realities can be seen in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Nigeria, Libya, Somalia and Iraq. Throughout these countries, there are clashes of warring forces composed of government armed forces and sometimes several rival rebel groups.
An unsustainable situation for humanitarian organizations
All funding granted to NGOs by donor States–which allocate three quarters of the €26 billion of the international aid devoted to humanitarian crises–is subject to strict compliance with COTER principles. Humanitarian NGOs that benefit from this aid are therefore prohibited from making any contact with warring parties identified by donor governments and included on a list of groups designated as terrorists by the international community. On the ground, this situation is not sustainable for organizations.
On a wider scale, Iran could become a dramatic case study in this area, depending on how the international political situation develops. We can legitimately ask ourselves what the health and nutritional consequences stemming from embargo will be for Iran’s 83 million inhabitants, despite Iranian diplomatic efforts to reduce its effects. However, from an ethical perspective, it is unthinkable for all initiatives aimed at meeting the needs of the general population to be banned in principle, especially when investigations reveal that the deprivation will have serious consequences for civilians.
The situation is reminiscent of the strategies developed in Iraq to take down Saddam Hussein after the first Gulf War (1990-1991): it is estimated that all the restrictions and food shortages led to the death of more than a million people.
Henry Dunant’s extraordinary humanitarian intuition
In the middle of the 19th century, Swiss businessman Henry Dunant happened to witness the bloody battle of Solferino (Italy). His foundational intuition following this event would change his destiny. Dunant had been following Napoleon III’s campaign to request an audience and purchase land in Algeria from France. After witnessing the carnage, he went on to become the instigator and father figure of international humanitarian law (IHL) and founder of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
Dunant was driven by a philosophical principle: our shared humanity must push us to transcend the deadly divide opposing two armies and bring relief to the survivors on the battlefield. This position led to another axiom: in all war zones, there should be a unit of neutral first-aid workers, who cannot be suspected of siding with either camp. They must be able to intervene and provide aid without distinction to all actors involved in a conflict.
Little by little, through ever-widening circles, international humanitarian law expanded beyond the battlefield, which was no longer the only setting for violence. Prisoners, the shipwrecked and civilian population (now 90% of war victims) now entered this broad sphere of international humanitarian law.
Law is always fighting yesterday’s battle
In 1986, the four cardinal principles of the humanitarian response were included in the ICRC statutes and then, in stages, were approved by the United Nations General Assembly. These principles are humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence. The majority of humanitarian workers now endorse these principles, including international NGOs, which have become key players and sources of funding for crisis response. In Europe, these principles are safeguarded by the European Consensus on Humanitarian Aid, signed by the Council of the European Union, the European Parliament and European Commission in 2007.
But law is always fighting yesterday’s battle. The 20th century saw the emergence of new organizations involved in violent actions and non-international conflicts increased. At the same time, armed groups formed that rejected the borders established by colonial empires, replacing them with territorial entities sometimes based on tribal or religious affiliations.
In order to take action and access populations in need during situations of civil war and war between States, humanitarians must be able to negotiate with all warring parties when possible and necessary. Their concern is to defend access to the proposed aid and try to ensure, as much as possible, the security of the response teams. Meeting and negotiating with all parties involved in the violent conflict is therefore an essential humanitarian strategy to avoid suspicions of siding with either group.
At the same time, the inability to act can result from the rebel groups’ failure to recognize humanitarian principles. They oppose interventions from international NGOs to control access to civilian populations and maintain an isolated state.
Preventing the criminalization of humanitarian action
In the enforcement of anti-terrorism laws, donor governments sometimes adopt a position that is unacceptable due to its incompatibility with the humanitarian mandate of NGOs. Donor countries indiscriminately demand and monitor the application of security laws, even if this means threatening to withhold financial support from organizations that choose to defy these dictates. This is not a matter of questioning the legitimacy of measures taken to fight terrorism, but rather avoiding any criminalization of humanitarian action. This position held by donors constitutes a major violation of the principle of neutrality. Again, the ability to establish contact and negotiate with all warring parties is absolutely essential.
Questioning this principle amounts to rejecting the founding spirit of international humanitarian law and shamelessly affirming that acts of solidarity are subordinate to the political will of donor countries. This sends a clear message that he who pays the piper calls the tune. It puts humanitarian teams on the ground in danger. Above all, it paralyzes NGOs in their ability to provide vital aid.
For all these reasons, it is imperative that international NGOs operating in conflict zones be exempt from the application of anti-terrorist laws to ensure they can implement their action in optimal conditions. Implementing this exemption measure must necessarily result from international political negotiations at the highest level.
As a member of the United Nations Security Council, the French government would honor itself by acting as a catalyst for this exemption. Likewise, the European Union, the key funder of global humanitarian solidarity alongside the United States, has a crucial role to play in obtaining this exemption.
The opinions expressed on this website are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.