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Part – V: Use of Weapons of War and the Role of Humanitarians: A Challenge for International Law

Updated: Aug 24, 2022

By Prof. Bharat H Desai

The beauty, majesty and raison d'être of the humanitarian support is drawn from ancient notion of neighbors helping neighbors.

On 19 August 2022, the UN Secretary-General (UNSG) Antonio Guterres invoked the age-old wisdom that it “takes a village to raise a child” in the context of the humanitarian needs. The metaphor of a village by the worldly-wise UNSG “to support people living through a humanitarian crisis” sums up the very nature of the global humanitarian response to the rising tide of global conflicts and disasters that affect millions of people.

Humanitarians seek to recover, sustain and rebuild human lives in conflict zones and other emergencies. In 2022, a record 303 million people need humanitarian assistance as the UN aims to reach the most vulnerable 204 million. “Never before have humanitarians been called to respond to this level of need…in ever more dangerous environments,” said Jens Laerke, the spokesperson of the UN Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). According to the Global Humanitarian Overview 2022, the extreme climatic events alone drove an estimated 16 million people into food crises in 15 countries. It causes exacerbated violence against women and children.

An OCHA protection officer speaks to vulnerable people in Damascus, Syria.

Grave Risks to the Humanitarians

Martin Griffiths, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs paid tributes to “all humanitarian workers who often work in dangerous conditions to help others in need” and “those who have lost their lives in the line of duty”. The estimated funding requirement for the UN’s humanitarian projects is pegged at 50 billion US dollars. Still, the pledges of support from donor countries remain at 15 billion dollars wherein the top five contributors are: USA ($61, 380, 000); Sweden ($33,518,199); UK ($29,456,941); Germany ($23,004,148) and Norway ($15,366,301). In the 2021 Annual Report of OCHA, somehow India does not figure in the list of 69 donor countries. However, India did provide humanitarian food grains to Afghanistan (2021) and Sri Lanka (2022). Such a helping hand makes the difference between life and death for the affected people.

The World Humanitarian Day (WHD) is commemorated after the Canal Hotel bomb attack in Baghdad (19 August 2003) that killed 22 humanitarian aid workers, including the UNSG’s Special Representative for Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello. After five years, the General Assembly adopted resolution 63/139 (11 December 2008) to strengthen of the UN’s coordination of emergency humanitarian assistance. The resolution aimed at “increasing public awareness about humanitarian assistance activities worldwide…to honour all… who have lost their lives in the cause of duty”. The humanitarian aid workers face grave risks in the troubled zones and natural calamities. In 2021 alone, 460 aid workers were attacked: 140 killed, 203 wounded and 117 kidnapped. It shows the graphic reality of the world we live in; growing lawlessness in failed states arising from reigns of terror unleashed by warlords and despotic regimes. Such ‘inhuman’ beings traumatize their own people and others. Can the world remain a silent spectator to watch catastrophe and human misery? It came out vividly on 15 August 2021, when the desperate Afghans stampeded Kabul airport to get out when the notorious Taliban defiantly captured power. It was reminiscent of the marauding hordes running over a territory in medieval times. Thousands of aid workers face grave risks amid violence in countries such as South Sudan, Afghanistan, Syria, Ethiopia, the DR Congo and Yemen. In the first half of 2022, the Humanitarian Outcomes has recorded attacks on 168 aid workers wherein 44 lost their lives.

Architecture for the Humanitarian Relief

The beauty, majesty and raison d'être of the humanitarian support is drawn from ancient notion of neighbors helping neighbors. It comprises providing health care and education, food and water, shelter and protection and the hope to live. The UN has put into place an institutional framework that provides support in troubled countries. It comprises: OCHA, Refugee Agency, Children’s Agency, World Food Program, World Health Organization and Inter-Agency Standing Committee. Cumulatively, they represent the best of human spirit and empathy-in-action. It transcends across rogue regimes, brutality of wars and inherent risks to the humanitarians. The audacity of faith remains unshaken, for instance, as the UN refuses the abandon the DRC mired in endless conflicts even after its compound came under attack, three peacekeepers were killed and the MONUSCO spokesperson in Kinshasha was expelled (03 August 2022).

Apart from the UN system, the global humanitarian sentinel, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has 20,000 staff presence amidst 100 conflicts raging in 60 countries where 100 non-state armed groups play havoc. ICRC’s core policy of neutrality enables it to provide relief, succor and protection to the civilians facing brutal violence in conflicts. As the custodian of the 1949 Geneva Conventions and the 1977 Additional Protocols, ICRC has a strong operational legal basis to grapple with humanitarian needs. It can draw vital ‘red lines’ while negotiating to reign in the armed groups.

Taming the Beast

The human streak for self-destruction – akin to Duryodhana going berserk in the epic Mahabharata – presents a big challenge, as narrated in conversation with this author by the ICRC President Peter Maurer on 17 August 2022, at the release of a book (Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in International Law). Often the assurances to the humanitarians are belied when the armed groups ambush even a hospital in the middle of a night! It underscores gravity of the challenge in upholding International Humanitarian Law. Not going to the level of the evil provides an eternal hope since, as Peter assured me, “such forces are not invincible”.

In this backdrop, as envisioned in this author’s unflinching faith by curating 46 monthly meetings of Making SIS Visible Initiative (2008-2013) as well as batting for the SIS to emerge as a ‘think tank’, it is high time to factor in humanitarian studies as an inextricable part of studies in International Law and International Relations. SIS alumna Santishree (JNU V-C) has called for a fresh Indian “thinking and scholarship”. As a corollary, it would also make great sense to inject ‘humanitarianism’ in the respective research trajectories of SIS colleagues and Ph. D. students to seed futuristic ideas that would provide a basis for India to emerge as a Global Solution Provider (here, here, here, here, here, here). Hopefully, it would pave the way for SIS, as a successor to the pioneer Indian School of International Studies, to become a genuine and indispensable ‘think tank’ in the near future.

Professor Dr. Bharat H. Desai is Jawaharlal Nehru Chair and Professor of International Law at the Centre for International Legal Studies of SIS, JNU. He coordinated the Making SIS Visible initiative (2008-2013) as well as Inter-University Consortium: JNU; Jammu; Kashmir; Sikkim (2012-2020) and is the Editor-in-Chief of Environmental Policy and Law (IOS Press: Amsterdam)


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