Who cares? Humanitarianism under threat
On a Saturday morning in February, as shoppers loaded up their DIY items in Cricklewood retail park, North London, a large banner of Mohammed bin Salman accompanied by the words ‘war criminal’ was being hoisted on to the side of a red double-decker bus.
‘Is that the Saudi Prince?’ asked a man. ‘Are you here for Yemen?’ The protest, the activists concurred, was against the planned state visit of the 32-year-old Saudi crown prince and defence minister. The bus would be driven to Marble Arch to attract publicity and ‘wake up Britain’.
Among the crowd was British-Yemeni activist Kim Shariff, a charity lawyer, who fired off a string of flagrant Saudi violations of International Humanitarian Law, many involving military hardware supplied by the UK: ‘The air and sea blockade is starving civilians. Airstrikes are hitting schools and hospitals, killing civilians. They are using illegal weapons such as cluster bombs...’
Over the past three years a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran – with a Saudi-led coalition backing the former government while Iran backs the Houthi rebels – has pushed Yemen to the brink.
At least 17.8 million people – two thirds of the population – are without enough to eat and over eight million are at risk of starvation.
‘Seems like it’s easy to kill people these days,’ added another protestor, an Egyptian named Ibrahim Hassan. ‘Everyone is silent. Nothing happens.’
A concerned community of civil-society campaigners, aid organizations and newspaper editorials echo Hassan’s frustration. Yemen happens to be the worst catastrophe among a growing number of humanitarian crises facing the world today that the international community appears unable – or unwilling – to stop.
More wars, less protection
As commitment to humane values wanes, violent conflicts are proliferating. The number of wars and recorded ‘battle deaths’ – fighters and civilians – reached an all-time low in 2005 but has risen sharply since 2011. The ensuing devastation has helped to produce the highest number of people in need of relief since UN records began in 1998.
With many of these crises playing out in real time in the media, it’s hard to feign ignorance. Syrian rescuers broadcast images straight from their hats, as they pull children from the rubble in Eastern Ghouta. Africa’s festering conflicts in the Congo, South Sudan, Central African Republic and the Lake Chad Basin are flaring up again. Much of Iraq is in ruins. The Rohingya are being driven out of Myanmar. Afghanistan is seeing an upsurge in civilian deaths. Meanwhile, in Ukraine the shelling goes on.
While casualties are not yet as high as in the early 1990s when the Somali, Rwandan and Balkan crises erupted, contemporary wars are lasting longer. Of the current 21 live conflicts, 19 have run for five years or more; three for 18 years. War itself is metamorphosizing. Unlike earlier times when Cold War blocs shaped alliances, conflicts are now more fragmented, with a growing number of players. In the 1950s there was an average of eight armed groups in a civil war; by 2010 it had jumped to 14. In Syria, in 2014, there were more than 1,000. In the words of a dispirited analyst at the International Crisis Group, they are ‘cumulative, overlapping, harder to solve’.
To make matters worse, the upward trend in war coincides with a sharp decline in respect for International Humanitarian Law (IHL), also known as the ‘rules of war’. For example, Nigerian militant group Boko Haram uses young children, mostly girls, as ‘human bombs’ to attack their targets. At least 110 children lost their lives in this way last year.
Data visualization by Alessio Perrone.
States too are guilty. In South Sudan, warfare characterized by vicious ethnic chauvinism has displaced four million since 2013. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has condemned the Syrian regime and its allies for the revival of ‘medieval-style’ sieges of cities and the routine use of illegal weapons in densely populated areas. Such deadly urban conflict has led to a 300-per-cent increase in the number of children killed or injured worldwide since 2010. In the same period, the denial of humanitarian access – defined as blocking the delivery of aid and attacking, kidnapping or killing aid workers – has increased 15-fold.
Hospitals and schools are deliberately targeted. For its part, the US bombed a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan in 2015, killing 42 people including 14 staff. A UN/Red Crescent convoy bringing relief to Aleppo in 2017 was targeted by airstrikes while the Taliban used an ambulance for its last suicide-attack on Kabul. Accountability is not forthcoming; innocents are harder to protect.
Weakened by US indifference and withdrawal of funds under President Trump, the United Nations itself is being undermined. Its executive organ, the Security Council, is home to key violators of humanitarian law and paralyzed by geopolitical power shifts. The Security Council ‘failed to rein in Syria when it used chemical weapons and bombed its own people,’ says Simon Adams from UN pressure-group Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. ‘That impunity has had a contaminating effect. It feels like the entire humanitarian framework is under attack.’
International Humanitarian Law, also known as the Rules of War, regulates the conduct of warring parties. It forbids the targeting of civilians and their means of survival, and stipulates that relief and medical care must be allowed to reach civilians and the wounded. Recruitment of child soldiers is forbidden, as is the use of indiscriminate weapons, and the sale of arms is regulated. A system of international justice exists to prosecute those committing war crimes.
Emergency aid criticized
The impulse to help those in need is as old as war itself. Taken as a whole, the humanitarian industry has never been so big, technically adept and well-funded. But it too is facing its own struggle for legitimacy. The UK aid sector is currently embroiled in a deep crisis of public confidence after revelations of sexual misconduct. This scandal has played to the advantage of those engaged in a long-running ideological campaign against foreign aid in principle. In the face of rising nationalism and growing xenophobia, the pressure to close the circle of compassion and ‘spend it on our own’ is only likely to grow.
The industry has always had its own engaged critics. Alex De Waal, a writer with a long activist engagement in the Horn of Africa, has neatly summed up the charges levelled against humanitarian action as ‘uneven professional standards, wastage and an exaggerated sense of self-importance’ along with furthering Western and US dominance. But he concedes that humanitarian aid has changed for the better, supported by a compassionate public. It brings hope, solidarity and dignity to millions. Without it, as one charity executive put it to me, ‘many more people would die’.
In Yemen, Oxfam is providing clean water: trucking it, repairing pumps and rehabilitating water systems. More than 16 million Yemenis lack access to safe drinking water; a cholera epidemic last year infected over a million and killed over 2,200 people. But Oxfam’s country director Shane Stevenson can report that ‘in the camps where we are working there were no outbreaks’.
Such life-saving support comes alongside direct cash transfers to families to buy food. These days its delivery is overseen by small teams of internationals but the image of white people coming to the rescue is long out of date. Oxfam has Albanian, Congolese, Kenyan, Indian and Filipino staff, working alongside 230 Yemenis. Reaching those in need is a daily struggle. They have to keep an eye on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is active in the South, and frequently downsize operations when fighting escalates.
Another industry giant, MSF, has treated 72,000 wounded since the war began, and overseen the safe delivery of 43,000 babies. It’s covering 50 per cent of all dialysis needs since Yemeni provision collapsed two years ago.
Key to the operation of humanitarian organizations in war zones are the principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence. MSF has stuck to these more fiercely than most, but this commitment has not kept it safe in Yemen. Three MSF hospitals were hit in Saudi-led coalition air strikes during the first 10 months of war, killing 19 people including nine staff. ‘We shouldn’t have to push for this protection, it should be here already,’ says MSF’s head of mission Ghassan Abou Chaar wearily, speaking from Houthi-controlled Sa’na in the north. Undeterred, MSF has re-built the Abs hospital in northwest Yemen, and doubled the number of beds.
But Yemen is deteriorating too fast for the relief effort to keep up. The persistent Saudi sea and air blockade of Houthi-controlled areas, drawn tighter by a second round of delays and checks imposed by the Houthis themselves, is causing a nationwide economic collapse. Fuel has doubled in price and sick Yemenis can no longer afford to reach MSF clinics. ‘Children were dying of hunger even before the war. Now it is worse,’ reports Ghassan. The siege is leading to helplessness and frustration among staff – healthcare is not enough.
In its simplest form this refers to any action to improve human welfare. Founded on the view that all human beings deserve respect and dignity, it has come to be associated closely with emergency responses to manmade or natural disasters. Traditionally, humanitarian action focused on offering life-saving support to those in immediate danger and protection of their rights. In recent years the term has been used to refer to everything from famine relief to state-building in Afghanistan.
Aid as a crime
It’s never been ‘easy’ to deliver assistance in war zones, but humanitarians in the 21st century are facing up to a new challenge: the War on Terror has effectively criminalized aid.
The US Patriot Act of 2001 makes it illegal to provide moral or material support, deliberate or otherwise, to a proscribed terrorist group. With such groups controlling access in three out of the four places threatened by famine in 2017, the implications for hungry and sick civilians are serious.
The risk of prosecution under anti-terror laws is real. But a further impact lies in a powerful chill factor, particularly for Muslim organizations. ‘If something falls off a truck, the World Food Programme can roll with the punches,’ says Imran Madden director of Islamic Relief (IR). ‘But the sad reality is that Islamic Relief or other Muslim agencies are in a very different place.’ IR felt compelled to pull out of Raqqa in Iraq as soon as ISIS arrived, when needs were highest. ‘We have practical reach, but we choose not to use it,’ admits Madden with obvious regret.
‘Sometimes the only people able to operate – Syrian organizations, local organizations, Islamic charitable organizations – are the ones being frozen out,’ says Jehangir Malik from British NGO Muslim Aid, one of the few agencies that at the time of writing was getting food into Syria’s besieged Eastern Ghouta, through its Syrian partners.
Despite having an OBE, Malik, like other Muslim humanitarians, is consistently harassed. ‘Am I a genuine aid worker or a potential terrorist? That’s the question I constantly have to answer when I’m late for my flight,’ he says with a good-natured laugh. ‘As a younger activist, when I came into this line of work during the Bosnia crisis I had no trouble driving a truck into the Balkans in 1992 or 1995, or to Chechnya in 1999. It all changed post-9/11.’
Relief workers travelling to conflict zones are picked up at passport controls, interrogated, often denied entry. With many Muslim charity executives banned from the US, the leaders of Islamic organizations are effectively barred from the UN.
Banks play a key role in policing anti-terror laws. They often close accounts and can refuse or delay the transfer of funds from clients with any potential link to terrorism. This process, known as ‘de-risking’, can cause catastrophic delays for charities working in conflict zones. It has left Yemeni organizations, for example, unable to respond to the cholera epidemic.
Christian Aid reported winter blankets for Iraqi internally displaced people being delayed until Spring, and feeding programmes set back. Muslim agencies are again the hardest hit. One charity reported losing $2 million in forfeited donations.
Data visualization by Alessio Perrone.
Co-opted and under threat
Opposing groups have often sought to use aid as a weapon of war. But Mark Bowden, a former UN humanitarian chief in Somalia and Afghanistan, believes that the ‘culture of compliance’ brought in by anti-terror laws has turned the rules of war on its head. Rather than belligerents being accountable to IHL, it’s the military that now hold relief workers to account. ‘People are developing similar cultures. It’s tit for tat. ISIS refuses aid and the rebel Houthis in Yemen refuse shipments with a Saudi label.
‘Humanitarian aid,’ he concludes, ‘is becoming instrumentalized, narrowly focused, more constrained and less useful.’
Aid workers trace the loss of their independent status to a spate of Western military invasions. ‘In the early 1990s you could operate anywhere,’ recalls a veteran humanitarian with three decades of experience. ‘You just had to fly your NGO flag and you were not a target. That began to change with the first Gulf War but [the 2003 invasion of] Iraq was the step change. The biggest cause of death used to be car accidents, now it’s aggressive fire.’
The War on Terror’s dictum of ‘for us or against us’ has made it far harder to deal with Islamist groups. Mark Bowden recalls the days when you could negotiate with the Taliban and humanitarians were allowed safe passage across the lines. US General Colin Powell famously drove a nail into the coffin of aid worker neutrality when he referred to NGOs as a ‘force multiplier for us, such an important part of our combat team’ during the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. ‘How were the West’s enemies to see aid workers, unarmed and often unprotected, presented not as neutral humanitarians but as an extension of Western power?’ asks journalist and author Peter Gill, who has documented how the military further muddied the waters by dispensing their own ‘non-lethal weapon’ of aid to win hearts and minds.1
Perhaps the gravest betrayal of trust was the CIA’s use of a vaccination campaign to track down Osama bin Laden in 2011. The following year, the Taliban declared all ‘vaccinators were spies’ and launched a vicious onslaught. Since then, 100 polio workers have been killed and the attacks continue to this day – as does polio in Pakistan.
New actors, new agendas
The humanitarian sector is in a moment of flux. As Western power declines, new donors are emerging, with rising regional powers – the Gulf states, Turkey – making bigger, if fluctuating, donations. China too is dipping a toe into humanitarian action, moving from search-and-rescue to medical response and providing peacekeepers. ‘They’ve been studying different models,’ says Sara Pantuliano, Executive Director of the Overseas Development Institute. For now, development is housed within the Ministry of Commerce. ‘They told me they were going to model it on the US: a lot of direct aid.’
Debate rages about what agendas new donors may bring, especially those with less of a clear commitment to human rights. But the West’s own copybook is hardly clean, as the US and UK, both veto-holders on the UN Security Council, silently block any restraining action on Saudi Arabia in Yemen. ‘The values we define as universal don’t look that universal from Kuala Lumpur or Beijing,’ points out academic and former UN official Antonio Donini. ‘The West will have to listen a bit more, preach a bit less.’
There are changes on the ground too. The international NGOs have committed, at least in theory, to a ‘localization agenda’ that will see power – not just risk – transferred to Global South partners. Meanwhile, in the West, the recent surge in wars and displacement has sparked the creation of hundreds of start-up NGOs. Both the diaspora groups moving aid over the border into Syria and the volunteers stationed along the refugee trail into Europe are connecting directly to communities in need. ‘They don’t necessarily want to be big organizations’ says Malik, of the new generation of Muslim charities. ‘They want proximity to the people, to be nimble, flexible and free to be vocal.’ In an interesting reversal of ‘charity begins at home’, Human Appeal, a Manchester-based organization that scaled up for Syria, is now offering its services to local rough sleepers.
Data visualization by Alessio Perrone.
Grounds for hope
The return of what researcher John Borten has described as ‘citizen humanitarianism’ in Europe is welcome evidence that solidarity is alive and well in Western societies. We are going to need it to defend hard-won humanitarian norms and principles.
‘There’s always pressure that can be applied,’ says Simon Adams, who started out as an anti-apartheid activist. ‘The way it’s presented by politics and the media is that it’s “send in the marines” or do nothing. These are not the only two options.’
No-one’s pretending it’s easy, but there are always openings and opportunities to act even in the most unpromising political climates. For the protestors in Cricklewood, bin Salman’s visit gave them the chance to flag $4-billion of arms sales from Britain since war in Yemen began. The Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) has mounted a legal challenge to British arms exports to Saudi Arabia and although Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has proved thus far impervious to pressure, the Netherlands, Sweden and Germany have all introduced restrictions on arms that could be used by warring parties in Yemen.
Meanwhile, advocacy groups and NGOs continue to lobby diplomats and politicians to pre-empt, defuse and de-escalate conflict, and move to protect civilians against mass atrocities.
Governments worldwide fear an informed, active public. Ultimately, this may be the only weapon humanitarians – and their supporters – have got. It’s never been more important for citizens to join the dots, take political action and assert our common humanity.