A review of humanitarian issues in 2016

The post below is the introductory letter from the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies (NCHS)’s Director, Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert (PRIO), introducing the NCHS 2016 Annual Review which you can read more about here.

As we sum up the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies’ (NCHS) activities from the past year, it is also time to take stock of major trends in the humanitarian field from the past year. 2016 did not bring many positive developments in humanitarian terms, quite the contrary: several events shook the core foundations of what we understand humanitarian aid to be and what it should stand for. 2016 was also the year of the first World Humanitarian Summit (WHS), convened by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. The “One Humanity” theme of the UNSG’s report to the WHS resonates as a call for protecting the most fundamental values, at a time where these cannot be taken for granted.

World Humanitarian Summit

The Summit led to more than 3000 commitments to action, and more than a dozen new partnerships to translate the principles of the new Agenda for Humanity launched by Ban Ki-Moon. One issue is how these commitments will be followed up. Another is whether the main ambitions outlined in the agenda are compatible with the core principles of humanitarianism, and if they are fit to face current challenges. This is most notably seen in suggestions at the Summit to bring humanitarianism, development, and peace-building efforts together. Such a development would risk the further blurring of the contours of what constitutes neutral and independent humanitarian action and subsequently raises new questions.

Increased attacks on humanitarian aid workers

The question of neutral and independent humanitarian aid has also been challenged most visibly in Syria, but additionally in conflicts from Afghanistan to Yemen. The deliberate attacks on aid convoys will remain a particularly tragic feature of the war in Syria, but also illustrates a broader trend: as Morten Rostrup, former MSF President, said at a seminar organized by NCHS, from the moment “the doctor of my enemy is my enemy” became a valid, or at least practiced distinction in conflicts, humanitarian aid workers immediately lost their implicit and explicit protection and became potential targets.

These attacks may not be a fundamentally new issue, but the trend has become more explicit over the recent years. The post-9/11 environment and the politics of the “global war on terror” reshaped the operating environment and augmented the risks for individual aid workers and agencies. The high number of aerial or shelling attacks that have struck health facilities in war zones in 2016 indicate that a new form of threat to aid workers and convoys has emerged in the form of deliberate attacks.

Further, these attacks also raise questions about what kind of civil society responses can emerge and can be expected to defend these fundamental principles. The Human Rights field, by the very nature of its causes, has emerged and gained its impact notably through the mobilization of transnational networks, civil society, and human rights organizations. The Humanitarian field, however, has not engaged citizens and had public mobilization in the same way, quite possibly due to the fact that the main institutional defenders, the humanitarian organizations, are weary to engage in any way that can be seen as political mobilization. Humanitarian organizations frequently organize campaigns to attract attention to forgotten crises; however, the deliberate attacks on aid convoys and health facilities has now sparked a new form of mobilization by these organizations, notably MSF and ICRC, with the #StopBombingHospitals and #NotATarget campaign.

Another concern that has emerged in recent years is the use of schools and universities for military purposes in times of conflict and instability. As highlighted through the work of the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA), it is a concern both in terms of how wars are fought and boundaries crossed, but also for the longer term consequences of these wars.

“Crises” in Europe

Further, the theme of this year’s WHD, “One Humanity”, also resonates as an appeal in the wake of a year where states, notably in Europe, have built new fences and walls to try and seal off borders to prevent people from seeking international protection from entering their territories. European responses to the refugee crisis also shows a reorientation of humanitarian aid – both in concrete budgetary terms, reallocating from humanitarian and development aid budgets to support the reception of refugees and migrants in Europe, as well as to counter and contain migration outside of Europe, but also in terms of what “humanitarian” means: the solidarity and aid towards populations in distress, as a virtue in itself, or something seen with suspicion in a context where migration at the European borders – and at the borders of other rich and stable parts of the world – are increasingly defined as security threats. The space for solidarity appears to be shrinking, and is perhaps the real crisis, as surveillance and control increases.

Looking forward towards 2017

2016 ended on a more hopeful note, with the signing of a peace agreement in Colombia after decades of civil war. The efforts of President Jose Manuel Santos were rewarded with the Nobel Peace Prize, granted as also “a tribute to the Colombian people”, and 2017 marks the beginning of the implementation of this agreement. The year also began with a full agenda of humanitarian crises to watch elsewhere, notably Yemen, South Sudan, and Nigeria and the Lake Chad region. The effects of recent political outcomes – Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as the new President of the United States – and those yet to occur, including several important national elections in Europe, will extend to spending and engagement on many humanitarian issues, and also will influence the potential for success within international bodies. NCHS will follow these issues closely, and will continue to invite to critical discussions and call for a knowledge-based policy formulation in the humanitarian field.