Bonnie Docherty - July 18, 2017

A previous version of this article appeared on the Human Rights@Harvard Law blog here.

Since armed conflict broke out in Ukraine in 2014, the use of explosive weapons has directly damaged hospitals, destroyed ambulances, and killed or injured health workers. It has also indirectly affected the health care system by shutting down infrastructure—causing loss of electricity, heat, water, and communications—and creating travel risks for ambulances, medical personnel, and civilians in need.

These impacts have interfered with the provision of health care to local civilians and forced many to go without.

A recent report, Operating under Fire: The Effects of Explosive Weapons on Health Care in the East of Ukraine, documents the situation, drawing on field research conducted in communities along the front line. more...

Megan Nobert - July 12, 2017

Sexual violence happens all over the world – in and out of conflict settings. Statistics suggest that at least 1 in 3 women will be affected by sexual violence. It is a degrading experience, one that takes away the ability to choose what happens to one’s body, and that affects individuals throughout the globe.

Sexual violence is distinguished from consensual sex by the lack of consent given by one of the parties. This absence of consent creates a power imbalance, makes it more difficult for survivors to report or seek justice, and can be a root cause of the psychosocial impacts of sexual violence, in particular the feelings of shame and worthlessness. In humanitarian settings, these impacts are felt regardless of whether one is a survivor of sexual violence from the local population, or from the humanitarian community – an more...

Lisa Reilly / EISF
Adelicia Fairbanks - July 10, 2017

This guest blog post comes to us from Adelicia Fairbanks. Adelicia is Research Adviser at the European Interagency Security Forum (EISF), where she is responsible for producing original research papers, articles, blogs and guides that help share and promote best practices in security risk management within the humanitarian sector, with the aim of building the capacity of security practitioners. She is currently managing a research project on the security of staff with diverse profiles.

As an aid worker, it is not unusual to travel in remote and insecure locations, driving from one field location to another in clearly marked humanitarian vehicles. Being stopped at checkpoints is also a regular feature of being an aid worker. But imagine you reach a checkpoint where the guards are young and appear tense. They tell everyone to get more...

Blast victims receive treatment at a hospital in Lahore, Pakistan © Abdul Majeed Goraya/IRIN
Julia Brooks - May 15, 2017

It’s been over a year since the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2286 condemning attacks on medical facilities and personnel in conflict, and calling for an end to impunity. Yet as a series of new reports indicate, attacks on healthcare are more prevalent than ever, and accountability remains just as far afield.

Tracking violence against healthcare

In 2016, “the sheer number of countries and the intensity of attacks on health facilities, health workers, ambulances, and patients are staggering,” notes the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition in its newly released report documenting widespread attacks on, and interference with, healthcare in 23 countries in conflict. Collectively, the report emphasized, these attacks “threaten the health, well-being, and the lives of people who may number in the millions.”

Rob Grace - April 30, 2017

Humanitarian access obstructions, which limit international humanitarian organizations’ abilities to provide assistance and protection to populations in the greatest need, endure as one of the most vexing policy issues faced by the humanitarian sector. Indeed, recent reports published by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) detail ongoing access challenges faced in humanitarian crises occurring in the Middle East, North Africa, and Afghanistan; West and Central Africa; as well as the Asia and the Pacific region. Previous blogs, podcasts, and policy papers produced by the Advanced Training Program on Humanitarian Action (ATHA) have examined approaches to grappling with access—and other—constraints within the framework of frontline humanitarian negotiation, including issues related to the challenges and more...

© Melissa Martinelli
Melissa Martinelli - April 18, 2017

This guest blog comes to us from Melissa Martinelli, an Immigration Attorney based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Melissa has represented hundreds of asylum seekers in the United States, and has volunteered in Texas and New Mexico representing women and children detained in “family” detention centers. She recently returned from Thessaloniki, Greece, where she volunteered for two weeks with Advocates Abroad, a non-profit organization representing asylum seekers in their registration, protection, reunification and relocation processes.

Omar is 21 years old. He arrived in Greece in late February 2016. A series of shellings had destroyed his neighborhood in Damascus, forcing him to flee. After several months of uncertainty and misinformation, he was finally able to register with the Greek Asylum Service (“GAS”) in July, and was more...

Steve Wilkinson - April 7, 2017

April 7 marks World Health Day and this year the World Health Organisation is using the day to draw attention to global mental health concerns, including the devastating impact of the Syria conflict. Such an important moment should facilitate greater reflection by the humanitarian community in terms of preventing, limiting and responding to mental health impacts during war, and this conversation should also include legal assessments and applications. 


“… many children are living in an almost constant state of fear, terrified by shelling, airstrikes and ongoing violence, with devastating psychological consequences”, was just one of the central findings of a recent report undertaken on Syrian refugees by Save the Children.

Beyond physical harm, armed conflict causes considerable mental health more...

Wikimedia Commons
Julia Brooks - March 7, 2017

On 6 March 2017, the Trump administration signed a revised executive order banning entry into the U.S. by nationals of six Muslim-majority countries – Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen – for 90 days, suspending refugee resettlement for 120 days, and lowering the number of refugees admitted to the U.S. from 110,000 to 50,000 in fiscal year 2017. Promulgated in the name of national security and protecting the U.S. from foreign terrorist threats, this revised order is a step back from the more sweeping original ban issued on January 27th, which prompted nation-wide protests and was suspended by U.S. federal courts in February. Nonetheless, at its core the policy remains cruel and misguided. It continues to betray humanitarian (and American) norms while doing little to keep Americans safe.

Suspending refugee admissions more...

Steve Wilkinson - February 6, 2017

Humanitarians are increasingly exasperated with the lack of respect for international humanitarian law in a number of contemporary conflicts. Many are regularly calling for  those violating the basic tenets of the law of war to be held accountable and in this context, it is worth examining the potential role these same actors can play in relation to such accountability mechanisms.

When frontline humanitarians witness horrific acts, what activities can and should such actors undertake to promote accountability for violations of international law? Is it possible for humanitarian actors to have their operational space respected, if at the same time they seek to address some of the root causes of the conflict, and promote and/or contribute to holding violators of the law to account? What activities would be considered more...

Megan Nobert - January 25, 2017

This guest blog comes to us from Megan Nobert, a Canadian legal professional and academic specialised in international criminal law and human rights. She is also a humanitarian, having worked in in the Gaza Strip, Jordan and South Sudan on issues of humanitarian law, protection and gender-based violence. Megan is currently based in Geneva, Switzerland, as Founder and Director of Report the Abuse.

The nature of operating in conflict and disaster zones means that there are inherent dangers to humanitarian work. Whether due to riots, gunshots, bombings or other threats, organisations take precautions to ensure that attacks can be anticipated and prevented, including through trainings, policies, security procedures and/or risk matrixes. One critical risk that is not often discussed, however, is that of sexual violence. This is more...

B. Diab / UNHCR
Julia Brooks - January 19, 2017

“Flouting the most basic rules governing the conduct of war has become contagious,” wrote U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in his report for the World Humanitarian Summit last year. “The brutality of today’s armed conflicts and the utter lack of respect for the fundamental rules of international humanitarian law on care for the wounded and sick, humane treatment and the distinction between civilians and combatants threaten to unravel 150 years of achievements and cause a regression to an era of war without limits.”

Many of these violations have been committed with impunity in recent conflicts, spawning widespread frustration with international mechanisms for accountability and justice.  The unraveling of international norms that Secretary-General Ban speaks of has been witnessed most acutely in Syria, where systematic more...

Aid from the United Arab Emirates to Syria is loaded in Dubai © UNHCR
Abby Stoddard - December 20, 2016

This guest blog comes from Abby Stoddard. Abby is a Partner with Humanitarian Outcomes, an international research consultancy providing analysis and policy advice for humanitarian agencies and donor governments.

In 2014, Afghanistan’s Helmand province had over twice as many people in need of aid as there were in Samangan province, yet Samangan had a larger presence of aid agencies and more than double the number of aid projects running. Similarly, the far less needy northern regions of Somalia have for years hosted a far greater aid presence than the South Central regions that exist in an almost continuous hunger crisis. For most of the first year of the conflict in South Sudan, a large majority of aid agencies confined their work to the UN protection of civilian sites, even though these represented only 10 per cent of South more...

Steve Wilkinson - October 4, 2016

On the 21st of September, CNN reported that ISIS was suspected of firing a shell containing mustard gas at an airbase in Iraq used by United States and Iraqi troops. This is by no means the first reported use of chemical weapons in recent months and years. In fact just one month earlier, on the 25th of August, a United Nations Security Council mandated investigation team (OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM)) concluded that both the Assad regime and ISIS had undertaken chemical attacks in Syria in 2014 and 2015. This is the first time that the UN had made an authoritative assertion of attribution and responsibility in relation to the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict. These findings came barely a few weeks after it was widely reported that chlorine gas had been used in Aleppo and Saraqeb.

The alleged use of more...

Julia Brooks - September 14, 2016

As the conflict in Yemen continues, civilian casualties are reaching alarming levels. At least 10,000 people have been killed and thousands wounded since March 2015, at a rate of thirteen civilian casualties per day. According to the UN, Saudi-led airstrikes have been responsible for two-thirds of the civilian casualties, including in indiscriminate or targeted attacks on civilian areas, hospitals, schools, markets and civilian industries. Airstrikes have also had a devastating impact on humanitarian action in the country: citing “[i]ndiscriminate bombings and unreliable reassurances from Saudi-led coalition,” for instance, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) decided last month to evacuate its staff from facilities in northern Yemen after the fourth and deadliest attack on one of its hospitals killed 19 and injured 24 people. Such more...

Vincenzo Bollettino - August 29, 2016

With the world focused on terrorism, conflict in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere, it is easy to forget about the threat posed by natural disasters. Natural disasters pose as great a threat as conflict does to the well being of millions of people across the globe and undermine livelihoods by wreaking havoc on property and natural resources. Current and anticipated sea level rise and changing patterns in and increasing severity of weather-related events pose significant threats to populations globally. These large disasters impact lives and property alike, and at times, are too much for affected states to manage on their own.

When disaster-affected states are unable to cope with the response and recovery to disasters on their own, they often turn to other states and the international humanitarian community to help manage the disaster more...


Subscribe to Blog

Recent Tweets

Our Sponsor

A Program Of

All materials © 2014 Harvard University

Back to Top

Back to Top