Taken in N. Iraq in 1991 during Operation Provide Comfort. Lt. Col. John Abizaid speaking with some Kurds. / Wikimedia Commons
Kate Akkaya - October 29, 2015

In a protracted armed conflict, particularly a civil war, common sense would dictate that a “safe zone” – a protected area free of weapons and conflict, for the exclusive use of humanitarian actors and civilians – would do nothing but good. Indeed, since the beginning of the ongoing Syrian war, calls for safe zones or humanitarian corridors have been made by a wide variety of actors, including a revived debate as recently as last week. Yet safe zones also entail a number of downsides: they can be prohibitively complex and expensive to create and maintain, and history tells us that rarely is a safe zone truly safe for the duration of a conflict. While concentrating civilians for the purposes of protection, safe zones may become the scenes of concentrated misery and vulnerability if not adequately supplied and assisted. Moreover, such more...

Refugees and asylum seekers wait to regisert outside the LaGeSo in Berlin  © Julia Brooks
Julia Brooks - October 22, 2015

A long line forms most days in front of the “LaGeSo” – the Landesamt für Gesundheit und Soziales, or State Office of Health and Social Affairs. LaGeSo operates as the central registration center for refugees in Germany’s capital, Berlin. Here, refugees stand in line for a numbered ticket, then wait an unpredictable further amount of time for their number to be called. When their number is called they can then officially register as asylum seekers, which is necessary in order to gain access to social benefits including housing, financial assistance, healthcare and most importantly for their ability to remain in Germany in the longer term, the opportunity to file an asylum application. For months, up to 2,000 newly arriving men, women and children have been waiting daily in front of the building; the office hands out 300 to 350 waiting more...

Bonnie Docherty - October 14, 2015

This guest blog comes to us from Bonnie Docherty, Lecturer on Law and Senior Clinical Instructor at the International Human Rights Clinic, Harvard Law School. Bonnie is also a Senior Researcher in the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch. She is an expert on disarmament and international humanitarian law, particularly involving cluster munitions and civilian protection during armed conflict. This post is adapted from a post that was previously published on the Harvard Human Rights Program blog. For more information, contact Bonnie Docherty at

Julia Brooks - October 8, 2015

While much remains unclear, facts are slowly emerging about the U.S. airstrikes on a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital in Kunduz, in northern Afghanistan on October 3rd, which killed 12 staff, all Afghans, and at least 10 patients, and seriously wounded another 37 people. MSF General Director Christopher Stokes condemned the bombing as “a grave violation of International Humanitarian Law” and presumed “war crime,” while calling for a “full and transparent investigation […] conducted by an independent international body” such as the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission.

The U.S., for its part, has acknowledged the attack and promised a full investigation. It has also offered partial and contradictory explanations in the immediate wake of the attack. First, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter called more...

A Syrian refugee detained at the border police station in Elhovo, Bulgaria on October 22, 2013  © Jodi Hilton/IRIN
Kate Akkaya - October 7, 2015

Europe is in crisis. Over 475,000 asylum-seekers have arrived by sea across the Mediterranean this year alone, with 84% coming from the world’s top ten refugee-producing countries. Many are also coming by land, though the numbers are much more difficult to ascertain. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the recent surge in people seeking protection in Europe is unlikely to stop soon: it is projected that Europe will receive over one million asylum applications in 2015; at least 450,000 thousand of these applications are expected to be granted. The Temporary Protection Directive was developed by the EU in 2001 as a framework for managing an unexpected mass influx of individuals: so why has it been largely absent from the current ongoing conversation around refugees?

The most common more...

These Iraqis, resting in the village of Tovarnik, arrived recently from Serbia (Andrei Pungovschi/IRIN)
Tina Comes & Bartel Van de Walle - October 2, 2015

This guest blog post comes to us from Tina Comes and Bartel Van de Walle. Tina and Bartel are Senior Fellows at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI). Tina is Associate Professor in ICT at the University of Agder, Norway, Deputy Director of the Centre for Integrated Emergency Management, and Vice-President of the ISCRAM Association. Bartel is Associate Professor in Information Management in Tilburg University in the Netherlands. Together, they have been conducting field-research on humanitarian information management, decision-making and coordination in the response to the Syria crisis, in the Philippines, and in the West African Ebola Crisis.

Last week, the European Union’s interior ministers made a long awaited but controversial decision to impose mandatory refugee quotas on its member states. The decision creates a more...

Bonnie Docherty - October 2, 2015

This guest blog comes to us from Bonnie Docherty, Lecturer on Law and Senior Clinical Instructor at the International Human Rights Clinic, Harvard Law School. Bonnie is also a Senior Researcher in the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch. She is an expert on disarmament and international humanitarian law, particularly involving cluster munitions and civilian protection during armed conflict. This post is adapted from a post that was previously published on the Harvard Human Rights Program blog. For more information, contact Bonnie Docherty at

Mitigating the human costs of armed conflict and armed violence has become a moral and legal imperative over the past two decades. Within the international community, several strategies for helping civilian victims have emerged. A more...

By equinoXio (No more FARC) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Julia Brooks - October 1, 2015

New developments are advancing hopes that the Colombian government and the largest anti-government armed group in the country—the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC—will soon reach an agreement in their protracted peace talks to bring an end to the country’s even more protracted armed conflict. Last week, the Colombian government and FARC leaders agreed on the groundwork for a final peace agreement within six months. The parties set a six-month deadline for the competition of a final peace agreement, after which the FARC will begin to disarm within 60 days. Critics are hailing the emerging peace agreement as a “new model for reconciling bitter enemies,” considering the wide-reaching transitional justice measures it sets in motion. Namely, the deal aims to “satisfy the victims’ right to justice; obtain truth for Colombian more...

The op-ed as it appeared in the French newspaper, L’Humanité.
Julia Brooks - September 28, 2015

An abbreviated French version of this post appeared as an op-ed in the French newspaper, L’Humanité on 25 September 2015, as part of a series on attacks against humanitarian aid workers. The full English version is reprinted below.

Attacks against humanitarian workers have increased nearly four-fold over the last decade. Such attacks endanger lives, violate international law, and jeopardize critical humanitarian assistance. Concerted international action is imperative to address disparities in the protection of humanitarian aid workers, improve protection, and to finally end impunity for the perpetrators of such attacks.

Amidst increasing attacks, international humanitarian law (IHL) protecting aid workers remains fragmented and poorly understood. First, only certain categories of aid workers – namely medical personnel, more...

Ziad Al Achkar - September 17, 2015

This guest blog post comes to us from Ziad Al Achkar. Ziad is a research assistant with theSignal Program on Human Security and Technology at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, where his research focuses on the use of geospatial technology in humanitarian and human rights contexts. Ziad has a Masters in Diplomacy and International Relations from Seton Hall University, and is a native of Lebanon.

The Syrian conflict that more...

Kate Akkaya - September 15, 2015
International Law Governing Humanitarian Access

International humanitarian law (IHL), in both treaty and customary form, governs humanitarian access in situations of international armed conflict (IAC), non-international armed conflict (NIAC), and occupation. Despite the involvement of thousands of troops from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other Middle Eastern states, and funding and political support from the United States and likely from Iran, the conflict in Yemen is currently best characterized as a NIAC because the physical conflict remains within the borders of Yemen. As such, it is governed by IHL applicable to NIAC, including the Geneva Conventions’ Common Article 3 and Additional Protocol II (AP II), both ratified by Yemen, as well as applicable customary international humanitarian law.

In NIAC, Common Article 3 of the four more...

A young girl outside her family's tent at the al-Mazraq IDP camp in Yemen’s Hajjah Province  © Paul Stephens/IRIN
Julia Brooks - September 11, 2015

As the conflict in Yemen escalates and war crimes allegations abound, the humanitarian situation in the country is becoming increasingly dire, though largely overshadowed in international media. A combination of the Saudi-led military coalition airstrikes and the naval blockade on Yemen’s ports – with the stated aim of cutting off pro-Houthi weapons shipments from Iran – has devastated the already impoverished country and set off a highest-level humanitarian emergency. The UN now estimates 21.1 million people – 80% of the population – to be in need of humanitarian assistance. With many Yemenis now “almost entirely reliant on the international community for food, fuel, shelter and medicines,” humanitarian actors are facing severe access, funding and security restrictions.

In this context, Yemeni humanitarian staff members are more...

Joel Hernandez - September 4, 2015

This guest blog post comes to us from Joel Hernandez. Joel is an intern at the Migration Policy Institute and a graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, with a focus on International Law and Humanitarianism and a background in legal assistance and advocacy on behalf of migrants and refugees. This post is based on his experience working on the Greek island of Lesvos in July and August of 2015.

Molyvos is a town of less than 2,000 on the Greek island of Lesvos, lying in plain sight of Turkey’s Çanakkale Province across a narrow finger of the Aegean Sea. Thus far in 2015, Lesvos Island, population 85,000, has received almost 100,000 refugees and migrants from Syria, Afghanistan, and other countries (33,000 in August alone). Lesvos’s northern coast allows the shortest crossing from Turkey more...

 Aid groups distribute food and other relief items every month to the refugees since the camp opened in June 2013. The camp hosts both Muslim and Christians and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) insists that the camp should remain secular. Sectarian violence by the Islamist Boko Haram rebels has driven off thousands of Nigerians from their villages.  © Otto Bakano/IRIN
Kate Akkaya - September 3, 2015

The use of biometrics by humanitarian agencies is quietly nearing its thirteenth birthday. As one of the first adopters of this technology, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has increasingly used biometric data collection technology, which includes fingerprinting, iris scanning, and facial recognition software, since 2002. According to the UNHCR, this technology is a tool to prevent and deter fraud while ensuring faster and more accurate registration of refugees. Because humanitarian agencies must learn and record names, addresses, and family and tribal information to ensure an individual qualifies for refugee status and to accurately distribute benefits, the collection of this potentially sensitive data is a key element of the humanitarian aid methodology. Moreover, UNHCR argues that identity verification is not just a more...

Julia Brooks - September 1, 2015

ISIS’ recently advertised destruction of part of the ancient complex at Palmyra shocked the international conscience, and raised a renewed chorus of denunciation, with Irina Bokova, the Director-General of UNESCO, the UN’s cultural agency, condemning the destruction as “a new war crime and an immense loss for the Syrian people and for humanity.” Yet this precisely the problem – the destruction of protected world cultural heritage in Palmyra may be a “new” instance of a war crime, but it is only the latest in a long series of international crimes committed in the conflict in Syria and Iraq – ranging from genocide and sexual enslavement targeting the Yazidi community by the Islamic State to the use of prohibited chemical weapons by both the Islamic State and the Syrian regime – to which the world has reacted with equal parts outrage, more...


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