Julia Brooks - March 10, 2015

Despite a growing reputation for brutality, inhumanity and repression – including the rape of women and enslavement minorities – the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has managed to recruit a significant number of women and girls among the thousands of locals and foreigners joining its ranks. Counter to popular assumptions about women’s participation in armed groups, many of these women are joining voluntarily, driven by a variety of motivations.

Why do women join armed groups?

Women join armed groups for a variety of reasons, some unique and some common with men. Some women are abducted by fighters, or otherwise forced or coerced into joining the group. Many join voluntarily, whether convinced by the group’s ideology or attracted by the sense of mission and purpose. Some join armed groups out of more...

A boat carrying migrant workers and Libyans from Tripoli arrives at the Lampedusa port, escorted by the coastguard  © Kate Thomas/IRIN
Julia Brooks - February 26, 2015

The year 2015 is off to an ominous start on the Mediterranean Sea, where at least 300 sub-Saharan migrants died last week in a failed attempt to reach Europe from Libya; the Italian coast guard rescued a further 1,100 migrants. This comes after record numbers — approximately 218,000 people — made the crossing in 2014, and 3,500 lost their lives, according to UNHCR.

“The Mediterranean has gone from being a route mainly involving migrants to being a major route for refugees fleeing war,” notes UNHCR, with Syrians making up the largest population arriving in Italy — around 22% of the total. Nonetheless, Syrian asylum-seekers in Europe only account for a small fraction (around 6%) of the rapidly growing population of approximately 3.8 million Syrian refugees spread mainly across Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt. These host more...

: A Pakistani humanitarian aid worker for the United Nations World Food Programme supervises Pakistani soldiers as they unload food and supplies to aid flood relief in Swat Valley, Pakistan, Sept. 5, 2010
Kristin Bergtora Sandvik - February 18, 2015

This guest blog post comes to us from Kristin Bergtora Sandvik. Kristin is a senior researcher at PRIO and a founder and director of the Norwegian Center for Humanitarian Studies. She has published widely on humanitarian technology and the challenges facing contemporary humanitarianism, and holds an S.J.D from Harvard Law School. 

The humanitarian sector faces an unprecedented number of crises globally. The growing operational and financial deficit in the capacity of governments and humanitarian organizations to respond has led to calls for changes in the way such crises are understood and managed.  This involves a strong focus on cooperation and partnerships with the private sector.  A large part of the allure is the notion that private-public more...

Camillle Marquis Bissonnette - February 11, 2015

This guest blog post comes to us from Camillle Marquis Bissonnette, a PhD Candidate in Law at Laval University. Camillle holds a LL.M. in International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights from the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights.

According to UNICEF, different armed groups in South Sudan recruited 12,000 children to participate in the hostilities in 2014 alone. In the wake of more...

Global Risks Report 2015 / WEF © WEF
Julia Brooks - February 4, 2015

Amongst the world’s economic elite, a humanitarian chorus rang out at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos with an urgent message: the humanitarian system is overwhelmed, and fixing it is the responsibility of the international community as a whole – including the private sector.

Driven in large part by the protracted Syrian crisis, humanitarian need has far outpaced the capacity of the global aid communities to respond in recent years. “UNHCR has never had to address so much human misery in its 64-year history,” attested Antonio Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, in Davos – a sentiment that extends to much of the humanitarian sector.  “[W]e see millions of people caught in semi-permanent crises. […and] the threat of multiple protracted mega-emergencies has become reality. The aid architecture we built after more...

 Woman reaches for water from a cistern reservior — in Kawkaban city, northern Yemen. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Julia Brooks - January 30, 2015

Water is crucial to the health, development, and security of populations. Yet, around 1.2 billion people – nearly one-fifth of the world’s population – face water scarcity, a number that the UN projects will increase in the coming decades. Another 1.6 billion lack adequate water for economic uses, such as agriculture or energy. Water use has far outpaced population growth in recent years due to development and energy demand, as well as unsustainable use and poor water management. Climate change and environmental degradation further exacerbate water scarcity, especially in regions experiencing desertification.

As climate change and environmental degradation increase the vulnerability of populations around the world to humanitarian crises, water has emerged as a lynchpin humanitarian issue. “Due to the reliance of agriculture on more...

A young boy in Burkina Faso takes his father's herd of sheep and goats out in search of food and water  © Jennifer Lazuta/IRIN
Julia Brooks - January 14, 2015

An ATHA blog post published in September 2014 explored the role of climate change and environmental degradation in increasing the vulnerability of populations to natural disasters, displacement and conflict. This blog post looks at these drivers of humanitarian vulnerability in the Sahel, the African region that has been dubbed “ground zero” for climate change. It explores the dilemmas for humanitarian practitioners in responding to food insecurity, displacement and conflict in the Sahel as coping mechanisms leave populations there more and more vulnerable to future shocks.

The desertous Sahel region has been the site of a protracted humanitarian crisis in recent decades, with alarming rates of food insecurity and malnutrition compounded by conflict and instability, epidemics, and natural disasters posing a protracted challenge more...

Fatou Bensouda, Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court arriving at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, 12 June 2014 © Wikimedia Commons
Julia Brooks - December 16, 2014

Last week, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Fatou Bensouda, launched a new Policy on Sexual & Gender-Based Crimes, with the aim of strengthening the investigation and prosecution of these horrific crimes. “[T]he Court has charged 17 individuals implicated in our cases with gender related crimes,” cited the Prosecutor, “whilst specific charges of sexual violence were proffered in 70 per cent of our cases.” While sexual violence has long been prohibited as a weapon of war, these figures point to the prevalence of sexual violence in contemporary conflicts. The UN documented conflict-related sexual violence in at least 20 countries in 2013, and such crimes continue to occur in conflicts in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Sudan, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere. The ICC’s renewed efforts mark more...

Julia Brooks - December 10, 2014

Today, as the world commemorates Human Rights Day, this post reflects on the integral role that human rights plays in humanitarian action, and the debate over the dual or parallel application of international humanitarian law (IHL) and international human rights law (IHRL) in situations of armed conflict.

Modern IHL and IHRL spring from a common historical experience – the horrors of World War II – and the shared goal of protecting human life, health and dignity in both peacetime and wartime. On this day in 1948, the newly created UN General Assembly, meeting in Paris, adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which would form the foundation of IHRL. Less than a year later, in August 1949, the Diplomatic Conference of Geneva adopted the four Geneva Conventions, the foundation of contemporary IHL.


Deserted street in Aleppo, Syria © George Kurian/IRIN
Julia Brooks - December 4, 2014

With the Assad regime severely limiting international humanitarian access to Syria, most international relief efforts have focused on addressing the needs of the over 3.1 million Syrian refugees in the region, including over a million each in Lebanon and Turkey, and hundreds of thousands each in Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. The humanitarian needs of Syrian refugees in the region are enormous, and significant gaps remain in the humanitarian response to the regional refugee crisis. Just this week, the World Food Programme (WFP) announced that it was suspending critical food aid to over 1.7 million Syrian refugees due to serious budget shortfalls; other agencies face similar funding constraints.

Beyond the challenge of assisting the over 3.1 million Syria refugees in the region, however, is the even greater challenge of accessing more...

Congolese Red Cross team collecting dead bodies drive through rebel-held Goma  © Jessica Hatcher/IRIN
Julia Brooks - November 14, 2014

The Advanced Training Program on Humanitarian Action (ATHA) is taking an in-depth look at the growing trend of attacks on humanitarian workers and the operational challenges of undertaking humanitarian action in insecure settings. Attacks on humanitarian workers reached record levels last year, and this dangerous trend has continued this year. An ATHA blog post published last week examined how gender affects the security of humanitarian staff and highlighted critical gaps in knowledge and practice on gender-related security threats and responses. This blog post looks at how international humanitarian law (IHL) — and other sources of law — protect humanitarian actors in conflict settings, as well as the challenges that arise from the fragmentation of legal protection under IHL.

How does IHL protect humanitarian workers in more...

Julia Brooks - November 5, 2014

Regarding the question of how gender affects the security of humanitarian staff, in short, not nearly enough data has been collected. While the field of humanitarian security management has advanced significantly in recent years, serious gaps remain in both knowledge and practice. Violence against humanitarian workers has reached record highs, yet little is known about critical aspects of humanitarian security, including gender-related issues.

Significant advances in data collection and reporting on violence against humanitarians have yielded a great deal of knowledge about disparities with regard to violence and security between national and international staff, as well as how one’s organizational affiliation affects one’s chances of being victimized. One area of concern is that international staff often receive priority in more...

Thomas Stevenson - October 30, 2014

Myanmar President Thein Sein recently called for government officials to sit down with representatives of the country’s myriad ethnic minorities.  His appeal represents an admission that not all of the country’s 53 million citizens have benefited equally from democratic reforms over the past four years. Minorities such as the Karen, Kachin, and Palaung—which make up roughly 1/3 of Myanmar’s total population—are still denied the political, social, and economic rights that other Burmese enjoy.  These groups’ armed affiliates continue to clash with government troops in rural areas; since last year, the fighting has added thousands to the ranks of Myanmar’s displaced (already estimated at half a million).  Perversely, the country’s “opening up” has not improved conditions for these refugees and IDPs. In fact, it has created more...

Thomas Stevenson - October 23, 2014


In posts over the last two weeks, I have argued that humanitarian action and transitional justice (TJ) are not incompatible in the Colombian context.  In fact, humanitarian actors may find that their long-term goal of ending mass displacement cannot be realized without TJ to lay the groundwork. This post explores the progress of—and persistent threats to—TJ in Colombia, which, by extension, threaten to undermine the humanitarian goals of restitution and repatriation. 


Colombia has begun to pursue durable solutions to its displacement crisis—albeit with a few missteps—via legislation in a transitional justice vein. With the passage of Law 387 in 1997, the government formally acknowledged its obligation to register internally displaced persons and record statements of their more...

Refugees in Lebanon live in very challenging circumstances, as in these makeshift homes in the Beka’a Valley (C) Areej Abu Qudairi/IRIN
Julia Brooks - October 20, 2014

As the Syrian refugee crisis continues, host countries and the international community are struggling to meet the growing needs of Syrian refugees, resulting in a significant humanitarian gaps. The ongoing ISIS-led offensive on the Northern Syrian town of Kobani has driven over 150,000 Syrian Kurdish refugees across the border into Turkey since last month, despite US-led airstrikes on ISIS positions. This unprecedented surge adds to the over 3 million refugees who have already fled Syria, over 896,000 of whom had already reached Turkey. Lebanon remains host to the largest number of Syrian refugees at over 1.1 million, followed by Turkey and Jordan. As UNHCR noted in August of this year, “Almost half of all Syrians have now been forced to abandon their homes and flee for their lives. One in every eight Syrians has fled across the more...


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