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...

Thomas Stevenson - October 14, 2014


Due to the protracted nature of Colombia’s conflict, national transitional justice initiatives have gone live even as humanitarian work continues in the country.  In last week’s blog post, I made the case that humanitarian action and transitional justice (TJ) are not incompatible in the Colombian context.  In fact, humanitarian actors may find their long-term goal of ending mass displacement cannot be realized through restitution without TJ to lay the groundwork.This post explores in more depth the ways in which TJ can facilitate the humanitarian search for durable solutions to displacement. 

Truth and reconciliation

One of the better-known transitional justice mechanisms, truth commissions endeavor to establish the culpability and/or victim status of various parties during a more...

Thomas Stevenson - October 8, 2014


Colombia is the site of one of the world’s longest-running conflicts; at 50 years, it is second in duration only to the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. The fighting, which has pitted government and paramilitary forces against highly organized guerilla groups such as the FARC and ELN, has resulted in displacement on a massive scale. With between 4.9 and 5.5 million citizens (roughly ten percent of the total population) forced off their land, Colombia has more internally displaced persons (IDPs) than any other country. Meanwhile, an estimated 455,000 Colombians have fled their country altogether, with the overwhelming majority settling in nearby Panama, Ecuador, or Venezuela.

Since taking office in 2010, Colombian President Juan Manual Santos has repeatedly extended the olive branch to the more...

Julia Brooks - October 2, 2014

Whereas ISIS’s brutal beheadings and mass atrocities committed against minority populations have garnered significant international attention, and spurred a multilateral military intervention, their war against women has received much less focus. In their advances across Syria and Iraq, ISIS fighters have namely used various forms of sexual and gender-based violence against women and children in areas under their control. ISIS is not alone in committing these atrocities – the latest report of the UN Secretary-General on sexual violence in conflict noted indications of sexual violence in 12 recent or ongoing conflicts, and threatening peacebuilding in many other post-conflict situations. Such violence is not merely collateral damage or a byproduct of war, but part of calculated campaigns of terrorism, war, and group destruction which more...

Julia Brooks - September 29, 2014

As many of their peers return to school this month, countless children around the world are being exposed to violence and deprived of education by armed conflict, instability and terror. “Children are among the first victims of armed conflict,” emphasized Mr. Hervé Ladsous, Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, during the debate in the UN Security Council on September 8th. “In a large majority of conflicts around the world, children are targeted and used deliberately,” noted Ms. Leila Zerrougui, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, “Conflict confronts them in their homes, at school, in hospitals and when they seek to run away.”

Whether in Syria, Gaza, Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, or South Sudan, children bear a heavy burden in armed conflict; they witness more...

Julia Brooks - September 24, 2014

Climate change means natural disaster, vulnerability, conflict, and displacement – in short, increased humanitarian need, often for already vulnerable populations.

As world leaders gather in New York this week for the UN Climate Summit 2014, they should not lose sight of the direct impacts of climate change on populations around the globe. “The human, environmental and financial cost of climate change is fast becoming unbearable,” remarked UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, as “climate change threatens hard-won peace, prosperity, and opportunity for billions of people.” Humanitarians are not only taking notice – they are the first responders to an increasing array of climate-induced emergencies. 

Natural disasters

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), increases in average and more...

Thomas Stevenson - September 18, 2014

Next week, ATHA will host a Podcast on the challenges of humanitarian engagement in urban environments.  The panel will feature a more in-depth discussion of the challenges of humanitarian action in urban environments with experts and practitioners, including Dr. Ronak Patel, who recently addressed this topic in a brief interview with ATHA’s Anaide Nahikian.

Overcrowding and urban violence

In recent decades, many countries have encouraged urbanization through their macroeconomic policies; Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, has seen record urban growth rates for this reason.  In other parts of the world, people have been driven into cities by conflict, poor resource management, and the degradation of farmland. As a result, roughly half of the global population now lives in cities.  Experts expect this more...

Thomas Stevenson - September 14, 2014

Some crises attract an overwhelming international response. In the immediate aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, for example, roughly 13,000 NGOs descended upon the island nation. The response to the Ebola outbreak that has spread outward from Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea over the last several months could not be more different. Since the first cases were reported, the World Health Organization (WHO) has issued plaintive calls for more aid and aid workers. The tepid response has a simple explanation: fear. The fear of infection has not only made aid workers think twice about traveling to West Africa, but thinned the ranks of NGOs already on the ground. Rafael Frankfurter, of the Wellbody Alliance, an NGO that offers medical services, put his American volunteers on a plane back to the US shortly after the outbreak began, more...

In 2008, Palestinian refugees fleeing violence in Iraq were denied access to Syria and ended up stuck between the Iraqi and Syrian borders in al-Tanf camp. Phil Sands/IRIN
Thomas Stevenson - September 8, 2014

The displacement of Palestinians is not a new phenomenon. Since the 1948, when war led to the founding of the State of Israel, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have lived as foreigners in Syria and other neighboring countries. However, as the Syrian conflict enters its third year, thousands have had to flee for a second time.  These twice-displaced Palestinians are finding themselves with fewer rights and protections than those accorded to other refugees. Perversely, this dire situation is the direct result of PLO, Hamas, and UNRWA policies—three groups that purport to act on behalf of the Palestinian diaspora.

Jordan and Lebanon—two relatively stable countries in a sea of instability—have been among the primary destinations of people displaced by the Syrian conflict. In addition to more than 2 million Syrian more...

Rob Grace - September 4, 2014

Just as humanitarian professionals emphasize the need to maintain the humanitarian space to undertake aid operations with independence, neutrality, and impartiality, in the domain of international fact-finding, political engagement is often required to carve out the space necessary to implement a thorough, objective investigation. Indeed, investigators involved in gathering information relevant to the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) — which crashed in the eastern part of the Ukraine on July 17 — have consistently grappled with this challenge. In particular, investigators have struggled over the past month and a half to secure territorial access to the crash site. Thus, the preliminary report of the investigation, scheduled to be released in the coming days, will reflect not only the technical skills of more...

Thomas Stevenson - September 13, 2014

Russia’s military involvement in Ukraine appears to be growing inexorably deeper.  Last week, NATO released satellite images of Russian tanks, armored personnel carriers, and artillery in Eastern Ukraine.  The tanks have entered the country without fanfare, leaving the Kremlin room to issue denials ranging from “Soldiers have accidentally crossed the border” to “NATO’s images are drawn from video games.”  However, in recent weeks, Russia has openly breached Ukraine’s borders with convoys of unmarked, white trucks.  Moscow insists that the trucks are carrying humanitarian aid—food, water, and generators—to citizens in the rebel stronghold of Luhansk, where locals have endured weeks of shelling by the Ukrainian army.  Yet there is ample evidence that President Putin’s motives are largely—if not entirely— more...


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