Humanitarian Space

The term “humanitarian space” has been used for over twenty years. It appears that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was the first to use it in the 1980s to describe a space for dialogue on humanitarian issues of common concern to warring parties. When initiated in this neutral humanitarian space, such dialogue could possibly spill over into substantive political negotiations.1 Since then, the term has been primarily been associated with the former president of Medecins Sans Frontiers, Rony Brauman, who in the early 1990s spoke of a space in which humanitarian operators would be able to deliver assistance independent from the interference of politics.2 Oxfam supplemented this definition by contributing the perspective of the affected population: the humanitarian space is one in which the population is free to exercise their rights to receive assistance. Through this lens (also used by UNHCR), the humanitarian space is a protection space. Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) – regarded as the “guardian” of the Geneva Conventions – is, understandably, primarily concerned with respect for international humanitarian law (IHL): in conflict zones, the humanitarian space is one in which parties to the conflict have respect for and abide by the stipulations of IHL.

Building upon this progression, the term “humanitarian space” now refers typically to one of four interpretations:3

  1. Respect for international humanitarian law in conflict (which entails an obligation to allow humanitarian relief). This view is oftentimes associated with the ICRC.
  2. The general environments in which humanitarian actors operate, with features such as insecurity, administrative delays, and competition for resources
  3. An acceptance by all parties – including beneficiaries – of humanitarian agencies’ unique role and activities, with “acceptance” sometimes taking the form of a protected physical space (e.g. humanitarian corridor, refugee camp). According to most interpretations, it also implies a respect for humanitarian agencies’ imperative to remain neutral without the interference of politics and the military
  4. The physical space in which crisis-affected communities can exercise basic rights, including the right to receive humanitarian assistance.

While each interpretation is distinctive, together they are united by a common understanding of humanitarian agencies’ right to provide assistance, communities’ right to receive assistance, and of the imperative to deliver assistance in a manner that is in accordance with international humanitarian law (IHL) and humanitarian principles. It is on this basis that questions on the respect for IHL, operational logistics, and the extent of public acceptance for humanitarian action are asked.

The Shrinking Humanitarian Space:

When measured against these conceptions of the term, recent trends seem to indicate that the humanitarian space is shrinking.4 How this contraction manifests depends on how the humanitarian space is understood.

The Shrinking Humanitarian Space and International Humanitarian Law

  • Those who understand the humanitarian space as one in which international humanitarian law (IHL) is respected see this shrinking as a decline in respect for the laws of war and the consequent degradation of living standards for those living in the midst of conflict. The practice of targeting of civilian populations and the post-Cold War proliferation of non-state armed groups that are not party to the Geneva Conventions are evidence of this trend.

The Shrinking Humanitarian Space and Humanitarian Access

  • Those who subscribe to the idea of a humanitarian space as the general environment for agency operations point to decreased humanitarian access to provide relief in crises. In other words, the physical space in which humanitarian agencies can work is getting smaller. This shrinking may be due to increased physical insecurity and/or sovereign states’ refusal to allow agencies to operate. Rising numbers of attacks on aid workers, suspensions of aid delivery, and recent expulsions of humanitarian organizations in locations such as Sudan and Zimbabwe have been cited to support this argument.5

The Shrinking Humanitarian Space and the Politicization of Aid

  • Others argue that as political and military actors have become more involved in the provision of humanitarian assistance, humanitarian agencies’ unique roles are under threat. According to this argument, since the end of the Cold War – and after the 9/11 attacks in particular – governments have increasingly directed humanitarian assistance toward strategic interests. This trend has contributed to two simultaneous processes: first, humanitarian projects are increasingly conducted by international government actors with little respect for the primacy of humanitarian principles; and second, humanitarian agencies’ status in the community is degraded by their assumed association with the government actors. As a result, humanitarian workers are more vulnerable to politically motivated attacks than ever before.

Given the challenges of delivering assistance in today’s complex environments, it is clear that the humanitarian space – in whatever form – is not to be taken for granted. Complete respect for IHL, humanitarian access, and agencies’ independence remains nonexistent in reality, and will almost surely remain as such for years to come. Some do argue, however, that it is excessive to claim that the humanitarian space is not only challenging to maintain, but is shrinking. These critics argue that in general, the humanitarian space is not necessarily shrinking and that it might have actually expanded over time. In doing so, they make the following points:

  • There is wide consensus that the conditions for civilians in war have never been as good as they are today and that the severity of war overall has declined (in terms of military and civilian deaths). This view runs contrary to the idea that respect for the laws of war is declining.6
  • There is no clear evidence that prior to the Cold War there were fewer non-state armed groups or that they were more respectful of IHL than they are now. The reputation cost of harming civilians is just as much a deterrent today as it was in history – if not more, given the reach of the media. 7
  • Humanitarian agencies are venturing into far more dangerous places that they did in previous years. Viewing the situation from a different perspective, then, the humanitarian space could be stable while agencies are pushing its boundaries.8
  • Humanitarian agencies’ lack of physical access is not always a matter of insecurity, but rather due to explicit refusal to allow access on the part of the belligerent parties. 9
  • While attacks on humanitarian workers may have increased, so too has the sheer number of humanitarian workers overall. It is unclear, then, that today’s humanitarian workers bear a proportionally higher risk than their predecessors.10
  • The humanitarian space is political and always has been. It is idealistic to believe that there was a time when humanitarianism was truly apolitical.11

The debate surrounding whether the humanitarian space is truly shrinking can be traced to disagreements over the definition of the term itself. Is it a theoretical concept that serves to frame the priorities humanitarian actors in the field? If so, then recent trends that jeopardize the independence and neutrality of humanitarian actors effectively challenge the Dunantist code, and therefore substantiate the idea that the humanitarian space is truly shrinking. Or perhaps the humanitarian space a practical concept that can be measured in terms of aid worker casualties, violations of IHL, and military activities in the humanitarian/development realm? If this were the case, then historical data would indicate that the humanitarian space is not shrinking. In general, metrics provide no conclusive evidence that the humanitarian space is growing smaller.

  1. Erik Abild, Creating humanitarian space:
    a case study of Somalia
    , Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford, Research Paper No. 184.
  2. Sarah Collinson and Samir Elhawary, Humanitarian space: a review of trends and issues, Overseas Development Institute, HPG Report 32 April 2012
  3. Ulrike von Pilar, Humanitarian Space Under Siege, Some Remarks from an Aid Agency’s Perspective, Backgroundpaper prepared for the Symposium, Europe and Humanitarian Aid - "What Future? Learning from Crisis", 22 and 23 April 1999 in Bad Neuenahr
  4. The three explanations are largely drawn from Cynthia Brassard-Boudreau and Don Hubert, "Shrinking Humanitarian Space? Trends and Prospects on Security and Access." The Journal of Humanitarian Assistance (2010): Tufts University.
  5. Zimbabwe suspends aid operations.” BBC News, 6 June 2008. Vivienne Walt, “Report: attacks on aid workers on the rise.” Times Magazine Online, 9 April 2009.
  6. Brassard-Boudreau and Hubert.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Collinson and Elhawary, 6.
  9. This was seen recently in Myanmar, where the KIO’s lack of explicit authorization for humanitarian aid undermined agencies’ willingness to send their staff and resources to KIO-controlled areas.
  10. "AID POLICY: The myth and mystique of humanitarian space," IRIN, 2 May 2012
  11. Collinson and Elhawary, 3.

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