Protecting civilians in armed conflict
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New study: Armed groups, hinderers or facilitators of humanitarian action?

19th May 2016 | Humanitarian norms

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On the occasion of the upcoming first World Humanitarian Summit on 23 and 24 May in Istanbul, Turkey, Geneva Call is releasing a study which presents and analyses armed non-State actors’ perceptions of humanitarian action.

Although the humanitarian community is currently facing an explosion in humanitarian needs, it appears that the motivations that push armed groups to facilitate or hinder humanitarian action are often little known or misunderstood by humanitarian organizations themselves.And yet armed groups are often major actors in contemporary conflicts.

As part of this study, Geneva Call gathered the opinions of representatives of 19 armed groups from 11 different countries, including Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Colombia and Burma/Myanmar.

Despite the diversity of the groups interviewed, similarities appeared, the first being that they understand and accept humanitarian action and its core principles (neutrality, impartiality and independence). “Humanitarian access should not be hindered,” said one of the representatives. Nevertheless, most of the groups consulted admitted that they had a limited knowledge of the specific rules of international law which govern humanitarian access, such as those ensuring the respect and protection of humanitarian workers and their means of transportation.

Nonetheless, many of the groups collaborate with humanitarian organizations and have created structures to bring help to populations. Some armed groups recognize that they have sometimes blocked or even attacked humanitarian workers. They often justify this by their perception of a lack of neutrality displayed by organizations operating in the field, or to prevent what they consider being support to their enemies or even spying. Some of them also mention a lack of coordination: two groups explained that they had expelled humanitarian organizations which had not informed them before working in territories they controlled.

To avoid these situations, Geneva Call’s study recommends that humanitarian actors maintain a sustained and long-term dialogue with armed groups, which is far from being always the case at present. For example, in 2014, fewer than 45% of the NGOs active in north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo had any contacts with the armed groups operating there.

The study also advises humanitarian organizations to better and more clearly demonstrate their respect of the principles of impartiality, neutrality and independence. It explains why it is important to reinforce armed groups’ knowledge of the rules of international law governing humanitarian access. Finally, it also advocates for approaches which include more armed non-State actors in the creation and implementation of rules of international humanitarian law.

Download the study