Humanitarian Access: Ireland at Fordham Lecture Series
News20 April 2020
I will present based on operational challenges and less on the legal approaches of interacting with Non-State Actors and De Facto Authorities for the purpose of being able to deliver humanitarian assistance to vulnerable people, often caught up in conflict, and in territory not controlled by the legitimate or recognized government. I will focus on Hamas in Gaza and Houthis in Yemen.
Today, all roads – political, social, economic, and humanitarian – lead to COVID-19. I will have to speak about humanitarian access at a time when COVID-19 is changing our world, the way we operate, and part of the access challenges we face in humanitarian settings where we work. The COVID-19 pandemic has upended society, bringing the economy to a halt in entire countries and threatening the lives of tens of millions.
In my current position as UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordination on Palestine, COVID-19 has changed the long-standing paralyzed political dynamics, perhaps temporarily or longer. It remains to be seen.
The non-political nature of the COVID pandemic created – maybe for the first time ever – an imperative for broad cooperation between all sides – Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas. In other words, the self-interest of all concerned, now drives the need to cooperate on containment and distribution of equipment and materials. Even more than the destructive aftermath of the 2014 war, the COVID crisis has opened doors for Israeli facilitation of access to goods, equipment., previously thought unimaginable. So much so, that Israel itself is contributing with in-kind assistance to Gaza.
There are many threats to humanitarian assistance worldwide. The two main challenges are a more political grip on humanitarian funding and humanitarian access. Reductions in funding globally are occurring as humanitarian needs grow and are linked increasingly to humanitarian assistance choices based on political considerations and impacted by a growing world disorder. The other biggest obstacle facing humanitarians is access.
In many of the countries where we operate, we can’t deliver food and other things because of political obstacles. For example, during the height of the war, to deliver aid in Syria, agencies cooperated with whatever limits [President] Assad wanted to impose — that includes which agency we could deliver aid through, and where the aid could go. Obviously, aid was not delivered easily into the areas that are opposing him. Therefore, it makes it very difficult to deliver aid neutrally, impartially, and independently. We see the same situation in many places where oppositions want to stop humanitarian agencies from delivering aid.
Humanitarian access is about finding ways to reach people who need assistance. Simple, but complex, when control over territory and armed conflict are in play. Non-state actors and governments all try to exert control, influence over the access, the recipients, and the aid itself. In this context, I will address access issues of the newest crises of the Middle East – Yemen, where I was based before starting to work in Palestine, which is the oldest humanitarian and political crisis in the region. Both face similar geo-political challenges and similar root causes. Thus, we may find that similar lessons can be drawn to address the challenges.
Engaging with Non-State Actors and De facto Authorities for humanitarians is increasingly important for the majority of conflicts in which humanitarian actors operate. Security incidents affecting aid workers have more than tripled over the past decade, and there is a growing concern over the role Non-State Actors have in such insecurity. Moreover, when Non-State Actors control territory, and therefore access to populations, humanitarians have to negotiate access in order to deliver aid. Yet, the vast majority of humanitarian agencies fail to engage effectively with Non-State Actors, and it is the aid workers and those in need of their help who suffer the detrimental consequences of that lack of engagement.
The growing counter terrorism legislation is a recently new emerging threat that affects our work with Non-State Actors. Countering terrorism, or “war on terror,” is a foreign policy imperative for the United States and most major donors to humanitarian organizations. The onus tends to be on implementing agencies, whether from the U.N. system or individual nongovernmental organizations, to fall in line. The pressure to adhere to these governments’ foreign policy agendas is immense. Humanitarians see that this unrecognized consequence of the “war on terror” has its effects on the ability of humanitarian organizations to reach people in need
Most humanitarian organizations are highly dependent on government funding, which limits their operational independence. They often choose to accept funding with restrictive counter-terror clauses as part of the bargain. After years of global focus on the threat of terrorism, the public and the media are understandably wary of any risk that aid will be diverted from those in need to those affiliated with armed groups. Fear of even the slightest diversion damaging the reputation of the organization creates pressure to accept the premise and the procedures of government-funded aid programs. Especially in the case of Israel and Palestine, there are individuals and advocacy groups prepared to attack the legitimacy of organizations based on real or imagined violations of counter-terror regulations.
We have a clash of cultures – political agendas rubbing up uncomfortably against humanitarian principles. The premise of counter terrorism legislation is that humanitarian agencies don’t distinguish between armed actors, including designated terrorist groups and civilians. In fact, these agencies make every effort to do so to carry out their mission in keeping with humanitarian principles. Far from trying to evade or work around counter-terrorism regulations, humanitarian organizations devote an increasing amount of time and resources to comply with a complex and ever-changing regulatory regime in which they are forced to assume all the risk. Some humanitarian organizations have fallen foul and been embroiled in costly legal battles over allegations of allowing donor aid to end up in the pockets of Non-State Actors.
Humanitarian agencies that do engage with Non-State Actors are often hesitant to admit that they do so, particularly when such groups are labeled as “terrorists;” they are often reluctant to share their experiences with other aid workers or publicly speak about them.
In 2016, the United Nations Secretary-General convened the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul. The first-ever summit of this scale, it was set up to identify solutions to today’s most pressing challenges in meeting the needs of people affected by conflicts and disasters, and to set an agenda for keeping humanitarian action fit for the future. Over a thousand recommendations later, the Summit is a distant memory, but the problems it set out to address continue to fester.
One important group, however, was missing throughout the consultations leading up to the World Humanitarian Summit – the Non-State Actors. In that regard, the Summit was a lost opportunity. Clearly these actors couldn’t be present. But some more research shared on what the current state of affairs would have been helpful to enrich the conversation around one the biggest challenges humanitarians face today.
Perhaps one of its main successes was the fact that it took place at all. More could have been made of the Summit. The purpose of the Summit was to set an agenda for humanitarian action to collectively address today’s most pressing humanitarian challenges. However, Non-State Actors — which play an integral role in allowing or hindering humanitarian operations in conflicts from Syria, Yemen, and Somalia to Colombia and the Central African Republic — were not part of the consultations in the lead up to the Summit. There wasn’t enough work done on the potential impact of counter terrorism legislation and a better understanding of engagement with Non-State Actors.
All of that said, excellent research and policy work is being carried out by many parts of the humanitarian world including Geneva Call, OCHA Peer to Peer initiative, NGOs such as Norwegian Refugee Council, as well as, Humanitarian Policy Group in ODI, and Chatham House International Law Program, to name a few.
In practice, as humanitarians, the range of crises and interventions we are working on are no longer short-term ones. In many cases, some of these current emergencies are long standing and infinite. Tellingly, across the 10 largest humanitarian operations, we have been on the ground for an average of 36 years. Obviously, we face a polarized new world disorder. We face it in Palestine and Yemen – places where I have worked most recently. Humanitarian work is often driven by Member States’ political considerations. Our own struggle is politics over humanity, and I think increasingly humanity loses out more often than not.
If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the most intractable of our time, the humanitarian situation it has produced over many years is certainly one of the most complex, protracted, and entrenched. In such a polarised and visceral environment, the line between addressing the long-term humanitarian consequences of conflict – in this case the cumulative effect of almost half a century of occupation – and being seen to stand in judgment over its causes, can quickly become blurred.
Humanitarian organisations cannot, however, afford to stray across the line into the domain of politicians and peacemakers – at least not if they want to be accepted across the board, with an approach that is credible and relevant. One false step in this minefield – be it an action or words – can set off charges of bias or prejudice, and ultimately stymie humanitarian access to people in urgent need of protection and assistance, whatever side of the frontline they may be on. This is true in armed conflicts around the world, although in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory, where perspectives of national identity, history, politics, and human suffering have become so intertwined, the path of neutrality has been as delicate as it has been crucial.
Yet, "neutrality, independence and impartiality" risks becoming an empty mantra unless the humanitarian response is also seen to be effective.
In Palestine, the humanitarian community tries to prevent any backlash. It’s interesting to assess the amount of time we spend as UN agencies and NGOs on fact-checking, devoting equal amounts of time to the Israeli side or the Palestinian side (in reports), and trying to address the complaints that come along all the time, which tie us up in terms of what we do. This has led to self-censoring and a sort of dangerous silence.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has been emboldened by the support he’s received from Washington, and that’s pushed him very hard to achieve as much as possible, evidenced by the US Embassy move to Jerusalem, the annexation of the Golan, funding cuts to UNRWA, the Palestinian Authority, etc. The recently released Trump plan was wholeheartedly welcomed by the Government of Israel. On paper it is designed to bring massive gains in terms of annexing land for Israel, recognition of illegal settlements, etc., as laid out in the recently published maps of the suggested areas in the West Bank.
The stark unspoken truth is that the receding prospect of a two-state settlement, accelerated by any move to implement the Trump Plan, will slowly erode the generosity of international donors. As that happens, what will likely remain is a set of programs meekly underwriting what is sometimes misleadingly called economic peace: programs that involve funding for humanitarian purposes, security, and modest economic development, as well as an expectation of Palestinian acquiescence to a continued Israeli occupation.
There are few places as surreal as the OPT when it comes to the issue of humanitarian work and access. Whereas Yemen has diverse and distinct theaters of operation – Sana’a, Aden, Hudaydah – the stark differences between East Jerusalem, the rest of the West Bank, and Gaza require almost entirely separate responses.
The peculiarities of Gaza make it all the more complicated. Gaza is a territory that is controlled by Hamas – a faction that much of the donor community regards as a terrorist organization. From a political perspective, the legitimate authorities are meant to be the Palestinian Authority, who were expelled in a violent takeover in 2007 and of course, Israel as occupying power, is legally responsible for the enclave and its 2 million inhabitants. Some 80% of the population rely on international assistance of some kind and unemployment hovers above 50%. The UN in 2012 wrote a landmark report that Gaza would be unlivable by 2020. And COVID-19 aside, we are here.
It is under a blockade from air and sea by Israel, with heavily controlled and regulated access by land. Energy and water supplies are totally insufficient and the health system teeters on the verge of collapse. In order to get anything inside, you need to ensure the appropriate clearances from the Palestinian Authority who despite not being present on the ground, still control the crossing points, Hamas – so that once inside, they go to the right place – and of course, Israel – who control the land crossings from their side.
While there is a border with Egypt, humanitarian and international assistance is only allowed through that border under very exceptional circumstances. As a result, our operations require close coordination with all three entities. Easy enough, except that many of the donors also require assurances that their assistance will not benefit Hamas. So with all of this, Gaza is the type of place where the clearances to distribute humanitarian aid take far more time and effort than the actual distribution.
In Gaza, we have Hamas as the de facto authority, the non-state actor. We have a long standing “no contact policy” as Hamas is declared a terrorist organization. Any dealing with Hamas is against the counter-terrorism legislations, hence raising all the compliance issues. Thus, mainly the UN’s political arm, Norway and Switzerland talk to them. The UN is viewed as a political entity. UNRWA has a long-standing relationship in Gaza and the West Bank. Other UN agencies and NGOs are not fully understood by Hamas. This is an awkward work in progress.
The last war in Gaza was in 2014 and resulted in more than 2,000 deaths, some 10,000 injuries, and more than 11,000 destroyed homes – many more damaged along with key infrastructure. The cost of damages was estimated in the billions. Under established procedures, there was no way a relief effort could have taken place given the massive need for cement and other heavily controlled, or so called “dual-use,” materials by Israel.
After the 2014 war, together with the Palestinian Authority and Israel, the UN created a mechanism that would give both governments – neither of them present on the ground by the way – an equal say in what entered and for what purpose. It was called the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism. It is one of the most intricate arrangements I have seen whereby all concerned goods are assigned to a specific project and then monitored by a team on the ground, to ensure their appropriate use.
At this point, Hamas had no choice but to engage. Most people were not pleased with the Reconstruction Mechanism. Human rights people said it reinforced the blockade. Private sector and project managers used to dealing with the Israelis directly had to deal with the Palestinian Authority – a government that was not present. In the end, it worked for its intended purpose – reconstruction has been largely completed and could not have happened without this mechanism. Whether it has a purpose or not anymore is a question, especially as the Palestinian Authority has now adopted a largely negative approach to Gaza through a series of overt and more covert sanctions. But with regard to the humanitarian specifically, the mechanism facilitated repairs and construction of water treatment, sewage, and desalination networks, hospitals and health clinics, as well as the entry of items like solar panels to power these installations.
In Gaza, as a result of the tension and volatility, as we have seen over the past two years since the Great March of Return demonstration, we were never too far away from a repeat of the 2014 war. The UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East has often stated this warning during the past two years in his monthly briefings to the Security Council. Weekly demonstrations at the fence on a Friday have resulted in over 30,000 people injured and almost 8,000 shot, with over 200 dead. There are over 1,500 young people for the most part with lower limb injuries as a result of being shot at the fence. Among the young there is a great deal of despondency and despair over their future. They can see other people their same age on social media pages living a normal life – they crave that. Over the past two years, there have been many occasions where rockets were fired indiscriminately into Israel from Gaza. And there were many incidents of retaliatory airstrikes by Israel Military Forces inside Gaza.
The recent history of Gaza offers a grim warning of the severe consequences that can follow when international assistance declines and is divorced from politics. When Hamas took over Gaza in 2007, the PA split between Hamas-controlled Gaza and the Fatah-controlled West Bank. As two-state diplomacy began to lose traction, international actors simply postponed efforts to address this problem. Some international assistance continued to flow to Gaza, but it was seen as humanitarian support. Politics and mediation are limited currency in the Palestinian context. Direct Palestine and Israeli talks are frozen. The intra Palestinian schism is ever widening between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in Ramallah.
Most donors avoided supporting official institutions and politics more broadly. Attention, diplomatic energy, and funds shifted elsewhere (primarily to the West Bank and the Palestinian Authority there). After more than a decade, the results are clear: disastrous humanitarian conditions, radicalization, and periodic bouts of violence. Rather than an actual peace process, the negotiations that take place between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza alternate between containing violence and threatening it.
As humanitarians, we meet regularly with the Hamas liaison people, as well as with military intelligence and politicians when there are major issues to resolve. On a more technical and operational level, we work with them on what the Non-State Actor de factos’ obligations are as an authority in a place like Gaza. To do that, the UN created a red line document on what they need to do, and what we need to do. To manage expectations, we have a technical conversation on the things that matter to them, because they want recognition. Hamas want legitimacy, which we can’t offer, and want to be treated almost like a government. What we can offer is some sort of regular communication with them. If we do not build trust and enhance mutual understanding, they will block our movements.
We have to listen to Hamas, and listen to their concerns. And, we have to seize the opportunity to remind them of their obligations under humanitarian law. This is something on which we have to work on a regular basis. Hamas as a political and military outfit are not fully aware of the humanitarian system, the different organizations, how they operate, the governance structures. Regardless of the optics, we need to build trust, especially for UN agencies and NGOs who have arrived in Gaza for humanitarian reasons since the early 2000s. UNRWA is a long-standing service provider in Gaza and the West Bank, and has a different status and perception than the newer organizations. It is important that Hamas better understand these changes to improve trust and access.
The current ‘no contact policy’ of the international community with Hamas hardly makes sense. When we see this in light of the mediation and diplomatic outreach and inclusion with the Taliban in Afghanistan. What marks Hamas as different?
With the Palestinian Authority based in Ramallah, recent history has shown they could be more supportive to the needs in Gaza than is the case at the moment, given the overwhelming humanitarian and socio-economic needs there. International donor support for Palestine has been diminishing since 2012. The Palestinian Authority often views the international community as competition given diminishing donor funding, and especially in light of their budget support being reduced as well. The Palestinian Authority has been having difficult discussions with Israel for some time over tax revenue – collected by Israel for the Palestinian Authority – being held back in the amount it deemed the Palestinian Authority distributed as prisoner payments. So, a significant percentage of the Palestinian Authority’s budget is missing from that source as well. It has been a regular occurrence that government salaries do not get paid in full, and services delivery is limited. Recently, and especially in light of the COVID-19 outbreak, the transfer of funds from Israel to the Palestinian Authority has improved with relations being more collaborative.
In terms of the Israeli Government, it is operating via purposeful fragmentation. They deal with us through liaison. They deal with us through the civilian arm of the IDF. We do not see Shin Bet. We do not see military intelligence, and other ones who control everything in terms of movements. This fragmented approach to contact is not optimal to achieve consistent and positive access and movement. This fragmentation suits the Israelis and undermines the humanitarian community’s own coherence. We all meet at different levels, but our messaging does not necessarily cohere.
We are supported and encouraged by the Government of Israel, because they recognize the importance of humanitarian assistance in Gaza to maintain a modicum of peace. We have a pleasant interface with the technical areas of the Government of Israel who are for the most part willing to facilitate our work in Gaza and the West Bank.
We spend a lot of time pushing back on false allegations created by a well-organized set of Israeli NGOs. Our operational space is reduced by the severe scrutiny from very active Israeli Non-Governmental organizations with links to the government who issue reports and allegations, causing humanitarian organizations to spend a lot of time addressing often unfounded allegations, which is costly. As humanitarians we welcome any type of scrutiny if it leads to a more effective and efficient response. Instead, we use up much needed staff capacity and resources to push back on these allegations.
We’re also trying to create a unified humanitarian country team approach with NGOs and UN agencies on International Humanitarian Law violations and demolitions in the West Bank. In addition, we issue regular statements and are available to take on any media on any issue. We try to be consistent and balanced in the words and advocacy we employ.
Again, we have witnessed a different kind of collaboration with the COVID-19 response, when the goal of addressing the outbreak, containment, and treatment is a common goal: to defeat ‘the virus [that] knows no borders and no state can defeat it alone,’ and therefore, the fight against Covid-19 is a global challenge that requires a multilateral approach.
Yemen’s war has created one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters; between 70 and 80 percent of the population is in need of humanitarian assistance, and over half of its 26 million people face food insecurity. Localised fighting escalated into full-blown war in March 2015 when a Saudi Arabia-led coalition intervened on behalf of the internationally recognised government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi against an alliance of Houthi militias and fighters aligned with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The conflict has fragmented a weak state, destroyed the country’s meager infrastructure and opened vast opportunities for many terrorist affiliated groups to grow and seize territory.
One of the newest humanitarian crises, in comparison, is the decades old crisis in Palestine. The legitimate Government of Yemen is outside, based in Riyadh and with a base in Aden, Southern Yemen. I was regularly criticized for being silent on the Houthis, and being present in Sanaa, not having our UN Yemen office in Aden in the South. The government was very critical of the way we worked with the Houthis, noting that we “didn’t call them out” often enough. The legitimate government was unable or unwilling to comprehend the humanitarian dimension of the international community’s role in Yemen.
We tried to meet the recognized Government of Yemen on a regular basis in Aden and in Riyadh. We wrote letters to them, keeping them informed, reminding them of their responsibilities, reinforcing neutrality and impartiality. A couple of times, a PNG threat was in the air for me and some of my colleagues.
The Saudi-led coalition was made up of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, with support from the UK and the US. Curious composites I would say, and the interaction we had with them was not very unified. It was a compromise to take funds from all of these parties, but we did it in a pragmatic way. It was important we took that, but it also reminded them of the obligations they had under international law, and that’s been done many times.
Access to Yemen via air, land, and sea was controlled by the Saudi-led coalition. Access for donors and the media became very politicized. Also, humanitarian access inside the country was always a challenge.
I would meet them on a regular basis, mostly late at night in the south of Sanaa while they were chewing Qat. We aimed to get them to understand what we were all about and listen respectively to what they were trying to ask us. Well, we did not have to agree, but at least listen with intent. Asking for compliance with the Security Council Resolution meant the end of the Houthis reign in Sanaa, and was thus a nonstarter. So, we had to change that whole framing there with them. We also gave them praise for recognizing the security they provided for us inside Sanaa but also inside the whole northern part of the country. I think that was important as well.
I did a lot of work with the media regionally and internationally and had monthly press briefings in Sanaa, because the Saudi Lead Coalition blocked the media from coming to the northern part of Yemen. Sanna airport was closed to commercial flights, and we were prevented from allowing the media to come in or the message to get out.
I took part in TV panel discussions with the legitimate Yemen Government based in Riyadh to try to counter their complaints against the UN and the space that we had here.
There were no donor representatives in Yemen, and trying to get Member States into Yemen was not easy, but we had low level visits. However, we had weekly virtual humanitarian plus meetings with donors and member states, including those part of the Saudi Lead Coalition from Riyadh and Amman, including London.
I also visited the key capitals in Europe, the US, and the region to raise humanitarian and protection concerns. Creating a political change within the Congress and Parliament in the US and the UK, respectively, was not easy when the crisis was not seen by all as a humanitarian crisis. In many cases, Yemen was closely interwoven in the politics of the region – ways to strengthen connections and influence and trade including the arms industry.
As in any context, Yemen and the Houthis were no different in that there had to be more consultation in the context we as humanitarians operate with Non-State Actors. Research has shown that despite the diversity of Non-State Actors around, there is a high degree of uniformity in many of the views expressed on a range of issues related to humanitarian action and access. Many of the Non-State Actors consulted see value in humanitarian action, in broad terms, as alleviating suffering or providing relief to those affected by armed conflict or natural disaster. In the case of Houthis and Hamas, a way to exert control, be part of the international effort, is to bring rewards to populations under their control, by appearing to give permission for access and movement of goods to affected areas.
With Houthis, we established a couple of mechanisms to regulate our contact, maintain the technical nature of our engagement as a humanitarian community, and to get better results. It gave the impression to the Houthis that they had a bigger stake or role in the work we were undertaking. Mechanismsincluded:
The Access Monitoring and Reporting Framework (AMRF): a tool for gathering information on the access constraints faced by the UN agencies, INGOs, and NNGOs. It is a very simple online tool. All partners, national and international, feed the information into the AMRF as the only way we can build a comprehensive understanding of what type of issues we are facing, where, by whom etc., and accordingly provide the foundation for evidence-based advocacy and engagement with the authorities on access issues.
Humanitarian Access Working Group: comprises senior colleagues from different humanitarian organizations. Based on the information from AMRF and the trends analysis, the HAWG is expected to establish some sort of negotiation/engagement strategies at all levels.
Establishment of Field hubs: critical for tackling the issue of movement restrictions at the local level as the best approach to ensure that there is a system for exchanging information and best practices among the organizations operating at the field level.
One of the outcomes of the meeting was a consensus on the need to operationalize a "One Window' mechanism for the humanitarian organizations to engage with the authorities on the different access issues and to bring about more systematic dialogue with the authorities on all the issues raised in the Access Monitoring Framework, which mentioned the paper covering assaults against staff, multiple requests from different agencies, movement restrictions, visas, etc.
Very often, Non-State Actors only refer to assistance; the protection of civilians, or related protection issues, are rarely discussed. In the Yemen context, each quarter I sent separate letters to the Houthis and to the Legitimate Government outlining and listing protection incidents, trends, etc. The letters were forwarded to all the relevant Embassies, including those in the Saudi Lead Coalition. Each side only saw the reports of the incidents attributed to them.
Available research has shown that Non-State Actors see a direct link between the transparency, and confidence in the quality of assistance, on the one hand, and the humanitarian agency’s adherence to the principles of neutrality, impartiality, and independence on the other. In the case of Houthis, the motivation was to prevent humanitarian actors from being independent and having free access and movement, based on viewing humanitarian assistance as a purely western endeavor, not in the charitable mode in Islamic culture. This was based on a lack of trust and suspicion of our motives, given that the majority of our funds came from member states who were part of or supported the Saudi Lead Coalition. Hamas has much more experience in dealing with international actors than Houthis and have strong allies in the region. With Hamas, they are more assured of their position and don’t feel threatened that they might lose control of Gaza. This is not the case with Houthis who are in all out struggle. As a result, Houthis want more control over the work and the movement of humanitarians, and viewed our work through primarily a security threat lens.
Hamas are seeking a degree of respect, and even recognition from our dealings with them. They have created an outreach with the region. Egypt, Qatar, and one of their leaders regularly meet with leaders in Russia, as well as, regional and other Muslim countries. The COVID 19 pandemic might be another opportunity for Hamas to gain even more traction. As humanitarians, we have to be smart and avoid getting embroiled in the political attempts underway to create a division between the West Bank and Gaza. To this end, as the international community, we work through and with the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah when dealing with Gaza.
For the most part Non-State Actors are broadly familiar with the core humanitarian principles. But on the independence of our assistance, Non-State Actors suspect that geopolitical concerns, funding, and other factors challenge the ability of humanitarian actors to be independent in practice. With all of the principles, the focus is on observed behavior (rather than, for example, where an agency’s funding comes from). Both Hamas and Houthis know where funding comes from and that it often is ideologically at odds with their situation. But, it is a pragmatic acceptance.
Without understanding why aid workers are or are not attacked, they cannot adequately protect their staff; without understanding why access is denied or facilitated by Non-State Actors, it is impossible to resolve blockages.
We need to better understand Non-State Actors’ views on humanitarian action, including humanitarian access and principles. It would be quite a challenge, but could be immensely beneficial to sit down with Hamas and Houthis, at the right level and have a discussion on these more policy and legal issues, rather than on operations, including access and movement, including security concerns. We often substitute this conversation with training on international humanitarian law and practice. We know that Non-State Actors, at times, conflate some principles (notably neutrality and impartiality) and seek to co-opt humanitarian aid or otherwise undermine humanitarian principles for their own benefit — much as member states do from time to time.
The widespread lack of knowledge about the rules of IHL governing humanitarian access is a more problematic issue and must be addressed across contexts. It’s not enough that Non-State Actors can rhyme off the core humanitarian principles. This requires sustained dialogue, dissemination, and training to ensure that Non-State Actors’ leaderships and rank and file members understand their obligations concerning access, and implement them in practice.
Hamas is a long established body with the conflict raging for decades, and their regular interaction through line Ministries at the technical level understand how the international humanitarian work functions, the role of the UN, especially UNRWA, donors, and NGOs. It does not mean they agree; however, there are relationships and exposure to the work of humanitarian principles. It does not always result in compliance and access facilitation; often it is disruption and blockages, with humanitarian work viewed as the arm of foreign governments, and based on political considerations. It is hard in Gaza to avoid this opinion, especially the recent cut of all funds to UNRWA, and the politicization of the Palestinian Authority’s support to Gaza. But it does not mean that our work is stymied; rather, it is highly regarded and appreciated as it helps the people of Gaza, and that it legitimizes in a certain way Hamas’s control.
Houthis have a very limited understanding of the way the international community functions. They have little experience in statecraft and diplomacy. This was the purview of the President Saleh component of the Sanaa Alliance, as the balance of power swung in Houthis’ favor, after Saleh was killed. They were always suspicious of the UN and the international community. Our optics were not helped when the UN returned in mid-2017, and we took over the US Diplomatic Transit Facility, the old Sheraton hotel. In my first encounter with the Houthis Military Intelligence, they stated that I worked for the “United Nations of America.’ One of the key tasks was to move to a new residential compound for UN staff to live, moving out of the US diplomatic facility. During the preparations for the move to the new compound, and once we left the US compound, the trust between the UN and Houthis improved.
In several cases, the Non-State Actors’ research has shown that they feel that the humanitarian organizations have not engaged with them in an appropriate, proactive, or impartial manner. In some contexts, engagement is hindered by external political pressures, resulting in serious consequences for aid workers and civilians alike. As in the case with Hamas, some states, including donors, have listed the groups along with other movements as “terrorist groups,” which has led some agencies to avoid direct engagement with them for fear of falling afoul of counter-terrorism legislation.
Aid agencies elsewhere fear that engaging with Non-State Actors could lead to expulsion from areas under government control. These are dilemmas to which there are no easy fixes, and need to be negotiated on the ground. A more flexible and pragmatic, if not discreet, approach from the member states doing the “labeling” as terror organizations would be helpful. The bottom line, however, is that non-engagement or limited, ad hoc engagement with Non-State Actors ultimately hinders their need for an agreement to comply with International Humanitarian Law. If we avoid contact or engagement, it can be perceived by the Non-State Actors that humanitarian actors are abandoning our own humanitarian principles and viewed as non-neutral and partisan.
Aid agencies must invest in relationship building with all the parties to armed conflicts and develop strategic engagements with Non-State Actors. This would be best served, where possible, by the Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator. Under the new reformed Resident Coordinator system, there is a direct reporting line within the UN Secretariat making the position a much more political role. By taking on the responsibility to consult with Non-State Actors, they help protect those agencies and organizations whose operations could be jeopardized by criticism of meeting Non-State Actors. But this has to be accepted by the management of the UN and NGOs at the capital level.
There needs to be a level of certainty and commitment from HQs that the Resident and Humanitarian Coordinators will be supported if negative voices and criticism of outreach with Non-State Actors is brought to the world’s attention through criticism in both mainstream and social media. I believe that in my attempts to reach out, be it with the Houthis or Hamas, have resulted in more consistent and sustained access. With trust building and conversations being broader in range, we will be able to see a more consistency to international humanitarian law in the policies and approaches of Non-State Actors, and can help serve as a better basis for negotiating humanitarian access.
The Non-State Actors must witness that humanitarians should behave in ways that demonstrate their neutrality, impartiality, and independence. This must be both obvious and transparent. Any perceptions that humanitarians are not adhering to their principles can have dangerous consequences, ranging from denial of access to attacks on aid workers and their property. This underscores the importance of humanitarians not only behaving in accordance with humanitarian principles, but also carefully monitoring and managing Non-State Actors’ perceptions of them in order to avoid misunderstandings.
This is key to building trust and acceptance between parties to conflicts and securing safe access. It might mean sometimes being proactive in informing the Non-State Actors before the fact – but not seeking their permission – rather for information. In some cases, it could mean using their technical staff to participate in joint technical assessments to build trust and confidence, without any involvement in deciding the types of interventions, locations, or beneficiaries.
The Houthis did not trust the UN. The UN support was part of the pre-war national dialogue and after that, the Security Council Resolution 2016. Basically, this resolution was to deliver a 6-month quick win to return to normal and reinstall the legitimate government in Sanaa, it did not work. This added to the suspicion of the UN, and it took some time to educate and convince the Houthis that the Security Council was not overseeing our humanitarian work on the ground. Otherwise, it would have basically locked the humanitarians into a position we couldn’t move from, and we were then tainted in the eyes of Houthis. I had to work tirelessly to build trust with them, negotiate access, create red lines in operations, and foster clear understanding on what their obligations were under international law. To do that, I was basically the interface for the country team so their operations were not jeopardized.
Although they have obligations under IHL, Non-State Actors are not part of legal frameworks and treaties. But, this must not prevent Non-State Actors from respecting the law, and demonstrating adherence to it. It is important that orientation of leadership takes place and training is offered to lower ranking field staff. It is best to use actual local examples when there have been problems and have discussions around what would be a better way forward to prevent the restrictions of access, interference with aid delivery, etc. Each incident should offer an opportunity to remind the parties of their obligations, reinforce messages, and create inclusion.
It is not an easy conversation to have with Non-State Actors or De Facto Authorities. Criticism is not easy to deliver. They seek respect, legitimacy, and even recognition for the way they interact, provide security, safe passage, and engagement. But, one has to be careful to venture into a conversation on Non-State Actors on their obligations under international law. These can be tricky conversations and need to be thought out tactically when the right time is to discuss. As was the case with both Houthis and Hamas, they wanted something in writing to help confer acceptance and legitimacy. This could be a simple “red lines” document, Standing Operating Procedures, with relevant contact points and numbers – without references or signatures.
Finally, the Non-State Actors consulted in this study often refer to political issues when asked to make recommendations on how to improve humanitarian conditions. Many see humanitarian crises and needs as rooted in conflicts that can ultimately only have a political solution. This is beyond the scope of this survey, but indicative of a shared understanding—across conflicts—of the roots of humanitarian crises and the very political nature of their resolution.
In conclusion, and bringing this back to the were I started – with the current COVID-19 outbreak, the international community should explore the possibility of opening up a space for greater cooperation between Gaza and Israel in order to achieve a more effective coordination in response to the Covid-19 crisis. In addition, we should use the crisis as a means to reduce the current tensions between Ramallah and Gaza to avert the risk of impeding rather than facilitating an effective response to the current crisis. In the past week, there have been exchanges with all stakeholders at a technical level, but it is acknowledged that there is a need to extend these discussions to the political level to ensure the right level of response to the growing humanitarian crisis and to provide a base for future development.
Many thanks to Fordham University for the opportunity to brief you on my experiences with the issue of humanitarian access.