Opinion Piece: Respect for Protection of Humanitarian Action Essential to Save Lives

Home News And Events Opinion Piece: Respect for Protection of Humanitarian Action Essential to Save Lives

In recent weeks, air strikes in Somalia caused the interruption of the distribution of humanitarian aid to over 6,000 displaced people; in September, a Syrian Red Crescent volunteer was killed whilst evacuating an injured person to hospital. These are just two of many examples of difficulties being faced by humanitarian personnel working in countries affected by armed conflict.

The safety and security of humanitarian personnel and ready access to populations affected by armed conflict are indispensable conditions for the delivery of humanitarian relief. Yet in many instances, such conditions are absent just when they are most needed resulting in the prolonged and unnecessary suffering or even death of those affected by denying them basic food, water and shelter necessary for survival.

In the first part of the 21st century, we are witnessing an extraordinary proliferation of conflicts of increasing complexity which have increased the demand, not to say responsibility, on all of mankind, to deal with the often unimaginable consequences of human suffering.

This period too has also been marked by a notable deterioration in security conditions facing humanitarian personnel who increasingly face risk of death, injury or kidnapping in the course of their work despite protections afforded to them under international law. In particular, there is increasing evidence of the cost of violence against health-care personnel as well as medical facilities and transport resulting in the loss of life not only of those seeking to provide assistance, but also the lives of those seeking such assistance.

In other instances, delivery of aid is simply suspended on the basis that security cannot be guaranteed or safe passage is simply not allowed or facilitated by those in authority. The latter has even been cited as a reason why, in some conflict situations, records of attacks against humanitarian personnel have reduced – there are simply less humanitarian personnel there.

Some attacks on humanitarian aid personnel and facilities are deliberate and in some instances represents a war crime. Others are claimed to be accidental – "collateral damage" while aiming to achieve a legitimate military target. Regardless, it is a generally accepted rule that in all instances humanitarian relief personnel, and objects used in such relief, must be respected and protected and that any attack on or destruction or pillage of relief objects inherently amounts to an impediment of humanitarian relief.

More than ever therefore, it is imperative therefore that we promote respect for international law for the sake of the victims of conflict everywhere, and for the protection of humanitarian personnel, and the most effective way to do so is to raise awareness and understanding of such law, be it in peace time or otherwise.  Indeed, promoting understanding and awareness of the rules of law in advance of conflict provides greater opportunity that such law will be respected when war does break out. Furthermore, it promotes good citizenship, global citizenship, and a respect for the preservation of human dignity amongst all peoples wherever they may be. 

Colm Byrne

Head of the Irish Red Cross International Department.

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