Coinciding with the  commemoration of the 2003 bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, World Humanitarian Day (WHD) is celebrated every 19 August to  honor aid workers who risk their lives in humanitarian service, and to draw attention to humanitarian needs worldwide. Fourteen years on, civilians, including humanitarian actors, remain the victims of incidental effects of attacks, and are often directly targeted by parties to the conflict. This year, WHD is dedicated to mobilizing Member States, civil society and global leaders to increase public awareness on the need to protect civilians, health workers and medical infrastructure in conflict areas. 

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With the aim of curving down, if not eliminate, the number of attacks targeting medical facilities, multiple initiatives have been undertaken. The International Committee for the Red Cross and the Red Crescent (ICRC) Healthcare in Danger and Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) Medical Care under Fire campaigns represent pivotal illustrations. Efforts of the ICRC and MSF, with the support of 80 States, successfully led to the adoption of the UNSC Resolution 2286 in 2016. This resolution strongly condemns attacks against medical facilities and personnel in conflict situations.  It constitutes a significant achievement at the multilateral level, calling for reinforced protection of the medical mission as a component of the protection of civilians.

Today, implementation matters. To better protect civilians and humanitarian infrastructures, one crucial aspect is the sustained dialogue and coordination with those who hold the weapons. OCHA Emergency Services Branch (ESB)’s Civil-Military Coordination Section (CMCS) is the designated focal point in the UN System for humanitarian civil-military coordination (UN-CMCoord). CMCS is the custodian of internationally agreed Guidelines on UN-CMCoord and provides related guidance and norms, supports field operations and organizes training events on the subject matter to a variety of constituencies.

In order to enhance the protection of humanitarian personnel and humanitarian facilities protected under International Humanitarian Law (IHL), CMCS has developed an Operational Guidance for Humanitarian Notification Systems for Deconfliction (HNS4D) which is based on the current practice in several operating environments and on the applicable legal framework. The HNS4D describes the notification of humanitarian locations, activities and personnel in both static and non-static locations to the military for the purpose of protection against attacks and incidental effects of attacks under IHL.  The operational guidance serves as a checklist for UN-CMCoord Officers to design context specific notification mechanisms, when needed. The legal basis includes comments and inputs from IHL scholars, practitioners and other UN and non UN experts.

The HNS4D is a complementary set of information for military planners to mitigate the risk of attacks and incidental effects of attacks under IHL. HNS4D is voluntary and is intended to help promote the safety and security of humanitarian locations, activities and personnel. HNS4D cannot, under any circumstance, be construed as a comprehensive source of information on humanitarian locations, activities and personnel in a given space. Each party to a conflict must do everything feasible to verify that targets are military objectives. It is for the belligerents to positively identify what they attack; it is not for humanitarian organizations to identify what may not be attacked.

Sophie Solomon, OCHA Humanitarian Affairs Officer and Head of the Access and Deconfliction Cell in Sana’a, Yemen describes the implementation of the HNS4D:  “In Yemen, 122 humanitarian organizations conduct life-saving activities, targeting 12 million people. Most of the operations take place in areas affected by airstrikes. The Deconfliction mechanism was established in April 2015 upon the request of the Humanitarian Country Team to ensure a safe delivery of humanitarian assistance in country.  It informs the Saudi-Led Coalition (SLC) of the locations of humanitarian premises and humanitarian movements (overland, sea and air movements) within and into Yemen to ensure the safety and security of humanitarian premises, personnel, equipment and activities in areas of active military operations.”

While challenges are real, past and current initiatives demonstrate a will to enhance the protection of civilians. Most actors present in situations of armed conflict know that this cannot be achieved without establishing and sustaining dialogue with parties to the conflict. HNS4D has the advantage of representing an entry point for interactions with parties to the conflict, at the tactical, operational and even strategic levels. This is a practical tool that will hopefully contribute to mitigating risks for those who are not part of the hostilities and, in particular, humanitarian actors.

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