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Using the laws of war to improve humanitarian access

How can we better leverage international humanitarian law (IHL) to improve access to people in need?

This was the topic of a joint Australian Red Cross and Centre for Humanitarian Leadership symposium held in Melbourne on 17 October 2019. The event brought together humanitarian practitioners, academics and others to contribute to this dialogue.

The symposium aimed to promote understanding in the Australian context of what protections exist in IHL, what constitutes good practice in access negotiations, what support is available, and the challenges we should be working collectively to address. The event was inspired by the 2018 State of the Humanitarian System report, which identified three trends:

  1. Bureaucratic restrictions are, for the first time, ‘the most important overall impediment to providing humanitarian support to people in need’. These restrictions are seen as a conscious tactic on the part of governments or non-state armed groups to prevent humanitarian aid from reaching particular areas.
  2. Increasingly, humanitarian actors are working in situations where neither government nor non-state armed groups are prepared to follow IHL, and where many non-state armed groups are not prepared to grant humanitarian access.
  3. ‘Humanitarian staff and leadership do not fully understand the humanitarian principles and IHL, and so are unable or unwilling to apply and advocate for them.’

These findings are concerning because IHL contains important protections for humanitarian access. If the laws are not understood or utilised, then this is a missed opportunity. This is particularly relevant to Australian Red Cross, which works with Australian organisations operating in conflict contexts to promote ‘IHL best practice’.

Despite a focus on practical approaches and meaningful compromise, there were important and encouraging points of consensus. These points related to the continuing relevance of humanitarian principles and legal frameworks for humanitarian assistance in armed conflict.

During the symposium, the Humanitarian Advisory Group also shared the results of new research, Gaining Traction: Measuring the Impact of IHL Training. Prepared for Australian Red Cross, the report looks at the impact of training humanitarian practitioners in IHL and humanitarian principles.

The research builds an evidence base for how IHL and humanitarian principles training translates to humanitarian outcomes. Through five key findings and targeted recommendations, the report encourages a conversation about how to improve humanitarian outcomes through strengthened approaches to IHL and humanitarian principles capacity building.

Based on interviews and surveys, the research found that:

  1. IHL training can be linked to improved humanitarian outcomes;
  2. training in IHL is only one step in a learning process;
  3. the application of IHL and humanitarian principles is supported if there is a critical mass of actors in the context that understand and support the principles;
  4. training for field practitioners needs to be practical and contextualised; and
  5. awareness of IHL and humanitarian principles mitigates individual and operational risks in the field.