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:
- 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.
- 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.
- ‘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.