Red Cross says US strikes in Iraq and Syria compound humanitarian plight

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said on Friday that U.S.-led air strikes on Islamist insurgents in Iraq and Syria had worsened a dire humanitarian crisis on the ground.

All warring parties in the widening conflicts in the two countries should spare civilians and allow delivery of aid, the Geneva-based ICRC said in a statement. “Under international humanitarian law, every party to these conflicts must refrain from harming civilians, must protect medical personnel and facilities, and must allow humanitarian workers to bring help,” said Dominik Stillhart, the ICRC director of operations.

The independent agency is the guardian of the Geneva Conventions that lay down the rules of war, primarily aimed at protecting civilians caught up in armed conflicts. The treaties require all sides to spare civilians, be proportionate in their military operations, distinguish between civilian and combatants and between military targets and civilian structures such as schools and hospitals.

“The law also includes the obligation to respect and protect civilians and people who are not currently participating in hostilities, such as the sick, the wounded and those who have been detained. Everyone must treat these people with humanity and preserve their dignity,” said Stillhart.

[Reuters]

America could spend more to feed and clothe Syrian refugees not simply on bombs and guns

The idea that the U.S. can successfully arm and train “moderate” Syrian rebels is simply ludicrous. …We just tried that with the Iraqi army, for eight years, and it was an utter failure. This raises the question of what we ought to be doing instead.

The answer is containment. Don’t arm or bomb anyone in Syria. Keep supporting the Kurds and the Iraqi government, and keep watch from the sidelines. Undermine ISIS and similar groups by going after their sources of money and disrupting their international networks.

And for God’s sake, let’s build some moral authority by funding U.N. hunger programs.

Congress just about tripped over itself ponying up $500 million for bombing and arming random people in Syria (and apparently we just casually committed to spending a trillion bucks over the next three decades on upgrading our nuke supply?), while the U.N. World Food Program is cutting back its operations in Syria due to a shortfall of $352 million. This is at a time when [there are millions of refugees and internally displaced persons], with over 130,000 refugees fleeing ISIS forces streamed into Turkey just in the last few days.

We’re not going to do any of that, it seems. The U.S. government seems incapable of even the simplest sort of cost-benefit analysis. But if we really cared about the long-term effort against extremist groups, we ought to start by demonstrating that America is the kind of country that will spend at least as much to feed and clothe helpless refugees as it will on bombs and guns.

[Ryan Cooper, national correspondent writing in TheWeek.com] 

Blurred lines between humanitarian and military involvement

Once upon a time, it was easy to know when we were at war: a proclamation was made. …. Things are done differently now. [Now this is ushered in via a media release] entitled “International Supply Mission to Iraq”, adding that “following the successful international humanitarian relief effort” air-dropping supplies to stranded refugees in northern Iraq, the [military] would now conduct “further humanitarian missions”.

Then things got a little confusing. The next sentence stated the US had asked us to “transport stores of military equipment, including arms and munitions”. Which seemed strange. You don’t need to be especially intimate with the dictionary to know the definition of “humanitarian aid” doesn’t generally include guns.

The word “humanitarian” was featured four times in one short statement and yet it seemed to be saying that we were dropping weapons to militants. It was hard to know whether this meant war. But it definitely meant spin.

In the intervening month the government’s avoidance of the “w” word has reached farcical levels. The word “humanitarian”, on the other hand, is tossed around, confetti-like, in discussions about the type of (military) assistance we are offering the international coalition to combat ISIS.

So why is it important what label we put on our involvement? It matters, a great deal, for two reasons. The first is that, as anyone who works in the humanitarian aid sector will tell you, the blurring of the line between humanitarian and military intervention in a war zone can cost lives.

Humanitarian organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross have spent a lot of time and money educating local populations that they are relief organizations with no political objectives, and therefore they should not be targeted in conflict.

Outfits such as the ICRC and Medecins sans Frontieres offer humanitarian assistance to the most needy, and cross the lines of conflict on that basis. That firm distinction between military action and aid is what they rely upon when they enter battlefields and drive through war zones.That distinction is the only thing that stops the large red cross on the back of the beaten-up 4WD from becoming a target.

[Jacqueline Maley, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald]

Key to humanitarian action is the idea of neutrality and impartiality

One high-placed source I interviewed in the non-government humanitarian sector said the government’s use of “humanitarian” in discussing its ISIS operations has been a “big issue” in the sector.

“The key thing about humanitarian action is that idea of neutrality and impartiality. The person in the greatest need is given help no matter what side they’re on,” the source said. “The ‘humanitarian’ language becomes problematic if it is called a humanitarian mission and they’re dropping bombs. How do people distinguish?”

A 2014 report by the Aid Worker Security Database showed a steady rise in aid worker casualties since 2001. Many attribute this to the blurring of military intervention with humanitarian assistance.

This is not to say that militaries can’t deliver humanitarian assistance. It is one of their most vital roles in war zones and disaster areas, where they are often the first people able to get help through, before aid agencies have even arrived. This is especially the case in places like Iraq and Syria right now, where even the ICRC dares not go.

Ben Saul, a professor of International Law at Sydney University, says military forces also have humanitarian obligations, for example to protect civilian populations and provide food and medical care. But, he says, during earlier military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, “a lot of humanitarian actors were concerned that there was a blurring of lines between humanitarian and military action”.

If a government is making the most serious decision it can make, to endanger the lives of the military, it owes it to its citizens to be transparent about the reasons why. Are we undertaking a humanitarian operation? …Or are we protecting our national security interests and cloaking that protection in the language of the aid worker, to avoid scaring a war-shy public?

[Jacqueline Maley, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald] 

The US militarization of humanitarian aid

President Obama announced last week an expanded U.S. response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. The lion’s share of personnel assisting in the response comes from the U.S. military – an estimated 3,000 troops will be deployed to the region.

Many humanitarian actors are concerned about the militarization of aid in a variety of global contexts –  some note that the presence of militaries in humanitarian crises can make humanitarian aid actors seem to favor one side of a conflict. Doing so violates two of the basic principles of ethical humanitarian aid: neutrality and impartiality.  In general, aid agencies are supposed to help any civilian who needs it without regard for their ethnicity, religion, or the “side” they might support in a conflict, and most work hard to avoid even the appearance of favoring one side over another. Introducing a country’s military into a crisis can make it difficult for aid actors to appear neutral and impartial. In a worst case scenario, this can put aid workers’ lives at risk.

In the current West African Ebola outbreak, however, concerns about non-neutrality have been trumped by the need for immediate action. The AFRICOM deployment comes in response to a direct request for assistance from Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

There is no question that the United States military has logistics capabilities that far outstrip those of any humanitarian aid agency worldwide. But is AFRICOM in particular up to the task? This is the first, large-scale operation AFRICOM has undertaken with what might be called a purely humanitarian purpose.

The last time U.S. military forces engaged in a large-scale humanitarian operation in Africa was the Somalia intervention of the early 1990s. Originally intended to be an operation to help get food aid to Somali civilians, that operation, which began under President George H.W. Bush and continued under President Bill Clinton’s administration, quickly turned into a combat operation very unlike what its proponents had envisioned. American involvement in Somalia ended almost immediately after the “Black Hawk Down” incident of October 1993 in which 18 American military personnel were killed in Mogadishu.

[Read full Washington Post article

School gets underway in Gaza …sort of

Last week in Gaza, half a million children went back to school after a summer of war. The academic year started late; among other things, authorities had to check buildings for unexploded ordnance and scrub schools that had been used to shelter hundreds of thousands of displaced families. With dozens of schools still sheltering people, destroyed or simply too damaged to use, classrooms are more overcrowded than usual.

Children in Gaza have experienced three wars between Israel and Hamas over the past six years. This summer’s seven-week conflict was the longest and most destructive, with the highest number of people killed, injured and displaced from their homes. In a territory that measures only 25 miles in length and 7 in width at its broadest point, civilians have not been able to escape the fighting. As a result, children comprise a quarter of the total Palestinian dead.

School authorities decided to start this school year differently. For at least the first week — longer in some schools — academics were put on hold. Instead, visiting therapists or the school’s own teachers led children in art, drama and other creative activities like play therapy.

Therapist Mohmmad Kahloot said it helps him to see kids smiling again. “When they overcome such a catastrophe and smile, this gives us relief,” he said. “This gives us hope for tomorrow.”

His colleagues say after this summer, even the therapists in Gaza need therapy. So do parents.

The psychologist acknowledged that the stress of conflict can show up in different ways, and encouraged parents and families to try to put the war behind them.

That may be most difficult for families who have no home to return to. More than 50,000 people are still living in 19 United Nations-run schools.

[NPR]

You can provide care for those affected by humanitarian crises

Recently in Northern and Central Iraq, clashes between the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), its allied militias, the government of Iraq and Kurdish regional government security forces have driven thousands of people from their homes. Since January 2014, an estimated 1.8 million people have been displaced by violence in Iraq. Their brutal circumstances are confounding, but their need for medical services, clean water, food and shelter are not very different from the privations of people affected by natural disasters.

Four thousand miles from Iraq, a protracted outbreak of the Ebola virus continues to wreak havoc across Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone. As of this writing there are more 5,335 and 2,622 deaths, according to the World Health Organization. Widespread population loss has threatened fragile local economies and has left many children parentless — two of numerous factors that will have ramifications long after the disease is contained.

The humanitarian emergencies in West Africa and Northern Iraq are different, but the best way to help those who suffer is the same — through cash donations to reputable organizations working with communities on the ground. Even small financial donations combine to make a huge difference in the lives of people affected by disasters. As is the case after natural disasters, donors who make the most positive and enduring impacts give monetary support to relief organizations working in affected areas, initially and over time. Unlike unsolicited material donations — those not requested by organizations working in affected communities — monetary donations enable immediate support to communities.

As situations evolve quickly in complex humanitarian emergencies like these, cash allows relief organizations to respond to changing needs quickly; enabling them to deliver essential supplies that are fresh and familiar, a huge comfort in these tragic circumstances. Most important, monetary donations empower those in the hardest hit regions to rebuild their communities, as those impacted will need support for years after the crises ease and the world’s attention turns elsewhere.

[Juanita Rilling, Director of the United States Agency for International Development’s Center for International Disaster Information, writing in Huffington Post

Murders of Ebola aid workers chills humanitarian efforts

As details emerge about the brutal murders of at least eight Ebola aid workers and journalists whose bodies were found dumped in a latrine in a Guinean village, questions linger about whether the murders will have a chilling effect on the international relief effort.

“It is a danger and it’s going to have to be something that all [non-governmental organizations] pay attention to,” Ken Isaacs, vice president of programs and government relations for Samaritan’s Purse.

Though the murders are not the first example of violence against relief workers, they are the first reported fatalities, and a strong sign of a dangerous trend in some of West Africa’s most Ebola-ravaged communities.

“There’s a lot of superstition and a lot of fear and a lot of confusion,” Isaacs said of the Ebola outbreak. “A lot of the people in Guinea and Sierra Leone and Liberia see … where the relief workers and relief vehicles go, is where Ebola shows up.”

Doctors Without Borders echoed Isaacs sentiments and called for better education of those in Ebola-affected areas. “It is evident that fear and misunderstanding of Ebola can breed mistrust of health facilities and staff. Community education and mobilization efforts must be intensified in Ebola-affected regions, and trust should be built with the communities,” Doctors Without Borders said in a statement to FoxNews.com.

[Fox News]

3 million Syrian children not attending school due to war

International aid group Save the Children says that nearly three million Syrian children are not attending school due to the war raging in their country.

Their report spotlights how Syria’s conflict, now entering its fourth year, is denying a decent education to a generation of children, with consequences that may last for generations.

Within Syria, the report estimated that 3,465 schools, or one-fifth of the country’s educational buildings, were either destroyed or damaged, or are being used for military purposes.

Syria’s civil war has killed at least 190,000 people, according to the U.N. Nearly three million Syrians have fled the country.

Third convoy of Russian humanitarian aid unloaded in eastern Ukraine

The third convoy of Russian humanitarian aid for eastern Ukraine has arrived in the war-torn city of Donetsk. The convoy of around 200 vehicles is carrying some 2,000 tons of cereals, canned food, generators, medicine, warm clothes, and bottled water. The trucks have started unloading the aid in two of the city’s storehouses.

“We need humanitarian aid badly as there is almost no food in the shops. People aren’t receiving their pensions. Children are hungry. It’s high time,” a local resident, Vitaly, told RT. “People are suffering now. We don’t have any products. Thank you, Russia,” he added.

After unloading humanitarian aid the trucks returned to Russia. The first column has already crossed the Russian border.

Previously, on September 13, and on August 22, Russia delivered humanitarian aid to Lugansk in eastern Ukraine. All in all over 4,000 tons of aid has reached the crisis-stricken city.