Harvard Humanitarian Initiative - December 17, 2015

This guest blog comes to us from P. Pham, M. Comes, B. Van de Walle, A. Wagner, C. Arkwright, N. Gibbons, and P Vinck. On November 4, 2015, the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) brought together representatives of a range of organizations working to address the needs of refugees arriving in Europe, to take stock of the current status of data collection and coordination among key actors, to discuss critical areas of improvement in the collection and use of data, and to identify concrete next steps to be taken both by the meeting’s participants and to be recommended to policy-makers dealing with more...

Steve Wilkinson - December 9, 2015

As the frequency and brutality of conflict increases around the world, a number of voices are questioning the relevance of international humanitarian law (IHL), as well as its chief guardian the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). While many criticisms are undoubtedly warranted, some are unfair, inaccurate or misplaced; as such, they warrant a much more careful consideration.

The difficulty in assessing trends of (dis)respect and respect

Many critics of IHL argue that a seeming increase in civilian deaths in conflict means that the law is failing and/or increasingly irrelevant. Yet it is difficult to quantify whether we are in fact seeing an increase in disrespect of the law.

As a legal framework, IHL is a broad and complex beast; consequentially, such assumptions can often be misdirected. more...

Kate Akkaya - December 3, 2015

Ethnically and religiously distinct from the majority population, the Rohingya people in Myanmar face state-sponsored discrimination, and mounting evidence of serious human rights abuses, according to numerous recent reports. Increasingly urgent reports – including from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, the International State Crime Initiative and Yale Law School – argue that this state-sponsored violence rises to the level of genocide. While the term “genocide” is often wielded in relation to a range of mass atrocities, it is a specifically defined crime under international law. Does the evidence in the case of the Rohingya support the claims of genocide? And perhaps more importantly, if the evidence points to genocide, what actions can or should be taken by the government of Myanmar, or the international community more generally? more...

Beth Maclin - November 17, 2015

The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) is one of the most infamous, long-standing armed groups in the world. Its repertoire of violence includes mass abductions, particularly ofchildren, looting and destruction of property, mass murder, mutilation, and sexual violence. After decades of poorly coordinated efforts by individual national armies, the African Union now leads a coalition of forces from all four affected countries – Uganda, South Sudan, the Central African Republic (CAR), and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) – that was launched in 2012 to work toward dismantling the group. Despite more...

Yemen was already deep in the throes of a humanitarian crisis before the cyclone hit
Julia Brooks - November 4, 2015

Last month, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) reviewed two resolutions to investigate serious violations of international law committed during the conflicts in Sri Lanka and Yemen. In the case of the Sri Lankan civil war, which ended in 2009, the Council approved a resolution calling for the establishment of a hybrid court to prosecute grave violations of international law, including war crimes and crimes against humanity. In the case of Yemen, the UNHRC dropped plans for an international inquiry into human rights and humanitarian law violations by all sides in the ongoing conflict, in light of strong resistance by Saudi Arabia and other members of the international military coalition currently carrying out airstrikes in the country. Instead, the Council voted to support a decree by exiled Yemeni President Hadi, with more...

Taken in N. Iraq in 1991 during Operation Provide Comfort. Lt. Col. John Abizaid speaking with some Kurds. / Wikimedia Commons
Kate Akkaya - October 29, 2015

In a protracted armed conflict, particularly a civil war, common sense would dictate that a “safe zone” – a protected area free of weapons and conflict, for the exclusive use of humanitarian actors and civilians – would do nothing but good. Indeed, since the beginning of the ongoing Syrian war, calls for safe zones or humanitarian corridors have been made by a wide variety of actors, including a revived debate as recently as last week. Yet safe zones also entail a number of downsides: they can be prohibitively complex and expensive to create and maintain, and history tells us that rarely is a safe zone truly safe for the duration of a conflict. While concentrating civilians for the purposes of protection, safe zones may become the scenes of concentrated misery and vulnerability if not adequately supplied and assisted. Moreover, such more...

Refugees and asylum seekers wait to regisert outside the LaGeSo in Berlin  © Julia Brooks
Julia Brooks - October 22, 2015

A long line forms most days in front of the “LaGeSo” – the Landesamt für Gesundheit und Soziales, or State Office of Health and Social Affairs. LaGeSo operates as the central registration center for refugees in Germany’s capital, Berlin. Here, refugees stand in line for a numbered ticket, then wait an unpredictable further amount of time for their number to be called. When their number is called they can then officially register as asylum seekers, which is necessary in order to gain access to social benefits including housing, financial assistance, healthcare and most importantly for their ability to remain in Germany in the longer term, the opportunity to file an asylum application. For months, up to 2,000 newly arriving men, women and children have been waiting daily in front of the building; the office hands out 300 to 350 waiting more...

Bonnie Docherty - October 14, 2015

This guest blog comes to us from Bonnie Docherty, Lecturer on Law and Senior Clinical Instructor at the International Human Rights Clinic, Harvard Law School. Bonnie is also a Senior Researcher in the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch. She is an expert on disarmament and international humanitarian law, particularly involving cluster munitions and civilian protection during armed conflict. This post is adapted from a post that was previously published on the Harvard Human Rights Program blog. For more information, contact Bonnie Docherty at

Julia Brooks - October 8, 2015

While much remains unclear, facts are slowly emerging about the U.S. airstrikes on a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital in Kunduz, in northern Afghanistan on October 3rd, which killed 12 staff, all Afghans, and at least 10 patients, and seriously wounded another 37 people. MSF General Director Christopher Stokes condemned the bombing as “a grave violation of International Humanitarian Law” and presumed “war crime,” while calling for a “full and transparent investigation […] conducted by an independent international body” such as the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission.

The U.S., for its part, has acknowledged the attack and promised a full investigation. It has also offered partial and contradictory explanations in the immediate wake of the attack. First, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter called more...

A Syrian refugee detained at the border police station in Elhovo, Bulgaria on October 22, 2013  © Jodi Hilton/IRIN
Kate Akkaya - October 7, 2015

Europe is in crisis. Over 475,000 asylum-seekers have arrived by sea across the Mediterranean this year alone, with 84% coming from the world’s top ten refugee-producing countries. Many are also coming by land, though the numbers are much more difficult to ascertain. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the recent surge in people seeking protection in Europe is unlikely to stop soon: it is projected that Europe will receive over one million asylum applications in 2015; at least 450,000 thousand of these applications are expected to be granted. The Temporary Protection Directive was developed by the EU in 2001 as a framework for managing an unexpected mass influx of individuals: so why has it been largely absent from the current ongoing conversation around refugees?

The most common more...

These Iraqis, resting in the village of Tovarnik, arrived recently from Serbia (Andrei Pungovschi/IRIN)
Tina Comes & Bartel Van de Walle - October 2, 2015

This guest blog post comes to us from Tina Comes and Bartel Van de Walle. Tina and Bartel are Senior Fellows at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI). Tina is Associate Professor in ICT at the University of Agder, Norway, Deputy Director of the Centre for Integrated Emergency Management, and Vice-President of the ISCRAM Association. Bartel is Associate Professor in Information Management in Tilburg University in the Netherlands. Together, they have been conducting field-research on humanitarian information management, decision-making and coordination in the response to the Syria crisis, in the Philippines, and in the West African Ebola Crisis.

Last week, the European Union’s interior ministers made a long awaited but controversial decision to impose mandatory refugee quotas on its member states. The decision creates a more...

Bonnie Docherty - October 2, 2015

This guest blog comes to us from Bonnie Docherty, Lecturer on Law and Senior Clinical Instructor at the International Human Rights Clinic, Harvard Law School. Bonnie is also a Senior Researcher in the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch. She is an expert on disarmament and international humanitarian law, particularly involving cluster munitions and civilian protection during armed conflict. This post is adapted from a post that was previously published on the Harvard Human Rights Program blog. For more information, contact Bonnie Docherty at

Mitigating the human costs of armed conflict and armed violence has become a moral and legal imperative over the past two decades. Within the international community, several strategies for helping civilian victims have emerged. A more...

By equinoXio (No more FARC) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Julia Brooks - October 1, 2015

New developments are advancing hopes that the Colombian government and the largest anti-government armed group in the country—the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC—will soon reach an agreement in their protracted peace talks to bring an end to the country’s even more protracted armed conflict. Last week, the Colombian government and FARC leaders agreed on the groundwork for a final peace agreement within six months. The parties set a six-month deadline for the competition of a final peace agreement, after which the FARC will begin to disarm within 60 days. Critics are hailing the emerging peace agreement as a “new model for reconciling bitter enemies,” considering the wide-reaching transitional justice measures it sets in motion. Namely, the deal aims to “satisfy the victims’ right to justice; obtain truth for Colombian more...

The op-ed as it appeared in the French newspaper, L’Humanité.
Julia Brooks - September 28, 2015

An abbreviated French version of this post appeared as an op-ed in the French newspaper, L’Humanité on 25 September 2015, as part of a series on attacks against humanitarian aid workers. The full English version is reprinted below.

Attacks against humanitarian workers have increased nearly four-fold over the last decade. Such attacks endanger lives, violate international law, and jeopardize critical humanitarian assistance. Concerted international action is imperative to address disparities in the protection of humanitarian aid workers, improve protection, and to finally end impunity for the perpetrators of such attacks.

Amidst increasing attacks, international humanitarian law (IHL) protecting aid workers remains fragmented and poorly understood. First, only certain categories of aid workers – namely medical personnel, more...

Ziad Al Achkar - September 17, 2015

This guest blog post comes to us from Ziad Al Achkar. Ziad is a research assistant with theSignal Program on Human Security and Technology at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, where his research focuses on the use of geospatial technology in humanitarian and human rights contexts. Ziad has a Masters in Diplomacy and International Relations from Seton Hall University, and is a native of Lebanon.

The Syrian conflict that more...


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