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...

Kate Akkaya - September 15, 2015
International Law Governing Humanitarian Access

International humanitarian law (IHL), in both treaty and customary form, governs humanitarian access in situations of international armed conflict (IAC), non-international armed conflict (NIAC), and occupation. Despite the involvement of thousands of troops from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other Middle Eastern states, and funding and political support from the United States and likely from Iran, the conflict in Yemen is currently best characterized as a NIAC because the physical conflict remains within the borders of Yemen. As such, it is governed by IHL applicable to NIAC, including the Geneva Conventions’ Common Article 3 and Additional Protocol II (AP II), both ratified by Yemen, as well as applicable customary international humanitarian law.

In NIAC, Common Article 3 of the four more...

A young girl outside her family's tent at the al-Mazraq IDP camp in Yemen’s Hajjah Province  © Paul Stephens/IRIN
Julia Brooks - September 11, 2015

As the conflict in Yemen escalates and war crimes allegations abound, the humanitarian situation in the country is becoming increasingly dire, though largely overshadowed in international media. A combination of the Saudi-led military coalition airstrikes and the naval blockade on Yemen’s ports – with the stated aim of cutting off pro-Houthi weapons shipments from Iran – has devastated the already impoverished country and set off a highest-level humanitarian emergency. The UN now estimates 21.1 million people – 80% of the population – to be in need of humanitarian assistance. With many Yemenis now “almost entirely reliant on the international community for food, fuel, shelter and medicines,” humanitarian actors are facing severe access, funding and security restrictions.

In this context, Yemeni humanitarian staff members are more...

Joel Hernandez - September 4, 2015

This guest blog post comes to us from Joel Hernandez. Joel is an intern at the Migration Policy Institute and a graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, with a focus on International Law and Humanitarianism and a background in legal assistance and advocacy on behalf of migrants and refugees. This post is based on his experience working on the Greek island of Lesvos in July and August of 2015.

Molyvos is a town of less than 2,000 on the Greek island of Lesvos, lying in plain sight of Turkey’s Çanakkale Province across a narrow finger of the Aegean Sea. Thus far in 2015, Lesvos Island, population 85,000, has received almost 100,000 refugees and migrants from Syria, Afghanistan, and other countries (33,000 in August alone). Lesvos’s northern coast allows the shortest crossing from Turkey more...

 Aid groups distribute food and other relief items every month to the refugees since the camp opened in June 2013. The camp hosts both Muslim and Christians and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) insists that the camp should remain secular. Sectarian violence by the Islamist Boko Haram rebels has driven off thousands of Nigerians from their villages.  © Otto Bakano/IRIN
Kate Akkaya - September 3, 2015

The use of biometrics by humanitarian agencies is quietly nearing its thirteenth birthday. As one of the first adopters of this technology, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has increasingly used biometric data collection technology, which includes fingerprinting, iris scanning, and facial recognition software, since 2002. According to the UNHCR, this technology is a tool to prevent and deter fraud while ensuring faster and more accurate registration of refugees. Because humanitarian agencies must learn and record names, addresses, and family and tribal information to ensure an individual qualifies for refugee status and to accurately distribute benefits, the collection of this potentially sensitive data is a key element of the humanitarian aid methodology. Moreover, UNHCR argues that identity verification is not just a more...

Julia Brooks - September 1, 2015

ISIS’ recently advertised destruction of part of the ancient complex at Palmyra shocked the international conscience, and raised a renewed chorus of denunciation, with Irina Bokova, the Director-General of UNESCO, the UN’s cultural agency, condemning the destruction as “a new war crime and an immense loss for the Syrian people and for humanity.” Yet this precisely the problem – the destruction of protected world cultural heritage in Palmyra may be a “new” instance of a war crime, but it is only the latest in a long series of international crimes committed in the conflict in Syria and Iraq – ranging from genocide and sexual enslavement targeting the Yazidi community by the Islamic State to the use of prohibited chemical weapons by both the Islamic State and the Syrian regime – to which the world has reacted with equal parts outrage, more...

A Palestinian aid worker carries a bag of flour at a United Nations food distribution center in Shati refugee camp  © Suhair Karam/IRIN
Julia Brooks - August 19, 2015

Today we commemorate World Humanitarian Day, marking the occasion of the bombing of the UN headquarters in the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, Iraq in 2003 in which 22 staff members and visitors were killed. As the international community honors those who have risked their lives in the pursuit of humanitarian action, how far have we come since 2003 in protecting aid workers in the field?

The Baghdad attack shifted aid agencies’ thinking about the security and protection of field workers, and prompted significant institutional, policy, and operational reforms. The Independent Panel, appointed by the UN Secretary-General to investigate the Baghdad attack, found failure and dysfunction in the protection of staff, which prompted a major overhaul of the UN’s security management system, including the creation of a new UN Department of Safety more...

Marc Ellison | Hirondelle USA
Anne Bennett - August 17, 2015

In last month’s ATHA Podcast on the Protection of Humanitarian Aid Workers under International Law, our listener Thomas from Palestine asked: “How do you suggest to strengthen protection for humanitarian workers? Is there promise in endeavoring to tie this category of non-combatant protection with fortified protection for journalists, for example?”

In this guest blog post, Anne Bennett  more...

Julia Brooks - August 12, 2015

Nuclear weapons are once again on the global agenda. Last month, Iran reached an agreement with the US and five other world powers, intended to halt its development of nuclear weapons. Last week, Japan commemorated the seventieth anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the final days of World War II, the first use of nuclear weapons in history. Survivors recalled the horrific and enduring effects of the atomic bomb, some of which have lasted generations. “[E]ver since 1945,” writes The Guardian, “nuclear weapons have transformed the global strategic landscape and even the very notion of war.” And ever since the narrowly-averted nuclear showdowns between the US and Soviet Union during the Cold War, many states and civil society organizations have endeavored to control the spread of nuclear weapons and more...

Raquel Vazquez Llorente - August 10, 2015

This guest blog post comes to us from Raquel Vazquez Llorente. Raquel is a researcher at the European Interagency Security Forum (EISF), where she coordinates projects and conducts research to help humanitarian organisations gain safer access to communities affected by conflict and emergencies. To hear Raquel discuss the security implications of new information and communications technologies for humanitarian actors, listen to her interview on the ATHA podcast.

Julia Brooks - August 3, 2015

Threats to the ancient city of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recently captured the headlines as ISIS forces took control of the central Syrian site. Fears of destruction are well-founded, considering ISIS’s record of targeting religious and cultural sites for destruction in Syria, Iraq, and Libya, including shrines, mosques, churches, and cultural sites, such as the ancient cities of Nimrud, Khorsabad, and Hatra in Iraq, as well as ancient artifacts in the Mosul museum and library. While the frequency and zeal by which ISIS is waging war on religious and cultural heritage stand out, the targeting of cultural heritage sites is not new; armies and armed groups have long employed it as a tactic of war, occupation, and persecution: Islamist rebels destroyed ancient tombs, shrines, and manuscripts in Timbuktu, Mali in 2012; the more...

Julia Brooks - July 15, 2015

Now in its fifth year, the war in Syria has produced what the UNHCR calls the “biggest humanitarian emergency of our era.” At least 220,000 Syrians have been killed, over half of the country’s population have been displaced, and over 4 million refugees have fled abroad, pushing global forced displacement to record levels, threatening to destabilize the region and fueling a migrant crisis on the Mediterranean Sea. The humanitarian crisis in Syria continues to worsen as the Assad government maintains a position of denying or placing severe restrictions on humanitarian access. These constraints are exacerbated by insecurity due to escalating fighting, the rise of the Islamic State, deliberate attacks against aid workers, and obstructions of humanitarian relief efforts. In the face of this devastation, do the people of Syria — or any more...


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