Thomas Stevenson - September 18, 2014

Next week, ATHA will host a Podcast on the challenges of humanitarian engagement in urban environments.  The panel will feature a more in-depth discussion of the challenges of humanitarian action in urban environments with experts and practitioners, including Dr. Ronak Patel, who recently addressed this topic in a brief interview with ATHA’s Anaide Nahikian.

Overcrowding and urban violence

In recent decades, many countries have encouraged urbanization through their macroeconomic policies; Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, has seen record urban growth rates for this reason.  In other parts of the world, people have been driven into cities by conflict, poor resource management, and the degradation of farmland. As a result, roughly half of the global population now lives in cities.  Experts expect this more...

Thomas Stevenson - September 14, 2014

Some crises attract an overwhelming international response. In the immediate aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, for example, roughly 13,000 NGOs descended upon the island nation. The response to the Ebola outbreak that has spread outward from Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea over the last several months could not be more different. Since the first cases were reported, the World Health Organization (WHO) has issued plaintive calls for more aid and aid workers. The tepid response has a simple explanation: fear. The fear of infection has not only made aid workers think twice about traveling to West Africa, but thinned the ranks of NGOs already on the ground. Rafael Frankfurter, of the Wellbody Alliance, an NGO that offers medical services, put his American volunteers on a plane back to the US shortly after the outbreak began, more...

In 2008, Palestinian refugees fleeing violence in Iraq were denied access to Syria and ended up stuck between the Iraqi and Syrian borders in al-Tanf camp. Phil Sands/IRIN
Thomas Stevenson - September 8, 2014

The displacement of Palestinians is not a new phenomenon. Since the 1948, when war led to the founding of the State of Israel, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have lived as foreigners in Syria and other neighboring countries. However, as the Syrian conflict enters its third year, thousands have had to flee for a second time.  These twice-displaced Palestinians are finding themselves with fewer rights and protections than those accorded to other refugees. Perversely, this dire situation is the direct result of PLO, Hamas, and UNRWA policies—three groups that purport to act on behalf of the Palestinian diaspora.

Jordan and Lebanon—two relatively stable countries in a sea of instability—have been among the primary destinations of people displaced by the Syrian conflict. In addition to more than 2 million Syrian more...

Rob Grace - September 4, 2014

Just as humanitarian professionals emphasize the need to maintain the humanitarian space to undertake aid operations with independence, neutrality, and impartiality, in the domain of international fact-finding, political engagement is often required to carve out the space necessary to implement a thorough, objective investigation. Indeed, investigators involved in gathering information relevant to the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) — which crashed in the eastern part of the Ukraine on July 17 — have consistently grappled with this challenge. In particular, investigators have struggled over the past month and a half to secure territorial access to the crash site. Thus, the preliminary report of the investigation, scheduled to be released in the coming days, will reflect not only the technical skills of more...

Thomas Stevenson - September 13, 2014

Russia’s military involvement in Ukraine appears to be growing inexorably deeper.  Last week, NATO released satellite images of Russian tanks, armored personnel carriers, and artillery in Eastern Ukraine.  The tanks have entered the country without fanfare, leaving the Kremlin room to issue denials ranging from “Soldiers have accidentally crossed the border” to “NATO’s images are drawn from video games.”  However, in recent weeks, Russia has openly breached Ukraine’s borders with convoys of unmarked, white trucks.  Moscow insists that the trucks are carrying humanitarian aid—food, water, and generators—to citizens in the rebel stronghold of Luhansk, where locals have endured weeks of shelling by the Ukrainian army.  Yet there is ample evidence that President Putin’s motives are largely—if not entirely— more...

Coastguards help a woman fleeing Tripoli to disembark from a boat arriving at Lampedusa port  © Kate Thomas/IRIN
Julia Brooks - September 2, 2014

The number of irregular migrants crossing – and dying in – the Mediterranean Sea has surged in recent years, fueled by conflict and instability on the Sea’s southern shores. Since January, an estimated 124,380 have landed in Europe; the majority in Italy (108,172), followed by Greece, Spain and Malta. That’s over twice the number from last year (60,000), 2012 (22,500) and 2011 (69,000). While the European Union (EU) attempts to secure its borders against this influx of irregular migration, a humanitarian crisis is unfolding at its border. UNHCR recently reported that 1,889 Europe-bound migrants have drowned so far this year, with most of these deaths taking place in the last three months.  

The main departure point for migrants crossing the Mediterranean to Europe is Libya, according to UNHCR, “where the worsening security more...

Thomas Stevenson - August 28, 2014

On August 7, judges at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC; better known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal) convicted two former members of the Khmer Rouge inner circle, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, in Case 002/01.  In a less heralded development, the ECCC judgment also endorsed 11 out of 13 reparations projects for victims of the Khmer Rouge regime, including memorials by Cambodian artists and professional mental health services for victims.  While this is a commendable development, it begs the question of why reparations—which contribute to the fundamentally humanitarian goal of relieving suffering—were left until such a late stage.   

Genocide, like that which took place in Cambodia between 1975-1979, is precisely the sort of human tragedy that demands humanitarian attention.  Once more...

This undated file image, posted on a militant website on Jan. 14, 2014, shows Islamic State fighters marching in Raqqa, Syria. Raqqa is the de facto capital of the so-called Islamic caliphate declared a year ago by Islamic State in territories it controls in Iraq and Syria.
Thomas Stevenson - August 26, 2014

In terms of size and sophistication, the US armed forces are generally considered to be without equal. This assessment includes ISIL, the militant group of Islamic extremists that now controls an area of Iraq and Syria roughly the size of the United Kingdom. Yet the gruesome beheading of American journalist James Foley last week is but the latest reminder that US military might, in the abstract, is no guarantor of safety for journalists and other US passport-holders in the region. Hostage-taking has grown in popularity precisely because it affects a dramatic swing in leverage (i.e. suddenly, if the US refuses to engage with ISIL on its terms, it may forfeit an American life).  In this light, the demands of a relatively small group command the attention of the world.

ISIL’s capture and subsequent beheading of Mr. more...

Marlene Houngbedji - August 19, 2014

Eleven years ago today, a tragic event in Baghdad, Iraq, took the lives of twenty-two men and women when a bomb destroyed the local United Nations headquarters. The UN General Assembly subsequently designatedAugust 19 as World Humanitarian Day, a day of commemoration and appreciation for the millions of individuals who risk their lives to assist or save others worldwide. As UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon bemoans record attacks on humanitarian workers and resulting deaths, the annual observance’s 2014 theme of ‘The World Needs More…’ is particularly befitting.

Aid workers: a diversified force undertaking a wider and more testing range of tasks

From Syria to South Sudan and Myanmar, where governments and non-state armed groups’ actions reduce humanitarian spaces, to Haiti and Pakistan, where natural disasters have fueled more...

Domiz camp for Syrian refugees in Dohuk Governorate, northern Iraq. In the photo: latrines made of brick and corrugated sheet metal - each family has its own  © Heba Aly/IRIN
Julia Brooks - August 18, 2014

On 8 August, US military forces began targeted airstrikes against ISIS militants in northern Iraq, in conjunction with humanitarian aid drops to assist the Yazidi population stranded on Sinjar Mountain. On 13 August 13, US officials reported the end of the militants’ siege on the Yazidis, many of whom have since escaped to Iraqi Kurdistan.

What is the basis for US intervention under international law?

Under international law, states are prohibited from “the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.”[Article 2(4) of the UN Charter]. However, there are several exceptions to this prohibition on the use of force. One exception is self-defense, which authorizes states to respond individually or collectively to an armed attack [Article 51]. The UN Charter more...

Marlene Houngbedji - August 8, 2014

Edited by: Dr. Mark Shrime 

Reported as a cluster of sporadic cases when it first broke out in Guinea in early March 2014, the current Ebola epidemic has astounded the humanitarian community both by its complexity and unprecedented scale.  Mounting casualties -the latest, a Nigerian nurse and a Saudi businessman- have generated worldwide inquiries on the structural and behavioral patterns possibly feeding its spread beyond sub-Saharan Africa. Drawing on observations made in a recent Time article by Harvard Humanitarian Initiative Director Dr. Michael VanRooyen, and conclusion that more assistance is needed in an area he refers to as the ‘Hot Zone,’ nuanced assumptions can be made on how and why this outbreak differs from previous crisis.


Marlene Houngbedji - August 21, 2014

Due to the ongoing nature of the military operations taking place in Gaza and Israel, the below analysis relied on the most recent developments and may evolve until parties to the conflict agree on a truce.

The latest iteration of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Operation Protective Edge, as named by the Israeli military, has entered its fourth week, including a second round of anti-Hamas ground offensives in the Palestinian enclave of Gaza. To date, calls for an immediate ceasefire have mostly gone unheeded. The human toll is staggering, unmatched by a stalling political process: over one thousand casualties and two failed bids for a truce negotiated first by Egypt and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, with a third attempt in progress. Amid accusations by more...

Julia Brooks - July 28, 2014

The downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) over the Ukraine on July 17th, which killed all 298 passengers and crew on board, is an international tragedy. While the investigation into the crash remains ongoing, the U.S. maintains that the plane was brought down by an anti-aircraft missile launched from the area of eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian separatists, likely acting with Russian support and arms. So far, Russia denies involvement in the incident.

In the aftermath of the Ukrainian Revolution of February 2014 and the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation, pro-Russian rebels have clashed with Ukrainian government forces in the eastern Ukraine, escalating into an armed insurgency and government counter-offensive. With the shooting down of Flight MH17 bringing increased international attention to more...

Marlene Houngbedji - July 7, 2014

Commemorations for the 14th World Refugee Day[1] on 20 June drew to a close as the United Nations reported a sharp increase in the number of forcibly displaced persons worldwide,bringing new depth to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee (UNHCR)’s 2014 theme of “One family torn apart by war is too many.” An alarming 51 million people have thus far been involved in mass migration movements; 10.4 million of them now classify as ‘refugees of concern.’[2]

The causes of this dramatic surge need not be described at length; suffice it to say that internal and transnational conflicts are currently crippling countries from Africa’s Great Lakes region to the Near and Middle-East.  The protracted nature of several of those armed activities exacerbates more...

Julia Brooks - June 24, 2014

Human dignity, compassion, relief from suffering, aid to the poor, protection for the vulnerable, and refuge for those in need. Modern humanitarian assistance is rooted in the ancient traditions and values shared by the world’s major faiths. As such, faith-based organizations (FBOs) have long played a central role in providing humanitarian assistance and protection. As Elizabeth Ferris emphasizes in an article published by the International Review of the Red Cross, some of the earliest humanitarian work was undertaken by faith-based groups. Hebrew scriptures emphasized justice for the poor, and temples often served as sanctuaries for the persecuted or refugees. Christian faith and practice is also based on the values of charity and mercy, and Christian orders have long provided services to the poor, sick, and vulnerable. Likewise, more...


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