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...

Anaïde Nahikian - June 17, 2014

ATHA’s Anaide Nahikian recently sat down with Dr. François Audet, Scientific Director of the Canadian Research Institute on Humanitarian Crisis and Aid (OCCAH) and a professor of management and technology at the Université du Québec à Montréal. Their discussion centered on Dr. Audet’s recent research, which looks at the interest and attitudes of western humanitarian organizations in developing local capacities, and explores the influences behind agencies’ decision-making process.
You can listen to the interview by clicking on the audio player below. If you want to be the first to hear similar discussions in the future, we encourage you to subscribe to our podcast in iTunes.

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ATHA - May 2, 2014

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The delivery of health services in contemporary armed conflicts is becoming increasingly complex, as the nature of these conflicts is continually changing. While the response to specific health needs of vulnerable populations may be found in specialized literature, the practical challenges of access to victims and the response to major disruptions of health care systems in conflict are rarely discussed in global health arenas. This is an issue of particular relevance to the Harvard community, as well as the global humanitarian community of professionals, designing an effective humanitarian response in these environments.

In this episode of the Humanitarian Assistance Podcast, we’ more...

Anaïde Nahikian - April 24, 2014

On April 15. 2014, for the Advanced Training Program on Humanitarian Action (ATHA), I interviewed Dr. Peter Singer about the impact of new technologies on the evolution of warfare. Dr. Singer is the director of the Center for 21st Century Security Intelligence at the Brookings Institution and is the author of several books on the topic, including his most recent book, co-authored with Allan Friedman, Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know.

Highlights from this interview were featured on a Humanitarian Assistance Webcast broadcast from Harvard University on April 24, 2014. This webcast included a wide array of expert commentators:

Mr. Claude Bruderlein, Strategic Advisor, International Committee of the Red Cross Ms. Bonnie Docherty, Senior Researcher in the Arms Division at Human Rights Watch, instructor at more...
Rob Grace - April 21, 2014

A seemingly historically unprecedented development has been taking shape within the past few years in the domain of international humanitarian law (IHL). For perhaps the first time in history, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), scholars, human rights advocates, and policy actors have been engaging in discussions and debates about the legal and ethical implications of the military use of technology that does not yet exist. In recent months, for example, the use of autonomous weapons systems has been the focus of events convened by the American Society of International Law (ASIL) and Chatham House. A recent issue of the International Review of the Red Cross — titled, “New technologies and warfare” — also examined this topic in depth.

Some existing weapons systems already function with a certain degree of autonomy. For example more...


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