Improving “Notification” Critical to Safe Humanitarian Work

Local citizens clean the roof of a hospital operated by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Abs, Yemen, a day after it was allegedly hit by a Saudi-led Coalition airstrike. (ESSA AHMED/AFP/Getty Images)

Humanitarian action is facing a number of important challenges. In a climate of rising counter-humanitarianism, there has been a sharp increase in the number of attacks on medical and humanitarian personnel and their means of transport and equipment, as well as on hospitals and other medical facilities. Such attacks were strongly condemned by the United Nations Security Council in resolution 2286, yet continue unabated in armed conflicts across the world. Humanitarian actors operating in conflict contexts thus face obvious risks. One of the practical ways that they are attempting to manage these risks is by developing methods to communicate with parties to armed conflict in order to ensure the safety of humanitarian and medical premises, personnel, and activities.

Some of the processes and mechanisms through which this engagement happens have been described as deconfliction mechanisms, humanitarian deconfliction, or humanitarian notification for deconfliction. While originally a term used in military circles, deconfliction has increasingly been used in the humanitarian field. Indeed, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) defined deconfliction as “[t]he exchange of information and planning advisories by humanitarian actors with military actors in order to prevent or resolve conflicts between the two sets [of] objectives, remove obstacles to humanitarian action, and avoid potential hazards for humanitarian personnel.”

Ideally, humanitarian actors should be able to notify parties to armed conflict of their presence and/or movements, and then safely engage in their operational activities. As such, for many humanitarian actors, this practice should be described as “notification” rather than “deconfliction,” a militaristic term that suggests that humanitarian actors need the permission of militaries to conduct their work. Humanitarian actors in all contexts must remain guided by the overarching goal of assisting people in need in accordance with the humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, independence, and impartiality.

Current realities on the ground in certain contexts, however, often require more extensive engagement than simple notification. This engagement is born out of necessity in order to protect humanitarian and medical actors. At the UN level, Secretary-General António Guterres has emphasized his predecessor’s recommendations for implementing resolution 2286, one being that parties to armed conflict should: “[r]ecord[…] and map[…] the presence of personnel exclusively engaged in medical duties, their means of transport and equipment, as well as hospitals and other medical facilities, and regularly update[e] this information, including through enhanced information exchanges and real-time coordination with medical and humanitarian actors on the ground and the use of appropriate technology.”

The most well-known example of this kind of practice is the Deconfliction mechanism established by the UN in Yemen, where an OCHA Deconfliction Liaison Team collates information shared by UN agencies and other non-governmental organizations on permanent locations and humanitarian movements, and then informs the Saudi-led Coalition (SLC). Once accepted by the coalition, permanent locations are added to a “no-strike list.”

A number of ad hoc notification mechanisms exist in other contexts, sometimes coordinated through OCHA. Some international organizations—like the International Committee of the Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)—have their own bilateral engagement with parties to armed conflict as well. There are, however, no international guidelines for such processes or mechanisms. Given that their existence is a relatively new phenomenon, there is also little established practice. In Yemen, a humanitarian actor described a constantly evolving process as stakeholders learn and adapt.

Although notification practices are being used, they do not change the legal obligations that rest on parties to armed conflict. International humanitarian law (IHL) makes clear the obligation these parties have to protect the provision of and access to impartial medical assistance and humanitarian aid in both international and non-international armed conflicts. In particular, medical facilities may not be attacked and must be protected and respected at all times. The existence or non-existence of notification or deconfliction arrangements do not excuse any violation of these obligations, nor impact their implementation in any way. In fact, IHL requires that parties to an armed conflict take constant care to spare the civilian population, civilians, and civilian objects.

This brings us to the important question of whether notification is effective. One has only to look at the situation for humanitarian and medical actors on the ground to better understand the challenges. The head of OCHA, for example, has described the UN system in Yemen as “largely effective,” but “deconflicted” humanitarian and medical premises in the country have been hit. For example, Action Against Hunger reported in November 2018 that one of their main warehouses was hit by a stray bullet. In June 2018, an MSF facility was bombed by the SLC in Yemen, despite the fact that its GPS coordinates were shared with the coalition on a weekly basis for over two months prior. In Afghanistan, the United States military infamously attacked an MSF trauma hospital in Kunduz, even though its GPS coordinates had been shared with the US Department of Defense and US Army in advance.

Clearly notification practices do not always work, and when they fail they often result in unpunished IHL violations. In particular, notification for deconfliction can do nothing against the deliberate targeting of humanitarian and medical personnel and facilities that has been witnessed in far too many contexts. Nonetheless, some hope that it may help longer-term accountability efforts since it helps in the monitoring and reporting of attacks. As the need for notification continues, relevant stakeholders should improve efforts to document and share best practices in order to move towards an agreed upon set of standards. An illustrative example is the Best Practices for Ambulance Services in Risk Situations document put together by the Norwegian Red Cross.

Overall, there is a lack of knowledge and understanding of the nature and scope of humanitarian notification for deconfliction practices as well as the associated challenges. Despite this reality, notification is being increasingly relied upon in conflict contexts. In this light, improving the effectiveness of notification practices is critical to ensuring humanitarian assistance and protection can be safely delivered.

Alice Debarre is a Policy Analyst in the Humanitarian Affairs program of the International Peace Institute.