In Iraq, humanitarian actors are confronted with a multitude of political and military obstacles that challenge the consistent application of humanitarian principles. This is by no means a new phenomenon, but a closer look at how humanitarian organisations work to uphold principled humanitarian action seems long overdue. To what degree do humanitarian organisations, in particular those funded by ECHO, use the four core principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality, and independence, in order to create the space necessary to operate in war-torn areas in Iraq, to secure and maintain access to people in crisis?
This review takes the four principles as the main components of agencies’ humanitarian identity, and looks at the efforts that they have undertaken to preserve this identity. As part of the methodology, a sample was developed of 15 organisations – half of the total number of ECHO’s partners in Iraq – including four UN agencies, the ICRC, and ten international NGOs of different sizes, and active in different fields of activity. The review included an analysis of these agencies’ documents for Iraq, such as country strategies and plans, and semi-structured interviews with at least one senior representative of each of organisations part of the sample.
The Review Team also held interviews with beneficiaries, local authorities, several humanitarian organisations that do not receive ECHO funding, and representatives of two other donor governments. In Iraq, the Review Team conducted most interviews with partner representatives from Erbil, but also visited areas around Mosul in the Ninewah Governorate, the capital Baghdad, Tikrit in Salah-al-Din Governorate, and Kirkuk city in Kirkuk governorate.
Humanitarian principles undoubtedly do play a role for ECHO partners in Iraq. The team heard all ECHO partners argue that they consider the principles when they set priorities, negotiate access, and decide on the type and level of engagement with armed forces. They also use the principles as selling points when advocating with the armed forces that they adhere to humanitarian norms in the conduct of war.
There is great divergence, however, in the extent to which ECHO partners use the principles strategically to preserve their humanitarian identity, and in how they operationalise, understand, and weigh them in practice. If the principles are to function as a common denominator within the humanitarian community, this does not bode well for the quality and effectiveness of humanitarian action.
The principles are used as a justification both to intervene and not to intervene in the same location. Noting these significant differences, the Review Team does not judge whether a position that agencies take is right or wrong, but focuses on the extent to which the principles shaped their position in the first place. Principled humanitarian action requires demonstrable evidence in terms of how humanitarian organisations consider and weigh the four principles in their decision-making.
Taking this as the main criterion in preserving humanitarian identity, the review identifies a number of concerns. First, the Review Team found that many organisations shy away from accessing or maintaining a presence in areas that have been labelled as ‘hard to reach.’ This is worrying as the team assumes that because of violence and insecurity, humanitarian needs may be higher in these areas, while the presence of agencies expected to assist people in need is lower.
More than a century and a half ago, humanitarian action was designed to be delivered in insecure conditions, but in 2017 in Iraq, it seems to focus on areas that are less volatile. The balance between seeking access and the prevailing security situation is a highly complex issue. The Review Team did not find any clear criteria for using the term ‘hard to reach’ and, in fact, sees it as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
By not even assessing levels of violence or insecurity or regularly meeting themselves with relevant authorities and military to establish trust, acceptance, and ultimately access, a number of agencies in fact risk making these areas ‘hard to reach’. The Review Team saw very few investments in capacity and broader context analysis that would enable organisations to develop and maintain the understanding necessary to establish access on a daily basis, especially for areas in Iraq that may not be in the international spotlight, but where significant needs may be found.
Secondly, the Review Team is concerned by the low levels of investments made by organisations to understand or change the perceptions that local stakeholders have of humanitarian aid. How does one justify following the policy of working on the basis of acceptance, if one has gathered little information or made little effort to know how one’s organisation is perceived by the relevant stakeholders? The Review Team feels that there is room for organisations to improve their communications and interaction with affected populations and other stakeholders on humanitarian activities.
Thirdly, as noted, the Review Team sees an urgent need for more openness, transparency, and dialogue within and among organisations on their decision-making involving humanitarian principles. The review came across several situations in Iraq in which all four principles (should) play a critical role in organisations’ decisions on their terms of engagement. At the heart of the matter lie difficult questions related to the balance between assistance and protection, as two aspects of the principle of humanity, and the balance between humanity, on the one hand, and neutrality and independence, on the other hand.
The dilemma between assistance and protection, for example, arises in the context of the screening of Iraqi civilians who have been living in areas under control of ISIL. These people need assistance, but this assistance should be accompanied by advocacy for their rights, such as those to humane treatment or a fair trial.
In other words, humanitarian organisations need to have an eye for the environment and engage with authorities and military when these protection standards are not taken into account. Likewise, too close an association with the Iraqi military, or the agenda of the government or Western nations, for example, in accepting armed escorts or delivering medical services in their direct vicinity, may have a detrimental impact on the perception of (all) aid organisations and affect their ability to negotiate access elsewhere. Humanitarian organisations must consider alternatives and make investments for developing and maintaining access, instead of institutionalising their reliance on armed forces to facilitate their work.
The humanitarian imperative should not become a justification for delivering services regardless of the circumstances. Inter-agency dialogue, coordination, and accountability on decision-making in the face of these dilemmas is essential as it will contribute to better articulated positions and ensure that agencies are aware of what to expect from one another.
Such conversations are well-underway in a number of coordination mechanisms, but they can be stepped up further.
In relation to these main findings, the review includes a number of recommendations that are primarily directed at ECHO and those organisations that receive ECHO’s financial support. The Review Team recommends, however, that other organisations working in Iraq, or in other armed conflicts, review and discuss these recommendations as well. After decades of humanitarian work, it is worryingly emblematic that the principles – the very cornerstones of humanitarian action – have not been used as the baseline of this type of operational review until now.
Looking at the global humanitarian landscape, it is clear that the majority of situations requiring humanitarian response are armed conflicts. While this review may be long overdue, it is hoped that it can become a leading example for other donors and organisations wanting to invest in more effective humanitarian response in armed conflict, not only in Iraq, but worldwide.