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Denial, delay, diversion: Tackling access challenges in an evolving humanitarian landscape

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Jacob D. Kurtzer
Kimberly Flowers
Senator Cory Booker & Senator Todd Young


Principled humanitarian action is under attack around the world. Violent conflict has reached record highs. As of August 2019, 70.8 million people are considered forcibly displaced by armed conflict, and nearly 132 million people need emergency humanitarian assistance. At the same time, there has been a steep escalation in the deliberate, willful obstruction of humanitarian access, impeding the ability of humanitarian aid to reach the most vulnerable people and vice versa. Blocked humanitarian access is an urgent crisis which demands our heightened attention.
In Afghanistan, more than six million people are in acute need of humanitarian assistance, yet the Taliban has banned the World Health Organization and International Committee of the Red Cross from working in crucial areas. Severe constraints on movements for humanitarian organizations by all parties to the conflict, aerial bombardments, and draconian restrictions on critical imports, such as food, fuel, and medicine, have left Yemen teetering on the brink of famine. In Northeast Nigeria, state armed forces coerce civilians into garrison towns in order to access emergency aid. In Syria, South Sudan, and Myanmar, governments and non-state actors unapologetically use siege, starvation, and obstruction as military and political tactics, putting millions of their own people at risk while impeding aid agencies from operating. Meanwhile, rising populism in donor states fuels skepticism about humanitarianism itself, undermining donor willingness to engage in difficult but necessary humanitarian diplomacy to tackle access challenges.

Governments bear the primary obligation to meet the needs of civilian populations and consequently must consent to impartial humanitarian activities when and if they cannot provide for that population. The responsibility of parties to a conflict, be they states or armed groups, to allow access to humanitarian assistance is well enshrined in treaty and customary international law. Yet, humanitarian organizations consistently report an increase of intentional obstruction of humanitarian operations, perpetrated by states and non-state armed groups alike, without regard for the health and safety of victims of violence, often with specific intent to harm communities and civilian infrastructure.

Humanitarian aid is an industry that introduces billions of dollars’ worth of commodities into highly contested conflicts that armed actors seek to control, and often to deny to civilian populations. Denial of access takes many forms, from mundane bureaucratic delays to horrific attacks on civilians seeking refuge and aid workers. At its core, denial of humanitarian access is an attack on the most vulnerable persons in conflict situations and a corrosive, costly affront to the norms and standards of humanity established after World War II, including the Geneva Conventions and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Access denial itself is not new but has shifted from being an unintended consequence of conflict to a weapon of war used for political or military gain.

Today’s global access crisis is a symptom of broader, connected trends, including the massive increase in humanitarian needs, a collective failure to find political solutions to end armed conflicts, and the rapid erosion of norms governing armed conflict and humanitarian action. In this complex geopolitical environment, complying with the regulatory and legal burden imposed by donors and the actual security risks fall on humanitarian actors at the frontlines of humanitarian response. Meanwhile, the humanitarian agencies they represent struggle to deal with increased costs and the reputational, legal, and security risks that access delays and denial impose.

Failure to resolve these issues has consequences. Millions of vulnerable lives hang in the balance.

Center for Strategic and International Studies
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