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Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock – Speech at the Hertie School of Government, Berlin, 3 September 2018

News and Press Release
Originally published


“Wars have laws: How do we get more people to comply with them to reduce humanitarian suffering?”

As prepared for delivery I was last here at the Hertie School in 2013, in my previous role as Permanent Secretary of the UK’s Department for International Development, when we had a fascinating discussion on the role of development agencies in fragile and conflict-affected states.

My theme today builds on that, so thank you for inviting me back.

Your commitment here at the Hertie School to high-quality inter-disciplinary research, practical policy making and a truly global outlook is exactly the kind of approach we need if we are to find solutions to the problems I am going to be talking about.

Specifically, I want to highlight how the behavior of combatants in conflict is driving humanitarian needs globally. And what we can do about it.

Tomorrow, I will have the pleasure of participating in an event to mark the 50th anniversary of Germany as a humanitarian donor.

That is a powerful legacy.

Generations of German people have understood that alleviating the suffering of people in one corner of the world is not only the right thing to do morally, but is also in the interests of Germany, Europe and the wider world.

Last year, Germany was the world’s second largest humanitarian donor providing almost 2.5 billion Euro in humanitarian assistance.

But it is not only financial generosity. No developed country has been more generous than you in recent years in hosting refugees. But beyond that, Germany is a real policy and thought leader in humanitarian affairs.

Last year, Germany was the world’s second largest humanitarian donor providing almost 2.5 billion Euro in humanitarian assistance.

But it is not only financial generosity. No developed country has been more generous than you in recent years in hosting refugees. But beyond that, Germany is a real policy and thought leader in humanitarian affairs.

This week, with Norway, you are convening here in Berlin a highly successful international conference on the Lake Chad Basin. The conference is not only raising vital funds for humanitarian needs, but also seeking solutions to build and sustain peace.

It is exactly this kind of strategic thinking and leadership that makes Germany a vital partner for the whole humanitarian system.

So as Emergency Relief Coordinator, supported by my brilliant- and German- Deputy, Ursula Mueller, I want to say a heartfelt thank you for everything you do to support humanitarian action.

It is almost exactly one year to the day since I started as Emergency Relief Coordinator.

Global humanitarian needs are at record levels. Today, more than 130 million people need humanitarian assistance and protection.

A few days ago, I was in Damascus for the second time this year. Syria is, tragically, the worst and most egregious example of the terrible problems humanitarian organizations are dealing with.

We have seen:
A complete disregard for the laws of war.
Routine and systematic attacks on schools and hospitals.
The use of siege and starvation as a weapon of war.
Rape and sexual abuse as a deliberate tactic.
A re-emergence of the use of chemical weapons.
The killing, kidnapping, harassment and intimidation of aid workers.
The theft and looting of aid supplies.
I could go on.
Syria is, sadly, not the only example.
Over the past year, I have been to the scene of many of the world’s biggest humanitarian catastrophes.

In most, the fundamental thing we need to change is the way belligerents behave in conflict.
Unless we – the international community – focus our energies on confronting this issue, we will see the scale of humanitarian need balloon out of control.

I want to start by placing the current challenges we face in historical context.
I then want to talk about how modern conflict is changing, and the implications of these changes for humanitarian organisations.

I will tell you why I think the laws of war still matter so much, and then discuss how we might get more combatants to comply with them.
I also want to talk about accountability.

And, finally, about how humanitarian organizations can navigate this complex landscape.
I am not claiming to be the expert in everything I am discussing. And I am aware that there are some actual experts in the room.

I hope you will correct my mistakes when we get into the discussion.
Indeed, one of my main points is that the only way we can really address this problem is through a collective effort.

We should embrace the principles of the Hertie School and look through an interdisciplinary lens: law, politics, economics, social psychology, anthropology, media studies and military strategy are all relevant to this issue.

First, some historical context.

We should not delude ourselves that there was ever a Golden Age when everyone adhered to international humanitarian law.

Throughout the whole of the 150,000 years of human history, our species is perhaps unsurpassed by any other organism in its purposeless violence against itself.

Warring parties have forever deliberately or carelessly disregarded the distinction between combatants and civilians.

The good news, though, is the world has seen a dramatic decline in violence and a reduction in the recorded number of direct victims of armed conflict over recent generations.

Steven Pinker has demonstrated conclusively, using data, that the world, in fact, is not falling apart around us as never before.

He likens the popular view that the world is more violent today to the medieval belief that the earth is flat. Simply wrong.

In his words, “As one becomes aware of the decline of violence, the world begins to look different. The past seems less innocent; the present less sinister.” The share of people killed in wars is less than a quarter of what it was in the 1980s – and half a per cent of the death toll during the second world war.
And this has certainly been my own personal experience over the past 30 years of working in development and humanitarian affairs.

Countries that once seemed hopelessly war-torn are no longer in the headlines.

Cambodia. Liberia. Sierra Leone. Rwanda. The Balkans. All face challenges but they are now at peace, and largely prospering.

Of course, we are still beset with problems. But we need a balanced assessment of where we are if we are to genuinely move forward.

Another of my favourite scholars, the late Hans Rosling, described the world as being like a premature baby in an incubator.

The baby is getting better, breathing independently, maybe beginning to feed. But her situation is still critical. As Rosling explains, the state of the world is, “both bad and better. Better, and bad, at the same time...” So in the words of one of my OCHA colleagues in Myanmar, “We must guard against hopelessness.” I recognize, of course, that this is scant solace to the remaining unlucky minority whose lives are being trashed in Yemen, Syria or South Sudan. But it’s important to remember that progress has been made, because it reminds us that things can get better.

The problem is that in recent years, progress appears to have stalled.

Because of the ways in which wars are fought in the 21st century there are a number of specific challenges for us as a humanitarian system.

Firstly, today’s wars last much longer than they used to.

Twice as long as they did in 1990.

Outright military victories are harder to achieve. And negotiated settlements often no longer stick.
One reason is the internationalization of conflict.

Internal armed conflicts are fueled by external States – or non-state foreign fighters – pursuing political, economic and ideological interests.

Non-State armed groups are often bolstered by the arrival of foreign fighters. The US State Department estimated in 2016 that there were over 40,000 foreign fighters in Syria from around 100 different countries.
Put simply, if a country is not your home, you have fewer incentives to stop fighting.

We have also seen a vast increase in the number of armed groups in any conflict. In 1950, there were an average of eight armed groups in a civil war. By 2010, the average had jumped to 14. In 2014, it was estimated that there were more than 1,000 active armed groups in Syria alone.

The result is a complex web of groups, often with very loose chains of command and with very little grasp of the laws of war. And the motivation of many of these groups is purely profit. They thrive off the illicit economy, which requires a state of war, or at least low-intensity armed conflict, to keep the rule of law out.

In other words, for some organized criminal groups, like drug cartels, chaos and conflict are required to sustain the business model.

The past 20 years have also seen the emergence of trans-national terrorist groups, like Daesh and Al-Qaeda. Their nihilistic ideologies totally reject the laws of war, and are often used to justify unspeakable violence against innocent civilians.

Terrorism as a tactic is – by intention – often indiscriminate and disproportionate. The whole purpose is just what it says on the tin – to spread terror to as many people as possible. The overwhelming majority of its victims are innocent civilians in poor countries.

Second, conflicts are increasingly played out in densely populated urban settings, where casualties, therefore, are overwhelmingly civilian.

Urban conflict inevitably destroys essential infrastructure. This, in turn, has lasting effects on health, food security and livelihoods.

In eastern Ukraine, the Donetsk Water Filter Station has come under attack 20 times just this year. This has interrupted the water supply to nearly 350, 000 people on both sides of the “contact line.” So these attacks have, in effect, been friendly fire against people on the attackers’ own side!

A third important trend is the emerging preference for the use of remote warfare and, especially, aerial bombing with so-called precision-guided smart weapons.

Over the last 20 or 30 years, in countries with advanced militaries, citizens’ tolerance for casualties in what they see as discretionary military interventions overseas has declined.

The consequence of this is an increasing reliance on remote warfare and airpower to pursue military objectives, regardless of the impact.

Surgical strikes, where citizens are genuinely protected, are all but impossible against non-State armed groups who have consciously embedded themselves among the civilian population.
Fourth, we are seeing military warfare and economic warfare go hand-in-hand.

To give just one example, the medieval tactics of ‘siege, starve and surrender’ have reemerged.
Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta, Foah and Kefraya are all examples of this.

These characteristics of modern conflict have in turn created four humanitarian challenges:

First, civilians are routinely killed or maimed in conflict. Too often in large numbers, as we have seen in Yemen and Syria.

Second, as fighting endures, so do humanitarian needs. Humanitarian agencies cannot leave. The average length of humanitarian appeals has risen from four years in 2005 to seven in 2017.

Third, conflict has forced a record number of people to flee their homes. At the end of 2017, the number of people forcibly displaced because of persecution, conflict or generalized violence had reached nearly 70 million.

Fourth, displacement directly exacerbates hunger and disease.

Conflict was a feature of the four famines humanitarian organizations were staving off last year, in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and north-east Nigeria.

People denied salaries or livelihoods during a conflict, eventually slip into food insecurity, and even famine conditions.

In my lifetime, the world has eradicated deadly diseases and improved nutrition for hundreds of millions of people across the globe.

But not where there is violence.

Sixty per cent of people who struggle to meet basic food requirements live in countries decimated by violence.

In South Sudan, 7 million people are now severely food insecure because violence has destroyed their livelihoods. Too often, that also means we cannot reach them with humanitarian assistance.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, we are right now struggling to contain the latest Ebola outbreak because of fighting, even though we have a vaccine.

And in Yemen, hostilities make it difficult for us to support health, water and sanitation programmes, which are needed to control the cholera and diphtheria outbreaks.

Fifth, the old shibboleth that prevailed when I started my career, that no warring parties would attack aid agencies, has broken down.

Aid workers have increasingly come under attack. Last year, 139 aid workers were killed in the line of duty.

And last month marked the 15th anniversary of the Canal Hotel bombing in Baghdad where 22 people, including many UN staff members lost their lives. One of them was my predecessor Sérgio Vieira de Mello.

Therefore, I hope you will agree, it is clear that 21st century conflicts present major challenges for humanitarians.

But before we consider how we can reverse these trends, we need to ask a basic question:
Why did States ever agree to laws of war in the first place? And are they still relevant in the 21st century?
Rules of war have existed – at least informally and even if sporadically – for millennia.

But contemporary international humanitarian law – or IHL – began to be universally codified in the 19th century.

In 1863, in the wake of Henri Dunant’s account of the battle of Solferino between France and Austria in which he described the death and suffering of thousands of wounded soldiers whose lives could have been saved if they had received medical treatment, the first steps were taken towards establishing the International Committee of the Red Cross and International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, and the process to codify today’s laws of war.

What I am talking about encompasses international humanitarian law and international human rights law and deals with the protection of civilians, genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, forced disappearances, systemic massacres, religious persecution, sexual violence in conflict, starvation as a weapon of war and all the other horrors that confront us.

But why did States agree to them?

I think there are two persuasive answers to this question.

Firstly: because it is morally right. Human beings, it turns out, have a moral core which increasingly has overcome their violent urges.

Protecting civilians, the wounded, and the sick, including fighters – the vast majority of people in every corner of this planet now believe – is the moral and humane thing to do.

And after the horrors of the conflicts of the 20th century, the world recognized the need to bring humanity to the fore.

Secondly – and perhaps most importantly – States agreed to the laws of war because of naked, possibly even enlightened, self-interest.

Those creating the rules wanted to ensure that their wounded soldiers, their war prisoners and their civilians would be cared for and protected when in the hands of the enemy. To achieve that, they realized they would have to do the same, simply to solve the tit-for-tat problem.

Indeed, the entire international rules-based system was created because it serves the interest of States. And this basic fact has not changed.

The changing nature of conflict, shifts in geo-politics and other 21st century phenomena strengthen the case for us to work collectively to bolster the rules-based international system.

The laws of war - including the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the Additional Protocols of 1977 – are a cornerstone of the rules-based order. They are just as relevant today as they were 70 years ago.
It follows, then, that the challenge we have is not with the content of the law.
It’s with compliance with the law.

So if upholding the laws of war is in the interest of fighters, why do they routinely disregard them?

We need to invest more in understanding the political context in which we are operating, particularly the political economy that is driving the protagonists in a conflict.

I think that the the excellent ICRC report, “The Roots of Restraint in War,” which was released in June, is one of the best studies into this question.

I can’t do the report justice here today. It captures powerful insights on the individual motivations of combatants, the influence of peer pressure, local communities, group dynamics and the power of victimhood.

But perhaps the most important conclusion from the report is that the behaviour of combatants can change. And that humanitarian actors have a role to play in affecting this change.
There are several things that we can do:
First, making sure combatants know their obligations under the law.
The training of the armed forces of States, and the integration of IHL into national military doctrine is an important part of this.

But non-State groups also need to understand the law. This cannot be about abstract discussions on the details of the Geneva Conventions. We need to show how they relate to local norms and values and widely accepted standards of behaviour.

In South Sudan, when addressing IHL principles with young men in cattle-keeping communities, ICRC approached it through the lens of wrestling – an important local tradition.

The trainer pointed to elderly men, women, and children, asking if they would be appropriate wrestling foes, inciting much laughter. The trainer was then able to make the point that some people are legitimate combatants, while others not.

The NGO Geneva Call has also found that encouraging armed groups to adopt internal policies or codes of conduct can have a “self-disciplining” effect.

In Syria, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units signed a Deed of Commitment with Geneva Call in 2014, to protect children in armed conflict. It has largely worked.

Second, we can show combatants why complying with the law is in their interests.

We can highlight the costs of violations. And we can prove to Governments that incurring civilian casualties will undermine their strategic goals, and increase civilian support for insurgents.

For example, in Colombia, in the 1990s, the Colombian armed forces, FARC and Government-supported paramilitary groups found they were hemorrhaging popular support as a result of their gross abuses of human rights. The Government undertook reforms to improve its human rights compliance and accountability, greatly bolstering its domestic and international legitimacy, which in turn helped improve security.

Third, effective civil-military coordination can help improve legal compliance.
In the recent battle to re-take eastern Mosul in Iraq from Daesh, effective engagement with the Iraqi authorities and coalition partners helped put civilian protection at the centre of the military operation, which undoubtedly saved lives.

Establishing and maintaining effective deconfliction mechanisms is also an important tool.
For example, in Yemen, the deconfliction mechanism informs the Saudi-Led Coalition of the location of humanitarian premises and movements of humanitarian personnel and goods within and into Yemen. Deconfliction sites are then protected against bombing.

This does not absolve combatants from their obligations under IHL. It helps them comply with those obligations and helps to minimize casualties, protect vital infrastructure and deliver aid to people in need.
In the same vein, the Afghan Government has adopted policies to prevent and mitigate civilian casualties and harm to property. They also strictly prohibit the use of civilian facilities, such as schools, hospitals, and clinics for military purposes.

Regional bodies and partnerships can also play an important influencing role in advocating for compliance.
G7 foreign ministers have collectively signed up to link the provision of support to parties to armed conflict with IHL compliance. In 2009, the members of the European Union all signed up to new guidelines on improving compliance with IHL. Last year, the EU, for the first time, reported publicly on the implementation of these guidelines.
The African Union’s Peace and Security Department likewise integrates IHL into the planning of all AU Peace Support Operations, including in Somalia and the Lake Chad Basin.

But we also need a broader, more universal international architecture that is fit for purpose to uphold IHL.
People mostly commit these unspeakable crimes when they think that they won’t be seen, won’t be caught or won’t be punished.

So we need international accountability mechanisms to ensure they are seen and caught and punished.
It is clear that the international architecture for IHL is going through a challenging period in its history. But there are some important developments which should give us cause for optimism.

The establishment of the International Criminal Court in 1998 is one. It was set up to ensure the most serious crimes do not go unpunished in cases where national authorities are unable or unwilling to take action.

The evidence suggests that it has a genuine deterrent effect.
Recently, I was told the story of an armed group commander in a country I was visiting asking what measures he needed to implement to respect IHL so he could avoid being imprisoned in The Hague. Several colleagues I consulted in preparing this talk reported the same experience in other places.
The Security Council also has a key role to play.

Too many commentators have written off the Council. There is no doubt that, on some issues, it is also going through a rather difficult period.
But there are some bright spots. Recent resolutions have strengthened the framework for the protection of civilians.
In May of this year, the Security Council adopted resolution 2417 – drawing a link between conflict and hunger, and the role that IHL plays as a line of defence against hunger and famine in armed conflict.
On 10 August, the provisions of this resolution were used for the first time as I was asked to brief the Council specifically on the role of conflict in increasing food insecurity in South Sudan.
Concerted action on the part of the Security Council has been harder to achieve when it comes to imposing accountability measures related to the use of chemical and biological weapons.

But I was pleased to see progress through the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in June of this year. A resolution was passed to create a mechanism to identify the perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks. This is a crucial step towards bringing perpetrators of war crimes to justice.
There are other examples of how the pursuit of justice overcomes the most difficult political obstacles. Having worked on these issues for three decades, I remember when everyone feared that the monsters who committed atrocities in the Balkan wars would never be brought to justice.

But, of course, Mr. Milosevic died in a prison cell in 2006, Mr. Mladic went on trial in 2012, and Mr. Karadzic, after nearly a decade detained in The Hague, began his sentence for war crimes and genocide in 2016.

Effective accountability takes time.

And it also requires evidence. Collecting and analysing hard data to build an evidence base to hold belligerents to account can go a long way

When I visited Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh late last year, I was particularly impressed by the efforts of NGOs and others to gather the testimonies of Rohingya women and children who had fled from violence in Myanmar.

Last week, the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, established by the Human Rights Council, issued a report stuffed full of detailed facts and evidence in which it called for the country’s military leaders to be investigated for crimes committed in north Rakhine State, including genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

States also have a key role to play.

An interesting finding from “The Roots of Restraint in War” report is that the threat of punishment under domestic and military law exerts greater influence than under IHL.
This highlights the importance of integrating IHL norms into domestic law, standard operating procedures and rules of engagement.

The Government of Afghanistan has a database to track conflict-related civilian casualties, and internal mechanisms to investigate allegations of human rights abuses, civilian deaths and the recruitment of child soldiers.
Despite these positive examples, we clearly need more creative ideas for improving compliance.
Some have suggested setting up an IHL compliance mechanism.
The Swiss Government and ICRC have been advocating with State parties to the Geneva Conventions for the adoption of mechanisms to strengthen compliance.

Could such a mechanism, I wonder, that listed groups that carry out IHL violations, exert similar influence to change behaviour?

Before I conclude, I want to say a few words on how humanitarian actors need to adapt to the current predicament we face.
While I am optimistic that we can change the behaviour of combatants with a mix of carrots and sticks, I do not expect that to happen overnight.

We must deal with the world as it is, not as we would like it to be.
So, how do humanitarian agencies deliver to the most vulnerable people on the planet in the midst of modern conflicts?

First, adhering to humanitarian principles is critical. While all sides of the conflict try to politicize and instrumentalize the aid operation, we must always maintain our commitment to neutrality, impartiality and independence.
This is the origin of our legitimacy. And it helps build trust with the parties to a conflict.

And trust is crucial.
Trust is what gets a humanitarian worker a meeting with a military commander to negotiate access.
Which brings me to my second point: we must continually learn lessons on access.

During the Maoist insurgency in Nepal, OCHA facilitated the development of basic operating guidelines for engaging belligerents.
These guidelines were used in negotiating access to Maoist-controlled areas.

One remarkably telling statistic on the success of the aid effort was the halving of Nepal’s maternal mortality rate across the whole country during the insurrection.
Third, one area we clearly need to navigate is the emergence of counter-terrorism legislation that risks inadvertently presenting obstacles to humanitarian action all over the world.

We need to have the scope to negotiate humanitarian access with all parties to a conflict.
A recent Norwegian Refugee Council report has argued that counter-terrorism measures impact NGOs’ ability to adhere to humanitarian principles; lead to self-censorship because of perceived risk; and impose additional administrative burdens on their already over-stretched capacity, limiting aid effectiveness.

Finally, we should learn lessons to strengthen systems and processes on aid worker security.
In South Sudan, we have seen that engaging the local community – elders, religious leaders, women’s groups, youth representatives and others – can help secure the release of kidnapped aid workers.

This year, we marked some important anniversaries related to humanitarian action and protection issues.
It is the 25th anniversary of the Protection of Civilians General Assembly resolution, which gives all civilians the right to protection in conflict zones the world over.

Next year marks 20 years since the UN Security Council included Protection of Civilians on its agenda.
And as I have already mentioned, last month marked the 15th anniversary of the Canal Hotel bombing in Iraq, which catalysed World Humanitarian Day and our #NotATarget campaign.
We have seen progress and setbacks.

It is time that States and non-State armed groups shift their lens to prioritize people’s lives and not just narrow military or political interests.

Ultimately, belligerents have a choice. They can pursue their cause, but if they do so with inhumane means, the likelihood is they will undermine that cause and merely perpetuate the cycle of violence for years to come.

The things I have talked about are not all new.

The St. Petersburg Declaration of 1868 laid out a philosophy for setting limits in war. “The progress of civilisation should have the effect of alleviating as much as possible, the calamities of war, and the only legitimate object which States should endeavour to accomplish during war is to weaken the military forces of the enemy.” That still resonates today. But we still have to keep working to make it a reality.

Thank you.

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
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