Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mr. Mark Lowcock, Remarks at the “Wars Have Laws” event at the London School of Economics and Political Science, 16 June 2021

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Thank you very much, indeed. And thanks, everybody, for joining us today.

I am actually just about to complete my tenure as the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs at the UN and the Emergency Relief Coordinator. I have been thinking about all of the things I have learned over the last four years or so, and I am really looking forward, actually, to having an opportunity to exploring all of that a bit more at the LSE over the next few years. So thank you very much indeed, Stuart [Gordon, Associate Professorial Lecturer in Managing Humanitarianism], to you and Cathy and everyone at the LSE for giving me the opportunity to do that. I have always enjoyed my interactions with the school, including coming and lecturing before at the school, before the pandemic, so that is something I am really looking forward to.

One of the things that you spend a lot of time on if you are the UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator and dealing with all of these crises around the world, you spend a lot of time dealing with warlords and men with guns and bombs. And warlords are invariably tough, and shrewd, and determined, and expert in the raw end of power. And I remember a lot of the meetings I had with them in this job.

I won’t go through all of the encounters with you, but I remember, for example, a meeting with one of the senior Houthi leaders in Sana’a in Yemen in 2018. I came to that meeting in suit and tie, and he came in military fatigues, jiggling his loaded Kalashnikov against his knee as we spoke. At one point, I inadvertently sent an anxious frisson through the United Nations colleagues who were accompanying me and our interpreters at the meeting by complaining about the Houthis’ recruitment of child soldiers – a topic, I later learned, that he knew more about than me because he had been one from the age of 7.

I have also, of course, had plenty of encounters with the fighting men of State armed forces, with whom it is fair to say that humanitarian agencies do not always see eye to eye, though there is often more professional respect in both directions than you might think. People like this – warlords and soldiers, and also terrorist leaders – keep humanitarian agencies unhappily busy, and what I am keen to discuss with you today is how we can make that less the case.

Most humanitarian need is caused by conflict. And needs are higher than they ought to be, and harder to respond to, because of widespread violations of the laws of war. And it was ever thus. Throughout the whole of the 150,000 years of human history, our species is, I think, unsurpassed by any other organism in its often-purposeless violence against itself. Warring parties have forever, deliberately or carelessly, disregarded the distinction between combatants and civilians. And we shouldn’t delude ourselves that there was ever a golden age in which war was conducted nicely. There was, though, a dramatic decline in violence and a reduction in the number of recorded direct victims of armed conflict at various points over recent generations.

Wars between big, powerful countries has become much rarer in the aftermath of the Second World War. And in the years since the Cold War, other than a spike of violence at the time of the Rwanda genocide and the civil war which consumed large parts of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo in the early 90s, there was nearly 20 years of reductions in the numbers of conflicts, in deaths of soldiers on the battlefield, in total casualties and so on. The number of armed conflicts decreased by 40 per cent between 1993 and 2005. And deaths in conflicts declined accordingly. And lots of people – famously, Steven Pincus – started to refer to the decline of violence, it being gradually removed from the human condition. But the problem is that, in the last 10 years, this progress has stalled, and it has been reversed. And in particular, Syria, Yemen, the Horn of Africa, the Sahel, the Lake Chad Basin – in all of those places, we have seen a spike in violence.

I think the clearest manifestation of that, in fact, is in the change in numbers of displaced people, because people run away from violence. Refugees and internally displaced people are fleeing men with guns and bombs, basically. In 1990, something like 1 per cent of the global population was displaced. By 2000, that had fallen to closer to half of 1 per cent. So, very significant reductions in quite a short period. But the problem is, in the last 10 years in particular, it has inexorably risen again – doubling, actually, so significantly more than 1 person in 100 – although there is a bigger population now. There are 80 million people displaced now by conflict, compared with 40 million in 1990.

Now, one of the lasting consequences of the Second World War was the creation of a body of international laws and norms trying to ensure that future conflicts would be conducted more in the spirit of some of the progress that was made, really, since the middle of the nineteenth century, with the creation of the first Geneva Conventions and the St. Petersburg Declaration. And as you all know, there was put in place a body of law and norms, trying to contain what militants did in conflict and direct attacks against civilians, against hospitals, against schools, homes, markets, which prohibited the use of tactics like starvation of civilians as a weapon of war, the prohibition of tactics and weapons that cause indiscriminate injury, like chemical weapons and biological weapons. All those things were put outside what belligerents were supposed to do when their arguments stopped being resolvable through dialogue and were reduced into fighting.

And the problem, I think, is that the changing nature of conflict over the last 20 years has eroded respect for international humanitarian law and for the norms associated with it. In other words, the growth in humanitarian need in conflict arises not just from the increase in the numbers of people directly affected by conflict, but also from a decline in compliance with the legal framework that would have been put in place.

So, the first question is: What has happened to lead to this reversal? And I think there are a number of interlinked factors. Firstly, I think the decline in the willingness and ability of Western countries to act as the world’s policemen, particularly in the wake of experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq over the last 20 years, and also the opportunism of Putin’s Russia in filling the vacuum, has opened up more space for grievances to turn into fighting. I think the Arab Spring, as well as severe governance deficits in significant numbers of African countries, have exacerbated all that.

We have also seen – although there hasn’t been large-scale conflict between the great powers – we have seen increasing military interference of outside powers in civil wars on different sides of conflict, with planes in the air and boots on the ground. So by 2019, more than 40 per cent of all internal State conflicts also saw involvement by third countries. That’s up from 4 per cent in 1991.

Then there are changes related to globalization, in particular the rise in illicit flows and organized crime and the spread of new communications technologies, including social media. So the means to engage in armed conflict have become more readily accessible through illicit flows of arms and money and those new technologies. And that also, by the way, has driven a progressive fragmentation of non-State armed groups. The average number of rebel groups fighting in civil wars has increased quite dramatically over the last 50 years.

A related development is the rise and spread of terrorism and, crucially, the way governments respond to terrorism. The Islamic State caliphate in Syria and Iraq has been dramatically weakened – some of the wars we have caused there are still there, actually. Many groups have been inspired by, and have been helped by, Islamic State. In fact, more than half the civil wars around the world at the moment involve Islamic State, or Al Qaeda, or some affiliated group. And three quarters of today’s battle-related deaths happen in fighting involving one of those kinds of groups. So they are a huge factor. Alongside that – making this probably even harder to deal with – has been the way that States have tried to deal with terrorism. Countering terrorism itself is frequently very violent, often with very deleterious consequences for civilians and the humanitarian agencies who are trying to help them.

Another trend is the emerging preference among leading military powers for the use of remote warfare, especially aerial bombing with so-called precision-guided smart weapons. One of the things that has happened in countries with advanced militaries over the last 20 or 30 years is there has been a decline in citizens’ tolerance for casualties in what people see as discretionary military interventions overseas. And the consequence of that has been this greater reliance on remote warfare, especially through air power. That’s one of the things we have seen, for example, in Syria.

Then we have also seen – and I think this is particularly disturbing – the breaching over the last decade of some of the things that had been established as taboos. This establishment was fragile, but it was there. And actually, Syria has been the most prominent theatre for that. So we have had the resumed use of chemical weapons, for example. We have had the resumed widespread use of starvation of civilians and siege tactics. We’ve had the deliberate use of large-scale sexual abuse and torture, against both men and women. And those things, which have been prominent in Syria, particularly in the first five years of the conflict, have increasingly been bleeding into other places. Sexual atrocities are a frequent tactic of extremists in the Sahel, but there is also clear recent evidence of the systematic and organized use of such tactics not just by extremist groups, but by States as well. That is what we saw in the case of the Rohingya when they were forced out of Myanmar, and I think it’s what we are seeing now with violations committed by Eritrean soldiers and other men in uniform against women and girls in Tigray.

Now, the result of all of these trends has been an increase in displacement and an increase in the duration of civil wars. One of the other trends we have seen in recent decades has been an evolution of the role of humanitarian agencies in conflict. Actually, during much of the Cold War period, humanitarian agencies mostly focused on victims of conflict who had escaped violence by fleeing to neighbouring countries. That started to change following the famine in Ethiopia in the mid-1980s and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in the late 80s, as well as after all the turmoil that followed the American-led war against Iraq in the early 1990s.

Humanitarian agencies from that point, including UN agencies, began to operate on a larger scale inside conflict-affected countries. So this distinction between helping people outside but not helping people displaced internally started to be addressed. And that’s one of the main reasons, actually, why there has been this huge increase in humanitarian assistance efforts that the UN has been coordinating, from roughly US$2 billion a year in 1990 to $5 billion a year by 2000, $10 billion by 2010, $20 billion in recent years – up, actually now, to what should be much higher levels because of the pandemic right now.

So the prevailing mindset now among humanitarian agencies is that what we are trying to do is meet the needs of everybody caught up in crises, regardless of who they are, or where they are, or who exercises control over them and the places they are living. That actually runs into some controversial territory for us in the UN, given our founding principles around State sovereignty and non-interference.

It also, obviously, runs into the realities of State power. For example, there is negligible access for humanitarian agencies to problems like the Uighurs in China or to vulnerable communities in North Korea. But it’s not just States that impose limits. Some of the most challenging humanitarian situations are those facing the something like 60 to 80 million people – that is roughly 1 per cent of the global population – who are living somewhere not controlled by a State. They include people in areas controlled by drugs cartels, in parts of Latin America, for example, or by other criminal gangs, like the ones pillaging timber and mineral resources in eastern Congo. Or by extremist terrorist groups under the sway of jihadi and other similar organizations.

So humanitarian agencies actually find themselves in quite a wicked dilemma: On the one hand, they are driven by an imperative and a desire to help people in need, but on the other hand, they are practically limited in doing that by the requirement to limit the risk to their own staff and their own operations. Humanitarian agencies right now are struggling and overstretched in many conflict situations, and these problems, the problems they face, seem to me to have got a lot worse over the last 10 years.

So that really is all context against which I wanted to ask the question: What can we do to recover some of the ground I think has been lost in recent years in protecting civilian populations? It is an important question, because conflict is the main driver of humanitarian need. And, let’s be honest, there are no easy answers, especially in the geopolitical context that we face now, where the leading powers are finding it difficult to collaborate with each other.

Nevertheless, I see four main themes where I think stronger action would be possible. The first theme is about trying to add further energy to the public debate on why there has been this erosion of compliance with the laws of war. States all signed up – and they all signed up, by the way – to the Geneva Conventions – 196 of them – and the associated arrangements for a reason. There is a debate, actually, about how far morality and values and horror drove change after the Second World War, was the motivation, as opposed to judgments based on narrower interests. But for that combination of reasons, States signed up, and it’s valuable, I think, as the International Committee of the Red Cross has done recently in a study they published in 2018, to remind ourselves about the roots of restraint in conflict. One of them is that numerous studies – not least by military intellectuals – have produced compelling evidence that few factors have helped fill the ranks of jihadi groups as much as widespread violations of international humanitarian law and similar abuses permitted by State security forces. In other words, it is counter-productive to behave in ways that are not compliant with the law, because you just grow further the grievances that people hold against you.

Another thing that could be done in this space is to gather more data, which some State military forces do, to track and keep score on civilian harm in military operations. When countries do that – as, for example, the US has done in Afghanistan – the process of gathering information and analysing it has in fact led to changes in tactics, to the benefit of civilians. There are actually attempts being made to replicate that approach in the Sahel.

There is also scope for more collaboration between humanitarian agencies and States’ military forces to protect civilians. It does require genuine commitment by the military side for this collaboration to be useful. And sometimes, that desire is claimed when it is not really there. The recent history of notification and deconfliction systems designed to protect humanitarian agencies working in conflict zones illustrates that.

So, for example, on the one hand, the deconfliction system set up by my office in Syria in 2014 notified the US and Russia and Turkey of all the humanitarian premises and movements and the convoys that were going, to help them comply with their legal obligations. That system was basically quite successful until 2018. There were very few incidents up to then damaging aid operations, but what then happened, unfortunately, was that some of the parties lost interest in complying with that, and, as I have said elsewhere, I think started to use the information they were being given to target aid workers rather than to protect them. So that deconfliction system basically started to be counter-productive, which I talked a lot about to the Security Council in 2018 and 2019.

That’s in contrast, actually, to a similar system in Yemen, where again, my office runs this system where we tell the parties where all the convoys and humanitarian workers are going every day, in the hope of protecting them. And that has been extremely effective in protecting aid workers from being accidentally caught up in conflict. So those systems can work with people who genuinely want them to work.

One other area that I think is worth pursuing here is extending the availability of training and awareness-raising for military entities. That works if you train State armed forces. The ICRC has done a lot of that. It increases battlefield restraint if you tell people what the laws of wars are.
But also interestingly, these kinds of approaches have been shown sometimes to work with nonState armed groups as well. My colleagues in OCHA have over the years regularly been asked about IHL by commanders of various non-State armed groups, and often what they want to know is: So what is it we have to do to avoid being sent to the international courts in The Hague? So there is an opportunity by their desire to avoid that to get them to change their behaviour.

So that’s the first area. The second area relates to calling out violations when they occur. I have spent a lot of my tenure as the Emergency Relief Coordinator trying to do that, and I can tell you it is often a thankless, tiring and feels unrewarding task which too rarely leads to any visible remedial action. That was my experience in more than 100 Security Council meetings in which I have given presentations since 2017. It is though, nevertheless, very important to keep doing this work, not least because perpetrators commit violations when they think they won’t be seen, or won’t be caught or won’t be punished. The more doubt you can create in their minds over whether they will enjoy impunity, the better, and the starting point for that creation of doubt is advocacy and the reporting of abuses. One of the cheapest worthwhile investments that people who care about these issues can undertake, by the way, is to finance a lot more investigations into violations, to finance research and finance media products exposing them.

The third area then, I think is in lots of ways the most problematic, and it is about the need, I think, for new and clearer-eyed thinking on dealing with non-State armed groups, particularly the jihadi extremists. It does bear restating that the people who suffer most at the hands of terrorists are the people who live in the areas they control. You don’t have to speak to many people about what they suffered under the tyranny of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to understand that. My own view is that sometimes a State-led military response is necessary in those cases, and is justified to protect local populations. This is something that humanitarian agencies have really struggled with, even where, as a practical matter, they have themselves had very little access to people controlled by extremist groups because those groups view humanitarian agencies as a legitimate target.

Sometimes, aid agencies have pursued really quite strenuous efforts, such as through secret dialogue, to find some common ground, but they have typically produced quite limited results.
Now, we have large populations in places like the Lake Chad Basin, other parts of the Sahel, northern Mozambique and parts of Yemen, which just can’t be reached because the extremist groups controlling them won’t permit humanitarian agencies safe access.

I think this is often complicated, actually, by the growing tendency of States facing such opposition groups to brand them as terrorists, often for political reasons, even in circumstances where that label doesn’t look justified. Look at what has happened recently in Myanmar, to give one example. So navigating all this is very, very difficult.

I think the best approach for humanitarian agencies is to start by seeking dialogue with these opposition groups so you test the scope for access and you test the extent to which staff can reach people in need. That dialogue has to be on the basis of humanitarian principles – whoever needs assistance should get it, impartially, neutrally, independently – and you test out whether groups will tolerate that.

You have to get, by the way, tolerance for States as well. Sometimes there has been a recognition of the need for that. For 20 years in Taliban-controlled parts of Afghanistan, we have been able to talk to the Taliban notwithstanding their struggle against the Government of Afghanistan, who have been the UN’s host in Afghanistan. Sometimes, though, where that dialogue isn’t going to work, or has been demonstrated to fail, and extremist groups persist in attacks on aid agency staff, I think humanitarian agencies need to be more open about the challenges. They may need to do more to condemn atrocities, not least because they have a responsibility to speak out for people affected. And that requires judgment – it’s very context-specific – it needs a good understanding of the perspective of local people, including local influences like chiefs and so on. Sometimes you can get those people on board, but my general point here is that the toolkit that we have for engaging with places where those groups predominate is not adequate, and aid agencies need to start to do a few different things, I think, and explore different solutions to help more of the people in those circumstances.

One thing it would be good to be better at is understanding the inner workings of some non-State armed groups. So there is a huge role for sociological, political, ideological and economic analysis, which needs to be constantly updated, because every context is different.

The last main area where I think we can try to make some progress is the need to improve accountability. In the halcyon period of the immediate post-Cold War era, progress on this looked quite possible. We had the establishment of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, obviously, and we had the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, and they did actually lead to some important results. Mr. Mladic can attest to that from his prison cell in The Hague at the moment, where his sentence has recently been reconfirmed. The Tribunal on Rwanda ensured a degree of justice. In the last decade, though, international collaboration towards that goal has withered. And the fact that three of the five Permanent Members of the Security Council are basically hostile towards the International Criminal Court reduces the likelihood of referrals there.

Interestingly, at the national level, the situation is a bit less bleak. Investigations and prosecutions on genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes have actually become a lot more common in the EU, using national legislation and the principle of universal jurisdiction. There are nearly 3,000 cases of that sort by 2019. Some of the most interesting ones include cases against people committed of atrocities in Syria, on which the German courts are particularly active and on which so far one person has been convicted.

I think there is scope for greater use of other penalties for violators, actually. I think there is a role for sanctions, which is controversial, but I do think the use of sanctions which constrain the freedom of movement and finances of people accused of violations, and tarnish their reputation, is a legitimate thing to explore. It’s interesting, President Assad has barely left Syria in a decade. President Bashir in Sudan was effectively prevented from travelling even in Africa in the latter years of his regime because he was worried about being arrested. If sanctions are used judiciously, they can create positive incentives, even if the impact might only be marginal in some cases.

Let me just make a couple of final points, Stuart. Firstly, there are other new problems on the horizon. Conflict isn’t going away, but it will continue to change. Some of the issues we need to keep an eye on include things like the potential impact of cyber operations. Another issue I think we are going to have to pay attention to is the use of autonomous weapons. If a weapon can decide on its own who, what and when to attack, how are distinctions going to be made between civilian and military targets?

These challenges I talked about today are going to be the most difficult ones, I think, for humanitarian agencies in the years ahead. There was an old sort of shibboleth that prevailed when I started my career 37 years ago or something, that warring parties wouldn’t go after aid agencies, and that has broken down. Aid workers are now constantly under attack; 139 of them were killed in the line of duty in 2017. So agencies need to accept that there will be risks in reaching people. Some agencies them need more staff with military experience, by the way, to organize themselves effectively in these circumstances. But we also need to try, through the things I talked about, to re-energize the reasons why we have international humanitarian law and provide better reasons for belligerents to comply with it.

Let me stop there, Stuart. Thank you.

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