Humanitarian aid arises from the needs of vulnerable people who, for different reasons, whether natural disasters, conflicts or the combination of both, do not have the capacity or the means to cover their needs, and have a dignified life in which their human rights are fully respected. Their governments do not have the capacity or the willingness to solve this situation. Is in this context where the humanitarian action takes place. When we talk about vulnerable people, we refer to those who are exposed to a risk and their ability to cope with it is very limited. Due to economic, social, political and/or natural reasons. Offer aid to these people may seem simple when you have the means to do it. But the way in which humanitarian actions are carried out matters. It is necessary to always keep in mind that each act has an impact. And this impact can be positive or can be negative, even if not intended. To provide an action that has a clear benefit and does not harm anyone, it is necessary to plan the work carefully and act based on humanitarian principles. The present document aims to define where are the humanitarian principles best placed to serve the needs of the most vulnerable community groups, understanding “best placed” as the most correct or appropriate way of applying these principles.
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Humanitarian crises could be classified according to their cause in two large groups. Those occurring naturally, such as an earthquake, a hurricane or a tsunami. And those that are man-made, which are usually unleashed by social, economic and political causes. The two types of crises can occur at the same time, combining a natural disaster with a political, social and economic crisis. This last group rise to complex political emergencies, which are generally violent and often accompanied by a failure or weakening of economic and political systems. Giving rise to deadly and forcibly displaced victims (1). The warlike conflicts that led to the emergence of humanitarian aid have undergone profound transformations and are far from having the characteristics of years ago. The nature of the war has changed. These new conflicts sometimes pose profound ethical challenges that, on the field, must often be solved in a short period of time (2). Each conflict is unique and has particular characteristics. What makes it essential to understand the context and dynamics of the conflict for humanitarian actors, in order to respond in an appropriate way and be able to assist and protect the vulnerable population in that complex emergency context (3). There are also big challenges arising from these conflicts. As it is the forced displacement. A complex situation, that does not end when the group of displaced people arrive at a “safe” place to settle down. Since it is generally mass fields, the number of people and the lack of resources and optimal conditions give rise to famines and epidemics, which aggravates the situation even more. This displaced population is in a situation of vulnerability irrespective of the previous situation of each person/family before the conflict, as they were rich or poor, when they move they lose their homes and jobs, many have also lost relatives due to the crisis. This problem of displaced population is a hot topic nowadays, last year the highest numbers views was reached to date, being 68. 5 million people forcibly displaced by situations of conflict, violence or persecution (4). Looking at the numbers we see that the trend in recent years is increasing the number of displaced people. This makes us think because it is not a situation that has an easy solution.
The initial idea of refugee status is that it is temporary until the crisis situation in the country of origin is solved, but after many years of experience we see that the percentage of displaced people that return to their country of origin is very small (5). This situation makes a continuous humanitarian challenge, as these vulnerable groups who have fled urgently from a crisis in their country need protection from Governments and humanitarian actors as they are in a situation of dependence in that moment. Another big challenge that humanitarian actors have to face nowadays – in the context of complex crisis – is that some arm groups use this humanitarian agencies or NGOs as a target. They know that if they attack this humanitarian workers or facilities, the damage that they are going to do to civil society is going to be even more devastating. This is kind of attacks generate a huge moral and ethical dilemma. In Somalia, for example, some NGOs such as MSF were forced to negotiate with armed groups in order to remain in the country to offer assistance. But after suffering a multitude of attacks, they were forced to make the decision to retire, leaving thousands of people helpless.
As José Antonio Bastos – head of the MSF mission in Somalia – said “We are somehow betraying our raison d’être. We exist to bring aid to populations such as Somalia. Having to leave them is a huge defeat as an institution, but we have no choice. It would be irresponsible to continue exposing our workers to a risk of brutal attacks such as those we have suffered and which we cannot control. ”(6) – Analysis of the humanitarian principles In order to establish and maintain access to the populations affected by any type of humanitarian emergency, it is essential to operate on the basis of humanitarian principles: humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence. These principles have practical operational relevance and are essential for effective humanitarian coordination. Much of the humanitarian action takes place in unstable or conflicting contexts. In order not to consider undue interference in the internal affairs of States, and to distinguish between the activities and objectives of other actors, adherence to humanitarian principles is essential. As Ban Ki-Moon said, “The moral authority of the United Nations depends on its ability to help the neediest people and this must do so with the highest ethical standards and professionalism. ” This applies to all humanitarian actors and not just to the United Nations (7).
In the following paragraphs we will analyze each principle separately: Humanity: Human suffering must be addressed anywhere. This principle argues that life and health must be protected and that human beings are respected. It is the most universal and accepted humanitarian principle. As a principle, humanity implies the deep acceptance of the value and dignity of the person, and therefore, the right to life. This is a philosophical and emotive concept rooted in compassion, empathy and equality: we are all part of the same human race, and as a result, we all deserve respect, dignity and rights (8). Of the principle of humanity derive the other principles.
Neutrality: It argues that humanitarian actors should not take sides in hostilities and controversies of political, racial, religious or ideological order. This is the most controversial humanitarian principle, since in certain contexts, neutrality is associated with a morally unacceptable lack of compromise. The nature of the conflicts we face today requires non-neutral intervention. But there are also those who argue that access to this territories and security of humanitarian action is closely linked to the principle of neutrality (2,9). When this principle is applied in armed conflicts, it tends to have different degrees of interpretation and applicability according to the humanitarian organization. If they focuses on the effects of the disaster – where it is easier to apply neutrality – or in the causes – where there is often a political impact and public denunciation of violations of international humanitarian law (10). Impartiality: Humanitarian action must be carried out according to the necessity, giving priority to the most urgent cases and without making distinctions based on nationality, race, sex, religious beliefs, class or political opinion. One of the direct consequences of this principle is Non-discrimination, which is one of the most important elements of all aspects of human protection: human rights law, humanitarian law, refugee law (11). Independence: Humanitarian action must be autonomous of the political, economic, military or other objectives that any humanitarian agent may have in respect of the areas where humanitarian measures are being implemented.
This guarantees the preservation of a guarantee that allows to act always in accordance with the principles of the respective NGO or agency (12). But in some cases, Governments, especially those in conflict countries, restrict the fundamental freedoms of civil society. And humanitarian aid is controlled by the authorities, to try to use it according to their strategic, economic and military interests (10). Although in theory it seems logical and simple. Respect for humanitarian principles -especially in armed conflict is most often a real challenge. Their violation or non-observance by humanitarian actors can be intentional, unconscious – cultural – or forced -real or perceived threats (10).
Contemporary needs of vulnerable community groups Vulnerable groups are those who are in a condition of weakness for cultural, social, political, economic or environmental reasons. And they do not have the chance to modify their situation themselves. These vulnerable people are at risk y not only because they are exposed to hazards, also because they are marginalized (13). The concept of vulnerable groups has been changing along with the characteristics of the crises that we face today. The vulnerability is dynamic, it depends on diverse factors, economic, geographical, social, political and personal (1). Natural disasters tend to affect more seriously people with less resources. Vulnerable community groups. But complex emergencies change this concept of vulnerability. Since these not only affect the poorest.
The people affected by a crisis and who have lost their homes, jobs and in many cases their families. From one day to another their situation changes completely and become vulnerable people regardless of their previous life. The Syrian conflict is a clear example, as the population of an entire country is forced to flee because the war is destroying everything by its passage. These people had their lives before the conflict and in a short period of time they find that their house has been bombed, relatives have died, others have left the country and now have nothing, just fear. And to get out of that situation seek a safer country to go and end up settling in refugee camps where the living conditions are not the best ones or go to other countries where most of the times they are not welcome. Another vulnerable group are women – who in this kind of situations face even more terrible risks than the conflict itself. Gender vulnerability is increasingly manifested, as rape and sexual violence against women are used even as a military strategy in some cases as the case of in the Democratic Republic of Congo where It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of women, boys and girls have been raped (1).
Define the needs of vulnerable groups is something that cannot be done in a general way because as described in the previous paragraphs, vulnerable groups are changing and heterogeneous so that each group has a completely different needs than others. If we want to talk about the needs of these groups in general, we should refer to ensuring the integrity of human rights. That in each case are being violated in a different way and therefore demands a different response from humanitarian aid.
Providing adequate humanitarian aid to vulnerable people is in many cases a major challenge. First because you have to know very well the communities that you are working for/with, to be able to offer adequate help to the needs that the population demands at that time. And anticipate what may happen in the future. And, on the other hand, it is a big challenge because the conditions of the crisis itself are complex and humanitarian actors are not always welcome and often becomes a target. All people affected by conflicts or disasters have the right to receive protection and assistance to ensure with dignity their basic conditions for life. To be able to provide this assistance, ensuring a clear benefit and do not harm anyone, it is necessary to plan the work carefully and act based on humanitarian principles.
The needs of the vulnerable community groups must be attended in the most professional way following the humanitarian principles. The principle of humanity has a very clear application in this situation where the humanitarian actors, as has been said before, work for and to protect the life and health of the people affected. So just having empathy, compassion and an equality perspective, you are going to act and work following to this principle. Act according to the necessity, giving priority to the most urgent cases and without making distinctions, makes you impartial. Independence means be autonomous of the political, economic, military or other purposes. These two principles can lead to more controversy. There are situations in which you must negotiate with some actors of the conflict to ensure that you can be there safely doing your work, and this negotiation can come to question the principle of independence in some terms. It is more complex with the principle of neutrality. This principle defends that humanitarian actors should not take sides in hostilities and controversies of political, racial, religious or ideological order. In this way they are supposed to be accepted for all the parties in the conflict, securing in this way the access to this territories and security of humanitarian action. But if being neutral – in this kind of context- means that you are going to do nothing to avoid brutal violations of human rights then this principle will be difficult to follow. Because this is morally unacceptable for a lot of people. If you do nothing to avoid it, then you are taking part in it. It is true that no being neutral forces you to position yourself and be one more side of the conflict, taking the risk of being the target of the opponents. But in the conflicts that are running nowadays -even being neutral- the humanitarian actors are being targets of attack.
What should be done then? There is not a correct answer for that question. But, we are lucky to have different NGOs and agencies with different opinions between them. In this way everyone has their own way to act -following of course common principles- so all the options are cover and some NGOs took the decision to do not be neutral – denouncing the violations of human rights – and others do – ensuring access to vulnerable people in need of humanitarian assistance. Transparency is another principle that many agencies and organizations have and that I consider fundamental in any sector and especially in this one, in which there are many donors and people who support the cause, and have the right to be fully informed about the actions that they are doing and where the funds are going exactly. Due to the complexity of the current conflicts is essential to have variety and at the same time coordination between the agencies and organizations working in the field of humanitarian action.
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