International law and humanitarian space in the twenty-first century: Challenged relationships

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Assessing the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria, which started in 2011, and looking back at the 2011 Libyan conflict, one has to agree that international humanitarian response patterns are not functioning optima forma, to say the least. Despite 150 years since the onset of modern humanitarianism with Henri Dunant of building up a humanitarian framework of action – unified, codified, globalised – the international community finds itself in a quagmire of half-hearted positions, issues of sovereignty, and blatant politically inspired inertia based on self-interest. Both (inter-)governmental as well as non-governmental agencies and organisations find empowerment in a variety of international (quasi-)legal codices – international humanitarian law (IHL), the humanitarian principles, international human rights law (IHRL) and, in statu nascendi, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) – to enter Syrian humanitarian space, the physical area delineated by IHL and the humanitarian principles in which humanitarian needs can be met by humanitarian actors. In reality, however, most of these agencies find themselves outside the borders of Syria, which claims its sovereign right to determine who and what gets access to its territory. Restoring, defending and upholding the human dignity of the Syrian civilian victims to the conflict thus has become an ineffective operation. The present general outcry of moral indignation is of a rather hypocritical nature. Over the past fifteen years many humanitarian crises have been characterised by elements such as deliberately blocking access to victims, disguising political goals in humanitarian terminology, making humanitarian space an insecure environment for aid-workers and aid recipients alike, abusing aid and exploiting aid agencies for political goals. Sudan, Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar, China, Afghanistan are just a few examples in kind. Unashamed disrespect for IHL, let alone IHRL, has been in evidence in these cases. Also concerning these conflict areas, the humanitarian community has been confronted with apparently ineffective humanitarian response patterns, admittedly firmly embedded in international law but in fact not adapted to the changing reality of the contemporary humanitarian space. A hundred and fifty years of a steady creation of principles and norms for the benefit of a secure space exclusively for humanitarian agencies have seemingly led to a degree of inflexibility and rigidity in dealing with contemporary challenges to humanitarianism and humanitarian space with the aim of providing effective aid to those who are in need.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationHumanitarian Action
Subtitle of host publicationGlobal, Regional and Domestic Legal Responses
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages22
ISBN (Electronic)9781107282100
ISBN (Print)9781107053533
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2014
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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