Who cares? Is it more difficult to help now?

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Who cares? Is it more difficult to help now?


Hazel Healy reports.

In North London, I saw a big picture of Mohammed bin Salman on the side of a red bus with the words ‘war criminal’.

‘Is that the Saudi Prince?’ asked a man. ‘Are you here for Yemen?’ The activists said they were there to protest against the state visit planned for the Saudi prince. They were taking the bus to Marble Arch to ‘wake up Britain’.

Kim Shariff was in the crowd. She is a British-Yemeni activist and a charity lawyer. She talked about the times the Saudis have broken International Humanitarian Law. A lot of the time they use weapons that the UK sells to them. ‘People are dying from no food because nothing is allowed in the country by air or sea. They are bombing schools and hospitals, killing people. They are using illegal weapons like cluster bombs...’

In the last three years there has been a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, in Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition supports the former government and Iran supports the Houthi rebels. Yemen is suffering.


Activists tell people about the UK selling arms to Yemen before a visit by Saudi Crown Prince bin Salman, in London March 2017. Credit: Hazel Healy

At least 17.8 million people – two thirds of the population – don’t have enough to eat and more than eight million could die from starvation.

‘It seems it’s easy to kill people now,’ said another protester. He is an Egyptian named Ibrahim Hassan. ‘Everyone is silent. Nothing happens.’ Many others agree with him.

Yemen is the worst of many humanitarian crises in the world today. It looks as if the international community cannot stop it or doesn’t want to stop it.

More wars, less protection

There are more wars and fewer people want to help. The number of wars and deaths in war was the lowest ever in 2005. But, since 2011, the number has gone up a lot. UN records show that more people need help now since records began in 1998.

We see these crises on the news and other media so we cannot say we don’t know about them. Syrian films show children rescued from destroyed buildings in Eastern Ghouta. There are old conflicts starting again in Africa (Congo, South Sudan, Central African Republic and the Lake Chad Basin). A lot of Iraq is destroyed. The Rohingya are being forced to leave Myanmar. Afghanistan has many more civilian deaths. And the bombing in Ukraine continues.

Not so many people die now as in the early 1990s in the Somali, Rwandan, and Balkan crises. But wars now last longer. There are 21 conflicts now. 19 have continued for five years or more, and three for 18 years. War is changing. In the past, Cold War groups of countries controlled who fought with who. But now, conflicts are more complicated, with many different groups. In the 1950s there was an average of 8 armed groups in a civil war. By 2010 it was 14. In Syria, in 2014, there were more than 1,000. War is now much more complicated and more difficult to stop.

There are more wars, but there is less respect for International Humanitarian Law (IHL), or ‘rules of war’. For example, Nigerian militant group Boko Haram uses young children, mostly girls, as ‘human bombs’ to attack their targets. At least 110 children died in this way in 2017.

Countries too are guilty. In South Sudan, ethnic war has forced four million people to leave since 2013. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says the Syrian government and its friends use ‘medieval-style’ sieges of cities and illegal weapons where there are many people. This means there has been a 300-per-cent increase in the number of children killed or injured worldwide since 2010. In the same period, more humanitarian aid has been stopped than this, for example, by not allowing aid to enter, and attacking, kidnapping, or killing aid workers.

There is a lot of bombing of hospitals and schools. The US bombed a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan in 2015 and killed 42 people there. This included 14 staff. A UN/Red Crescent convoy bringing aid to Aleppo in 2017 was bombed. The Taliban used an ambulance for its last suicide attack on Kabul. It is difficult to find who is responsible; it is more difficult to protect innocent people.

The United Nations has less power now after the US showed it is less interested and President Trump stopped giving funds. The United Nations Security Council has members who break humanitarian law and changes in world power stop it working. Simon Adams is from UN pressure-group Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. He says the Security Council did nothing in Syria when it used chemical weapons and bombed its own people. It feels like humanitarian support is under attack.

Emergency aid criticized

The wish to help people is as old as war itself. The humanitarian industry has never been so big, it is doing well technically and financially. But it is facing its own problems. UK aid is facing a lack of public confidence after reports of sexual abuse. This problem helped people who are against foreign aid. With rising nationalism and growing fear of foreigners, the pressure to stop spending money on foreign aid is likely to grow.


The evolution of the humanitarian aid industry. Data Visualization: Alessio Perrone & Hazel Healy

The humanitarian industry has always had its critics. Alex De Waal is a writer and activist in the Horn of Africa. He said the reasons against humanitarian action are some unprofessional standards, waste, too great self-importance, and the desire for Western and US dominance. But he also says that humanitarian aid has changed for the better, with the support of the public. It brings hope to millions. Without it many more people would die.

In Yemen, Oxfam is providing clean water, carrying it, repairing pumps, and repairing water systems. More than 16 million Yemenis do not have safe drinking water. Last year cholera infected over a million people and killed over 2,200 people. But Oxfam’s country director Shane Stevenson reports that ‘in the camps where we are working there was no cholera’.

This support saves lives. And direct cash transfers to families to buy food also helps. Small teams of internationals organise this. But it is no longer only white people who help. Oxfam has Albanian, Congolese, Kenyan, Indian, and Filipino staff, working with 230 Yemenis. Finding and helping people in need is a daily problem. They have to think about al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. It is active in the South, and Oxfam often finds it can’t do so much work when fighting increases.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is another big organisation. It has treated 72,000 wounded since the war began and delivered 43,000 babies safely. It’s covering 50 per cent of all dialysis needs since Yemeni provision came to an end two years ago.

Humanitarian organizations in war zones must also be neutral and independent. MSF follows these ideals better than most, but this has not kept it safe in Yemen. Saudi-led coalition air strikes hit three MSF hospitals during the first 10 months of war and killed 19 people, including nine staff. Ghassan Abou Chaar is MSF head of mission. He says, ‘We shouldn’t have to ask for protection, it should be here already.’ But MSF has re-built the Abs hospital in northwest Yemen, and doubled the number of beds.

But Yemen is getting worse too fast for the relief effort to help. The Saudi sea and air blockade of Houthi areas, and delays and checks by the Houthis themselves, is causing economic collapse. Fuel has doubled in price and sick Yemenis can no longer afford to go to MSF clinics. ‘Children were dying of hunger even before the war. Now it is worse,’ reports Ghassan. The siege is leading to helplessness and frustration among staff – healthcare is not enough.

Aid as a crime

It’s never ‘easy’ to help in war zones, but humanitarians in the 21st century are facing a new problem. The War on Terror has made aid a crime.

The US Patriot Act of 2001 makes it illegal to give support to particular terrorist groups. These groups control three out of the four places with possible famine in 2017, and so the problems for hungry and sick people are serious.

The risk of criminal prosecution under anti-terror laws is real. But another problem is bad feelings against mainly Muslim organizations. Islamic Relief (IR) felt they should stop help in Raqqa in Iraq as soon as ISIS arrived, when the needs were greatest.

‘Sometimes the only people who can help – Syrian organizations, local organizations, Islamic charitable organizations – are the ones people are against,’ says Jehangir Malik from British NGO Muslim Aid. It was one of the few organisations that at the time of writing in April 2018 was getting food into Syria’s Eastern Ghouta, with its Syrian partners.

Malik has an OBE, like other Muslim humanitarians, but he is always harassed. ‘Am I a genuine aid worker or a possible terrorist? That’s the question I always have to answer when I’m late for my flight,’ he says with a happy laugh. ‘As a younger activist, when I came to this work during the Bosnia crisis, I had no trouble driving a truck into the Balkans in 1992 or 1995, or to Chechnya in 1999. It all changed after 9/11.’

Relief workers travelling to conflict zones are picked up at passport controls, interrogated, and often stopped. With many Muslim charity executives banned from the US, the leaders of Islamic organizations are barred from the UN.

Banks play an important part in anti-terror laws. They often close accounts and can refuse or delay the transfer of funds from clients with a possible link to terrorism. This can cause serious delays for charities working in conflict zones. It has stopped Yemeni organizations, for example, from helping with the cholera epidemic.

Christian Aid said winter blankets and food support for Iraqi people were delayed until Spring. Muslim organisations are again the most affected. One charity reported losing $2 million in donations.

Aid as a weapon of war

Opposing groups have often tried to use aid as a weapon of war. Mark Bowden was a UN humanitarian chief in Somalia and Afghanistan. He says it’s the military that now control relief workers. People are developing similar cultures. ISIS refuses aid and the rebel Houthis in Yemen refuse aid with a Saudi label.

Aid workers say they lost independence because of Western military invasions. ‘In the early 1990s you could work anywhere,’ says a humanitarian with thirty years of experience. ‘You just had to show your NGO flag and you were safe. That began to change with the first Gulf War but the 2003 invasion of Iraq was the big change. The biggest cause of death was car accidents, now it’s shooting.’


Data Visualization: Alessio Perrone & Hazel Healy

The War on Terror has made it harder to deal with Islamist groups. Mark Bowden remembers when you could talk with the Taliban and then humanitarians could cross the lines safely. US General Colin Powell made the situation worse when he talked about NGOs as ‘an important part of our combat team’ during the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. The West’s enemies saw aid workers, unarmed and often unprotected, not as neutral humanitarians but as part of Western power.

Perhaps the worst example was the CIA’s use of a vaccination campaign to find Osama bin Laden in 2011. The following year, the Taliban said all ‘vaccinators were spies’. Since then, 100 polio workers have been killed and the attacks continue.

New donors, new ideas

The humanitarian sector is changing. As Western power gets less, there are new donors with rising regional powers like the Gulf states, and Turkey is making bigger donations. China too is involved now in humanitarian action, search-and-rescue, medical help, and peacekeeping. Sara Pantuliano is Executive Director of the Overseas Development Institute. She says, ‘They’ve been studying different models. They told me they were going to model it on the US, a lot of direct aid.’


Contribution to humanitarian aid by country as % of Gross National Income.

Data Visualization: Hazel Healy & Alessio Perrone

There is a lot of discussion about what values new donors will bring, especially those who show less support for human rights. But the West is not always innocent, for example. the US and UK in the Security Council block any action against Saudi Arabia in Yemen.

There are other changes, too. The international NGOs have said they will give power to Global South partners. In the West, the new increase in wars has started hundreds of start-up NGOs. The diaspora groups bringing aid over the border into Syria and the volunteers on the refugee route into Europe are connecting directly to people in need. ‘They don’t necessarily want to be big organizations’ says Malik, of the new generation of Muslim charities. ‘They want to be close to the people, and to be flexible, and free to say what they think.’

Reasons for hope

The return of ‘citizen humanitarianism’ in Europe shows that help and support is alive and well in Western societies.

No-one thinks it’s easy, but there are always ways to act even in the most difficult political situations. For the protesters in Cricklewood in London, bin Salman’s visit gave them the chance to talk about $4-billion of arms sales from Britain since war in Yemen began. The Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) has started a legal challenge to British arms exports to Saudi Arabia. UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has not really listened but the Netherlands, Sweden, and Germany have all introduced restrictions on arms that could be used in Yemen.

NGOs continue to talk to diplomats and politicians to try to stop conflict, and to protect civilians.

Governments worldwide are afraid of people who are active and understand the issues. In the end this may be the only weapon humanitarians and their supporters have. It’s never been more important for people to understand the issues, take political action, and show our common humanity.

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: https://newint.org/features/2018/04/01/who-cares-21st-century-humanitarianism

(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).