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Humanitarian space and IHL

Humanitarian space has been progressively reduced and become more dangerous due to a number of factors including the global geopolitical context, violations of International Humanitarian Law, the interdependence of different actors, institutional reforms and the increasing role of the military in humanitarian action. In such a context, how can the flexibility, independence and impartiality of humanitarian action be guaranteed as well as the security and protection of civilians affected by crises?

Humanitarian space is a complex notion.

It can be understood to be a symbolic space where humanitarians are free to conduct operations, where there is a certain way of doing things and where humanitarian principles are respected.

This space is under threat due to the barriers and constraints that are now being imposed on humanitarian actors.
Humanitarian space depends on the degree of respect and protection that crisis victims receive. The key to its preservation is therefore the law, which allows a certain level of "damage control" during a conflict (keeping deaths and extortion to a minimum, guaranteeing that the rights of the wounded and prisoners are respected, etc.). Applying a judicial framework makes it possible to qualify the different parties involved, their rights and responsibilities and the crimes that may take place. However, the law is often not respected and its foundations are even being challenged.

Since September 11, 2001 the new Manichean view of international relations have called into question humanitarian principles.

Some politicians tend to regard humanitarian aid as a foreign policy and crisis management tool. As the boundary between military and humanitarian mandates has become increasingly blurred, humanitarianism has become increasingly associated with the geo-political and economic strategies of the major powers and donor countries. There is increasing rejection of humanitarian presence and more insecurity as a result. These difficulties reduce humanitarian actors’ room for manoeuvre and create more fundamental problems related to the meaning of humanitarian action and the acceptability of aid.

Within humanitarian space, different actors with different interests and ways of working find themselves side by side.

A number of institutional reforms have taken place (UN system, European Commission, etc.) which appear to be moving towards an integrated system involving humanitarian, political and military actors. Such a trend threatens the very foundations of humanitarian action. It is therefore essential to understand the mandates, roles, responsibilities and limits of each of these different actors.

Groupe URD’ activities

Groupe URD has always been particularly interested in these issues. Via a number of projects and activities, we study the following themes:

  • IHL as a means of guaranteeing humanitarian space and the protection of civilians;
  • Geopolitical developments and their impact on humanitarian action;
  • Civil-Military relations in the field;
  • The increasing insecurity and inaccessibility of humanitarian space;
  • The risks and opportunities of increased coordination between different actors.

For more information, contact François Grünewald


Groupe URD’s projects related to this theme since 2010:


Articles related to this topic in "Humanitarian Aid on the move":

Read more

Solidarité internationale envers les déplacés internes : avancées, enjeux et perspectives, Johanna Baché, Les Grands Dossiers de Diplomatie n° 22, août - septembre 2014
"L’aide humanitaire en Somalie : gérer l’insécurité", François Grünewald, Revue Humanitaire, Juillet 2009, n°22, pp. 58 - 67
L’aide humanitaire en Somalie, Défis opérationnels pour la gestion de l’insécurité et la mise en œuvre des programmes d’assistance humanitaire, 2009
« L’espace humanitaire en danger? », François Grünewald, Véronique de Geoffroy et Peggy Pascal, Les Nouvelles d’Afghanistan, février 2008, n°120, pp.12 à 15.
« L’action humanitaire face aux défis du monde post -"Nine Eleven" », François Grünewald, Diplomatie, juillet-août 2006, n° 21, pp. 61-71.
« ACM, CIMIC et ONG, quelles relations ? », François Grünewald, Véronique de Geoffroy, Médecine Tropicale, 2002, volume 62, n° 4.
« La galaxie humanitaire en plein débat », François Grünewald, ENA, 2000, mensuel n° 299.
« Militaires et humanitaires : même combat ? », Véronique de Geoffroy, VOICE, juillet 2000, focus Balkans n°4.
« Militaro-humanitaire ou civilo-militaire ? », Véronique de Geoffroy, Mouvements, novembre - décembre 2000.