Humanitarian space can be seen as a symbolic space in which there is freedom to conduct operations, and where working methods and respect for principles preserve the flexibility, independence, and impartiality that are necessary in humanitarian action. It exists to provide people affected by crises with security and protection, and to provide them with access to the aid that is essential to their survival. This space is endangered by the constraints and threats that affect humanitarian actors due to multiple factors, such as the geopolitical context, the interdependence of actors, institutional reforms, violations of International Humanitarian Law, and the growing role of military forces in humanitarian action.
Since 11 September 2001, a Manichean vision of international relations has raised doubts about the very foundation of humanitarian principles, a vision that has gained in influence in the last decade. Certain political actors like to see humanitarian aid as a foreign policy and crisis management tool. The distinction between military and humanitarian mandates are becoming blurred in this context, humanitarians finding themselves caught up in the geo-strategic and economic considerations of the major powers and donor countries, as well as violent groups and parties to conflicts. In the field, this leads to the presence of humanitarians being rejected and increased insecurity, which brings further difficulties related to the meaning of humanitarian action and the acceptability of aid.
In addition, there have been numerous institutional reforms within the United Nations, the European Commission, NATO, etc., the tendency being towards greater integration between humanitarians, politicians and the military within the major institutions. This integrated model is itself criticized because it compromises the foundations of humanitarian action, limits people’s access to aid and increases the danger for everyone. Understanding and locating each different actor’s mandate, role, responsibilities and operational limits remains essential.