Humanitarian Convoy

Humanitarian Action under Threat

By Nina Nepesova, Global Director, Humanitarian Policy & Advocacy, World Vision International

Known to most as International Humanitarian Law (IHL), one could mistakenly think that this law is about saving lives. It is ‘humanitarian’ after all. Its first customary rule is to distinguish between civilians and combatants in conflict.[1] Yet, as a novice humanitarian practitioner, I had to learn pretty fast that IHL is as much about conducting warfare, as it is about protecting lives. Conversations with the military about IHL lead to frustrations. Where I saw a rule about protecting lives, they saw a rule about military tactics. Interestingly, they describe IHL as the laws of war.

After almost 20 years of protection advocacy, I can say that this duality is not delivering a lot of benefits for children and civilians. Based on my experience, the ‘balancing scale’ of IHL seems to lean in the wars’ favor. Killing and oppression reign. Political efforts at peace-making are lackluster. There’s little agreement on collective goals by those with influence; with many paying lip service to ‘rights’, ‘humanity’, and ‘sanctity of life’, while making money selling arms to violators. And that’s those who ‘ascribe’ to IHL. Many armed actors don't.

Throughout 2019, 10,173 children were killed and maimed, according to verified numbers. Thousands more deaths and injuries go unverified every year, because of lack of access. Despite being a blatant violation of IHL, innocent children remain victims of deliberate or indiscriminate attacks by state and non-state actors. Globally, attacks on schools and hospitals committed by State actors nearly doubled.[2]

Conflict is pushing children on the move. The number of total refugees globally has reached unprecedented heights of 26 million, half of them are children.[3] Conflict is driving hunger at unprecedented levels. Both COVID-19 and climate change are negatively impacting food systems worldwide. By the end of 2020, the number of acute food insecure people could reach 270 million.[4]

Even in the face of the global COVID-19 pandemic, despite the UN Secretary General’s appeal for a global ceasefire, not much has changed in conduct of hostilities to protect civilians, or to allow humanitarian workers to deliver aid. According to the WHO, direct attacks by armed actors on healthcare during COVID-19 continued.[5]

States are actively challenging the very concept of humanitarianism. In countries like the Netherlands, UK, Australia and others, controversial counter-terrorism bills have made attempts to ‘limit the scope for principled aid, hinder the work of humanitarian organisations and even criminalise them’.[6] In the occupied Palestinian territory, humanitarian organizations face obstacles ranging from physical and administrative restrictions on the access and movement of personnel, to restrictions on the delivery of materials needed for humanitarian projects[7]. According to Freedom House, over the last 15 years, 11 African governments have adopted measures constraining the legitimate activities of NGOs by erecting obstacles in their operational environment.[8]

In his 2020 report on Children and Armed Conflict, the UN Secretary General sighted 4,400 incidents of the denial of humanitarian access to children, the highest increase of any violation on the previous year. While non-state actors were responsible for most - notably in Yemen, Mali, the Central African Republic, and in Syria, ‘some 2,127 children were delayed and/or denied access to specialized medical care outside of Gaza.’[9]

Throughout the pandemic governments across the world have implemented measures that further increased access constraints. In many contexts where crisis-affected populations were already under strain, their ability to access aid dropped dramatically. Extreme and very high constraints were recorded in the most fragile contexts –  Syria, Afghanistan, DRC, Iraq, Palestine, Somalia, South Sudan, and Venezuela. In short, where things were bad, they got even worse.[10]

I believe that 2021 is going to be the most challenging year for humanitarian aid action, yet. COVID-19 has devastated livelihoods, people’s health and children’s education, with far reaching consequences. The UN Global Humanitarian Overview (GHO) highlights multiple concerns ranging from poverty, conflict, hunger, climate, and displacement, among others. World Vision’s own assessments tend to predict the same.[11] With more than 235 million people expected to need humanitarian assistance, and a US $35 billion requirement to meet those needs, according to the GHO, humanitarian workers will be busier than ever.[12]

During the UN launch of the 2021 Global Humanitarian Overview, World Vision’s President Andrew Morely, together with leaders of other NGOs, told States and decision makers that we must have access and support for humanitarians to meet the challenge, and called on those in power to listen to the children's voices, putting politics and fighting aside. 

So does it matter if there is a rules based system, if no-one’s following the rules?

Despite the disappointments, I say ‘yes’. As long as there are voices for accountability, accountability will follow. To quote Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

As a humanitarian, my job is to save lives, and to contribute to accountability, in every way I can. I know I’m not alone – we are, to use a military term, a legion. We are the protection balance on the scale of the rules of war.

[1] Customary IHL, Volume II, Chapter 1, Section A: Rule 1. The Principle of Distinction between Civilians and Combatants: The parties to the conflict must at all times distinguish between civilians and combatants. Attacks may only be directed against combatants. Attacks must not be directed against civilians. State practice establishes this rule as a norm of customary international law applicable in both international and non-international armed conflicts,

[2] Report of the UN Secretary-General on 'Children and armed conflict', 2020,

[3] UNHCR 2019 Global Trends in Forced Displacement, 18 June 2020,

[4] UN OCHA, Global Humanitarian Overview 2021

[5] WHO, Attacks on health care in the context of COVID-19,

[6] Counterterrorism Measures and Sanction Regimes: Shrinking Space for Humanitarian Aid Organisations, CHA 2020,

[7] UN OCHA, Humanitarian Space,

[8] The Spread of Anti-NGO Measures in Africa: Freedoms Under Threat, Special Report 2019, Freedom House,

[9] Report of the UN Secretary-General on 'Children and armed conflict', 2020,


[11] COVID-19 Aftershocks: Out of time,

[12] UN OCHA, Global Humanitarian Overview 2021