Access to protect
by Andrew Bonwick May 2003

There is no question that access is a critical issue for humanitarian protection. The real question is whether we are seeking the right kind of access.

Post Cold-War conflicts are increasingly fought by and between fractured and often criminalised armed groups; many areas are beyond the effective control of any state. Civilians are often not simply the accidental victims of armed conflicts, but a deliberate target. Humanitarian need extends beyond material goods – food, water, healthcare – to securing basic physical safety.

In this environment, is the paradigm of access as envisaged in the Geneva Conventions – impartial access for relief supplies – still relevant? Should the humanitarian community instead work for ‘protective’ access, and accept the loss of political independence that comes with it? There are a number of questions to consider:

  1. Who are we seeking access for – ourselves, or those we seek to assist?
  2. What type of access should be sought – to provide relief, or protection?
  3. How long does it take to protect – what are the timelines and timescales involved?
  4. How can we negotiate ‘protective’ access – does the humanitarian community have to make pragmatic deals with armed actors in order to achieve ethically desirable objectives? What is the proper role of politics; political actors and their military forces?

Who is access for?

How important are we, the humanitarian community, in the eyes of the people we seek to assist? From the point of view of the ill, hungry or dying person, we are not the main force in their lives. On the one hand are the principal players in the theatre of human suffering: those who monopolise violence, be it the state or armed group, the criminal gang, the profiteer. It is no accident that, when international humanitarian law was born in the nineteenth century, it focused on restricting the behaviour of these groups; it is perhaps unfortunate that Article 1 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions – ‘The High Contracting Parties undertake to respect and ensure respect for the present Convention in all circumstances’ – has resulted in only very selective action. On the other are the members of the affected communities, and those curious things called ‘coping mechanisms’ which have allowed enormous numbers of people to survive incredible hardship. A cursory look at south Sudan, where humanitarian access is critically limited, is enough to teach the humanitarian community a lesson in humility.

There is a story about participation which, urban myth or not, rings curiously true. A community leader, when asked whether his community had participated in a humanitarian project, replied that the question was badly posed; more relevant was whether the community had allowed the humanitarian organisation to participate in their lives.

Is it, then, less important that we have access to communities than that they have access to us? This is more than an academic question. In Somalia, clan-based welfare systems never ceased to function. Women’s groups also formed spontaneously, and it is a credit to those humanitarian agencies who supported them that they gave those communities access to humanitarian aid, without necessarily having access themselves.

What is access for?

In his 2001 report on the protection of civilians, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan decried the ‘agony of civilians … targeted as part of a political strategy’. In the face of mutilation in Sierra Leone, neglect in Liberia or deliberate starvation in Somalia, what type of access should communities have? Access to humanitarian aid, or access to humanitarian protection? It is, in fact, more likely to be both, and the two frequently interact with each other. In 1993, UNHCR head Sadako Ogata said that ‘Humanitarian assistance is much more than relief and logistics. It is essentially and above all about protection – protection of victims of human rights and humanitarian violations’.

What are the timescales?

If we do obtain ‘protective’ access to populations, what should we do with it? Here the question of timelines and timescales, particularly in protracted conflicts and complex emergencies, is critical. First, we need to recognise that, following a catastrophic event like a major population displacement, the ‘humanitarian community’ is rarely on the scene and operational in an effective manner within the first few days, and almost never at the point of displacement itself. This is when ‘coping mechanisms’ kick in, without exception playing a critical role in every humanitarian crisis. If we accept that access will not happen on day one, and in places like south Sudan might not happen at all, the work (the ‘access’) needs to take place in advance: strengthening coping mechanisms, preparing the interface for when the humanitarian heavy machinery comes rolling in.

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Second, when we talk of ‘protective’ access we need to acknowledge that we are talking about changing the behaviour of human beings and the groups in which they are organised. Changing behaviour can be reactive and quick – a carrot and stick approach – but long-term changes imply changes in values.

Bosnia-Herzegovina: a failure of protection?

UNPROFOR, the UN military force in Bosnia, conspicuously failed to protect inhabitants from their adversaries. Its 1992 mandate confined it to protecting relief supplies; although gradually expanded, it did not use force to protect civilians until 1995.

In the short term, ‘protection’ clearly failed, but in the longer term there was considerable benefit. Although access was almost exclusively denied to areas where ethnic cleansing was taking place, the humanitarian community still managed to produce often detailed reports on what had happened. UNHCR action gave victims access to the humanitarian community. This was an essential part of giving them a voice – the voice which, belatedly, led to the international action that brought the atrocities to an end. A different level of immediacy, a slower timescale, but is this not also ‘protective’?

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Building an environment of protection

The ICRC has developed a very useful ‘egg’ model of protection that looks at three types of action. The yolk is responsive action aimed at putting a stop to an emerging pattern of ‘abuse’ and alleviating its immediate consequences; the white represents remedial action to restore dignity after a pattern of abuse, and the shell is environment-building, ‘fostering a social, cultural, institutional and legal environment conducive to respect for the rights of the individual’.

Environment-building over the medium term means providing the language for debate, setting the norms for engagement, bringing consistency to terms, creating demand for humanitarian access. This appears to be a much-neglected area. Although effective solutions to imminent threats can often be found locally, with the guard on the checkpoint or the local commander, effective environment-building over time provides the language for discussion and improves the chances of success when in crisis-management mode. Facilitating dialogue between communities and those who hold them in sway creates a demand for standards and encourages movement. Informing people of their rights is not enough unless these people are also given a voice. The UN and international NGOs have a role here as a bridge between the state and national civil society.

This takes time – planning for change over years, or indeed generations, rather than the weeks or months typical in humanitarian action. One of the great successes of the human rights movement over the last 50 years was to change the language of debate in international circles from one in which ‘sovereignty’ is a trump-card, to one in which rights language has common currency. The humanitarian community has much to learn from this.

How do we negotiate access?

Since negotiating implies give and take, we surely need to ask ‘What is the deal?’. International humanitarian law, the Code of Conduct and the Humanitarian Charter all describe essentially the same deal: security, freedom of access, facilitation of transport, non-interference, in return for agencies working with consent and not interfering in the conflict. But the humanitarian community must acknowledge the situation on the ground, where there is frequently a disjunction between de facto power and de jure legality. The question is thus whether a deal that is attractive to the people in power – those with guns – can be made without sacrificing vital principles. In today’s often complex and messy conflicts where civilians are often deliberately targeted, the obvious answer is no.

The second question is whether the deal changes when we are seeking access for ‘protective’ purposes rather than simply to deliver relief supplies. Allowing this type of access is likely to result in heavy criticism – perhaps public denunciation – of precisely the people who have granted access. In general, the deal becomes less attractive to the people in power. If the humanitarians have little to offer to the people with guns, then how can the deal be acceptably changed?

This raises the issue of the relationship between humanitarianism and the political imperatives of both local and international interests. Which should have primacy, political or humanitarian objectives? Mixing the political with humanitarianism inevitably produces controversial debates, particularly around humanitarian space and the specificity of humanitarian aid. The risk is that humanitarian goals are subordinated to goals not necessarily in the interests of the victims – humanitarian aid becomes another ‘tool in the toolbox’ of diplomacy. However, perhaps this should be reversed, and politics become a tool in the humanitarian toolbox. If states are to fulfill their obligations under the Geneva Conventions, there is a need for more consistent demands from humanitarian elements within donor governments, in particular that humanitarian and political action are coherent in addressing a particular crisis.

Can international military intervention secure access?

So what about the military? Can international military intervention, be it through so-called ‘peacekeepers’ or through more aggressive action – unblock humanitarian access in a situation where negotiated access has failed? In other words, does the use of force obviate consent?

In many of the most intractable conflicts, from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan to Afghanistan and Colombia, the effective control of the state has faded away. Cold War guerrilla movements that may have been artificially united have been replaced by individualism. External financial support has been replaced by war economies based on robbery and illicit trade. Discipline can be rare, and in extremis every combatant is their own commander.

This has consequences. Communities frequently do not identify with the dominant local faction. If, as in Bosnia and as illustrated by its absence in Somalia, outside military involvement to enforce access requires ‘consent’ to be effective, from whom is that consent to come: from local groups, from activists, from the population? It may be hard to determine who is speaking on whose behalf. In these complex environments, humanitarian aid may be manipulated by contesting groups to garner support; humanitarian organisations are no longer considered independent purveyors of relief but as economically ‘interesting’ components. De facto, they are first-rank players on the economic and social scene.

So, despite the use of force, is it still only (often unrepresentative) armed groups whose consent can secure access? Even if this were not to be the case, one must also accept that the military, if able to create a secure environment, is doing no more than putting a lid on the problem. Addressing root causes – ‘turning down the heat’ – requires political will.

At a time when NGOs (an important element in helping governments to gain popular support for military interventions when needed) are often unwilling to recommend coercive measures publicly, the ICRC ‘People on War’ survey suggested that 66% of respondents wanted more outside intervention; in Colombia this figure was as high as 90%.


A ‘protective’ humanitarian intervention seems always to be opposed to the interests of the people (or indeed governments) with guns. If it were compatible with their perceived interests, ipso facto it would be redundant. Some compromise is necessary. There needs to be a move away from ‘relief’ access as laid out in the Geneva Conventions, but with clear limits on the political dimensions of humanitarian aid. At its core, humanitarian assistance is an act of humanity, one human being holding out their hand to another.

A truly humanitarian model of access must not only be ready to look at and deal with the causes of displacement and the threats during flight, but also to think in strategic terms over many years. This is a model that is centred around the victims having access to the humanitarian community, rather than vice versa, and on a timely and sustained basis. Political will beyond the sticking-plaster of funding for responses to humanitarian crises is needed to do this. Is a change of the law also required to facilitate access? Are the military needed in order to make the ‘deal’ an offer that can’t be refused?

This is a complex and thorny question, but we should not discount the will of the 66% of people who ICRC interviewed calling for more, not less, external intervention, particularly in conflicts where the men with guns seem to represent nobody but themselves. ‘Sovereignty’ must not be allowed to excuse inaction or impede external financial, political and indeed military intervention when that intervention will secure access to humanitarian protection for precisely those people who are unable to secure it through their states.

Andrew Bonwick is Oxfam GB’s Humanitarian Protection Adviser. He has worked with NGOs and the ICRC, in the field and at headquarters, since 1994.

References and further reading

Mark Cutts, The Humanitarian Operation in Bosnia, 1992–95: The Dilemmas of Negotiating Humanitarian Access, Working Paper 8, New Issues in Refugee Research (Geneva: UNHCR, 1999).

Christa Rottensteiner, ‘The Denial of Humanitarian Assistance as a Crime under International Law’, International Review of the Red Cross, no. 835.