May 1, 2014

How has international humanitarian law evolved? Is it still relevant? These are some of the questions that officials from Médecins Sans Frontières and Human Rights Watch addressed at a recent talk at SIPA.

At the event, sponsored by the Human Rights and Humanitarian Policy concentration, Françoise Bouchet-Saulnier, who is legal director of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), and Philippe Bolopion, the UN director for Human Rights Watch (HRW), presented an updated edition of “The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law.” The guide analyzes how international humanitarian law has evolved in the face of new challenges such as the war on terror, the emergence of international criminal justice, and the reshaping of fundamental rules and consensus in a multipolar world.

Bouchet-Saulnier addressed the crises in Syria and the Central African Republic and discussed the challenges that humanitarian organizations face when providing assistance to civilians in these countries.

“Humanitarian action is always about making choices and setting priorities. We have to be impartial; we cannot support any party in conflict,” she said.

Impartiality and independence are essential if MSF is to gain access to besieged communities: “You can never force access, you have to negotiate and get consent of those in control, whether it’s a government or an armed group.”

According to Bouchet-Saulnier, this causes trouble to humanitarian actors. “We negotiate with criminals and terrorists and the victims we assist are witnesses of crimes, so it’s a tremendous pressure because for the sake of fighting impunity we’re asked to testify against perpetrators at the expense of losing credibility and access.”

For Philippe Bolopion, the work of human rights organizations in the field is “much easier” as parties in conflict “don’t see these organizations as a major threat or someone they can benefit from.”

Bolopion explained how organizations like Human Rights Watch have been addressing the denial of humanitarian access in recent crises. “In Syria, for example, people have been starved to death because the government and some opposition groups are denying access to humanitarian actors. So what HRW does is to try to find a way to get in, pushing the UN Security Council to pass a resolution, and advocating for access.”

For Bouchet-Saulnier, “The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law” is a valuable resource for those on the front lines of international humanitarian work. “It helps delineate the responsibilities of warring parties, including the responsibility of humanitarian actors and what they are supposed to negotiate when they put their feet in the field.” “Humanitarian law should be elaborated through agreement with various entities. The power of custom can be strengthened by the publication of these rules, as this law of action can create new law and set a precedent.”

— Valle Avilés Pinedo MIA’14