A military word used since the 1970s to mean preventing “friendly fire” between allied armies has crept into the humanitarian lexicon. Deconfliction is now being applied to attempts to stop aid clinics, hospitals, and schools from being bombed by warring parties. How does it – or doesn’t it – work?
Deconfliction emerged in humanitarian literature a decade ago, but efforts to use the process in a sustained way to try to stem civilian casualties are more recent and followed a sharp rise in the number of attacks on hospitals and health personnel, particularly in Syria and Yemen. According to the Geneva conventions, health facilities are off limits in war.
High-profile airstrikes that led to greater deconfliction efforts include the October 2015 US bombing of a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, which killed 42 people.
At the UN Security Council in May 2016, former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon called attacks on healthcare worldwide “systematic” and, speaking alongside him, MSF President Joanne Liu said there was “an epidemic of attacks on health facilities”.
In response, the humanitarian community stepped up systems to share the geographic coordinates of aid operations with warring parties, especially those using air forces.
At best, both NGOs and armies share the same deconfliction objective: to protect civilians and patients. At worst, sceptics say, armies use it to limit bad publicity and accusations of war crimes.
Deconfliction: The exchange of information and planning advisories by humanitarian actors with military actors in order to prevent or resolve conflicts between the two sets [of] objectives, remove obstacles to humanitarian action, and avoid potential hazards for humanitarian personnel. This may include the negotiation of military pauses, temporary cessation of hostilities or ceasefires, or safe corridors for aid delivery.
Source: To Stay and Deliver Good practice for humanitarians in complex security environments UN OCHA, 2011
The definition may be fairly clear but there is no overarching international framework or rulebook for how deconfliction should be carried out.
In dealing with armed groups that do not have air power, paper-based maps and face-to-face meetings are more often how aid agencies make sure their presence is known to those fighting on the ground.
At present, the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, oversees ad hoc arrangements in a variety of settings, while some of the largest humanitarian organisations run their own deconfliction processes independently.
The conflicts in Yemen and Syria demonstrate different approaches to deconfliction with varying degrees of buy-in from humanitarian actors.
Yemen: A multi-step process
Yemen provides the most elaborate system of deconfliction currently in use.
Deconfliction has become routine for relief agencies in Yemen since a spate of airstrikes on hospitals in 2015, the early days of a war that has pitted Houthi rebels and their allies against the internationally recognised government of Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and its backers in a Saudi Arabia-led coalition.
The UN, major NGOs, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and MSF all supply the Saudi-led coalition with coordinates of project sites, offices, warehouses, and convoy movements.
OCHA plays the middleman, collating the GPS coordinates from most UN agencies and NGOs. Each new location or planned road (or sea) movement is sent by email to a coordinating office in the Saudi Arabian capital, Riyadh, which should add it to a “no-strike list”. Once the emailed data is acknowledged as received, the site is regarded as “deconflicted”.
MSF and the ICRC are exceptions to this system; they communicate directly with the coalition.
A Saudi Arabian official told IRIN the deconfliction system included coordinates for more than 64,000 locations and tracked an average of 30 transports of humanitarian goods and personnel per day, a process the official said requires “highly skilled planning and precision”. IRIN was unable to determine from the UN or Saudi Arabia if the 64,000 figure included temporary itineraries of past road movements, or only static sites and convoys that remain operational. UN documents suggest the list of static sites currently maintained by the UN has under 30,000 entries.
Ghassan Abou Chaar, former country director of MSF in Yemen, told IRIN that the medical charity decided to comply routinely with the deconfliction system to “ensure more security” for its teams in 2015 after a hospital it supports in Haydan, in the northern province of Saada, was destroyed by airstrikes that October. No one was killed.
The health NGO now reports 60-100 static sites to Riyadh. MSF also agreed to send the coalition notification of its road travel – as do the UN and other aid agencies – but drew the line at ambulances. By definition, ambulance movements are unpredictable and take place at short notice, Abou Chaar explained.
Despite this deconfliction effort, the Saudi-led coalition has been widely criticised for the scale and frequency of its attacks on civilian sites, including a widely reported August strike on a school bus – that sort of civilian movement would not have been deconflicted.
In May 2018, a new but unopened MSF cholera treatment unit was hit in the Yemeni town of Abs in the northern province of Hajjah, despite the fact that its location had been reported to the coalition. Some 32 percent of all Saudi-led air raids have targeted non-military areas, according to the Yemen Data Project, an independent monitor. A UN human rights team reported in September that coalition airstrikes had killed at least 4,300 civilians, and in a number of incidents they examined field combat commanders had “routinely failed to consult” the no-strike list.
Abou Chaar believes there have been “intentional mistakes”, when the coalition may hit a “deconflicted” site on the basis of intelligence.
The Saudi official said “the protection of civilians and locations on the list is of highest priority to the coalition.” However, the deconfliction system cannot prevent all incidents, they added, noting that “involuntary mistakes are an unfortunate and infrequent reality of military operations, irrespective of the location.”
An OCHA official who worked on the Yemen deconfliction system, speaking in a training video, said the Saudi Arabian officer receiving the coordinate data was initially “overwhelmed” by the number of sites. There was a danger in listing too many locations, he believed, as it might become “quite possible that none of it is taken into consideration”.
In a recent speech, OCHA chief Mark Lowcock said of deconfliction in Yemen: “This system has proven largely effective in sparing the aid operation from accidental or incidental harm. Without it, we would simply not be able to deliver assistance safely.”
Syria: Wary participants
The UN has set up a much smaller deconfliction system for Syria, but it has been met with mistrust and slow uptake by NGOs that feel supplying coordinates to Russia and the Syrian air force (as well as the US military) paints a target on their backs.
The set-up is similar to what has been done in Yemen: NGOs supply coordinates to OCHA, which in turn provides them to the warring parties with air power.
A UN official told IRIN that 778 locations had been listed in Syria throughout the more than seven years of war in Syria, most of them added this year. And of over 120 health facilities reportedly hit by heavy weapons in Syria this year, only a handful were on deconflicted sites.
OCHA is currently urging sceptical NGOs to share coordinates for more locations in the last major rebel-held area, northwestern Idlib, where it estimates there are over 300 health facilities unlisted.
A brief air offensive mounted by Russia and Syria to dislodge rebels in and around Idlib in early September struck a hospital in Kafr Zita, in northern Hama province, that had been deconflicted via the UN. That was the sixth strike on a deconflicted location this year.
Mohamad Katoub, senior advocacy manager of the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), the healthcare NGO running the Kafr Zita hospital, told IRIN that its facilities made up four of the six hits this year. It only joined the deconfliction process in March, saying in a statement that sharing coordinates was a “last-resort decision” after ”relentless and systematic attacks on healthcare across Syria resulted in no meaningful accountability.”
“As there are no clear consequences”, other than incidents being mentioned in UN briefings, and as, Katoub argued, there is no accountability mechanism, the process should at least be made more public so as to “embarrass” the parties more clearly.
Other NGOs are participating in the UN’s system in Syria, but with mixed enthusiasm, in part because of their view – backed by US NGO Physicians for Human Rights and other organisations – that hospital bombings are a deliberate tactic by the government of Syria.
A 2018 UN Commission of Inquiry report on Syria alleges that “pro-government forces deliberately target medical infrastructure as part of their war strategy, which constitutes the war crime of intentionally targeting protected objects”, and details specific attacks in an “ongoing pattern of deliberate attacks on hospitals”.
An official with a different Syrian medical organisation working in opposition areas told IRIN that “we are sure this method [of deconfliction] does not protect medical facilities”, and that colleagues in the field find the idea hard to stomach. But its value, an official said, requesting anonymity for security reasons, is as “evidence of criminal activities of the regime or Russia if they attack health facilities”. If a deconflicted site is attacked, it would add “accountability in the future”, providing evidence for prosecutions, the official added.
Despite the six strikes this year, former UN humanitarian negotiator Jan Egeland supports the deconfliction process because it minimises overall attacks. He said in September: “There are clear indications that it is shielding those [deconflicted sites] from attack.”
Lack of accountability
The most obvious probIem is that deconfliction doesn’t always work: the location of Kunduz hospital had been supplied to US forces, (and Haydan’s to Riyadh). But the US nevertheless pounded the Afghan facility for 29 minutes. A US investigation found the attack, called in by Afghan ground troops, a “tragedy” due to human error and poor communication.
And when the system doesn’t work, there are no real consequences.
The Kafr Zita airstrike in September, which was met with a swift UN statement but no notable consequences, was the latest of six cases in which Russian or Syrian aircraft have hit deconflicted sites. In a briefing, Egeland reported that Russia was investigating four attacks that happened in March or April 2018. Any follow-up of the September cases in Idlib has so far not been made public.
In the same statement, SAMS said it did not expect UN-run deconfliction to stop attacks on hospitals. The possibility of collecting evidence of war crimes did however provide motivation: “Although we know that such attacks are likely to continue, we hope that this move will act as a deterrent and bring increased transparency to the reporting process.”
In 2016, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad denied that his government targets hospitals, saying they did not “have a policy to destroy hospitals or schools or any such facility”.
When the system doesn’t work, there are no real consequences.
The Saudi Arabian official said that when incidents did occur in Yemen the coalition was committed to “holding those responsible accountable, and putting measures into place to mitigate any future reoccurrence”, referring to its investigative procedures.
The coalition has formed a Joint Incident Assessment Team (JIAT) that investigates serious allegations. However, the coalition’s investigations have been criticised by Human Rights Watch and others for a lack of independence and rigour.
In the case of the Haydan hospital strike, JIAT said Houthi rebels had been using the hospital as a shelter, but that the coalition should still have notified MSF “about withdrawing the international protection from this building” before the bombing.
Last week, Amnesty International accused Houthis of taking up positions on a hospital roof during the ongoing battle for the Yemeni port city of Hodeidah. Several days later, the rights group said the coalition appeared to have struck close to a different busy hospital in the city.
Perceptions and errors
Using the word deconfliction itself is problematic for some: supplying coordinates leads to the “bizarre” phenomenon of NGOs “serving the purpose of the military”, according to analyst Michaël Neuman of the MSF-affiliated think tank CRASH.
By adopting the term deconfliction, rather than something more neutral like “notification”, unarmed aid agencies are revealing their “docility” in playing into a military agenda, Neuman said. Deconfliction may be a common-sense necessity, he added, but it has the disturbing effect of “helping the military designate the targets”.
Another issue is the data management skills required: current humanitarian deconfliction systems are ad hoc – based on manual records and spreadsheets – and are thus error-prone.
Deconfliction may be a common-sense necessity but it has the disturbing effect of “helping the military designate the targets”.
A data analyst familiar with the process in several conflicts explained some of the potential areas of error.
One is that geographic coordinates can be written in “minutes and seconds” format or in decimal format. Converting between the two can garble the location. Mixing up latitude and longitude usually puts a marker “in another continent”. Other risks include marking only the centre of a large compound rather than drawing the perimeter, the analyst said.
Aid agencies nevertheless have a duty to supply coordinates to deconfliction mechanisms, because if they don’t they “recklessly and criminally” endanger civilians and humanitarian staff, the analyst argued.
With or without deconfliction, the World Health Organization reports that attacks continue: by mid-October there were at least 215 heavy weapons attacks (including airstrikes) on health facilities this year, 121 in Syria, but just two in Yemen.
While deconfliction has become routine, it remains “a very strange concept” to MSF’s Abou Chaar. For better or worse “we’re locked into it”, he said, adding that he’s sure about one thing: where the responsibility lies. “A hospital shouldn’t be targeted,” he said. “That’s it.”