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EU to finance new mechanism to document war crimes

‘We hope one thing has changed: The tolerance of IHL violations should have stopped.’

The first European Humanitarian Forum was held against a backdrop of rising humanitarian needs around the world.
The first European Humanitarian Forum was held against a backdrop of rising humanitarian needs around the world.

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The EU will finance a new mechanism to document violations of International Humanitarian Law, a top official told the inaugural European Humanitarian Forum in Brussels this week. 

Amid Russian bombardment of civilian areas and cities under siege in Ukraine, European Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarčič called for proposals for an independent, non-political entity that could collect information about war crimes.

The violations may be obvious, he said, “but it is not optimal to advocate for respect of IHL on the basis of abstract or anecdotal information… it would help to have a credible, systematic collection of data – and competent expert analysis of such data – on IHL violations that would better guide our policymaking, advocacy, and action.” 

His call on Monday came amid a ministerial session in which more than a dozen European foreign ministers and state secretaries condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and, as Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau put it, its “blunt disregard” for IHL.

“Courts will have to rule, but, for me, these are war crimes and crimes against humanity,” said German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock. 

UN relief chief Martin Griffiths told the forum that humanitarian access and IHL around the world is “fraying more and more each day”.

“We have to keep fighting for IHL,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said.

Second time around

While some ministers publicly voiced support for an entity that would systematically document violations worldwide, some countries were opposed to the idea behind the scenes, according to civil servants who spoke to The New Humanitarian at the forum. 

In 2015, the Swiss government and the International Committee of the Red Cross proposed an annual meeting of states to voluntarily report on compliance with the Geneva Conventions on the rules of war. But the resolution, presented at the International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, failed to pass after it was rejected by several governments. “It reflects the political realities,” one Western diplomat told The New Humanitarian at the time. “The Swiss and the ICRC misjudged the climate.” 

“The monitoring and reporting on IHL violations is essential. Actually, it is a precondition of the obligation to respect and ensure respect for IHL.”

Asked by The New Humanitarian what is different this time around, Lenarčič told a press conference after the first day of the Brussels forum: “We hope one thing has changed: The tolerance of IHL violations should have stopped. We hope this will be the case, so we will try.” 

The Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights has already proposed an answer to Lenarčič’s call.

It is applying for funding from the EU to develop an annual report on the state of IHL in the world. This would draw on sources already in the public domain; ensure the veracity of those sources, including through the use of crowd-sourcing and social media; analyse the data; and put it into a report or database.

“The monitoring and reporting on IHL violations is essential,” Gloria Gaggioli, the academy’s director, told the forum. “Actually, it is a precondition of the obligation to respect and ensure respect for IHL.” 

The reporting would include violations committed by all governments, including in Western countries, as well as non-state armed groups, Gaggioli said.

The annual report would not replace investigations on the ground, or automatically trigger sanctions, but it would aim to fill in some large gaps. Existing monitoring “is not global” (certain contexts or types of violations have been more scrutinised than others); “is not systematic” (methods and standards differ considerably), and “is not always accessible” (the information is scattered), Gaggioli said. 

NATO proposal raises eyebrows

The European Humanitarian Forum, the first of its kind, was aimed at finding common European solutions to the world’s humanitarian challenges. It was planned before the conflict began, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine underpinned many of its discussions.

Many EU foreign and development ministers encouraged continued solidarity with Ukraine, but a proposal at a separate meeting of the North American Treaty Organization, or NATO, this week to develop a humanitarian response fund for Ukraine was met with concern by many at the forum – they feared it would represent the instrumentalisation of aid by a non-neutral military alliance. 

"No one wants NATO's flag on this," one EU official told The New Humanitarian. "It would be disastrous for Ukraine." 

Instead, the forum focused on humanitarian responses to the crisis. In addition to a 500-million-euro EU assistance package announced a few weeks ago, Lenarčič said the EU would apply its European Emergency Response Capacity to Ukraine, tapping into its emergency teams, pre-positioned stockpiles of relief items, and potentially transporting relief items with EU planes (so called “humanitarian air bridges”).

Many participants also warned that the impact of the conflict in Ukraine on wheat production and food prices around the world could lead to, as Lenarčič described it, “the worst global food security crisis of this century”. He said he would be mobilising doors to improve the resilience of food systems in the most affected countries. 

Beyond Ukraine 

But throughout the forum, there were also repeated calls not to focus on Ukraine to the detriment of other crises around the world. 

“We have to be careful that there is no distraction in terms of resource allocation,” Filippo Grandi, the UN’s high commissioner for refugees, told the forum. He said he was “already very worried” that some European donor member states were using Overseas Development Assistance to cover the costs of hosting refugees on their own territory. “Unless we ringfence the resources that are dedicated to responding to crises... in all parts of the world, we risk – once, hopefully, the crisis in Ukraine dies down – … a huge backfire of other crises that have become much worse and even more difficult to address.”

Organisations in Afghanistan and Georgia have already seen funding shifting away from their programmes towards Ukraine, according to Smruti Patel, co-founder of the Alliance for Empowering Partnership, a network of local and national organisations. 

“Show solidarity equally,” she pleaded to the crowd.

Pleas from aid workers 

Aid agencies also pleaded with donors to provide them with exemptions to sanctions regimes and counter-terrorism legislation, which make it impossible for them to liaise with certain armed groups.

In places like Nigeria, Syria, and Afghanistan, aid workers complain that they cannot do their jobs due to restrictions imposed by Western countries not only on the financing of groups designated as terrorists, but also on interactions with them and/or travel to areas controlled by them.

Mariam Touré, advocacy lead of the Norwegian Refugee Council in Mali, said: “Humanitarian actors need to be engaged on the presumption of innocence, rather than having to prove that they are not guilty of financing terrorism when they are supplying humatiarian aid.” 

New commitments on climate change 

Participants at the forum also called on humanitarian aid donors to sign up to a new declaration on climate change, adopted by the EU Foreign Affairs Council on 21 March. 

The declaration – seen as a donor counterpart to the climate and environment charter for aid organisations – commits its signatories to invest in preventing, preparing for, anticipating, and responding to disasters; improving cooperation and partnerships between governments, donors, and aid organisations; and reducing the greenhouse gas emissions and impact on biodiversity of humanitarian activities.

Addressing rising needs

The forum was held against a backdrop of rising humanitarian needs around the world – and calls for more funding came from aid agencies and donors alike. 

“The humanitarian system relies on [far] too few donors,” said Matilda Ernkrans, Sweden’s minister for International Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Affairs. “It is not sustainable that just 10 donors provide 88 percent of global humanitarian funding.” 

But there were also familiar calls, throughout the forum, to make more effective use of the money that is available – by taking a longer-term approach to aid responses (the so-called “nexus”); localising aid; anticipating crises and acting early; and expending the political will to resolve conflicts. 

“It is diplomacy that must prevail,” Grandi, of the UN’s refugee agency, said. 

The New Humanitarian’s costs to attend the forum were covered by the EU. Edited by Andrew Gully. Video edited by Ciara Lee.

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