Working to enhance humanitarian notification system
OCHA is enhancing its humanitarian notification system (or “deconfliction” mechanism) put in place in Syria in 2014. In an effort to maximize the added value of the system, OCHA is streamlining the process in consultation with humanitarian partners. This system has the potential to keep humanitarian staff and assets safe while providing assistance to vulnerable people.
Millions of people in Syria receive humanitarian assistance, many of whom rely on it almost completely for their wellbeing. The infrastructure to provide this is extensive – thousands of schools, hospitals, offices, warehouses, water points, and other facilities. It is also a massive logistical undertaking, with hundreds of deliveries and movements to support humanitarian programming each day. All of this takes place in an extremely volatile environment, with airstrikes, shelling, gunfire, and other violence affecting many parts of the country.
Rules concerning the protection of humanitarian facilities, personnel and movements in armed conflict are an integral part of international humanitarian law, which specifically sets out the obligations of parties to the conflict in relation to humanitarian work. To help support this and to help ensure that these activities are not interrupted or impacted by conflict, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)provides – with the consent of the organization – the locations of facilities or planned movements to parties to the conflict through a humanitarian notification (or “deconfliction”) mechanism. With this information, parties to the conflict can avoid impacting these locations with military activity. This is a measure used for operational safety in a number of conflicts in the world.
In Syria, a humanitarian notification system was set up in 2014. Since then notifications for over 1,000 locations have been sent to parties to the conflict, and hundreds of humanitarian movements. Participation in the system is voluntary and information about humanitarian facilities or movements are only shared with parties to the conflict based on the submission of a notification request by the humanitarian partner to OCHA.
Unfortunately, despite such notifications, a number of incidents have occurred when violence has impacted a facility or movement for which notification had been sent to parties to the conflict. Once the credibility of such incidents is ascertained, the parties to the conflict are officially informed and expected to conduct an investigation of the incident. In accordance with the provisions of international humanitarian law, these incidents may amount to war crimes.
In 2018 and 2019, 12 notifications regarding violent incidents that impacted facilities or movements were provided to parties to the conflict. Most of these incidents affected health facilities, while some affected schools and humanitarian movements. Feedback from parties to the conflict on the results of their investigations into most of these incidents is still pending. In addition to these 12 incidents, information is being compiled about several other incidents which affected facilities or movements, which were previously declared through the system. Most of the reported incidents in 2019 occurred during the recent escalation of conflict in northwest Syria since the end of April.
The damage and destruction of civilian infrastructure, including that used by humanitarian organizations to provide assistance to millions of people, is a sadly pervasive feature of the conflict in Syria. The damage and destruction of this infrastructure is also potentially a violation of international humanitarian law, as is conflict activity that impedes its delivery. The humanitarian notification system is one tool to help avoid such incidents and continue providing assistance to people who urgently need it. Ultimately, what is needed for a humanitarian notification system to work is for Member States to live up to their obligations under international humanitarian law.