At the beginning of August, Amnesty International published a report on how the tactics of the Ukrainian Armed Forces were putting civilians in harm’s way and led to civilian casualties. The report was met with widespread criticism from a number of different channels, including experts in international humanitarian law, who highlighted the legality of the Ukrainian tactics. I even jumped on the proverbial bandwagon with my own blog piece highlighting the inherent danger in divergent views towards protection under international humanitarian law, between those undertaking armed action and norm entrepreneurs – as exemplified by the Amnesty International report.
While I believe this criticism remains a key takeaway from the report, I feel another aspect should be highlighted that is potentially of greater consequence to the broader humanitarian community. The Amnesty Report not only failed to get international humanitarian law right in the context of Ukraine but was also symptomatic of humanitarian action hesitancy to localise in armed conflict. It is not my intention to pile on criticism to Amnesty International. It seems through the apology issued only days after the report and the investigation into what went wrong with the report that Amnesty International has recognised the published report as a misstep. However, I do want to use their report and the response to the report as a way of better understanding the general failure to localise in armed conflicts and particular in the context of Ukraine, as well as to discuss ways to ameliorate it.
Localisation in Armed Conflict
While a key point of contention in humanitarian action in recent years, localisation remains poorly defined. The concept who is a local actor in humanitarian action is nebulous as well are the channels of improving localisation. While there is room for contestation on this, this article views localisation not only in terms of the implementation of humanitarian action by local actors but also as the meaningful inclusion of local voices in the definition of local needs and context specific humanitarian action. This is arguably more difficult and certainly more disruptive of established humanitarian structures than simply the inclusion of local actors in implementation, but it remains necessary for the long-term success in localisation.
The debate on localisation in situations of armed conflict is certainly not new. The push for localisation around the World Humanitarian Summit was not universally seen as a step in the right direction, as seen by MSF. In practice since 2016, there has been an increased effort to localise humanitarian action (though arguably not enough), although much of this effort to localise is focused on crises not acutely involving armed conflict, like natural disasters. A recent study in Yemen highlighted that the highly politicised contexts of armed conflicts still present a major hurdle for relinquishing control of humanitarian aid by humanitarian organisations from the Global North. This has also been the case in Ukraine, with many potential opportunities missed for humanitarian actors on the ground. Before the Russian escalation in February, Ukrainian actors had necessary experience, after being involved in the armed conflict with Russia for over seven years, and had a vibrant environment of civil society organisations and strong infrastructure – many of the tools that could have let local actors lead the humanitarian response. Yet, the opportunity to streamline support for local organisations was missed nearly since the outset. Similarly, ACAPS and other organisations have highlighted the doubling of work between local and international actors and the need for more direct funding.
There are certainly challenges in the face of a rapidly developing crisis to ensuring streamlined coordination, however the lack of localisation is not only attributable to these logistical complications. There are other challenges to directly funding local actors. Often this hesitance may stem from an assumption held by some humanitarian actors that local actors could struggle with impartiality or neutrality. Firstly, it leads to the question as to whether any humanitarian actors can truly be neutral in such highly politicised environments. At the same time, recent reflections on the principles of neutrality and impartiality in humanitarian action have highlighted the potential negative impacts of strictly adhering to the principles in politicised contexts. This is particularly true as humanitarians shift from working in non-international armed conflicts, i.e. civil wars, to international armed conflicts, where states are in direct conflict with one another. The former has been the dominant type of armed conflict since 1945 and thus has been the typical armed conflict environment since proliferation of humanitarian actors – meaning that many in humanitarian action are not used to the unique political challenges of international armed conflicts.
Given the scrutiny that organisations like the ICRC and Amnesty International have come under during the conflict and the heavy involvement of Western Countries in supporting the Ukrainian forces, one could argue that organisations from these countries may also struggle with their ability to act neutral and impartial given pressure at home. Yet, despite the lack of direct funding and control given to local actors on the ground in Ukraine, there is still little seen in the way of critical reflection on how organisations with funding from Ukraine’s allies can abide by such rules. Along these lines, the situation in Ukraine seems to be reflective of the more general situation of localisation in aid: missing opportunities to revolutionise efforts to localise while continuing with assumptions about the capacity of local actors without critical reflection as to whether these assumptions are justified. This is visible across the humanitarian response on the ground in Ukraine; however, one case that underscores the issue is that of the Amnesty report.
The case of Ukraine and the Amnesty Report
As discussed in my previous blogpost, the report details chiefly behaviour that does not violate international humanitarian law but rather highlights the precarious environment in which modern armed conflict is fought. Accusations that the Ukrainian armed forces put military objectives and housed soldiers in urban areas, which in turn meant that civilians were put in the crossfire, is a tragic reality of the armed conflict. However, not defending urban areas in a defensive war means ceding the territory, and it is not realistic to expect armed actors to surrender a city in the name of protecting it, particularly when they feel they are fighting for the survival of their nation.
According to reports, the feedback of Ukrainian actors, including Amnesty Ukraine, was not included in the report. Likewise, the Ukrainian government has made accusations that those interviewed were in Russian-controlled camps, potentially impacting the feedback given. Perhaps including Ukrainian voices in this report would have put the apparent transgressions of the Ukrainian armed forces in a new light – one in which accusations were not made that nearly immediately had to be all but taken back.
In the case of the Amnesty report, the inability to localise is striking and potentially more telling of failures to truly localise than channelling money or in-kind assistance to and through local organisations. Historical cases of the diversion of aid in humanitarian crises by politicised local actors often focus on in-kind and monetary assistance, which can be physically diverted and monetised. Giving local actors the opportunity to give feedback to a report on supposed abuses of international humanitarian law carries with it little risk for instrumentalisation and highlights the global northern bias toward ideas of neutrality and impartiality. US based organisations and media outlets have often been on the forefront of calling out US abuses of international humanitarian law. However, such actors are rarely called into question on their ability to be neutral. When viewed in this context, the hesitance to localise in armed conflict seems less based on the ability of local organisations and partners to be neutral and impartial, but rather whether they are already perceived as humanitarians and a more biased view of who can be neutral and impartial.
Humanitarians should not take any voices as gospel, however, there should be room for local actors to contribute to reflections of facts on the ground even in armed conflict. There must be a balance found between the assumption that local actors cannot be neutral or impartial, and humanitarian action being coerced as a tool of armed conflict. Such a balance could be found by including them in the dialogue around humanitarian action within the context from the forefront. However, to do this, there needs to be a recognition that such actors may or may not be impartial or neutral, but also that these voices will need to fit into the political work that is inherent in much of humanitarian action – whether we like it or not.
Will Jamison Wright is a research associate at the IFHV at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum and the communications and administrative manager of the Network on Humanitarian Action (NOHA). He is currently a PhD candidate at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum focusing on international norms and non-state armed groups. Will is a graduate of the George Washington University and the NOHA master in international humanitarian action.