Over the past six months, a series of regional talks covering the Middle East and North Africa have achieved a significant milestone: rare exchanges among diverging armed actors to further the protection of civilians in their areas of operation. The talks brought together military and political representatives, as well as religious leaders to discuss protection obligations under International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and International Human Rights Law (IHRL).
Last week, armed actors from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) participated in a three-day conference organized by Geneva Call as part of its regional Garance Talks. Similar talks have been held since 2015 in Geneva, bringing together armed actors, humanitarian practitioners, experts, and other stakeholders for discussions at Villa La Garance, the organization’s headquarters. The latest round of regional talks, supported by the European Union’s Directorate-General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO), focused on the protection of civilian infrastructure, including water facilities, and the importance of ensuring humanitarian access in conflict and disaster-affected areas.
Geneva Call has been working to promote respect for humanitarian norms by armed actors globally since 2000 and the MENA region presents a unique set of challenges. “Civilian populations in conflict and post-conflict areas throughout the MENA region are confronted with similar protection issues. These include limited access to basic needs such as water, economic instability caused by conflict, and restricted humanitarian access. It is important to recognize that conflicts in the region are interconnected, and armed actors influence each other. They can also collaborate to promote positive behavioral change in protecting civilians”, said Vance Culbert, Head of Geneva Call’s MENA region and Colombia, further emphasizing the importance of a regional approach to strengthen cooperation among armed actors and religious leaders who influence them.
Even before the devastating earthquake that occurred along the Syrian-Turkish border, the MENA region had an estimated 50 million people in need of humanitarian aid, including 24 million children. Interlinked conflicts, environmental degradation as well as the lack of access to basic services have all contributed to the displacement of millions across the region. During the conference, participants examined several fictional case studies illustrating the legal obligations of parties to conflict to protect civilian infrastructure, including water facilities, and to allow the delivery of humanitarian aid. Through these discussions, participants explored challenges and practical measures to improve the lives of civilians in their respective communities, including ways to enhance humanitarian access in North West Syria. Their commitment to finding concrete solutions was evident throughout the conference.
One of the outcomes of the Regional Garance Talks held in Geneva, has been the adoption of a joint conference statement acknowledging armed actors’ obligations under IHL and IHRL and paving the way for further humanitarian engagement at the country level. “In the conduct of military operations, distinction must always be made between civilians and fighters as well as between civilian objects and military objectives,” says the three-page signed statement, which provides assurances for the safety of humanitarian workers and equipment, and their freedom of movement, in conflict zones. “We recognize that medical and educational facilities as well as water infrastructure are essential to ensure humanity and dignity in conflict.”
Hiba Mikhail, Geneva Call’s Legal and Policy Coordinator for the MENA region, highlighted that much of the value of the Regional Garance Talks lies in the interactions that take place among the participants: “Through the Regional Garance Talks, we create a safe space for armed actors of diverse religious and ideological backgrounds to exchange viewpoints and experiences on pressing issues. By discussing the legal requirements, challenges and solutions, we can understand each other better and find a common ground. This not only promotes dialogue and mutual respect but also allows for a better understanding of legal obligations to protect civilians in armed conflict. When armed actors know and understand their obligations under international law, it becomes easier to ensure their respect and implementation on the ground, ultimately leading to better protection for those most affected by conflict.”
Building on the results of these talks, Geneva Call will continue its efforts to promote compliance among armed actors through humanitarian engagement and the provision of technical and legal expertise. By doing so, the organization hopes to alleviate the suffering of millions of people affected by armed conflict in the Middle East and North Africa region.