Delivering a keynote address in Brussels yesterday, Nielson said that although this trend was evident already in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Liberia, and the Palestinian territories, it has been dramatically highlighted by the crisis in Iraq. He cited last year's attacks in Baghdad on the headquarters of the United Nations and Red Cross as the worst-ever instances of this trend.
"This humanitarian space has increasingly been violated and under pressure in recent years. This is deeply disturbing. It threatens the delivery of aid that is vital to people in distress. And in the most extreme cases, exemplified by the attacks on the Baghdad headquarters of the UN and the Red Cross, relief agencies and their personnel have been specifically targeted," Nielson said.
This represents a serious assault on the 150-year-old body of international rules that established the principle that those who bring relief to victims of conflict -- whether on the battlefield or in the aftermath of large-scale violence -- should be seen as neutrals.
Nielson said this increasingly means that, though reluctant to do so, relief agencies must withdraw from crisis zones to ensure the safety of their own staff. He acknowledged that it is not easy to convince irregular militias or armed groups to respect basic international humanitarian law. But, Nielson argued, this "humanitarian space" can be reclaimed.
"However, there are ways of helping the humanitarian community to reclaim its 'space.' One of the most important [of them] is to maintain the clearest possible distinction between military and humanitarian personnel. This is absolutely crucial. If local populations understand this distinction -- and if it acquires credibility by the way people actually behave -- then the groups that deliberately target relief operations can be marginalized," he said.
Nielson said governments in conflict zones have a particular responsibility, especially those that are signatories to the relevant Geneva Conventions and are members of the United Nations. And he noted that some of these countries are, in fact, permanent members of the Security Council. In what was a reference above all to the conflict in Chechnya, Nielson said aid efforts have been hampered by measures such as visa restrictions, lengthy and difficult checkpoint procedures, and denial of access to radio frequencies.
He also said governments carry the primary responsibility for securing the safety of their own citizens. This principle, he said, also applies to "occupying powers where they are in power."
Addressing the spiraling violence in Iraq, he said the EU must demand "neutral, impartial access" to areas such as Al-Najaf, where he said a humanitarian catastrophe could be in the making.
Referring also to Iraq, Nielson sharply criticized what he called the "misuse or outright abuse" of the term "humanitarian" in the language of many governments. He said there are many recent examples, even among democratic governments, and he singled out Japan.
"If you recall newspaper articles I saw commenting and describing the Japanese troops to be sent to Iraq, this was characterized by the authorities as a 'humanitarian' mission. This is one case, but there were many others. We have also seen the terminology of humanitarian intervention being used, and not only in the case of Iraq but also before," Nielson said. He said what he called this "contamination of terminology" must be fought, if local populations are to trust humanitarian-relief workers.
Nielson also appealed to the government of Sudan to ensure full and unhindered access of aid agencies to the Darfur conflict zone in the west of the country. He noted that thousands have died over the past 12 months as a result of the conflict, saying human rights abuses include torture and rape and the systematic killing of civilians. Up to 2 million people have been directly affected by the crisis.
Nielson said access to Darfur remains very difficult, and the security situation for aid workers is "extremely precarious." He announced a new 10 million-euro aid grant, in addition to the 9 million euros the EU has already allocated for Darfur.
Tentative plans are evolving within the EU for a possible peacekeeping mission in Darfur, but Nielson sounded a note of caution. He said this should not take place without thorough analysis and coordination.