Humanitarian assistance struggling to do its job, protect vulnerable people

Luis Miguel Carrilho, Police Commissioner of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), visits the Rwandan Battalion in Bangui. (UN Photo/Nektarios Markogiannis)

An investigation is underway following fresh claims of sexual abuse perpetrated by international forces in the Central African Republic. In Syria, a hospital supported by Doctors Without Borders was attacked by airstrikes, leaving at least 11 people dead.  the two events sound a lot like reports from 2015

You’d be forgiven for thinking the two events sound like updates of reports from 2015. The hospital attack was on Monday and the U.N. announced its investigation on the same day. Two very different problems keep popping up this year that share the same core concern – efforts to protect vulnerable people during humanitarian crises are failing. They illustrate the broader problems faced when trying to respond to war-torn countries.

Monday’s attack is just the latest in a string of incidents for Doctors Without Borders. Its clinic in Kunduz, Afghanistan was hit by a U.S. airstrike in October, killing 42 people. Numerous other attacks have taken place on hospitals it supports in Yemen. Most are due to the strikes from the Saudi-led coalition. And in Syria, it is believed that Russia was behind this week’s attack.

Russia denied its responsibility for the attack. Calls for an independent form of accountability for the Kunduz attacks were stonewalled by the U.S. And while Doctors Without Borders has succeeded in bringing news attention to the attacks on its facilities, those responsible are not punished. Similarly, an independent panel that investigated the U.N.’s handling of sexual abuse cases in the Central African Republic found the “end result was a gross institutional failure to respond to the Allegations in a meaningful way.”

A spokesperson for the U.N. confirmed that four new allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation against minors were leveled against peacekeepers from the Republic of Congo. The investigative team dispatched from the country on Monday has 10 days to determine if it will proceed with an investigation. If they decline, the U.N. says it will proceed on its own.

Sharp criticism internally and externally has led to a more proactive response by the U.N. to allegations of sexual abuse and rape in the Central African Republic. The problem came to public attention when an internal whistleblower told France and the Guardian of a months-long investigation by the U.N. that was not gong anywhere. Since then, more cases have come to light. The U.N. is getting better at quickly announcing accusations to the public, but is struggling with preventing such abuse from happening entirely.

Doctors Without Borders has the same problem. It seemingly cannot avoid attacks on its medical facilities. The one struck on Monday was willfully hidden from Syrian authorities to prevent such an incident.  The medical humanitarian organization shares the GPS coordinates with the Syrian government for two facilities located near the city of Aleppo and one in Atmeh. It is standard practice to do so in order to designate the location as a hospital and clinic, thus making it a war crime to attack.

The hospital in Idlib province in northern Syria was attacked a few times before Doctors Without Borders began providing support. It knew there was a risk in doing so, officials told Foreign Policy, but proceeded and withheld the exact location in the hopes an attack wouldn’t happen. That did not work out as it was one of five medical facilities reportedly attacked on Monday.

“The destruction on the [Doctors Without Borders]-supported facility appears to be a deliberate attack on a health structure”, denounces Massimiliano Rebaudengo, Doctors Without Borders’s Head of Mission, in a statement. “The destruction of the hospital leaves the local population of around 40,000 people without access to medical services in an active zone of conflict.”

The break down of healthcare access and security both make it harder on the people affected by the wars in Syria and the Central African Republic. Solving the problems of airstrikes and sexual abuse will require very different solutions, but there is an equal urgency to enact changes that will allow humanitarian efforts to achieve their goal of protecting the most vulnerable.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.