Humanitarian intervention contexts are changing. Between battle-based conflicts and asymmetric wars involving fragile States, rebellions and mercenaries, urban violence – involving paramilitary militias, gangs and other armed groups – has developed. How can humanitarian action unfold in such contexts?
Over the past decade, humanitarian actors have shown a greater interest in urban violence. This interest is reflected in their increased presence in urban settings and the high level of protection and assistance provided to the victims of this violenceSimon Reid-Henry and Ole Jacob Sending, “The ‘Humanitarization’ of urban violence”, Environment and Urbanization, vol. 26, n° 2, 2014, p. 427-442, … Continue reading. Humanitarians have turned to this kind of violence for two main reasons. Firstly, in the complex urban setting the humanitarian consequences of urban violence are equivalent or even higher than a traditional non-international armed conflict. For instance, in 2014, 95,640 people were killed in Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela and El Salvador due to situations of violence such as urban warfareUnited Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, World Drug Report 2014, United Nations publication, http://www.unodc.org/documents/wdr2014/World_Drug_Report_2014_web.pdf. Elizabeth Ferris states that it is becoming more difficult to differentiate between urban violence and a traditional armed conflict as the lines between them are becoming blurredElizabeth G. Ferris, The politics of protection. The limits of humanitarian action, Brookings Institution Press, 2011, p. 246-255.. Secondly, dramatic global urbanization has had major impacts on the world. With 54 per cent of the world’s population now living in urban areas, it is ever more likely that wars will be fought in citiesUnited Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, World Drug Report 2014, op. cit.. This rampant urbanization is in some areas exceeding the capacities of governments to respond and provide protection to dwellers affected by this violenceEtienne G. Krug, Linda L. Dahlberg, James A. Mercy, Anthony Zwi and Rafael Lozano-Ascencio (ed.), World report on violence and health, World Health Organization, 2002 p. 3-19. … Continue reading.
Traditionally, humanitarians have made a clear distinction between urban warfare and urban violence; however, academics, such as Mary KaldorMary Kaldor, New and old wars: Organised violence in a global era, Stanford University Press, 2012., have stated that this distinction is not so easy to define, and have developed the concept of “new wars” in an attempt to define contemporary manifestation of armed violence worldwide. The nature of new wars has less political motivations and often more economic, cultural, and social drivers. The actors of new wars are made up of diverse groups of informal militias, gangs, urban armed groups, which are linked with the fragmentation of the society, and social exclusion. Kees Koonings states that new wars are characterized by “transnational (illicit) flows of commodities and people, and new urban warlike identities”Kees Koonings, “New Violence, Insecurity, and the State: Comparative Reflections on Latin America and Mexico”, in Wil. G. Pansters (ed.), Violence, coercion, and state-making in … Continue reading. In this sense, urban violence could be defined as a form of urban warfareAlberto Concha-Eastman, “Urban violence in Latin America and the Caribbean: dimensions, explanations, actions”, in Susana Rotker (ed.), Citizens of Fear: Urban Violence in Latin America, Rutgers … Continue reading.
So, what are the challenges caused by the dynamics of a violent urban setting that affect the humanitarian protection activities carried out by humanitarian actors? And how do these strategies need to adapt to be effective in protecting urban dwellers in that setting?
In response to these questions, it is necessary to understand that the urban setting is a highly complex multiple featured environment (asymmetric levels of development, stressful population movements, density, diversity, large scale urbanizations, among others), which determines the impact on the vulnerability of its populationInternational Committee of the Red Cross, Urban services during protracted armed conflict: a call for a better approach to assisting affected people, ICRC, 2015, p. 13-18, … Continue reading. For example, with three billion people living in cities, there has been a growth of vulnerabilities for urban dwellers, which in turn has prompted humanitarian needs related to insecurity and high levels of violenceElizabeth G. Ferris, The politics of protection…, op. cit.; International Committee of the Red Cross, Urban services…, op. cit.; Raimond Duijsens, “Humanitarian challenges of … Continue reading. FuentesCarlos Fuentes, “Silent wars in our cities: Alternatives to the Inadequacy of International Humanitarian Law to Protect Civilians during Endemic Urban Violence”, in Benjamin Perrin (ed.), Modern … Continue reading recognizes that urban violence includes diverse violent behaviours taking place in urban settings, each of which experience violence differently. There is no clear link between the size of the city and the intensity of violence. Indeed, some small and secondary cities have a high level of violence. For KooningsKees Koonings, “New Violence…”, art. cit., urban violence is not only the result of the urbanization of armed conflicts but the result of socio-economic drivers as part of a protracted situation. Frequently, “urban armed actors seek to exploit often illicit economic opportunities and seek to control the urban physical and social space”Idem.. Therefore, urban violence is today characterized by armed groups challenging the power of the State in its legitimate control, monopoly of territory and the use of forceSee Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Penguin Classics, 1968.. When the State fails to provide the basic public services of health and security, the consequences are huge for the urban dwellers.
The differences in modalities that guide the response of humanitarian actors stem from the lack of a standard method or framework/doctrine in these situations. Thus, the approach, justification, and response differ from one humanitarian organisation to anotherSimon Reid-Henry and Ole Jacob Sending, “The ‘Humanitarization’…”, art. cit..
The dynamics of protection work in violent urban settings
The humanitarian protection work developed in urban areas is complex and could be either implemented directly or integrated using multi-sectoral responses. For example, in Mexico, it encompasses an array of interrelated actions, which range from the legal to community based activities, including social inclusion, education, advocacy and transformative agendas, among othersFrançois Grünewald, Béatrice Boyer, Domitille Kauffmann and Julie Patinet, Humanitarian aid in urban settings: current practice, future challenges, Groupe URD, december 2011, … Continue reading.
In urban settings such as some Latin-American cities, protection issues have blurred lines between multiple interconnections such as emergency and development; a rights-based and needs-based approach and protection and assistance, which are all sometimes crosscut by povertyElizabeth G. Ferris, “Ten Observations on the Challenge of Humanitarian Work in Urban Settings”, Brookings, 2011, … Continue reading. However, due to the nature of humanitarian organisations, very often, they do not have mandates and/or resources to cope with development, structural and chronic issuesIdem.. Many scholars have argued that due to the particularities of the urban setting, humanitarian actors need to adapt and implement new and specific modalities and strategies to respond to the protection problematic in violent urban settingsDonald Brown, Camillo Boano, Cassidy Johnson, Janani Vivekananda and Julian Walker, Urban crises and humanitarian responses: a literature review, University College London, april 2015, p. 18., while integrating the experience gained in conflict areas.
The characteristics of the violent urban setting make the protection issues specific and more difficult than those in rural areas. For example, access to victims, mobility of the population in need of protection, the multiplicity and diversity of urban actors creates particular challenges for humanitarian organisationsIbid., p. 23.. These features of the violent urban setting test the conception of protection, modalities and tools that humanitarian actors have implemented in traditional armed conflictsElizabeth G. Ferris, The politics of protection…, op. cit..
The challenges of protection work in violent urban settings
Protection work challenges have been categorized for the purposes of this article as assessment, security, coordination, legal, and human resources challenges.
At first, violent urban settings create challenges in collecting reliable data due to the complexity of these settings, which are characterised by high population densities and mobilityFrançois Grünewald et al., Humanitarian aid in urban settings…, op. cit.. In a violent urban setting, vulnerabilities interrelate and overlap. Humanitarian actors face during assessments the challenge of being capable of evaluating multi-layered and changeable urban systemsElena Lucchi, “Humanitarian interventions in situations of urban violence”, ALNAP Lessons Paper, London, 2014, p. 13-15, available at www.alnap. org/resource/9810.
Secondly, it is often difficult to differentiate between potential beneficiaries from the rest of the population as it is not always clear who needs humanitarian protection from urban violence or are dwellers living in conditions of povertyElizabeth G. Ferris, “Ten Observations…, art. cit.; Elizabeth G. Ferris, The politics of protection…, op. cit.. Moreover, the heterogeneity of the population, the density of the city and the dispersal of people in need of protection make the targeting task more complicatedUN-Habitat, Meeting humanitarian challenges in urban settings, 2011, see http://www.fmreview.org/sites/fmr/files/FMRdownloads/en/urban-displacement/zetter-deikun.pdf. Some victims desire anonymity to avoid stigmatization or security problemsIdem. And Interview with ICRC Focal point on Youth & Urban Violence, July 2016.. Furthermore, differentiating between victims and perpetrators is complicated by the fact that both live in the same social conditions, sometimes in the same area of the city or even are close neighboursAthena R. Kolbe, “Revisiting Haiti’s Gangs and Organized Violence”, HiCN, Working Paper 147, June 2013, http://www.hicn.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/HiCN-WP-147.pdf.
Victims (migrants, internal displaced persons, urban dwellers…) are not only moving but are less visible within the density and diversity of urban contexts, which makes it more difficult to gain access to them. Moreover, in some urban areas, including in Mexico, there is the “law of silence” – in these areas people in need refuse to talk due to fear of reprisals, as victims and perpetrators often live side by sideInterview with ICRC Focal point on Youth & Urban Violence, July 2016..
Humanitarian organisations are more exposed to criminality and gangsElizabeth G. Ferris, The politics of protection…, op. cit., p. 252.; and urban armed groups and individuals find it hard to believe that humanitarian actors are both neutral and independentICRC Conference, “Urban violence: what role for traditional humanitarianism?”, an event co-hosted by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the All Party Parliamentary Group on Conflict … Continue reading. Furthermore, as humanitarians may be less well-known than urban armed actors, the population may mistrust or not even understand their roles or the humanitarian principles involved. Conversely, humanitarian actors used to contexts where there is an overt political nature may understand less a context where there is no political nature, which in consequence can cause a greater risk of confusion and attacksIdem..
The criminality of the gangs makes any contact with them fraught with difficulties, and clearly represents a security challenge to the humanitarian actors. Thus, the urban setting blurs the lines between communities and armed actors. However, there are methods related to security implemented in contexts of traditional armed conflict that are valid in and transferable to violent urban settings such as the ICRC doctrine. However, it is important to adapt the modalitiesInterview with ICRC Focal point on Youth & Urban Violence, July 2016..
As a consequence, dialogue with armed actor and criminal gangs is particularly difficult. Indeed, gangs have unique features, modus operandi, methods of warfareAthena R. Kolbe, “Revisiting Haiti’s Gangs…”, art. cit., p. 4.. It is not easy to understand the complexity of these actors due to the diversity of groups, blurred lines with the rest of the population, and multiplicity of motivations (illicit activities, business, political, social, cultural)Elizabeth G. Ferris, “Ten Observations…”, art. cit.. There are also a high number of governmental forces with which humanitarian organisations need to engage in order to provide protection programs to dwellers and to maintain perception of neutrality.
Coordination with other protection providers
Urban settings could have a higher presence and diversity of actors and institutions at local, national and international levelsInternational Committee of the Red Cross, Urban services during protracted armed conflict…, op. cit.. Humanitarian organisations confront challenges to coordinate with urban actors to avoid duplication and have a consistent protection interventionInterview with Marc Bosch, Programme Manager for Latin America, Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Médecins Sans Frontières – OCBA, July 2016.. Also, working with an array of governmental institutions is a principal challenge not only because they might not know about the humanitarian work, but because it can compromise the principles of neutrality and independenceIdem..
However, accurate coordination with institutional actors is not always possible and sometimes the lack of coordination has negative effects on the capacity of governmental institutions to lead protection activities as the primary actorUN-Habitat, Meeting humanitarian challenges…, op. cit..
In situations of urban violence legal frameworks are more controversialFrançois Grünewald et al., Humanitarian aid in urban settings…, op. cit.. One of the challenges is to conduct a legal analysis and assessment so as to apply the adequate framework. The applicable legal frameworks in most contexts of urban violence are the International Human Rights Law and domestic law. This situation implies some challenges: “humanitarian actors have less ability to negotiate in domestic issues”Elena Lucchi, “Humanitarian interventions…”, art. cit., as they should better understand national frameworks, mechanisms and systems to implement protections activitiesFrançois Grünewald et al., Humanitarian aid in urban settings…, op. cit.. Nevertheless, there is currently a debate on whether the situation of urban violence in some contexts fulfil the criteria to be classified as a Non-International Armed Conflict (NIAC), which would mean that International Humanitarian Law (IHL) would be applicable. Until this is resolved, humanitarian actors are unable to clarify some legal obligations of the armed groups such as the distinction between those who are directly involved in the violence and those who are notSebastián Albuja, “Criminal violence and displacement in Mexico”, Forced Migrations Review, n° 45, February 2014, p. 28-31.. This debate has offered multiple arguments regarding intensity of the violence, the sophistication and organisation of the armed groups and the warfare methods used.
Furthermore, there are legal challenges regarding protection of migrants and people moving because of criminal violence. Albuja affirms that “existing norms and praxis do not fully respond to the complexity of human mobility in situations of intense criminal violence”Idem.. Although new interpretations of the Refugee Law could offer a broader protection for people fleeing urban violence, in practical terms the law is rarely implemented. Furthermore, even when national laws are being developed specifically to protect people moving from criminal violence, the impact of the new legal measures remains insufficientIdem.. Complementarity of the Refugee Law, International Human Rights Law (IHRL)Pierre Apraxine, Anne Duquenne, Sabine Fetta and Damien Helly (ed.), Urban violence and humanitarian challenges, European Union Institute for Security Studies and International Committee of the Red … Continue reading is still limited, and access and promotion of the human rights of the migrants in transit need to be further developed. Moreover, the political climate in many countries creates resistance to protection measures for asylum seekers escaping criminal violenceSebastián Albuja, “Criminal violence…”, art. cit.. What is more, the responsibility of protecting urban dwellers falls on the shoulders of the State as one of the main responsible of protectionElizabeth G. Ferris, The politics of protection…, op. cit.; Pierre Gentile, “Humanitarian organizations involved in protection activities: a story of soul-searching and … Continue reading. Because this is the case, if States do not have the political will to implement protection mechanisms, the task of humanitarian actors becomes more difficult.
Using short missions for humanitarian international staff does not allow enough time to understand urban violence operations, build a rapport with communities, armed actors and other stakeholders. Developing personnel competencies entails much time and organisational resources, and an organisation’s credibility rests on the ability to foster trust and dialogue with the different actorsElena Lucchi, “Humanitarian interventions… ”, art. cit., p. 9.. To tackle this challenges, there is a paucity of adequate candidates who are highly motivated and with the necessary experience to work in this setting.
Our recommendations follow the same division previously established.
Considering the complex nature of the context, it is recommended to analyse and integrate into the analysis the roots of urban violence, multiplicity of actors and their motivations. The data collection should go beyond using homicides rates; instead, baseline surveys should be implemented on protection concerns. Moreover, involving the communities during assessments and developing a bottom-up approach is highly recommendedInterview with ICRC Focal point on Youth & Urban Violence, July 2016..
It is vital to conduct a risk and security assessment, prior to any violence operation, and involve local and national organisations. This would help understand the specific dynamic in the city and what strategies to use when engaging the armed groups, it can be done in a direct or indirect ways. As in other settings it is important to engage communities, build up trust and implement a community-based approach, while working with local organisations and institutions. This should go hand-in-hand with trainings and diffusions on humanitarian principles, which is part of a specific discourse and communication strategies to promote and defend humanitarian principles in urban violent settings. Third parties (communities and other interlocutors) can pass messages and discuss security guarantees to provide assistance and protection to the populations.
Coordination with other protection providers
An appropriate response to the urban violence problematic is to coordinate and work with local partners, thereby building networks with several organisations in the public and private sector. Care should be taken when selecting partners as not all are well perceived of or respected or even knowledgeable on humanitarian principlesElena Lucchi, “Humanitarian interventions… ”, art. cit.. A stakeholder matrix tool would be a useful tool to identify relevant partners.
In urban settings, protection should be integrated in the strategy, and the response should be multi-sectorial, including relevant actors from different sectors of the community, that can influence behaviour and promote change. This multi-sectoral collaboration should be integrated into all phases of the programme management cycle, from the assessment until implementation and monitoringInterview with ICRC Focal point on Youth & Urban Violence, July 2016.. It is also important to foster community-based protection and then involve host communities. Humanitarians have been able to expand their reach by supporting social and community networks through small entrepreneurs or faith-based organisations, among othersUNHCR Interview, July 2016..
Additionally, when targeting the protection of migrants and refugees in violent urban settings, it is particularly critical to involve the host community and create initiatives that benefit not only the newcomers but also the local populationIdem..
Advocacy and a transformative agenda need to be included in the project design so as to influence urban policiesInterview with the Program Manager for Latin America, Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Médecins Sans Frontières – OCBA, July 2016.. One of the main challenges identified was the application of the law to protect people. Humanitarian organisations can work on building national capacities to implement adequately laws. As the work in cities requires a better knowledge of domestic laws, training delegates (mobile staffs) on this should be considered. In most of the urban violence contexts, International Human Rights Law governs. Therefore, promotion of Human Rights and Human Rights dialogue with the authorities is essential for the protection of victims.
It is recommended to use missions longer than 18 months because time is needed to understand the setting, build trust with the interlocutors, and cultivate relationships and institutional positioning. In general terms, a mid/long-term approach, for at least five years must be considered. Positive protection impacts on urban violence require considerable knowledge, time and resources as this problematic has social and structural rootsIdem.. For organisations to tackle urban violence problems they should design operations that move out from pure emergency modeElena Lucchi, “Humanitarian interventions… ”, art. cit..
Furthermore, humanitarian staff should be trained to operate on urban issues; and the organisations should find strategies which would enable lessons learnt to be passed on to new staff. Finally, humanitarian organisations need to lay down guidelines and policies related to the work on this particular violence.
This article has tried to show that understanding protection work dynamics and challenges in the complex context of violent urban settings should enable the humanitarian community to adapt and implement operational measures to provide suitable protection to the populations, and cope with the realities of violence today.
However, further research regarding operational solutions to challenges for humanitarians in urban violent settings, and a deeper analysis on legal, and ethical challenges, is needed to better understand the new role of humanitarian organisations working on this question and their adaptation needs. Additionally, it could be interesting to explore the view of different urban community actors, regarding the work of humanitarian organisations in these settings, in order to enhance protection strategies that consider dwellers as an agent of their own protection. Indeed, empowerment of these inhabitants would continue being a major task for humanitarian and national actors.
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