The state of affairs in Ukraine: flagrant violations of humanitarian principles

François Audet
François AudetDirector of the International Studies Institute of Montréal since March 2018, François Audet is also a professor at the School of Sciences and Management (ESG) of Quebec University in Montréal (UQAM) and is the Scientific Director of the Canadian Research Institute on Humanitarian Crisis and Action (OCCAH). He holds a doctorate from the National School of Public Administration (ENAP) of Quebec, which focuses on the decisional processes of international humanitarian organisations in accordance with the reinforcement of local capacities. Before embarking on an academic career, François Audet accumulated over fifteen years of experience in the humanitarian aid sector. His research interests focus on new practices in humanitarian relief, the effectiveness of humanitarian action towards refugees, and Canadian policies towards development assistance.
Sara Germain Sara Germain is an associate researcher with the Canadian Research Institute on Humanitarian Crises and Aid (OCCAH) and a student researcher for the Laboratory on Influence and Communication (LabFluens). She is also responsible for communications and social networks at the Institut d’études internationales de Montréal (IEIM). As a Masters of Communication student at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), her research interests are mainly related to socio-digital media, citizen participation and the hegemony of discourse in Russia.
Stéphanie Maltais
Stéphanie MaltaisStéphanie Maltais has a PhD in international development. Her expertise lies at the intersection of crisis management, global health, and international development. Her doctoral thesis focused on health crisis management in fragile states with a case study on the Ebola epidemic in Guinea. She completed a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Ottawa, in addition to being a lecturer at l'Université Laval and an associate professor at Mohammed VI Polytechnic University in Morocco. She is a member of the scientific committee of the Humanitarian Alternatives review and an associate-researcher with the Senghor Chair on Health and Development in Sub-Saharan Africa at the University of Ottawa and the Canadian Research Institute on Humanitarian Crises and Aid (OCCAH).

Published on March 17, 2022

Our partner, the Canadian Research Institute on Humanitarian Crises and Aid (Observatoire canadien sur les crises et l’action humanitaires – OCCAH in French), has been monitoring the humanitarian consequences of the conflict in Ukraine.[1] A dozen researchers are working to assess and analyse the situation in order to inform the reflections of humanitarian and academic actors as well as policy makers. In this article, three of them provide an initial overview and points of attention.

The violence of the war that has been going on in Ukraine since 24 February shows us that the Kremlin – the centre of power in Moscow – is not responding to any imperative to protect civilians.[2] Civilian targets are deliberately being attacked, with a blatant disregard for the principles that govern international humanitarian law and despite the agreements regarding humanitarian corridors which were concluded as part of the peace negotiations between the two States during the various rounds of negotiations.[3] In addition, the speed of the evolution of the conflict makes it very difficult to organise and provide humanitarian access, both to protect local populations who are close to the front lines or who are still on the move, and those who have already crossed borders. As needs increase, obstacles to civilian protection are piling up.[4] Given the scale of the crisis, how is the humanitarian assistance provided by the “international community” organised and what challenges will countries and organisations have to face? The purpose of this article is to provide an update on the current humanitarian situation in Ukraine and in neighbouring countries.

An indiscriminate offensive strategy

On 24 February 2022, the Russian Federation launched a major military operation throughout Ukraine with the implicit objective of halting Ukraine’s rapprochement with the West, including with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). This invasion provoked a broad consensus of international condemnations and sanctions against Russia.[5] Although the Russian army initially limited itself to a strategy of bombing Ukrainian military sites during the first forty-eight hours of the invasion[6] – which was in line with the discourse conveyed by the Kremlin in connection with the demilitarisation of Ukraine –, the violence quickly took the form of indiscriminate attacks on several densely populated urban areas, including the cities of Kyiv[7]In this article, we have chosen to favour the Ukrainian form of the capital’s name (Kyiv – Київ) rather than its Russian form (Kiev – Киев). and Kharkiv. Social infrastructure has also been bombed, causing numerous civilian casualties,[8] which can only be interpreted as a violation of the Geneva Conventions. We note in particular the attack on a paediatric hospital in Mariupol on 10 March.[9] Although it is difficult to verify due to the absence of international observers in the field, the United Nations Refugees Agency (UNHCR) has identified more than 600 civilian victims (as of 15 March 2022[10] The real number is probably higher considering that the Ukrainian authorities had already declared the deaths of 2,000 civilians as of 3 March 2022.[11] Moreover, the mobilisation of citizens in armed militias complicates the distinction between combatants and non-combatants.[12]

Terror and mass displacements

The violence that followed the march of Russian troops to the large cities of Kyiv and Kharkiv also led to mass movements towards the country’s western border.[13] According to UNHCR, more than three million civilians have already fled Ukraine,[14] the equivalent of the entire population of Kyiv. This figure is growing at a rate of about 200,000 per day. The United Nations Children’s Fund anticipates the displacement of five million Ukrainians to the surrounding countries of Poland, Moldova and Romania.[15] Whilst Poland declared on 22 February that it was ready to welcome nearly a million refugees,[16] there are now more than 1.8 million. Current scenarios indicate that their number could quickly reach more than three million, far exceeding the country’s hosting capacities.

These mass movements, made up mainly of women, children and the elderly – since men between the ages of 18 and 60 cannot leave the country[17] – will have a significant impact on Europe’s demographic balance. The vulnerability of displaced persons is also a cause for concern: the overrepresentation of women in these mass displacements greatly increases the risk of sexual violence and exploitation.[18] In addition, such a high number of vulnerable refugees will lead to challenges in management. In this context, the whole of Europe will have to contribute to the reception effort.

Aggravating factors

This war is part of an already difficult context for Ukraine, which has had to deal with significant deficiencies that predate the conflict. First amongst the aggravating factors of the humanitarian situation, we note the supply difficulties for basic necessities, mainly in the East of the country which is still suffering the repercussions of a civil conflict that has lasted for more than eight years.[19] With the takeover of the roads supplying the Ukrainian capital, civilians are therefore directly affected: disruption of supply (electricity, water, medicine, etc.). This context also increases the constraints of access for the delivery of materials to the civilian population, as well as the operation of certain emergency infrastructures such as field hospitals. Russia’s physical attacks and cyber-attacks,[20] including on water, telecommunications and electricity infrastructure, are also of great humanitarian concern. Finally, recent reports also indicate that Russia is using cluster bombs[21] which are indiscriminately devastating, in addition to directly violating the Geneva Conventions.

Criticised humanitarian corridors

Following the second round of negotiations held on 3 March, an agreement was reached between the two countries to ensure the establishment of humanitarian corridors to allow the evacuation of civilians and the delivery of medicines in compliance with the fourth Geneva Convention.[22] The Ukrainian State has tasked the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) as an independent actor to coordinate and oversee activities.[23] and Despite the negotiations to ensure this safe and temporary right of way, it must be remembered that humanitarian corridors are subject to the goodwill of the conflicting parties.[24] Humanitarian corridors are therefore not a guarantee of protection for civilians. Less than twenty-four hours after this agreement, the Ukrainian authorities declared a halt to the evacuation of civilians in the cities of Mariupol and Volnovakha because of the persistence of Russian attacks.[25] The situation in the first of these cities is all the more alarming because of the lack of respect for humanitarian corridors, which not only prevents civilians from leaving the territory encircled by the Russian army, but also prevents its access by humanitarian actors. This siege, which has lasted since the outbreak of hostilities on 24 February, has resulted in extreme shortages of basic products for the population, including food and drinking water, lack of heating, proximity to corpses and lack of care for the chronically ill.[26] and … Continue reading On 13 March, the ICRC urged the conflicting parties to find a solution for the evacuation of the inhabitants of Mariupol without delay,[27] whilst recalling that international humanitarian law prohibits the targeting of civilian infrastructure, hospitals and medical personnel.

Since these corridors have been established, there have been many criticisms. President Zelenskyy accused the Russian army of carrying out attacks in a humanitarian corridor to terrorise the population.[28] In addition, the Russian proposal to open humanitarian corridors leading to Russia, directly or via Belarus, was strongly contested by Kyiv[29] and openly criticised by Emmanuel Macron in his capacity as President of the Council of the European Union.[30] According to these actors, Russia is instrumentalising the Ukrainian population by directly attacking civilians and civilian infrastructure in Ukraine whilst proposing to welcome Ukrainian refugees,[31] a manoeuvre aimed solely at restoring its image vis-à-vis its own population, which is being kept largely ignorant or misinformed about what is happening in Ukraine.

Unequal reception of refugees

Many stories have come to light about the selection of refugees coming to the border. Some say that law enforcement gives priority to Caucasians at the expense of residents of Ukraine from the Middle East, Asia or Africa.[32] This discrimination contravenes the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, Article 3 of which states that States shall apply the Convention without discrimination as to the race, religion or country of origin of persons.[33] The invasion of Ukraine affects all persons residing in the territory, so all refugees should be able to benefit from protection.

Which long-term solutions for refugees?

Although the organisation of aid is underway on the European side, there is still a great deal of uncertainty as to the types of solutions envisaged and the limits of the neighbouring countries’ capacities to welcome and support these populations in good conditions.[34] The spontaneous opening of the European space and the reception of Ukrainian refugees by neighbouring countries are indisputable. But the challenges of housing, supply chains, access to care, or education for the many children – who account for more than half of the refugees[35] – will quickly catch up with the European community. Although non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and international organisations can meet some of these needs, hosting policies in European countries will soon be called into question. It is not clear how long the refugees will remain. How can we organise a humanitarian response over the short, medium and long term? Sooner rather than later, Europe will have to answer these questions. The European community will have no choice but to learn from recent experiences of influxes of refugees. If one first thing can be hoped for from this war, it is that it will make it possible to implement a lasting and decent aid for the Ukrainian refugees, now and for as long as necessary, which should also benefit the Syrian, Afghani or African refugees who are already present on European territory.

The international community’s response

The regional plan for assistance to refugees that has been launched may already inform us of the prospects envisaged by the international community, since it is valid for the period from March to August 2022.[36] It brings together the United Nations, international and national NGOs and other civil society organisations to support host country governments and ensure secure access to territories for refugees and the provision of essential protection goods and services: food and water of course, but also sanitation, psychosocial support, education, health services and unrestricted cash assistance. The plan also pays special attention to the most vulnerable people such as survivors of violence, unaccompanied children, the elderly, and women who are single or heads of families. On 1 March 2022, the United Nations also launched a two-fold humanitarian appeal to the needs of the approximately six million internally displaced persons in Ukraine (to the tune of 1.1 billion dollars) and refugees outside Ukraine, mainly in Poland. Hungary, Romania and Moldova (for 551 million dollars).[37]

Extremely provisional conclusion

The purpose of this article was to provide a brief overview of the complex situation in Ukraine, a challenge given the volatility of current events. What is certain is that although international sanctions are piling up to bring Russia to its knees, the ongoing conflict is endangering the lives of civilians, with a total disregard for international humanitarian law. The humanitarian community is already working to coordinate all activities to respond to this serious crisis, whilst maintaining its work around the world, in a context where the Covid-19 pandemic remains active globally. Although the war in Ukraine is rightly the focus of all concerns, many aid actors agree that the wave of solidarity it has unleashed must be accompanied by a similarly sustained interest in other crises and contexts which must not be allowed to sink into oblivion.[38]

Translated from the French by Juliet Powys

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7 In this article, we have chosen to favour the Ukrainian form of the capital’s name (Kyiv – Київ) rather than its Russian form (Kiev – Киев).
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