The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law

« Calling things by the wrong name adds to the affliction of the world. » Albert Camus.

Cookies disclaimer

I agree Our site saves small pieces of text information (cookies) on your device in order to deliver better content and for statistical purposes. You can disable the usage of cookies by changing the settings of your browser. By browsing our website without changing the browser settings you grant us permission to store that information on your device.

■ DECONFLICTION – HUMANITARIAN IDENTIFICATION AND NOTIFICATION

Deconfliction is a term originally used in military jargon to describes the process of reducing the risk of friendly fire within an army or between allied forces operating in the same battle space. “Deconfliction” has more recently been extended to include “the exchange of information and planning advisories by humanitarian actors with military actors in order to prevent or resolve conflicts between two sets of objectives, remove obstacles to humanitarian action, and avoid potential hazards for humanitarian personnel.” From this humanitarian perspective, “deconfliction” involves “the notification of humanitarian location, activities, movements and personnel in both static and non-static locations to the military for the purpose of protection against attacks and incidental effect of attacks under international humanitarian law.”

Deconfliction refers to ad hoc military security procedure aimed at preventing mistaken attacks and killing of soldiers belonging to the same or to an allied party to an armed conflict. It differs from the military duties imposed by IHL for the general protection afforded to civilians during the conduct of hostilities. These duties are framed under the principles of distinction, precaution and proportionality that prohibits direct or indirect killing of civilians and other assimilated person such as impartial humanitarian personnel. Deconfliction also differs from the additional rules of IHL governing the special protection of the medical mission that includes the identification and notification of protected medical facilities, transport and personnel as well as the use of protective emblem. Knowledge of and reference to the IHL framework governing humanitarian identification and notification is required to ensure that humanitarian notification is not turned into de facto military clearance.

This procedure has been promoted by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) in the wake of its resolution 2286 on the protection of the medical mission in 2016. It urges states and parties to the conflict to integrate practical measures for the protection of the wounded and sick and medical services into the planning and conduct of their military operations. The UN Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs later referred to the establishment of a humanitarian notification systems (HNS).

Practically speaking, humanitarian “deconfliction” often takes the form of a list of global positioning system (GPS) coordinates shared by humanitarian organizations with militarized actors. In many instances such as in Syria and Yemen, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) plays a central role in compiling and transferring to parties to the conflict huge database listing the coordinates of all kind of humanitarian, medical and civilian’s locations given by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and authorities. However, this OCHA mechanism is self-declaratory and does not entail the control by OCHA on the effective nature of the various “deconflicted” locations. Organization such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) try to maintain a direct contact with parties to the conflict and to only transfer GPS coordinates of location directly under their responsibility. The aim is to stir mitigation and negotiation process in case a party to the conflict consider that a location may have lost its IHL protected status due to specific circumstances and have been used to commit act(s) harmful to the enemy.

Deconfliction mechanism differs from identification and notification procedures as envisaged in the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols, mainly because “deconfliction” – although is aimed at reinforcing “protection against attacks and incidental effect of attacks under international humanitarian law” – is not an international humanitarian law (IHL) but a purely military term. Humanitarian organizations must therefore understand the specificity of humanitarian identification, notification and protection framework as well as processes framed under IHL versus the non-binding and military centred “deconfliction” system.

Under IHL, a humanitarian, civilian and medical location may lose its protected status if it is used outside its humanitarian or medical function to commit act(s) harmful to the enemy. Being registered on a military deconfliction list is a trustful process between military allies but humanitarian organizations cannot rely on such deconfliction list to ensure their security. They must always guarantee their control over the strictly and exclusively humanitarian, medical and civilian nature of their activities, personnel and facilities which gives them their protected status under IHL.

IHL provides that the parties to an armed conflict must at all times distinguish between civilian and civilian objects, on the one hand, and combatants and military objectives on the other hand, and those attacks may only be directed against the latter.

The general protection of civilians in conflict is framed by IHL trough the fundamental principle of distinction that prohibit direct attack on civilians. It creates an imperative duty towards a commander to positively identify military objective as opposed to civilians. Therefore, IHL does not provide for special distinctive sign allowing identification of civilian people, building or goods. Military Commander are also under the obligation to respect the two additional principles of precaution and proportionality with regard to non-intentional civilian damage caused by an attack on a legitimate military target located close to civilian person or objects.

This general protection of civilian is supplemented by the special IHL protection regime provided for specific personnel, goods, activities, and premises such as medical ones. IHL notably provide specific emblems, signs and signals to allow the identification of protected medical personnel, transport and units but also for cultural object and property, civil defence personnel, their installation and material as well as for camps of prisoners of war or internees, etc.

In the case of medical personnel, transport and units, the specific protection stipulates they must also be “respected and protected in all circumstances”. This specific protection goes beyond the plain prohibition of attacks and require all parties to the conflict to actively facilitate medical activities carried out by impartial medical personnel according to IHL and medical ethics. However, this specific protection would be meaningless if medical personnel and objects could not be clearly identifiable as such by all actors of the conflict. For that purpose, the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols regulate the use of the distinctive and protective emblems of the Red Cross, Red crescent and Red crystal for medical personnel, transport and units operating in situations of armed conflict.

In addition to this distinctive emblem, IHL also invites parties to the conflict to notify each other of the location of their fixed medical facilities. In that sense, “deconfliction” is closer to the notion of notification found at article 12(3) of API, but it has a different scope of application since it covers static and non-static locations, as well as non-medical facilities and is applicable solely in times of international armed conflict.

However, numerous domestic laws confer to the ministry of defence the authority to permit the use of the emblem in situation of armed conflict. Therefore, domestic legislation on the emblem would largely deprive non-state armed group party to the conflict from the right to use the red cross emblem for protecting medical facilities under their territorial control. This constraint has been notably exemplified since the start of the Syrian war in 2011 by absence of emblem and numerous attacks on medical facilities located in territory under the control of non-state armed opposition groups. However, it must be recalled that the display of the medical protected emblem is a visible sign of the protected status of a medical facility but not a precondition for it. Indeed, it is the knowledge of the humanitarian and medical nature of a given person, activity and facility that create its protected status whether or not it displays the protective emblem. The knowledge of the humanitarian and medical status of a facility by the parties to the conflict may also be asserted through special notification system. Humanitarian notification is therefore instrumental in the protection against attack as a complement to visual identification.

It must also be noted that IHL do not provide any specific visual protective emblem for non-medical humanitarian personnel and activities. They can only rely on their general protected civilian status. Indeed, the various logos of the numerous humanitarian organizations involved in relief activities do not benefit from the international legal recognition of the distinctive or protective emblems by parties to conflict.

Beyond the visual identification system laid out by IHL, contemporary trends in the conduct of hostilities heavily make extensive use of electronic geo-localization as mean of identifying military targets and protected facilities. As a result, the GPS coordinates of fixed medical or humanitarian facilities have become a central element for the identification and ensuring a protection from attacks.

The electronic identification system is increasingly used by humanitarian organizations to inform warring parties of the location of humanitarian personnel, structures, activities, and transports. This activity is referred to as “deconfliction”.

Despite their importance for the protection of (civilian) medical units, the purpose and scope of these three different, yet complementary, concepts (of identification, notification and “deconfliction”) are exposed in the below section.

“Deconfliction” v. identification and notification

While identification and notification, as envisaged by IHL, only concerns medical personnel, transport or units, “deconfliction” has a wider scope of application. Indeed, “deconfliction” is not limited to medical personnel, transport and units as strictly defined under IHL. For the purpose of IHL, protected medical personnel, transport and units refer to specific categories of persons and objects which are strictly defined in the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols. “Deconfliction”, however, deals with the notification of “humanitarian locations, activities, movements and personnel”, which are the locations, activities, movements and personnel involved in humanitarian operations. While the notion of “humanitarian” is not clearly defined, it is generally understood as encompassing not only medical personnel, transports and units within the meaning of IHL, but also all civilian personnel and objects involved in humanitarian activities. “Deconfliction” can therefore be use to indicate the presence not only of medical structure, but also of (non-medical) civilian humanitarian facilities. In other words, not only specially protected persons and objects under IHL can be “deconflicted”, but all civilians and civilian objects involved in humanitarian operations (and which therefore fall under the general protection afforded by IHL to civilians and civilian objects).

The extensive use of electronic deconfliction for medical and humanitarian personnel and activities raise concern as to the effectivity of the IHL general protection of civilians who cannot benefit from deconfliction list.

It also raise additional concerns for humanitarian and medical organization since it does not provide guarantee of protection and may turn into burdensome administrative process or vetting system, undermining IHL unconditional right of humanitarian assistance for victims of armed conflict.

The humanitarian notification system can be considered as one of the tools available in the civil-military coordination and a mean for humanitarian access and security. It shall not shift the responsibility for upholding IHL which lies solely with the parties to the conflict.

AttackCiviliansDistinctive (or protective emblems signs and signals)Duty of commanderMedical ServicesMethod (and Means) of warfareProportionalityProtected PersonsProtected Objects and Property .

For Additional Information:

Breitegger, Alexander, “The legal framework applicable to insecurity and violence affecting the delivery of healthcare in armed conflicts and other emergencies”, International Review of the Red Cross , Vol. 95, no 889, (2013), pp. 83-127: 123-124.

Debarre, Alice, Improving “notification” critical to safe humanitarian work , IPI Global observatory, January 2019, https://theglobalobservatory.org/2019/01/improving-notification-critical-safe-humanitarian-work/

Sassòli, Marco, International humanitarian law rules, controversies, and solutions to problems arising in warfare , Edward Elgar Publishing, Cheltenham: 2019, p. 243.

Studer, Meinrad, The ICRC and Civil-Military Relations in Armed Conflict . Geneva: ICRC, 2001, https://www.icrc.org/en/doc/resources/documents/article/other/57jr5r.htm

Ulbricht, Bailey, Weiner, Allen, Humanitarian notification systems & intentional attacks against hospitals , April 15, 2021, Lieber Institute, https://lieber.westpoint.edu/humanitarian-notification-systems-intentional-attacks-against-hospitals/

United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), Operational guidance for humanitarian notification systems for deconfliction (HNS4D) , Working paper, v. 1.0, May 2018, https://sites.google.com/dialoguing.org/home/resource-centre/resource-library#h.p_XSgRRYvAuIjY.

UNOCHA, Recommended Practices for Effective Humanitarian Civil-Military Coordination of Foreign Military Assets (FMA) in Natural and Man-Made Disasters. Annex C Humanitarian Notification Systems for Deconfliction (HNS4D): Good Practices and Lessons Learned 2018 , September 18, 2018, https://www.unocha.org/sites/unocha/files/180918%20Recommended%20Practices%20in%20Humanitarian%20Civil-Military%20Coordination%20v1.0.pdf