Monday, August 4, 2008

Armed violence and humanitarian action in urban areas

Mogadishu, Grozny, Kabul and Baghdad have all been affected by the violence of an armed conflict at one time or another. For humanitarian organizations, which often work more in rural areas, these places present particular challenges. Are other towns in countries which are at peace but experiencing uncontrolled growth the breeding ground of new forms of violence between armed groups which will be of concern not only to development agencies but also to humanitarian organizations?

Feature by Marion Harroff-Tavel. The author of this text is political adviser to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The text does not necessarily reflect the views of the ICRC but rather those of the author.

More than half the planet’s inhabitants are town-dwellers. According to UN-HABITAT’s State of the World’s Cities Report 2006/7, urbanization trends indicate that the largest towns will be found mainly in developing countries. Whereas megacities of more than 20 million inhabitants already exist in Asia, Latin America and Africa, most urban migrants will be drawn to smaller towns with less than one million inhabitants. Towns in the developing world will absorb 95% of urban growth over the next two decades.

More than half the planet’s inhabitants are town-dwellers. According to UN-HABITAT’s State of the World’s Cities Report 2006/7, urbanization trends indicate that the largest towns will be found mainly in developing countries. Whereas megacities of more than 20 million inhabitants already exist in Asia, Latin America and Africa, most urban migrants will be drawn to smaller towns with less than one million inhabitants. Towns in the developing world will absorb 95% of urban growth over the next two decades.

The aim of this text is to share some thoughts on the subject of urban violence from the specific – but not sole – perspective of armed conflicts. The thoughts will be organized as responses to seven questions.

Is it appropriate to analyse violence in relation to the place where it occurs?

Some researchers in the field of social sciences consider it dangerous to talk of “urban violence” and hence to territorialize violence. In their view, emphasizing the location could mean that the far more drastic situation of people living in rural areas is overlooked. To apply sectoral thinking to violence is tantamount to falling in with a trend dictated by the excessive media coverage of urban violence. It is to run the risk of demonizing towns – the melting pot of all the phobias of western societies, which sometimes make urban areas out to be more dangerous than they really are. There is a need to define the actual subject more precisely; are we discussing violence against towns (as in a siege or a blockade, for example)? Violence in towns? Violence as a natural phenomenon of a town, or rather its shanty towns, which are experiencing uncontrolled growth while, at the same time, there are more and more security compounds guarded by private companies? It is easy to understand why the issue needs to be clarified.

There is, however, a difference between the violence associated with urban conflicts and that associated with rural conflicts. Moreover, there are particular problems associated with efforts to meet the protection and assistance needs of individuals and communities affected by armed violence in towns, as I will endeavour to show below.

Can a distinction be made between violence associated with an armed conflict and other forms of violence in urban areas?

Towns are the scene of many different forms of violence which may occur simultaneously: armed conflict; gang warfare to gain control of a territory or illegal trade; endemic community violence in towns that have been divided into ghettos; organized crime; urban riots related to hunger; or spillover phenomena during mass gatherings which get out of hand (this is neither a typology nor an exhaustive list).

Apart from those forms of collective and community violence, there are other levels of violence described by the World Health Organization in its very interesting World report on violence and health (2002): violence in relationships (at school or at work), violence within the family (within couples) and individual violence.

Can these forms of violence be clearly differentiated?

From an analytical point of view, this is not the case as violence is the outcome of a complex interplay of individual, relationship, community and social factors. It is not enough to tell an armed group to stop recruiting children without taking an interest in what causes children to join it (for example, when the group is the only protection which the child thinks it has) or what causes the group to recruit children. It makes little sense to compartmentalize the analysis and not to reflect on what causes certain practices or underpins human behaviour.

From an operational point of view, humanitarian organizations have to make the best possible use of limited resources. The ICRC has been given a precise mandate within the sphere of international humanitarian law as it applies to situations of armed conflict. The international community has also recognized that it has a right of initiative in less intense situations of violence and even in other situations if its neutrality and its independence can be turned to advantage. It is therefore primarily the effects of violence occurring during conflicts or other forms of collective armed violence which are at the heart of its activities.

Considering the sociological development of violence, belonging to the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has a major advantage for the ICRC. With the support of their International Federation, the National Societies often respond to a wide range of acts of violence (suburban riots, clashes at sporting events or political gatherings, marital violence, etc.). They thus have experience and skills that the ICRC does not.

Such complementarity in terms of analysis and operational practice should be optimized. To take the example referred to above, what is the connection between violence becoming an everyday part of human and social relationships (women and children who are assaulted daily, violence at school, in the street, at sports events) and the behaviour of bearers of weapons during fighting? Is it more natural to take up arms when physical aggression is often the way of settling differences in everyday life? What effect does an armed conflict have on domestic violence in the post-conflict period? It is time for violence to be viewed and addressed in a holistic manner, thus enhancing efforts to prevent it or curbing excesses at every level.

What makes urban settings specific to bearers of weapons?

For the armed forces, towns present a particular challenge because of the risks associated with street fighting and the opportunities for the enemy to hide, especially in the areas that it has “liberated”. The logistic and security constraints often make it impossible to achieve a decisive victory. The skills needed to fight in an urban area are different from those needed in a rural area.

For armed groups, towns have a particular attraction. They provide a concentration of coveted wealth. They are symbols of power, the seats – in the capital cities – of embassies and the international media, and thus present opportunities to establish contact with the international community. They are communication and transport hubs, providing an open door for – legal or illegal – trade in goods and advantages for arms supplies. They are also places with hospitals, schools and various administrative offices, and therefore provide opportunities for a better standard of living and access to consumer goods.

From towns, certain armed groups can maintain links not only with rural uprisings but also with criminal circles which carry out dishonest deeds in return for payment. The anonymity of town life makes it easier to establish such links than in rural areas where everyone knows everyone else. Disciplined armed groups which respect humanitarian law can exist side by side with criminal armed groups and bands of criminals who become involved in politics and thus gain respectability. The mix of objectives and practices gives rise to hybrid entities which sometimes maintain contact with each other and seem to pass on knowledge of tactics and techniques to each other. All in all, the urban environment can lend shape to groups which operate and develop there. Does that mean that towns influence the behavioural model of armed groups in them? The question has yet to be answered.

Compliance with humanitarian law, if that is their intention, is a challenge for all bearers of weapons, regardless of whether they are employed by the State or not, because of the difficulty of distinguishing between combatants and civilians and between military objectives and civilian goods. Placing military objectives in the middle of a residential district, next to a school or a municipal library, therefore increases the risk of civilians being hit, their homes demolished or cultural goods destroyed.

How does violence in an armed conflict affect the inhabitants of a town?

For town-dwellers, the conduct of hostilities by warring parties in an urban setting produces special effects. First, the density and concentration of the population in urban areas intensifies the effects of conflict. For example, the combined use of heavy artillery, armoured vehicles and hand grenades tossed into cellars full of people has devastating effects. The front lines move around within the town. Civilian buildings provide shelter for combatants who move from one house to another. One part of the town can change hands repeatedly and wounded people find that the hospital is on the other side of the dividing line or children find that they can no longer get to school. Furthermore, towns offer bearers of weapons opportunities which can be fatal for the population: they can block or mine ways out of a district, “filter” people taking exit routes that are still open and refuse to give humanitarian agencies and the media access to the scene of the fighting.

Moreover, in a town affected by armed violence, the coexistence, or even the cohabitation, of civilians with armed groups is part of everyday life. There is therefore a high level of risk, particularly the risk of people being killed, wounded or subjected to ill-treatment or rape. Similarly, certain armed groups can also put pressure on the population to support their cause by helping to finance them, hiding combatants and weapons or acting as a human shield.

The ways of surviving in towns are different from those in the country, but are not necessarily more restricted. It may be difficult for the population to obtain water, food or electricity in a town because of shortages, price increases or the disruption to market mechanisms (whereas in rural areas, the people affected have more resources and are more mobile). Having said that, in towns the informal sector is highly developed and contributes to a redistribution of wealth. Informal jobs in the provision of goods or services (cigarette sellers, cleaners, cart pushers, etc.) and the black market make it possible for money to change hands. Whereas a farmer whose fields are affected by erratic rainfall cannot survive from one harvest to the next without assistance, town-dwellers can more easily find ways to survive.

Finally, mutual support mechanisms in urban areas are probably less effective in the anonymous environment of a town, particularly for migrants, displaced persons or rootless refugees, although there is no empirical evidence to confirm that view. Moreover, vulnerable members of the population such as old people, who are taken care of by their community in a village, are often isolated in towns. They rely on a social network, which includes home visits and pension payments. When the administrative systems collapse and their families have fled the area (an option that they often reject), they are left to die in utter destitution.

What challenges does a town in conflict present for humanitarian agencies?

Humanitarian agencies face three types of challenge in those highly dangerous contexts: identifying people who need protection and assistance; implementing programmes for them, and clarifying humanitarian law, on which those activities are based.

In a town, it is not easy to identify people who have been placed in a vulnerable position by an armed conflict or another situation of violence. Take the example of displaced persons. They can be scattered throughout the town. They may repeatedly move home (because of fighting, demolition of the slums in which they live, or adherence to a minority or an opposition group pursued by the authorities, for example). They do not always register for assistance, especially when relatives have given them shelter. They sometimes wish to blend into the anonymity of the town for reasons of security or to avoid being forced to leave. All in all, locating displaced persons and identifying them without placing them in danger while limiting assistance to that group of people only – whereas economic migrants may be in a situation that is just as desperate but are not entitled to any kind of assistance – gives rise to problems that are both practical and ethical. In urban areas, the heterogeneity of the population makes targeting beneficiaries of aid a sensitive task, with all the risks that it may entail in terms of maintaining order when relief supplies are distributed.

The implementation of programmes to provide health care, sanitation, water or food is a complex issue. The obstacles which need to be taken into account are described in the Background document (30IC/07/5.1) submitted to the Thirtieth International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (and prepared jointly by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the ICRC): in urban areas, the basic infrastructures for human life (hospitals, water purification plants) are complex and a high level of technical skills is sometimes required to repair the damage caused by the fighting. Those repairs must be carried out urgently although access to all the information that would be of use is not necessarily available and in the knowledge that mistakes would endanger the lives of thousands or tens of thousands of people. Another concern is the difficulty of finding equipment and experts to operate the services necessary to provide essential goods once infrastructures have been repaired. Finally, the vast logistic system that sometimes needs to be set up to allow relief supplies to be distributed is not easy to manage (even if the warehouses are nearby, whereas in rural areas they are spread over a wide area).

A troubling scenario which is of particular concern to those in charge of health care is the spread of contagious diseases in urban areas. Regardless of its impact on the survival of the people, a major health crisis such as a pandemic would help to intensify the fighting in a town that is at war. It would probably result in the stigmatization of groups which lend themselves to being made a scapegoat (for example, outsiders connected with the place from which the disease spread). Emergency measures enforced because of the health situation (quarantining, for example) would make it possible to control the population. In situations like that, it is natural to fear the violation of human rights and possibly of international humanitarian law.

What ways and means of meeting those challenges have been explored?

The ICRC is considering how to restore respect for humanitarian law when conflicts affect towns, to find a means of preventing the voluntary enrolment or forced recruitment of young people in armed groups and to improve the quality of assistance programmes.

First, the ICRC’s Legal Division has consulted experts on the subject of “direct participation in hostilities” in the context of an armed conflict (i.e. when international humanitarian law is applicable). That study should clarify the distinction between civilians and combatants and what may be considered as direct participation in hostilities by civilians. It also examines the consequences for civilians participating in hostilities. The conclusions of the study will be important with regard to respect for humanitarian law in urban areas, where, as we have seen, civilians and combatants intermingle by virtue of the configuration of the location and sometimes because that is what they want.

The ICRC has also expressed deep concern over the consequences of the widespread use of cluster munitions in armed conflicts, especially if those munitions are released over inhabited areas such as towns. It therefore took part in the negotiations that led to the adoption in May 2008 of the Convention on Cluster Munitions, a historic agreement which contains several prohibitions, including the use of those weapons.

Second, in order to prevent young people under 18 years of age from enlisting in armed groups, the ICRC unit in charge of education and behaviour is analysing the individual and environmental factors which cause children or adolescents to join such structures, either voluntarily or under coercion. The research on “children at risk” shows that, far from being vulnerable and passive victims, they are creative and resilient players who are trying to protect themselves and to improve the quality of their lives. It also identifies the need for a global approach which combines urgency, development and the fight against impunity to allow those children to achieve their objectives by other means. An analysis of that kind is of considerable interest not only for towns affected by armed conflict but also for towns in countries at peace where armed gangs made up of adolescents constitute an insecurity factor.

Third, the ICRC’s Assistance Division, and particularly the staff in charge of economic security, are considering the most appropriate means of ensuring the economic security of individuals and communities in urban areas. On the one hand, past experience needs to be analysed: food distribution; support for bakeries as well as collective kitchens or canteens; distribution of vouchers enabling purchases to be made in previously defined shops; measures intended to restore commercial links or to re-establish handcrafts. On the other hand, new measures must be tried out, e.g. distributing cash; subsidizing wages for a few months for minorities in difficulty or unemployed persons; or carrying out agricultural measures to encourage town-dwellers to grow their own food (municipal allotments).

However, we need to remain realistic; it is outside the scope of humanitarian agencies to re-establish the economic activity of a town so that it can become self-sufficient in terms of food. Assistance programmes would not suffice. Agricultural production in urban areas can only make a negligible contribution to the food needed to supply the entire urban population. Only protection measures (to reanimate a town that has been brought to the verge of total collapse by a blockade, for example) could have an impact of that order.

When deciding on the appropriate means of ensuring the economic security of the poorest people affected by armed violence, account must be taken of economic, nutritional and environmental factors. As we have seen, support often needs to be provided for social, health-care, sanitation or water supply systems and to ensure that once those systems have been rehabilitated, they continue to function even if the front lines move. Attention also needs to be paid to the effect that those choices have on other fields of activity. For example, raising livestock in urban areas (source of protein and income) helps, in certain circumstances, to spread disease. Obviously, projects like those need to be preceded by serious studies and the people who implement them need to be well trained.

What role might be played by a humanitarian agency in towns where urban violence is not caused by an armed conflict?

Some towns in countries at peace have to deal with endemic violence. Armed groups hold sway. As they do not necessarily wish to govern the State, they do not attack the authorities – or do so only rarely; corruption sometimes even allows them to develop a degree of complicity with those in power to ensure that they are left in peace. However, those armed groups defend themselves against other groups and sometimes against the police in order to maintain control of a territory from where they can carry out illegal trade (in narcotics, weapons, oil, contraband goods or human beings) to obtain a better standard of living. All in all, their primary objective is to maintain control of resources and their trade for lucrative purposes. It is difficult to establish whether, for them, resorting to violence has an ideological or political dimension. Where is the dividing line between criminal and political activities in situations in which the State has been destabilized by lawless areas in which crime can flourish freely, especially when the armed group controlling the territory claims to defend an identity?

The humanitarian consequences of urban violence between gangs or dealers and the police in some towns in countries at peace (to take that as an example) are very similar to those of armed conflict: people killed, ill-treated or tortured, short or long-term displacement as a result of the fighting or expulsion, psychological traumas among children, excessive use of force during repression or detention. Moreover, the weapons used (assault rifles, machine guns, anti-tank mines, military guns, hand grenades, etc.) may be the same as those in the hands of combatants involved in armed conflicts. Finally, armed bands of dealers sometimes control specific geographical areas in which illegal substances (such as cocaine) are sold.

Today, the ICRC is called to take action: how will it adapt to the development of violence in urban areas? Of course, civil society is generally better organized in towns than in rural areas and a large number of competent associations (including the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies when they have branches in districts at risk) are already trying to stem the violence, to deal with its effects and to defend people’s rights. ICRC action could be considered superfluous. However, the people from districts known for their violence are often so stigmatized that the authorities do not give priority to developing health-care services or schools in those areas (violence is, moreover, partly due to that stigmatization and the lack of educational, professional, social or economic prospects). The judicial system does not function properly, favouring impunity and thus leading to all kinds of abuse. The prisons are in a lamentable state. Veritable urban front lines have to be crossed to get wounded people away from the fighting between armed groups. In addition, at times some police forces make excessive use of force in repressing violence.

In urban areas, outside the sphere of armed conflict (i.e. below the threshold for the application of international humanitarian law), the ICRC has decided to focus on situations of confrontation between organized armed groups which have major humanitarian consequences. Some pilot projects are being carried out, particularly in Latin America. They give rise to questions such as: What do people at risk expect and need? Are the ICRC’s independence and neutrality an advantage in such situations? Are its tools, which were devised for armed conflicts, suitable for use in contexts where the needs fall within the sphere of development as well as that of emergencies? How can a holistic approach be developed, networking with other humanitarian agencies (National Societies, associations of lawyers or doctors), while taking advantage of the specific nature of the ICRC?

Resisting the temptation to distinguish between “honourable” political violence and “villainous” social violence will be a challenge for all humanitarian agencies. For people who have been killed, wounded or harassed, the suffering or the outcome is the same. Moreover, it should not be forgotten that many armed conflicts are about gaining control of resources for personal profit. Aren’t those conflicts frequently the extension of endemic criminal activity which may well be re-established once peace has been restored? Finally, there is cause to wonder whether collective social violence, when it is added to growing economic differences and the stigmatization of certain groups, does not have a political dimension at its origin, even if its perpetrators do not have a political agenda.


The International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent which was held in Geneva in November 2007 considered the phenomenon of urban violence and other global developments in today’s society, which threaten to aggravate such violence: increase in international migration, risks of pandemics, deterioration of the environment and global warming. Convinced that urban violence is a major challenge, the Conference called for reinforcement of operational cooperation as well as partnerships between its members and with other organizations, the media and the private sector. We trust that its Declaration “Together for humanity” (Annex to Resolution 1 of the 30th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, 2007 ), which, among other things, addresses the issue of prevention and the reduction of violence, and efforts to combat discrimination, will be followed up by action! We all share the responsibility to ensure that that happens.

Source: www.icrc.org