The improvised roadblock comes as a surprise, bringing us to a halt on the road to Sinjar. The gunman stands in the middle of the long stretch of road, his face masked by a balaclava, his assault rifle in the carry position. To one side, another black-clad figure disappears silently into the low scrub; to the right a third masked man crouches, waiting just off the edge of the road, assault rifle to his shoulder. We stare at each other across 50 metres of asphalt, our Land Cruiser now idling on the single lane road in northern Iraq. My Iraqi Red Crescent colleague Mohamed places his hands on the passenger-side dashboard, in clear view, following the practiced security script. Making no other movement, the big Sunni silently looks through the cracked windscreen, across the dusty bonnet marked with the two distinctive red emblems, the universal symbols that we are not part of the fight. I reach from the back seat and place my hand on Faisel’s shoulder. “We are good?” I ask, searching for reassurance from the local Shia driver. This will play out differently depending on who this gunman is, where he is from, what he is part of. Different actors in this world play by different rules at different times.
This is the complex space of contemporary conflicts in which modern humanitarianism operates, with few fixed boundaries and multiple actors with shifting, often opaque agendas. The Iraqi Government army is far to the south, recently routed by ISIS, which now occupies Mosul, some 80 kilometres to our east. The thousands of displaced people who last week filled the roads out of Mosul have largely dispersed, either sheltering in relief camps in Sinjar, where we are now heading, or travelling further north across open country to the apparent safety of the mountains. That leaves the Peshmerga - the military forces of the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan who now control this part of the country — and the Iranian-backed Shia militia. The Kurds have taken the opportunity to push further south to extend their political and economic territory and build a buffer against ISIS. The Shia - who call both ISIS and the Kurds their enemy - are mobilising for a fight, their strategy as yet unclear. To further complicate matters, somewhere hidden in this mix of armed actors are US and Australian special forces, supporting and training various factions. Many of these armed actors follow the rules of war that work to protect civilians and allow free access to neutral humanitarian actors.
On the road to Sinjar, the man in black waves us forward with a casual flick of the hand. “We are good; we are good,” Faisel says quietly, first in Arabic then in
English, as he slowly drives forward. They are Shia, he quickly explains before we reach the temporary checkpoint. “They know we are going to Sinjar, they know we are here to help their people.” Based on an understanding of the context and its different actors, his reasoning focuses on the motivations of the gunmen. We are here to support “their” community, so are likely to be provided access. His reasoning is slightly different to mine, which follows the established Red Cross script of combatants respecting the neutrality and impartiality of the emblems and allowing access. Two days in the field, new to Iraq in particular and humanitarianism in times of war in general, this legal lens I have had repeated to me throughout my Red Cross career is how I view protection in armed conflict.
From this view, reflected across humanitarian scholarship and policy, it is the official frameworks that drive humanitarian protection in war. In this understanding, these laws limit the behaviour of armed actors towards civilians and provide access to neutral and impartial humanitarians. This state-based, legal approach to protection has remained relatively consistent over the years, slowly extending to accommodate intra-state conflicts and non-state armed actors. However, in today’s wars these legal frameworks seem fundamentally at odds with the on-the-ground realities they are supposed to govern. This dissonance has only become more apparent as various non-state armed actors have increasingly asserted their authority, drawing on cultural and religious traditions that are often different to these Western inspired legal frameworks. Yet the international frameworks persist despite the myriad of contradictions and the buoyancy of a range of actors that have an uneasy relationship with these legal norms.
This book seeks to resolve this puzzle by studying the everyday negotiations of humanitarian protection in war-torn contexts. It seeks to explore the complex space between the humanitarian frameworks and protection outcomes that remain largely unseen. What happens between the official frameworks at one end, and protection outcomes at the other, where there exists a mix of different actors, interests and agendas? What if the key things that affect protection outcomes in contemporary conflicts are not only, or even primarily, the universal laws and principles? In this, my concern is how these frameworks operate in contemporary wars where civilian protection and relief are negotiated by a complex network of actors.
To this end, I will focus on the lived experiences of humanitarian workers who routinely grapple with these frameworks in real-world contexts. But first it is important to step back and examine the established understandings of how these international laws and principles work. This chapter will then go on to examine non-state armed actors, whose presence has proved so disruptive to these official frameworks, before outlining a critical perspective of humanitarian laws and protection outcomes in contemporary wars.