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Six humanitarian issues that must be addressed in 2022 - ICRC

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This article is part of the The Davos Agenda

Peter Maurer
President, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)

  • Humanitarian organisations such as the Red Cross aim to provide impartial and unconditional help to people suffering the effects of conflict and violence, but several other issues are rising up the agenda for 2022.
  • In addition to tackling COVID-19 through vaccination programmes, issues such as the climate crisis are particularly hard to address in conflict zones.
  • The impact of digital technologies, autonomous weapons and cyber operations also require urgent international attention - not just from the humanitarian sphere, but from a wider spectrum of partners, organisations and governmental bodies.

Freshly dug graveyards and destroyed homes littered the landscape as I travelled through the Afghan countryside last September, shortly after pictures of desperate Afghans swarming Kabul’s airport dominated global headlines. The world now knows – or it should – that many millions of Afghans are suffering through a cold, hungry winter.

“We either care, or we don’t,” I told my peers at the time - and either way has consequences. We either care unconditionally for those suffering from this upheaval in order to prevent complete collapse, or we postpone aid until political conditions fit our ideas and watch as millions face disaster and instability.

A staple of the Red Cross Movement’s approach is to help people impartially and unconditionally, when they are in need, in emblematic moments of disruption of lives and livelihoods. Alongside that bedrock idea of helping those suffering the effects of conflict and violence, here are six other issues that are high on the humanitarian agenda at the start of 2022:

  1. Delivering a shot in the arm

The world’s uneven response to COVID-19 and the fast rise of the Omicron variant shows how vulnerable we all are when large parts of the world aren't vaccinated. It is an absolute necessity to vaccinate people living in particularly fragile contexts – those that are displaced, marginalized or detained, the urban poor, and those living through violence and conflict – if we are to end the COVID-19 pandemic.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) estimates that more than 100 million people now live in areas controlled by non-state armed groups. Armed conflicts are unpredictable and can leave infrastructure in bad shape. Negotiations with armed groups are time-consuming and sensitive. Vaccinating populations in these areas is difficult. It is, however, essential.

In 2022, we need to boost this humanitarian issue: there must be a global, decisive and collective effort to reach all populations in need of protection from COVID-19.

  1. Tackling dangerous hot zones

The combination of conflict, climate change, pandemics, poverty and weak governance is a killer. Our teams in Somalia recently visited Galgaduud, where more than 300,000 people have been affected by a severe drought. On top of that huge stressor, in late October heavy fighting broke out between the Somali National Army and an armed group, killing dozens and forcing some 100,000 people to flee.

Nine of the 10 countries considered the most vulnerable to climate change are in Africa, and seven of those nine are also affected by armed conflict. I want to see a greater share of climate finance allocated to climate adaptation in fragile contexts. Efforts to reduce carbon emissions are important, but they must be complemented by action to help communities adapt to a changing climate.

  1. Encouraging tech to jump in

Misinformation, disinformation and hate speech may not be new, but the use of digital technologies has turbocharged its spread, driving conflict dynamics, violence, and harm. This causes physical harm beyond the digital space, for example when online hate speech incites violence against a minority group. This is a humanitarian issue. Psychological and social harm triggered by online/offline harassment, defamation and intimidation can, in turn, lead to persecution, discrimination or displacement.

Should Facebook, Twitter and other tech platforms do more to control this? We think so, but it goes beyond just those companies. It’s time to agree on principles for responsible behavior: governments, the private sector, media companies, civil society and affected people must work together to address these challenges. It’s time for multi-stakeholder governance.

  1. Maintaining humancontrol

Autonomous weapons change the calculus on the world’s battlefields by selecting and applying force to targets without human intervention. This leap in technology has the potential to change warfare as much as the discovery of gunpowder.

Cyber operations are another area of risk. Several states have publicly acknowledged the use of cyber operations alongside kinetic military operations, and some use them outside of armed conflict. This has resulted in damage and disruption to civilian services including hospitals, water and electrical infrastructure, and nuclear and petrochemical facilities. These incidents offer a chilling warning about the possible humanitarian impact of hostile cyber operations.

The world needs to understand the potential devastation that autonomous weapons and cyber operations pose to society. An urgent, effective international response is needed to address these developments.

  1. Keeping water flowing when wars last years

A decade of conflict in Syria has wreaked havoc on its critical facilities. Electric power generation has dropped by 70% in parts of the country, and damage to interdependent resources like the country’s seven urban water plants could take years to fix, even outside wartime. With these plants largely on their knees, everything from bakeries to morgues is experiencing disruption.

Syria is far from being a unique case, but it is a lesson in how quickly conflict erodes a middle-income country’s precious infrastructure. Humanitarian organizations like the ICRC operate at top speed just to keep basic services– water, sanitation, electricity, health facilities, schools – from collapsing. Over time, this is a race we will lose.

We need to join forces with partners, resources and expertise beyond the humanitarian sphere. If these donors choose critical infrastructure as a life-saving strategic investment, this will help countries bounce back better once the bombs stop.

  1. Moving beyond humanitarianism

Humanitarian action exists to prevent the worst in the most fragile places. As such, finding lasting solutions to larger challenges requires a systemic approach from across the entire spectrum of entities that could help.

With massive geopolitical fault lines creating instability, our message to states is: don’t waste time competing, cooperate instead. Afghanistan is a tragic case in point. More than 22 million Afghans face crisis or emergency levels of acute hunger right now.

It’s not just humanitarians who need to step up to the plate to solve these problems. That is why I’ve been pleading with the international community for months to find creative solutions to save these people from deprivation and despair. This must be a top task for 2022 and beyond.

Written by

Peter Maurer, President, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)