Responding in cities affected by war or violence

Humanitarians should not only work in the city, but with the city

On 4 May 2023, the Geneva Cities Hub, together with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Swiss Mission to the UN hosted an in-person event at Villa Rigot on “Responding to armed conflict and violence in cities”. The event brought together humanitarian experts and donors to discuss the pressing issue of war and violence in cities and its impact on urban communities and how humanitarians ought to work in those contexts.

Charles Deutscher, Policy Adviser at ICRC and author of the report “Present and Engaged: how the ICRC responds to armed conflict and violence in cities”, emphasized the importance of recognizing the distinct humanitarian needs arising in urban environments, given their scale, the number of people affected, and the expertise required to operate in these complex contexts. While the responsibility to reduce human suffering undoubtedly lies with the States and weapon bearers, humanitarian actors have to tailor their responses to meet these distinct urban humanitarian needs as part of a multidisciplinary response. Taking into account the various urban systems which represent interconnected areas of urban life – community, the economy, governance, and services – can help to this end by providing a practical conceptual framework for humanitarian response. Charles also stressed the need for the humanitarian system to work closely with other actors, including local authorities and the private sector, so as to support individuals and the urban systems on which they depend, particularly over the long-term. On that point, François Grünewald, Director of Strategic Foresight at Groupe URD, emphasized that humanitarians were usually hesitant to engage with mayors, because they were perceived as political actors. As a result, they have largely been left aside. Mayors are nonetheless key players and interlocutors for humanitarians operating in a city affected by war or violence.

That is why local authorities were invited to the event. Rashdi Adiong, General Manager of the Water Board in Marawi, Philippines, and Renan Ferreirinha, Secretary of Education in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, shared their experiences, shedding light on the complex issues that cities must navigate in times of armed conflict and violence.

In Marawi, hostilities in 2017 forced over 100,000 civilians to abandon their homes and take refuge in government-run temporary shelters. The ICRC, in partnership with the Philippine Red Cross, responded, including by trucking water from the main pumping station to the transitional shelters. However, this was not enough to meet the needs of the displaced and remaining urban population. Thus, the local authorities, with the assistance from the ICRC and other humanitarian and development actors, collaborated to repair and replace the water infrastructure damaged or destroyed by the conflict (pumping stations, pipelines), to restore the supply of drinking water and functioning of the waste system, and thereby strengthen the resilience of the city and of its population overall.

Renan Ferreirinha spoke about the challenges facing the education system in Rio de Janeiro (the largest municipal one in Latin America, catering for +700’000 children). Urban violence disrupts the provision of essential public services such as education by making it dangerous or impossible for students and teachers alike to go to school. In Rio de Janeiro, 60% of schools are situated in places considered not safe. In response to this difficult reality, the local government has implemented a risk management methodology (Safer Access to Essential Public Services Framework) with the help of the ICRC, to strengthen the resilience of schools and help them reduce, mitigate and respond to the consequences of exposure to armed violence. For instance, when there is an increase in violence and threats in the vicinity of a school, a notification is sent to the school principals to take the necessary measures to ensure the safety of students and teachers and minimise disruptions to education. The methodology has been very successful and has led to a significant reduction of school closure due to armed violence and is being scaled up in other cities around the country.

The discussion that ensued addressed the challenges that humanitarians have to deal with when operating in cities partly or entirely destroyed by war: difficulty to implement a genuinely multidisciplinary approach, in collaboration with local authorities; operating in dangerous environments with explosive remnants of war; assisting those who are not “known to be in the city” (undocumented migrants, homeless, unregistered refugees, etc.); approaches to engaging armed groups; humanitarian actors ill-equipped to respond to the recovery needs in the long-term and the role of development actors in that regard, in particular in relation to the resilience of the urban dwellers and system.

Nevertheless, a lot of work has been undertaken on the issue of urban warfare and a body of knowledge has built up over the years on humanitarian operations in such contexts. François Grünewald stressed the benefits of an area-based approach to concretely implement the multi-disciplinary approach.

Humanitarian organizations will need to continue sharing experiences in that area so as to better respond in complex urban environments. And donors should prioritize this issue, as cities will continue to be at the centre of conflicts and violence, in a world that is more urbanized day after day. Most importantly, minimising the tragic human cost of urban warfare and violence ultimately depends on States and weapons bearers who must respect their obligations under international humanitarian law and other relevant bodies of law.

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