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Serving the Needs of Persons with Disabilities in Situations of Armed Conflict

This post is based on a part of my master’s thesis, “Forgotten Victims of Armed Conflict: Challenges Faced By Persons With Disabilities” in International Human Rights Law at the Faculty of Law, Lund University, defended in 2017. The full thesis (including citations) can be found here:

Conflict situations can change very quickly – some moments may be very dangerous while others can be quiet. The safety of civilians with disabilities can very rapidly change depending on the level of violence and their access to the safety of shelter and support, such as that provided in refugee camps or informal housing and shelters provided in communities not being actively targeted by violence.

As the occurrence of violence decreases, the responsibility of State parties and humanitarian relief organizations directly increases to proactively provide shelter and to support adults and children with disabilities in a manner that is accessible and non-discriminatory. UNHCR has stated that specific attention should be given to persons with disabilities and shelters must comply with their specific needs.

As stipulated in Article 11 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, States are responsible to take necessary steps in planning to ensure the protection of persons with disabilities. The UN Committee emphasizes the importance of Article 11 as stated in international summits regarding crises. The President of the Security Council, in a statement delivered on February 12, 2014, during consideration of the issue “Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict”, reaffirmed that “parties to armed conflict bear the fundamental responsibility of taking all feasible steps to ensure the protection of affected civilians, and to meet their basic needs, including the specific needs of persons with disabilities.”

State parties and humanitarian organizations are obligated under international human rights law to provide for the needs of adults and children with disabilities in refugee camps and informal shelters within local communities in an accessible and non-discriminatory manner. The UN has stated that It is equally important that persons with disabilities be identified in situations of risk and during the recovery phase. Lack of systematic identification can lead to the exclusion of persons with disabilities from program assistance and resources, including water, shelter and clothing. When contingency plans are being designed, the ability to map the location of the target population and to compile information on their support needs can help to address them better.”

The UN commented in its Statement on Disability Inclusion for the World Humanitarian Summit that “moving and transferring persons with disabilities requires handling techniques to avoid injury or further injury. Accessibility for and the inclusion of persons with disabilities must be included in conflict situations.”

The UN Committee suggested a national plan to guarantee the protection of persons with disabilities during emergencies and their inclusion in national policies. It further suggested that refugee camps should be monitored to make sure that health facilities, sanitation, education and appropriate shelter are accessible.

Humanitarian or Security Corridors / Zones

To increase the protection of civilians from the harmful effects of armed conflict, parties can try to create a humanitarian or security zone. Humanitarian zones may not be respected permanently. If humanitarian zones are established, all necessary resources must be available to protect the civilian population, which includes persons with disabilities. The decision to establish a humanitarian zone should be done with caution to make sure that the protection of civilians living outside the zone is understood, agreed-upon and will be observed and that civilians will also be able to seek asylum in other countries. Humanitarian and security zones should be demilitarized and are considered to provide temporary shelter rather than permanent sanctuary or amnesty.

The numerous and continuing violations of international humanitarian law can only be stopped and reduced if all parties to conflicts commit to implementing practical measures for protecting civilians and particularly civilians with disabilities. The responsible authorities of conflicting parties must implement training, regular supervision and the ongoing evaluation of the conduct of all persons under their command towards the protection of civilians. Specific orders for the protection of all civilians, including civilians with disabilities, must be given by the superior officers of conflicting parties to prevent illegal actions by their forces and they must suppress any violations against civilians and report those violations to the appropriate authorities.

According to the First and Fourth Geneva Conventions, parties may make agreements for safety zones that are mutually recognized. The Fourth Geneva Convention further provides the possibility of “neutralized zones intended to shelter from the effects of war” wounded people, including persons with disabilities.

Safe routes and humanitarian zones, which can facilitate the population’s life-saving needs, are considered as options by UNHCR. These attempts, however, should be made with the careful assessment and clearance by experienced security staff because, as demonstrated by some cases in the past in which such arrangements caused serious threats for civilians instead of protecting them.

Chavia Ali

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