Humanitarian aid in the face of widespread geopolitical disruption

Dammaged water tower, Gaza Crédits : Robin LloydECHO

Will the humanitarian we know today and for decades succumb to the multiplication of conflicts, terrorism as well as the return of high intensity war against a background of fragmentation-recomposition of the world and the return of peoples, nations and empires.

The humanitarian we are talking about here is the access of victims of conflicts, disasters and major epidemics to the relief they urgently need to live. This humanitarian is that of the principles of political neutrality, the impartiality of aid based solely on needs without distinction of any kind and the independence of NGOs from state political actors. Finally, our humanitarian is that of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) which aims to regulate and basically humanize the course of wars.

Does war today change the conditions for humanitarian action?

What do we see today? We see on the one hand a bloody Hamas expedition to slaughter Israeli civilians and on the other hand the State of Israel, which has the right to defend itself, use massive military means on the tiny territory of Gaza or fighters and Palestinian population are very intertwined at the cost of many civilian casualties. IHL is in danger of being lost if we do not return at least to a regular supply of the population and hospitals, with safe areas, not to mention the protection of hostages and civilians.

In Ukraine, we saw Russia, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, invade a country with internationally recognized borders, in the name of a war of preventive reconquest, generating crimes against humanity, a war of very high intensity, as well as a certain lack of understanding of neutrality as well as impartiality of relief. The war lasts, the Ukrainians are the first response to their own needs, the separatist territories of Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk in the east of the country are inaccessible to humanitarians who, moreover, must demonstrate their purpose and their added value.

In Afghanistan, after 20 years of war by the United States and NATO against the Afghan Taliban, which finally won, impose sharia law and lead humanitarians to choose between relief for millions of Afghans in the face of famine and respect for the human rights of these same Afghans, particularly Afghan women. Everyone determines his action according to the priority of his mandate!

On the road of the forced exodus of more than 100,000 Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. @Twitter

In the South Caucasus, we saw a state, Azerbaijan, supported by Turkey and a passive Russia, impose a total blockade for 9 months to 120,000 Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh or Artsakh that no humanitarian organization could no longer rescue. Then launch a lightning attack to drive them away in a few days from their ancestral land in violation of IHL and the negotiations that were then taking place. The issue of international aid is now crucial for Armenia itself, which is threatened.

We could multiply the examples to other regions such as in the case of Sahel countries that export destabilization to all of western Africa or to the Asia Pacific in the process of accelerated militarization around Taiwan. Nor is it necessary to examine in detail the Middle East on the verge of explosion from the epicentre of Gaza which is both a revealer and an accelerator of antagonisms. It is no mystery to anyone that Hamas’ bloody offensive is a proxy war between Iran and the Arab countries aimed at derailing the Abraham Agreement between Israel and these Arab countries against the backdrop of the Palestinian cause.

From 1980 to 2023, what change of era?

War is not new, neither terrorism, nor war crimes, nor even genocide. What is changing, however, is this multiplication of wars against the backdrop of a conflicted recomposition of the world and the obvious weakening of the UN.

In the 1980s, at the time of the East-West conflict, wars took place essentially on the periphery of the «two great». We were dealing with endless «small wars» where humanitarians then found their place between the legitimacy of solidarity and the need for relief in poor countries with little structure and in civil war. This type of situation still exists but it is no longer the only model.

Moreover, what complicates any binary approach between unjust war and just peace, it is the theory of the so-called just war that meets criteria stated since Roman antiquity by Cicero, then by Saint Thomas Aquinas in the MiddleAge until the Geneva Conventions of the post-Second World War. And to distinguish well in Latin the «jus ad Bellum» on the just causes of a war, the «jus in Bello» on the just behaviors and the «jus post Bellum» on the equitable peace agreements. Without forgetting the duty of resistance, developed by the supporters of the duty of interference like Bernard Kouchner.

Iraqi army soldiers patrol the streets on March 1, 2006 in Mosul, Iraq, in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom to retake the city controlled by Daesh. (US Army photo by Spc. Clydell Kinchen)(US Army photo by Spc. Clydell Kinchen)

In 2023, we are experiencing a double background movement that overlaps and fears accelerating each other. There is the active focus of terrorism carried by the most radical Islamist minorities. At the same time there is a powerful aspiration to a multipolar world of what is called the global south, which asserts itself in the face of the so-called western world and its values and which could weaken IHL if we do not know how to promote it as a common value for all without distinction.

The danger of a politicization of the humanitarian.

In this extremely destabilizing context for the humanitarian world, some may have the dangerous temptation to politicize the humanitarian to assert their own personal preferences and promote this or that system of thought or ideology. We must warn them to impose on themselves the recurrent criticism they oppose to States or international organizations when they accuse them of sometimes using humanitarian aid for political purposes.

For those who nevertheless wish to pursue this partisan path, it seems to me that the shortest path would be to engage politically without using a humanitarian screen that would have everything to lose in legitimacy, consistency and confidence, including their partners and public opinion, both here and on the ground. Not to mention the internal divisions that this would generate within each organization and within the humanitarian community itself.

Henri Dunant
“Un souvenir de Solférino”













Continue in the humanitarian path called «dunantist» in reference to the founder of the Red Cross, Henri Dunant, during the battle of Solferino in 1859, which bases the humanitarian principles already mentioned (humanity, neutrality, impartiality, independence), which does not exempt us from thinking about what the Germans call «zeitenwende» or change of era and its consequences on the new conflictual contexts of humanitarian aid.

The need to adapt.

This also does not exempt humanitarians from making their «aggiornamento» and evaluating their limits as a force of proposal, influence and effectiveness in the service of populations in danger. In this online review «Humanitarian Challenges», we have initiated this reflection and we will continue it as with this editorial that participates in it.

Thus, I believe that respect for so-called universal values can and must be compatible with respect for human diversity, which is a wealth. Diversity of peoples and cultures that want to be recognized and respected and whose most minority are by definition the most threatened with disappearance or oppression. Biodiversity is well and rightly protected. Let us also protect humanity one and diverse.

Humanitarian aid is more necessary than ever to save more and more lives at risk. The humanitarian crest line is always the path of humanist commitment, impartiality, risk-taking to allow access to relief for populations in danger.

The international humanitarian situation and the modalities of its action will be at the heart of the 5th National Humanitarian Conference (CNH) which will be held in Paris and which will be the opportunity to present the 3rd edition of the Humanitarian Strategy of France for the period 2023 – 2027.

Alain Boinet.

President of Humanitarian Challenges.


PS/ Your support even modest (faireundon) is essential to continue publishing this journal and to develop it.



Alain Boinet

Alain Boinet is the president of the online journal Défis Humanitaires and the founder of the humanitarian association Solidarités Humanitaires, of which he was executive director for 35 years. In addition, he is a member of the Humanitarian Consultation Group at the Crisis and Support Centre of the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs, a member of the Board of Directors of Solidarités International, the French Water Partnership (PFE), the Véolia Foundation, the Think Tank (re)sources.




Discover the Défis Humanitaire 82th Edition :

International solidarity key to integrating Nagorno-Karabakh refugees in Armenia

© IOM Karabakh refugees receive humanitarian aid in the Armenian border town of Goris

The arrival on Armenian territory of over 100,000 refugees from the Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh region in the space of 10 days is provoking a major humanitarian crisis. For this small country of 2.8 million inhabitants, landlocked and with modest resources, 100,000 people represent 3% of its population. For comparison, this would be the equivalent of 2 million people arriving in France in 10 days. For the 1st time in 25 centuries, there are no Armenians left in Arstakh. In other words, this crisis is much more than a humanitarian problem to be resolved in the space of a few months to a few years. It is the tragedy of an entire people. Helping the young Armenian democracy to overcome it is an international moral responsibility.

Why this mass exodus? To understand this, we need to take a broad look at the recent history of a conflict that dates back over a hundred years. Located in neighboring Azerbaijan, the Nagorno-Karabakh region has been the object of 4 wars since 1988, when it was a Soviet Autonomous Region. Made up overwhelmingly of Armenians (75% in 1989) weary of social and cultural discrimination, and anxious about the relative loss of their population, the Nagorno-Karabakh region had expressed, through its Soviet (Assembly), the wish to be attached to neighboring Soviet Armenia by virtue of the right of peoples to self-determination. Soviet Azerbaijan, which had been allocated the Nagorno-Karabakh region by Stalin in 1921, responded with ultra-violence against the Armenians living on its soil, and authoritarianism by abolishing the region’s autonomous status. This led to three pogroms between 1988 and 1991, resulting in the mass flight of Armenians from Azerbaijan to Armenia and Azeris from Armenia to Azerbaijan.

Referendum of September 2, 1991: the beginning of independence for the Republic of Artsakh (Photo: The Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute Fondation)

The right of peoples to self-determination was once again expressed, this time directly in a referendum in 1991. Using the Soviet law of secession, the Armenian population of the region voted unanimously to become independent of the USSR. At the same time, under the same law, Soviet Azerbaijan also became independent. With the collapse of the USSR, the Nagorno-Karabakh region, supported by Armenia, found itself in the throes of a first war (1991-1994), which gave it de facto independence for twenty-six years of ceasefire. Azerbaijani territories around the Nagorno-Karabakh region were to provide an opportunity to negotiate a status in return for their restitution. Peace did not prevail. A low-intensity conflict continued, punctuated by regular violations and a blitzkrieg (2016). Meanwhile, in Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliev, the despot who has held power from his father since 2003, built his internal legitimacy on revanchism and Armenophobia. Buoyed by revenues from oil and gas exports and a strategic alliance with Turkey, Azerbaijan launched a second war in 2020, known as the “44 Days”, which it won handily. This massive military victory enabled it to recover the territories it had been using as bargaining chips, and to conquer part of the former autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh. A new, very fragile ceasefire was established in November 2020, guaranteed by Russian peacekeepers.

On the route of the forced exodus of over 100,000 Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. @Twitter

Forced exodus, a form of ethnic cleansing

For the people of Artsakhiot, the security situation there is extremely precarious from 2021 onwards, with Russia using the lives of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh as currency for its ongoing political blackmail of Armenia, jeopardizing its sovereignty and independence. Armenia managed to resist the combined Russian-Azerbaijani pressure, at the cost of military aggression and occupation of parts of its territory by Azerbaijani forces on several occasions in 2021, 2022 and 2023. Faced with this resistance, Baku decided to blockade the Nagorno-Karabakh region in December 2022, closing the Latchine corridor, the only land route linking Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh. Finally, a blitzkrieg camouflaged as an “anti-terrorist operation” was launched against the region on September 19, 2023. Twenty-four hours of bombardment and fighting against the small self-defense army led to total capitulation: dissolution of the self-defense forces and the region’s representative structures, with a view to “integration” by force into a repressive, ultra-violent and Armenophobic Azerbaijan. With their last defenses down, the Armenians of Artsakh are fleeing their homeland, their homes and fields, their monasteries and churches, their schools and cemeteries.

Baku’s use of bombardment, coupled with its nine-month blockade of Artsakh, has resulted in ongoing violations of international humanitarian law, culminating in the forced departure of Armenians from Artsakh. Ethnic cleansing is not a legal category, but it was described in detail in the international reports that accompanied the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The UN experts commissioned to study the violations described it as follows: “an intentional policy implemented by one ethnic or religious group to suppress the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group in a given area by violent or terrorist means.” The crisis faced by Armenians as a result of the depopulation of Artsakh is not only material and human, but also psychological on a national scale, and political on a national and regional level.

The coming year will be decisive for the success or failure of the Artsakhiotes’ integration into Armenian society. Thanks to the extraordinary outpouring of solidarity and fraternity, the first stage of this welcome, which has relied solely on the resources and energy of the Armenians, is not going too badly. But there are already a number of difficulties arising from structural causes (school capacity, availability of jobs, etc.), which the Armenian state will not be able to resolve on its own.

Volunteers and aid workers distribute basic necessities to forced refugees fleeing Artsakh on the border with Armenia. Photo : Arshaluys Barseghyan/OC

Welcoming Armenians expelled from Artsakh.

Since September 24, the Armenian state and society have been doing their utmost to welcome their compatriots expelled from Artsakh. The government has succeeded in organizing three main reception, distribution and registration points in Kornidzor, Goris (Syunik, southern region of Armenia) and Vayk (Vayots Dzor, central region of Armenia), where thousands of volunteers have stepped forward. Arrivals were registered and provided with first aid, including medical care, food and clothing; they could fill up their cars free of charge, and so on. Hotels, hostels, private houses and apartments, sanatoriums and specially equipped reception rooms, all listed in the days following the attacks on Nagorno-Karabakh, served as temporary reception points. Not to mention the spontaneous hospitality offered by local people, so frequent that the government was quick to provide financial assistance for host families, some of whom are very modest. Without local associations and volunteers, this first phase would have been much more chaotic. A unique situation: this massive influx was managed without resorting to tented accommodation or refugee camps. Some private sector companies have also spontaneously joined the collective effort, whether in the form of donations in kind (catering, cell phones) or in cash. To date, the Armenian government has earmarked $23 million in its 2024 budget for refugees, specifying that this amount could be increased depending on how the situation evolves. Financial aid amounting to several hundred euros over six months is paid to each refugee (including children) to help with the purchase of equipment and subsidies for communal expenses. Since the end of the 44-day war, over a billion dollars of the Armenian budget has been allocated to the Nagorno-Karabakh region in humanitarian aid. It is assumed that a large part of this sum will be earmarked for medium- and long-term refugee settlement programs.

Learning from the past for successful refugee integration

Judging by past experience of hosting refugees in Armenia, it’s reasonable to assume that Armenia won’t use refugees from Artsakh to brandish hatred towards Azerbaijanis, or to create a unit that can be traded for international political dividends. It did not do so in the 1990s, when the Armenian population of Azerbaijan and the Azeri population of Armenia were on the move (450,000 Armenians from Azerbaijan and 220,000 Azeris from Armenia left). Nor did it during the 1st Nagorno-Karabakh war, when 45,000 Armenians and 680,000 Azeris fled the combat zones of Chahoumian in northern Nagorno-Karabakh for the former, and seven outlying regions for the latter, conquered by opposing troops. In Azerbaijan, many internally displaced persons (IDPs) have been living since 1993 in communal buildings (schools, gymnasiums), or even in makeshift structures built haphazardly on the roofs of apartment blocks. Apart from the fact that social redistribution does not exist in this type of oligarchic, authoritarian regime based on a strongman and his clan, keeping these populations in such precarious conditions serves to maintain the revanchism and Armenophobia on which the Aliev regime has built its domestic legitimacy. Refugees from Artsakh will not have to endure a painful voluntary warehousing in precarious shelters. Nevertheless, there are structural difficulties which, if left unresolved, could discourage refugees from settling permanently in Armenia. They have to do with the state’s capacities in terms of childcare facilities, in particular schools and kindergartens, and employment pools. The government tries to direct settlement towards schools where places are available, but the decision on geographical location ultimately rests with each family. The integration of Artsakh Armenians, including the 30,000 who lost their homes after the war in 2020, is essential on a human level, if these people are to have a future, but also on a political and moral level for Armenian society and democracy.

Infirmières en formation au Collège médical de Stephanakert, capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, who were forced to flee the city following Azerbaijan’s attack on September 17 and 18, 2023. ©A.Boinet

Demography, a question of future and survival.

Armenia has a demographic problem which, taken over the long term, represents a major threat. Since as long ago as 2006, population decline due to emigration in the 1990s and 2000s, and aging coupled with low birth rates, has been identified as a strategic national problem, with nothing really being done about it. The first timid attempts to address the problem appeared in 2018, after the “velvet revolution”. Pashinyan’s government is introducing family allowances and undertaking an ongoing reform of the healthcare system. Judging by past experience of hosting refugees, there is little cause for optimism. Waves of Armenian refugees fleeing wars in the Middle East in the 2000s and 2010s (Lebanon, Iran, Syria) often arrived in Armenia, only to leave a few years later for countries with more attractive economic and social situations. The question of the geographical distribution of Artsakh refugees also arises. From a strategic point of view, it would be crucial for these populations to live primarily in the southern, central and eastern regions. But the risk of a new war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, which would first target these regions, is too high to allow this: the fear of settling near borders that are not only threatened, but where, over the last two and a half years, Azerbaijani forces have penetrated sometimes deeply, is palpable. It is estimated that around 1/3 of the population have headed for Yerevan and its suburbs. Of the remaining two-thirds, the provinces of Ararat and Kotayk, bordering Yerevan, were preferred. Since the end of the 44-day war in 2020, Azerbaijani forces have regularly attacked Armenia. The most violent episode, and the most serious in territorial and human terms, took place in September 2022. Strategic positions on high ground were taken. In many hamlets in both the south and east of the country, farmers no longer have access to their pastures. The town of Djermouk, a major tourist resort known for its thermal cures and sparkling water, suffers enormously from the presence of Azerbaijani troops just a few kilometers from the town, like a reminder of the sword of Damocles hanging permanently over the heads of the local armenian population.

Children from Nagorno-Karabakh play in Goris. Photo: Arshaluys Barseghyan/OC Media.

The challenge of sustainable international solidarity

The financial humanitarian aid promised and which has begun to arrive is substantial. France is one of the most generous donors, with 11 million euros. The UN has pledged 97 million. But it is its long-term presence and coordination with the needs identified and expressed by the Armenian government that will make a real difference. To date, a six-month plan has been drawn up. This will not be enough to ensure the integration of the refugees. We need to move on to structural economic and social plans, with a particular focus on the regions, to encourage the long-term settlement of refugees in the most depopulated areas. An international conference bringing together international donors, international lenders – with particular emphasis on French ones such as AFD – major international NGOs, local NGOs and associations, Armenian diaspora associations, and national and regional governmental institutions, would be an appropriate way of coordinating the effort. Not least, it will reassure Armenians that they will not be left to cope with the crisis on their own. A long-term surge of solidarity would be a welcome counterpoint to the profoundly unjust solitude that the Armenians of Artsakh have experienced for the past thirty years. Apart from the Red Cross, no international association or NGO has come to the aid of the Armenians of Artsakh, on the pretext that the republic of Nagorno-Karabakh was not recognized by the international community; then, after 2020, that the region was part of Azerbaijan’s internal affairs. International law has failed to protect Armenians from Azerbaijani state terrorism. We can only hope that international solidarity will stand by the young Armenian democracy and help it meet the challenge of integrating the refugees from Artsakh, so as to reopen the hope of a decent life for these men, women and children on Armenian soil.

Taline Papazian

Taline Papazian, PhD in political science, lecturer at Sciences Po Aix. She specializes in armed conflicts in post-Soviet states, with a particular focus on Armenia. She also heads the non-profit organization Armenia Peace Initiative. (