Amidst Kunduz and a Year of Violence, Protecting Humanitarian Staff

Publication Date: 
Tuesday, December 22, 2015
MSF trauma center in Kunduz, Afghanistan © Michael Golfarb/MSF

Since US airstrikes destroyed an Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital compound in Kunduz, Afghanistan on October 3rd, killing 14 staff, the aid organization has suffered from a barrage of further attacks. In Yemen, Saudi-led coalition airstrikes hit an MSF hospital in Haydan on October 26th and an MSF clinic in Taiz on December 2rd. In Syria, barrel bombs hit an MSF-supported hospital in Damascus on November 21st and in the Homs region on November 28th. And MSF is by no means the only organization to suffer from the latest incidents of violence against aid workers and facilities. Attacks on healthcare facilities have occurred at alarming rates in recent conflicts; a new report by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), for instance, details the systematic targeting of healthcare in Syria as a weapon of war. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has also suffered heavy losses in Yemen, with at least 6 national staff members and volunteers killed while carrying out their work this year. In insecure operating environments around the world, the consequences of increased threats and attacks against aid workers are being exacerbated by a failure of the international community and humanitarian organizations themselves to keep pace.

Understanding contextual factors

A reported increase in attacks against aid workers in recent years – and the implications of such attacks for their ability to provide humanitarian assistance and protection to populations in need – has sparked a growing movement aimed at enhancing the protection of aid workers through a variety of legal, policy, operational, research and advocacy efforts. As previously noted on this blog, such campaigns point to “the pervasiveness of these concerns for the humanitarian community as well as the growing recognition that the effective delivery of humanitarian aid cannot be separated from the effective protection of aid workers themselves.”

A nascent body of research is also attempting to understand the causes and consequences of targeted attacks against aid workers, including through data collection, mapping, and analysis. As has been well documented, the increase in attacks against aid workers in recent years has not occurred across the board, but has rather been concentrated in a few highly insecure contexts “where conflict has broken out and/or governance and rule of law has broken down.” In 2014, for instance, most attacks occurred in Afghanistan, Syria, South Sudan, Central African Republic and Pakistan.

Given that many of most dangerous countries for aid workers are also the most dangerous for civilians, some have argued that enhanced protection of aid workers will flow from enhanced protection of civilians in conflict in general. However, a recent study by the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) found that while the dangers to aid workers are understandably higher in conflict zones and less economically and politically developed states, there was no evidence of a correlation between the targeting of civilians and risks to aid workers. Nor do generalized insecurity or criminal violence necessarily increase the risk of aid worker attacks.

Rather, much of the violence against aid workers appears to be the result of deliberate targeting. “When we started doing the research [into attacks on healthcare in Syria], we assumed that these strikes would mostly be a result of inadequate protection for civilians,” says Widney Brown, director of programs at PHR, “But the more we delved into the evidence, we started realizing that it was a strategy of the Assad government and now Russia.” Other armed actors have also taken to strategies of targeting aid workers.

PRIO’s study did find a correlation between the presence of UN peacekeeping forces in a country and violence against aid workers, though this primarily applied to peacekeeping forces with traditional (as opposed to transformational) mandates. This dynamic may be playing a role in Mali, where violence against aid workers and peacekeepers alike is on the rise. Aid workers and their facilities in Mali have been attacked at least 30 times this year, while violence has restricted humanitarian access at least 60 times, according to UN OCHA. These attacks have included hijackings, robberies and looting, as well as the recent bombing of an NGO building in Menaka in early November. Mali also ranks among the deadliest countries for UN peacekeepers, approximately 10,000 of whom are serving in the country; 56 peacekeepers have been killed since the beginning of the MINUSMA mission in early 2013. In the most recent incident, Islamist militants attacked a MINUMSA base with guns and rockets on November 28th, wounding 20.

Duty of Care

As more and more humanitarian organizations sound the alarm about attacks against aid workers in the field, many aid workers are calling for their employers to take greater responsibility for the staff that they deploy to the field. In what is being called a “wake-up call” for the humanitarian sector, last month a Norwegian court found the Norwegian Refugee Council guilty of “gross negligence” for failing to follow its own security policies and procedures in the case of Steve Dennis and three other employees kidnapped in Dabaab, Kenya in 2012. In holding the NRC liable for Dennis’ physical and psychological injuries, the Court recognized the critical connection between physical and mental wellness, an issue of growing concern in the aid community. Many in the sector hope that this case will lead to a shift in attitudes toward staff security and wellbeing as central, rather than ancillary concerns. As Rebecca Maudling writes, “[s]ecurity should never been seen as an add on, or a tick box exercise, but as something that is integrated and part and parcel of how work is carried out; crucial for effective and sustainable programming.”

Amidst growing concern that humanitarian organizations have failed to keep pace with growing risks to their staff, the Court’s ruling reinforces humanitarian agencies’ duty of care towards their employees. Despite the known risks of humanitarian work, the Court critically held that it “cannot see that there is a basis for applying a more lenient standard of due care for employers within the aid sector than that for other employers,” despite the known risks of humanitarian work. As noted on the AidSpeak blog:

The most game-changing thing to hit the humanitarian industry since its inception is simply an outside legal opinion that aid and development employers […] have duty of care obligation toward their employees. And further, that humanitarian staff have a right to expect proper training and preparation for work in high-risk places, as well as employer-provided care, and perhaps even compensation after the fact.

The question remains of how aid organizations, already struggling to keep pace with mounting humanitarian need around the world, and the rising costs of deploying (especially international) staff to the field, will manage the integration of security and protection considerations into their core plans and budgets. This will certainly require rethinking by donors, as Maudling writes: a positive outcome of the Dennis case would thus be “a greater focus on the needs of aid workers, both physical and psychological,” and that “in the future, institutional donors will expect security and staff wellbeing to be factored into all proposals as a matter of course.”

If we truly care about Kunduz and the numerous other instances of attacks against aid workers in the field, then something needs to change. In addition to holding organizations accountable for their staff in the field, concerted efforts are needed at the local, national and international level to build acceptance for aid operations in insecure settings, and to strengthen legal protections for aid workers and repercussions for the perpetrators of attacks against aid workers. At a time when humanitarian action is needed more than ever, enhancing the protection of aid workers in the field is critical to sustaining effective humanitarian assistance and protection for populations in need.

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