Op-Ed: Gaps in the Protection of Humanitarian Aid Workers

Publication Date: 
Monday, September 28, 2015
The op-ed as it appeared in the French newspaper, L’Humanité.

An abbreviated French version of this post appeared as an op-ed in the French newspaper, L’Humanité on 25 September 2015, as part of a series on attacks against humanitarian aid workers. The full English version is reprinted below.

Attacks against humanitarian workers have increased nearly four-fold over the last decade. Such attacks endanger lives, violate international law, and jeopardize critical humanitarian assistance. Concerted international action is imperative to address disparities in the protection of humanitarian aid workers, improve protection, and to finally end impunity for the perpetrators of such attacks.

Amidst increasing attacks, international humanitarian law (IHL) protecting aid workers remains fragmented and poorly understood. First, only certain categories of aid workers – namely medical personnel, Red Cross/Red Crescent personnel, and United Nations personnel and affiliates – benefit from specific protection under IHL. In contrast, all other humanitarian personnel are treated as civilians under the law. As such, some argue that, rather than enhancing specialized protection for humanitarian aid workers, we must improve protection for all civilians. While a laudable goal, this is insufficient as it does not acknowledge the particular role of humanitarian aid workers who stay in or go to conflict zones in order to provide critical protection and assistance.

In 2014, at least 120 aid workers were killed, 88 wounded and 121 kidnapped, with the most attacks occurring in Afghanistan, Syria, South Sudan, Central African Republic and Pakistan – sites of escalating violence, protracted conflict and instability where states have failed to protect their own populations, let alone aid workers. While this represents a 30% decrease from record highs in 2013, it was due more to reduced presence than reduced risks. Just this month, one male national staff member of Action Against Hunger was killed and two female international aid workers were raped by armed assailants in South Sudan, while two male ICRC national staff members were killed in Yemen. Many of these assaults resulted from deliberate targeting of aid workers – a war crime under international law – yet few of these crimes are ever prosecuted.

Furthermore, too little is understood about the disparate risks to humanitarians, even within the sector. Local and national personnel constitute the majority of aid workers and suffer the majority of attacks (about 90%) as compared to their international/expatriate colleagues, yet international staff receive disproportionate training, resources and media attention. Moreover, little attention is paid to understanding differences in the types or rates of attacks faced by male or female aid workers.

A more dangerous world for humanitarians means less aid, and prolonged suffering for vulnerable populations. Concerted international action is needed to enforce international law, enhance data collection to understand disparities and inform protection, and end impunity. We can no longer tolerate the deliberate targeting of those who bring life-saving assistance to those in need.

A companion article in French on the pursuit of international justice for the 17 staff members of Action Against Hunger killed in Sri Lanka on 4 August 2006 can be found here

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