On this World Humanitarian Day, Reflections on the Protection of Aid Workers

Publication Date: 
Wednesday, August 19, 2015
A Palestinian aid worker carries a bag of flour at a United Nations food distribution center in Shati refugee camp  © Suhair Karam/IRIN

Today we commemorate World Humanitarian Day, marking the occasion of the bombing of the UN headquarters in the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, Iraq in 2003 in which 22 staff members and visitors were killed. As the international community honors those who have risked their lives in the pursuit of humanitarian action, how far have we come since 2003 in protecting aid workers in the field?

The Baghdad attack shifted aid agencies’ thinking about the security and protection of field workers, and prompted significant institutional, policy, and operational reforms. The Independent Panel, appointed by the UN Secretary-General to investigate the Baghdad attack, found failure and dysfunction in the protection of staff, which prompted a major overhaul of the UN’s security management system, including the creation of a new UN Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS), tasked with responding to emergency situations, dealing with the security and safety of UN staff, and establishing mechanisms for staff security clearances. Many NGOs have also expanded roles for professional security managers and departments, providing training, resources, monitoring, context analysis, and support to staff in the field.

The Baghdad attack and subsequent incidents have also contributed to shattering the idea that aid workers are protected from attack simply by virtue of their humanitarian mandate. In the eyes of the Independent Panel, the UN had suffered at the time under an illusory sense of security derived from adherence to humanitarian principles or operating under a distinct emblem. As noted in the Panel’s report, in addition to specific failures of security management and compliance in Baghdad, staff exposure to risks has been compounded in a variety of conflict areas by:

The growing number of field operations in fragmented or failed states; The blurring of the distinction between civilians and combatants in conflict areas; The privatization and fragmentation of armed forces and the increased availability of weapons; The globalization of terror movements; The spreading of religious and fundamentalist ideologies, some of whose adherents openly oppose key UN tenets.

These factors continue to play a role in contributing to insecurity today. Especially in countries affected by the US-led “War on Terror” such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, the politicization or instrumentalization of aid – whether by host governments or intervening military forces – has also undermined the perceived neutrality, impartiality, and independence of humanitarian actors and exposed them to attack. Furthermore, “harder” security approaches (including fortified compounds, armored vehicles, armed guards or military escorts) adopted by many organizations in the wake of the Baghdad bombing, while offering some advantages, also gave rise to further tensions with the humanitarian principles. In some cases, these new security protocols paradoxically jeopardized staff security, access, and proximity to beneficiaries, the very things they sought to enhance, leading to a more recent shift back to acceptance-based approaches to security management, which in turn pose their own challenges.

We’ve also seen increased attention to understanding the patterns of violence against aid workers through investment in data collection, reporting, analysis and mapping. The Aid Worker Security Database (AWSD), a project of Humanitarian Outcomes, is a prime example of such efforts to collect, collate and share information on security incidents in the field. The data collected by AWSD has also fueled the publication of key reports on security trends, especially the annual Aid Worker Security Report, and the recent Aid Worker Security Map created by IRIN News. These data collection efforts are crucial, though significant gaps remain in our understanding of the causes and consequences of violence against aid workers, especially when we attempt to disaggregate along geographical, organizational, national, gender or other lines.

As this improved data collection indicates, however, an increasingly professionalized field of humanitarian security management has struggled to keep pace with increased security risks in the field, resulting in a record number of attacks against aid workers in recent years. While preliminary figures from this year indicate a downtick in major attacks against aid workers in 2014 from a peak in 2013, this isn’t necessarily good news for beneficiaries. Rather, notes Abby Stoddard of Humanitarian Outcomes:

much of the reduction can be attributed to aid agencies reducing their field presence in the most insecure areas, as a reaction to the surge in violence in 2013. In the few extremely insecure humanitarian contexts the risk to aid workers is still very high, and as a result it is reducing people's access to international aid.

As in previous years, most of violence against aid workers occurs in a few highly insecure contexts; in 2014 the most major attacks occurred in Afghanistan (54), Syria (26), South Sudan (18), Central African Republic (14) and Pakistan (12). Insecurity has led many agencies to reduce their operational presence in these places, leaving large numbers of people in need and shifting the burden of assistance to local or national staff and organizations. As Raquel Vazquez Llorente, researcher at the European Interagency Security Forum (EISF) writes, “the last two decades have witnessed a significant transfer of risk toward local and national organizations without a corresponding transfer of capacity to mitigate those risks.” National staff members make up the vast majority of aid workers, and it is they that suffer the vast majority of attacks.

A Movement to Protect Aid

Humanitarian organizations have traditionally been reluctant to shift the focus away from the populations they serve. After all, the purpose of humanitarian action is to protect and assist vulnerable populations – victims of conflict and natural disaster – not to serve the interests of aid workers or organizations themselves. The significant increase in violence against humanitarian personnel, however, has brought about an increased focus on the protection of aid workers. The emergence of a number of campaigns in recent years – including the ICRC’s Healthcare in Danger Campaign, ACF’s Protect Aid Workers, and MSF’s Medical Care under Fire – points 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, both legally and operationally. Without detracting from the protection of civilians – and indeed, aid workers are also civilians – these campaigns seek to improve the security and protection of aid workers as a means of improving humanitarian assistance and protection to vulnerable populations.

World Humanitarian Day offers one occasion each year to acknowledge the contributions and sacrifice of countless humanitarian aid workers, but it mustn’t be the only time. Aid workers – especially local and national staff – do critical work on a daily basis and at a significant personal risk. The international community owes them more than just a day of recognition; we owe them the training, resources, policies and protection necessary to enable their work to continue.


SIMON MUREU's picture

I am a student of ATHA--INHL and if one learn the art of public I nformation is even good How would one be safe in the DRC where by yesterday the U.N forces well shooting out all day and night? IS A WIDER RANGE OF  UN battle NOT AGAINST HUMAN RIGHT?

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