Security Management

Security risk to humanitarian actors operating in the field has increased significantly since the 1990s1, with deaths reaching an average of 100 per year from 2001 to 2010.2 Violence peaked in 2008, and 2009-10 displayed a slight downturn in aggression toward aid workers globally.3 This turn was not a result of improved security but rather of the withdrawal of humanitarian actors from the most volatile environments. A small number of exceptionally violent settings (Afghanistan, Somalia, and Sudan) have maintained a high number of humanitarian actor casualties in these years.4 The risks posed include death, kidnapping, and serious injury, and differ in potential for international and national staff, as well as for male and female actors.

International Humanitarian Law guarantees the rights of humanitarian organizations conducting life-saving and life-sustaining activities in adherence to the principles of neutrality, humanity, and impartiality. Any attack against these aid workers is illegal under Humanitarian Law. Articles 19-23 of Chapter III of the First Geneva Convention establish protection of medical units and establishments, whereas Articles 24-32 of Chapter IV of the First Geneva Convention establish protection of medical and aid personnel. Even groups that may not meet the Geneva Convention’s principles in full, for example they are engaged in development programs in addition to humanitarian aid, are considered civilians and are protected as such under the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Although legally protected, the reality remains that humanitarian actors face risks in the field regularly. The primary responsibility of the protection of civilians lies with the government. Therefore, host governments often weigh security concerns when they grant or withhold humanitarian access. It is important to note that humanitarian access is not a legal right in the way that humanitarian assistance is.

Currently there is no overarching coordinated security plan requiring compliance by all humanitarian groups. Attempts at coordination were made in 2001 with the launch of a Menu of Options written by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC). In 2006, after observing that the Menu was not reaching its potential, the IASC re-launched a revised version of the program, updated to reflect current challenges, under the “Saving Lives Together” title. The project proposes collaboration through 10 avenues: (1) the UN Security Management Team with the participation of NGOs and IGOs; (2) broad-based forums for field security collaboration and information sharing; (3) staff security concerns in the consolidated appeals; (4) common security-related needs and sharing resources; (5) shared resources; (6) inter-agency security and emergency telecommunications; (7) collaborative security training; (8) information sharing; (9) common minimum security standards; and (10) common humanitarian ground-rules.5

Despite the efforts made in the Saving Lives Together program in 2006, security management of humanitarian actors remains a pressing issue. The ICRC conducted a symposium in April 2012 to address the issues of risk to humanitarian health workers as part of an awareness-raising campaign. The Health Care in Danger symposium articulated the need for solutions and action. However, presently humanitarian organizations continue with varying security management styles in the field; from the hiring of private military security contractors (PMSCs) to the employment of detailed security plans, to no security management at all.

Approaches to Security Management

Traditionally, security management entailed identifying risks and avoiding them. Unfortunately, such a basic method lacks assurances that the required aid will reach the intended beneficiaries. As such, an enabling approach to security management emerged from the basic risk avoidance platform, encapsulating the deterrence approach, the acceptance approach, and the protection approach. The enabling approach focuses on how to preserve the mission underway and continue an operation in the face of an environment of increasing risk as opposed to how best to leave the field and avoid danger.

The deterrence approach is the most extreme of the three, utilizing armed protection if necessary. The basis for this approach is to deter potential threats to security by countering them, whether through threatening economic sanctions or force.

The acceptance approach relies on the consent and acceptance of the parties to conflict as well as relevant local communities. Organizations applying this approach actively strengthen their relationship with communities as part of their security management. As engagement with local actors is central to their mandates and missions, this approach has been widely used by NGOs and the ICRC. Although they often apply the same general approach, each group comes about their work in a different manner. Some use more passive techniques to promote their good works and engage stakeholders, while others approach stakeholders first and support their relationship later with good works. This approach is appropriate when those who pose a risk to the aid organization are those who offer acceptance. Humanitarian actors must build their relationship with the community that holds the loyalties of the threatening party. Furthermore, such relationships take time to cultivate and must establish trust between all parties involved in order to ensure acceptance. Aid organizations cannot be adequately protected under the acceptance approach if it has no foundation.

The UN and many NGOs have adopted the protection approach, which places emphasis more on defensive measures than on community acceptance. Protection comes in a number of forms, including the regulation of an organizations in areas of high acceptance; payment of protection “taxes”; travel in convoys; and secure offices with high walls. A drawback to this approach is the placement of focus on the organization itself as opposed to its supposed beneficiaries. However, while the reliance on defensive mechanisms as opposed to proactive community engagement can lead to a detached “bunkerization” of the organization, it does offer a secure controlled environment.

Approaches to security management are situation-specific and can be used in conjunction with one another depending on the environment. Across all environments the most important strategy is communication among organizations in a given area. The best protection is available through collaboration.


1UN OCHA, To Stay and Deliver: Good Practice for Humanitarians in Complex Security Environments, February 2011, pg. 11.
2UN OCHA, To Stay and Deliver: Good Practice for Humanitarians in Complex Security Environments, February 2011, pg. 1.
3AidWorker Security database, Aid Worker Security Report 2011: Spotlight on Security for National Aid Workers: Issues and Perspectives, 2011, Key Findings.
4UN OCHA, To Stay and Deliver: Good Practice for Humanitarians in Complex Security Environments, February 2011, pg. 11.
5IASC, Saving Lives Together: A Framework for improving Security Arrangements Among IGOs, NGOs and UN in the Field, November 2006, pgs. 6-9.

Recent Tweets

Follow Us

Twitter icon
Facebook icon
LinkedIn icon
Vimeo icon
YouTube icon

Our Sponsor


A Program Of




All materials © 2014 Harvard University


Back to Top

Back to Top