Policy Project: Protection of Humanitarian Action

The protection of humanitarian workers from attack is an increasingly critical challenge for the delivery of assistance and protection in complex environments around the world. While some risks are inherent to humanitarian action, recent years have seen a significant increase in deliberate attacks against humanitarian professionals. Such attacks endanger their lives, violate international humanitarian law, and jeopardize the consistent and effective delivery of relief to populations in need.

The work of the Advanced Training Program on Humanitarian Action (ATHA) in this thematic area aims to contribute to the humanitarian sector's efforts to enhance the protection and security of humanitarian professionals. Through undertaking extensive research, convening discussions and advanced practitioner workshops at the regional level, ATHA is focused on bridging the gap between law and the reality of operations on the ground to advance the protection of aid workers in insecure settings, and foster a space for humanitarian practitioners to engage in professional exchange about the challenges and dilemmas of their own protection.

As the field of humanitarian security begins to professionalize, the state of knowledge and practice around the protection of humanitarian aid workers remains limited. In ATHA’s work exploring these issues, it has identified a number of gaps. In particular, insufficient attention has been paid to disparities among aid workers – based on nationality, gender or organizational affiliation, for example – with regard to risks and protection. National and local staff members are particularly vulnerable – making up the vast majority of aid workers and of attack victims in the field – yet they tend to receive less attention. Furthermore, while the development of technical security management approaches can help to prevent or mitigate attacks, such measures fail to address the underlying causes of hostility against aid workers, or of gaps in the application, implementation or enforcement of international law protecting aid workers.

Community of Practice on Protection of Aid Workers

Through its work at the field level, the ATHA Program engages with representatives from international and local agencies, aiming to foster a space for informed dialogue among experts and practitioners on key challenges of humanitarian assistance and protection.

As a core component of this work, ATHA, in cooperation with Action Contre La Faim (ACF), have developed a Working Group on Protection of Humanitarian Action. The Working Group aims to mobilize a community of practice and foster cooperation - through peer-to-peer professional exchange and information sharing, fostering research and advocacy - towards a more protective environment for the provision of humanitarian aid to civilians. Contact us for more information.


Below are resources produced by ATHA, as well as by other programs of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative.


October 2016

Protecting Humanitarian Action: Key Challenges and Lessons from the Field

Julia Brooks

Executive Summary

This paper provides a brief overview of key challenges and dilemmas faced in the protection of humanitarian action and aims to provide an initial overview of the legal, policy, and operational trends and issues identified by ATHA through its ongoing research and discussions with practitioners... MORE

February 2016

Interactive Briefing | Humanitarians Under Attack: Tensions, Disparities, and Legal Gaps in Protection

Julia Brooks

Executive Summary

Humanitarian professionals working in complex environments face increasing threats and attacks that endanger their lives, violate international humanitarian law, and jeopardize the consistent and effective delivery of emergency relief to populations in need... MORE


Wednesday, March 22, 2017


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Deliberate violence against humanitarian practitioners and operations poses an increasingly critical challenge to the humanitarian sector as humanitarian needs continue to grow in many regions of the worldMORE

Wednesday, December 21, 2016


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In many of today’s frontline humanitarian environments, access is increasingly difficult to obtain and maintain, and continued engagement with non-state armed actors is an integral aspect of ensuring assistance and protection activities and advocating for compliance with international legal standardsMORE

Wednesday, October 26, 2016


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Recent high-profile attacks on humanitarian professionals and operations in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, among others, call attention to the growing vulnerabilities of humanitarian staff and medical operations at the frontlines. MORE

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Role of Humanitarian Professionals in Promoting Respect for IHL

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Amidst recurring violations of international humanitarian law (IHL), strengthening compliance with these international norms is indispensable to the protection of civilians in armed conflict. MORE

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Securing Access: Maintaining Presence & Proximity in Insecure Settings

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Recurring violence against civilians and humanitarian aid workers affects both the quantity and quality of protection and assistance reaching the most vulnerable populations. MORE

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Gender Perspectives on IHL

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Armed conflict affects men, women, girls and boys in fundamentally different ways, often exacerbating pre-existing gender inequalities in society. MORE

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

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

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Each year on August 19th, the international community observes World Humanitarian Day, marking the tragic 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. MORE

Monday, August 10, 2015

Innovation Series - New Information Technologies and Humanitarian Security: An Interview with Raquel Vazquez Llorente

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In this episode, ATHA's Julia Brooks speaks with Raquel Vazquez Llorente, Researcher at the European Interagency Security Forum (EISF)MORE

Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Protection of Humanitarian Aid Workers Under International Law

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Given that aid workers frequently operate in complex and insecure settings, some risks are inherent to humanitarian actionMORE

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Humanitarians Under Attack: Delivering Aid in Insecure Settings

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Recent high-profile attacks on humanitarian professionals in Syria and Iraq call attention to a disturbing trend: humanitarian agencies face growing threats and attacks on their staffMORE

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Integration of Humanitarian Action in Political and Security Missions (Humanitarian Assistance Webcast 6)

In 2000, the Brahimi Report on United Nations (UN) Peace Operations proposed a set of sweeping reforms geared toward building integrated UN peacekeeping missions. These proposals ushered in a series of structural changes — such as creating Special Representatives to the Secretary General (SRSG) and Humanitarian and Resident Coordinators — designed to enhance the strategic impact of UN missions. MORE


Thursday, April 22, 2014

Health Delivery in Armed Conflict

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In this episode of the Humanitarian Assistance Podcast, we take you to Swissnex Boston for a special panel discussion that took place on 22 April, 2014MORE


Friday, January 26, 2018

Humanitarian Community Speaks Out on Violence Against Aid Workers in Afghanistan 

Earlier this week, at least 7 people were killed and 31 injured in a devastating and targeted attack on Save the Children’s office in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. A local affiliate of the so-called Islamic State group quickly claimed responsibility for the attack, in which a suicide bomber detonated a car bomb outside the compound’s gate, and then gunmen stormed the premises. MORE 

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Justice for Attacks against Aid Workers: The Elephant in the Room

In September 2015, Al-Hakmi and another ICRC colleague, Abd Al-Karim Azi, were deliberately shot by a gunman who opened fire on their convoy while they were travelling within Yemen. Al-Hakmi and Azi faced the fate of many other aid workers who have lost their lives while trying to help others keep theirs. MORE

Friday, August 18, 2017

Statement for World Humanitarian Day on the Protection of Humanitarian Action 

World Humanitarian Day, held every year on August 19, pays tribute to those who risk their lives in humanitarian work around the world. Humanitarian aid workers provide life saving and life sustaining assistance and protection to populations affected by conflict, disaster and crisis, and in the process, many risk their lives to help... MORE


Wednesday, July 12, 2017

What do Survivors Want? 

Sexual violence happens all over the world – in and out of conflict settings. Statistics suggest that at least 1 in 3 women will be affected by sexual violence. It is a degrading experience, one that takes away the ability to choose what happens to one’s body, and that affects individuals throughout the globe. MORE 

Monday, July 10, 2017

Managing the Security of Aid Workers with Diverse Profiles 

As an aid worker, it is not unusual to travel in remote and insecure locations, driving from one field location to another in clearly marked humanitarian vehicles. Being stopped at checkpoints is also a regular feature of being an aid worker. But imagine you reach a checkpoint where the guards are young and appear tense. They tell everyone to get out of the car. MORE

Monday, May 15, 2017

Another Year of Impunity for Attacks on Healthcare 

It’s been over a year since the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2286 condemning attacks on medical facilities and personnel in conflict, and calling for an end to impunity. Yet as a series of new reports indicate, attacks on healthcare are more prevalent than ever, and accountability remains just as far afield. MORE

February 6, 2017

Silent Witness or Undercover Cops: Exploring the Role of Humanitarian Actors in Promoting Accountability

Humanitarians are increasingly exasperated with the lack of respect for international humanitarian law in a number of contemporary conflicts. Many are regularly calling for  those violating the basic tenets of the law of war to be held accountable and in this context, it is worth examining the potential role these same actors can play in relation to such accountability mechanisms. MORE

January 25, 2017

Safety and Security Concerns: Sexual Violence against Humanitarian Aid Workers

This guest blog comes to us from Megan Nobert, a Canadian legal professional and academic specialised in international criminal law and human rights. She is also a humanitarian, having worked in in the Gaza Strip, Jordan and South Sudan on issues of humanitarian law, protection and gender-based violence. Megan is currently based in Geneva, Switzerland, as Founder and Director of Report the AbuseMORE

December 20, 2016

The View from the Foxhole: How Risk and the Fragmented Perspective of Agencies Limits the Reach of Humanitarian Aid

This guest blog comes from Abby Stoddard. Abby is a Partner with Humanitarian Outcomes, an international research consultancy providing analysis and policy advice for humanitarian agencies and donor governments. MORE

July 4, 2016 

What Role do Private Military and Security Companies Play in Securing Humanitarian Organizations?

This guest blog comes from Birthe Anders. Birthe is a Fritz Thyssen Fellow at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University. Her research focuses on Private Military and Security Companies, NGO security and civil-military relations. Birthe holds a PhD in War Studies from King’s College London. Before coming to Harvard she taught on the War Studies and Conflict, Security and Development Programmes in the War Studies Department, King’s College London, where she co-founded the Private Military and Security Research Group. MORE

May 16, 2016

Not a Target: Protecting Healthcare in Conflict

The al-Quds hospital in Aleppo, Syria. The Ma’arat Al-Numan hospital in Idlib, Syria. The MSF Kunduz trauma centre in Northern Afghanistan. The Shiara hospital in Razeh district, Northern Yemen. MORE

January 27, 2016

In the Wake of the Kunduz Hospital Bombing: Where Do Civilian-Military Relations Go From Here?

This guest blog comes to us from Professor David Polatty. David teaches military strategy, maritime security, and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief at the U.S. Naval War College (NWC) in Newport, Rhode Island, serves as director of NWC’s new “Civilian-Military Humanitarian Response Program,” and is a co-founder and co-director of the NWC-Harvard School of Public Health “Joint Civilian-Military Humanitarian Working Group.” MORE

December 22, 2015

Amidst Kunduz and a Year of Violence, Protecting Humanitarian Staff

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. MORE

October 8, 2015

U.S. Denies War Crime Allegations in Kunduz MSF Hospital Bombing: Could the Label Fit?

While much remains unclear, facts are slowly emerging about the U.S. airstrikes on a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital in Kunduz, in northern Afghanistan on October 3rdwhich killed 12 staff, all Afghans, and at least 10 patients, and seriously wounded another 37 peopleMORE

September 28, 2015

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

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. MORE

September 11, 2015

Attacks on Yemeni Aid Workers Imperil Assistance in Overshadowed Conflict

As the conflict in Yemen escalates and war crimes allegations abound, the humanitarian situation in the country is becoming increasingly dire, though largely overshadowed in international mediaMORE

September 1, 2015

Enforcing International Law in an Age of Seeming Impunity

ISIS’ recently advertised destruction of part of the ancient complex at Palmyra shocked the international conscience, and raised a renewed chorus of denunciation, with Irina Bokova, the Director-General of UNESCO, the UN’s cultural agency, condemning the destruction as “a new war crime and an immense loss for the Syrian people and for humanity.” MORE

August 19, 2015

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

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 killedMORE

July 15, 2015

Is There a Right to Humanitarian Assistance?

Now in its fifth year, the war in Syria has produced what the UNHCR calls the “biggest humanitarian emergency of our era.” MORE

June 24, 2015

For Humanitarians, Negotiating the Non-negotiable

Humanity, neutrality, impartiality, independence. The fundamental principles of humanitarian action are non-negotiable. Or are they? MORE

November 14, 2014

The Fragmentation of Humanitarian Security Under IHL

The Advanced Training Program on Humanitarian Action (ATHA) is taking an in-depth look at the growing trend of attacks on humanitarian workers and the operational challenges of undertaking humanitarian action in insecure settingsMORE

November 5, 2014

How Does Gender Affect the Security of Humanitarian Staff?

Regarding the question of how gender affects the security of humanitarian staff, in short, not nearly enough data has been collected. MORE

August 18, 2014

The Conflation of Military and Humanitarian Operations in Northern Iraq

On 8 August, US military forces began targeted airstrikes against ISIS militants in northern Iraq, in conjunction with humanitarian aid drops to assist the Yazidi population stranded on Sinjar MountainMORE

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