Nine years ago, a bomb ripped through the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad killing 22 people, including the UN’s chief envoy to Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello. Later that same year a series of suicide bombings struck other targets in Baghdad, including the International Committee of the Red Cross – the first attack of this kind in the ICRC’s history. Since then 19 August has been designated World Humanitarian Day to remind us of those who put themselves at risk to provide humanitarian assistance to people in need.
This year’s anniversary will commemorate the highest annual incidence of major attacks against aid workers worldwide yet recorded. In the period since the Baghdad bombings, violence continues to affect how, where and in what circumstances aid workers can operate. But it is just one of many obstacles which now stand between humanitarian workers and civilians caught up in some of the world’s most dangerous conflicts.
Aid workers under fire
The most striking of these is targeted violence against aid workers. The past year marks a peak in the number of aid workers who became victims of killings, kidnappings and attacks which resulted in serious injury. Since 2003, the number of annual incidents of major violence against aid workers has more than doubled, as has the number of aid workers who have become victims.
When military forces are seen to lead strategies designed to defend Western-supported governments and win the hearts and minds of local populations, this often taints aid workers by association
Researchers who track contemporary trends in aid worker security say that targeted violence against aid workers can be interpreted as a consequence of their membership of an international aid community, perceived as Western in orientation and Western in its agenda.
In the years following the Baghdad bombings, Western humanitarian actors came under increasing pressure to provide aid in line with donor governments’ foreign policy aims. This is hardly new; states have long pursued policy objectives through foreign aid budgets, but since the advent of the ‘war on terror’ Western humanitarian endeavours have been increasingly co-opted into ‘stabilization’ and counter-insurgency strategies, with security and stability the desired outcome. When military forces are seen to lead strategies designed to defend Western-supported governments and win the hearts and minds of local populations, this often taints aid workers by association and provides insurgents with highly visible – and in their eyes, legitimate – targets. The consequences of being seen as allied with the ‘other side’ has had acute consequences for aid workers in Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan and Pakistan, where more than 60 per cent of all killings, kidnappings and serious injuries suffered by humanitarians in the past year occurred.
Portraying humanitarian aid as a Trojan horse used by Western political actors with ulterior political motives has been cited by a number of regimes as a justification to block international aid efforts – most recently by the Syrian authorities in resisting the provision of international relief to an estimated 1.5 million Syrians in need.
Criminalizing the humanitarians?
Humanitarian funding from donor governments has increasingly been made conditional upon assurances that it will not benefit proscribed groups. This has led to a fall in funding and fear of prosecution among humanitarians working in some of the world’s most difficult terrain – where there is the greatest humanitarian need. The introduction of counter-terrorism legislation after 9/11 led to widespread unease in the humanitarian community about the wide interpretation of what constitutes ‘material support’ and how their work could fall foul of counter-terrorism laws.
In the case of Somalia, funding declined by half between 2008-11 following the designation by the US government in 2008 of Al Shabaab, an Islamist group, as ‘terrorist’ and subject to UN sanctions from April 2010 – precisely the period when conditions for famine were taking hold.
Until donor governments begin to place humanity over politics, the threat of criminal action will continue to undermine life-saving operations in the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
In addition to counter-terrorism legislation and funding restrictions, Western governments have aggressively sought to criminalize engagement with specific armed groups, limiting the opportunities for humanitarian actors to engage with militant groups to gain access to populations within their territory. Humanitarian access has to be earned and negotiated. If aid workers are to be criminalized for ‘talking to terrorists’ how then can they negotiate agreements to provide assistance to populations within the control of armed groups?
Paying the price: national aid workers
The unprecedented level of violence against international aid workers has led to a scaling down of their presence, withdrawal of staff and relocation to more secure locations where they can operate ‘remotely.’ This is the so-called ‘bunkerization’ of the aid industry, characterized by fortified buildings, security guards and barbed-wire fencing. The departure of international staff from some of the most dangerous areas has led to an increasing reliance on national staff to remain when expatriate staff pull out.
If the thin line of humanitarians cannot hold who will be left to stand between civilians and the horror of war?
National aid workers make up the majority of aid staff in the field – upwards of 90 per cent. The increase in the deployment of national staff has often been justified by the assumption that ‘locals’ are less likely than expatriates to be victims of violence. This is dangerously simplistic: individuals from another region or province are often perceived by local populations to be outsiders and association with particular ethnic or religious groups can be an additional risk factor. Perhaps it comes as no surprise then that the past year has marked a high point in the number of national aid workers who were killed, seriously injured or kidnapped as international agencies withdraw. Again, this figure is the highest recorded and the disparity between the number of international to national aid worker victims – a ratio of 1:10 – is also one of the highest.
Violence toward aid workers has very real consequences for the civilians they aim to help. According to the UN Secretary-General’s last report on the plight of civilians in armed conflict, it is estimated that more than 26 million people fled conflict or disaster in the last year. The majority of casualties in today’s conflicts are civilians, many of whom suffer deliberate targeting, indiscriminate violence, forced disappearance, torture and the deliberate withholding of humanitarian assistance. If the thin line of humanitarians cannot hold who will be left to stand between civilians and the horror of war? And who will remain to carry out the aid work, memorably described as ‘injecting a measure of humanity always insufficient, into situations that should not exist’?