Humanitarian workers have been in the frontline where human suffering has been paramount, be it a conflict, the aftermath of a natural disaster or the result of unprecedented human migration. Consequently, humanitarian workers remain equally exposed to turmoil and risks in their operational geographies. Clearly, the contemporary global aid worker faces an increased risk to life in the field. The latest example being the killing of aid workers and civilians with a Red Crescent convoy in Syria on September 20, 2016, followed by another four medical aid workers killed at a medical facility run by the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations (UOSSM). These definitely appear to be calibrated attacks to force an end to humanitarian work in the country. While finger pointing is underway, it is unlikely that any world body would care to take further action and bring the perpetrators to justice.
As is the case, humanitarians are aware of the risks that they get into, and as for those who perish in the line of duty, August 19 is marked as World Humanitarian Day, in remembrance of their contributions to the world. That is where it all ends. On the other hand, the humanitarian community could take greater effort in ensuring the safety and security of aid workers in conflict zones. The alarming increase in attacks targeting humanitarian aid workers should lead humanitarian organisations to rethink their employee safety and security strategies. This is of utmost importance and urgency as the world is facing an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe of 65.3 million refugees, which according to UN estimates is the second highest following World War II.
Humanitarianism sans borders
Since 1960, humanitarian workers across the world have been facing a variety of threats or intimidation in their field of work. Primarily because humanitarian efforts counteract the actions of powerful dictators, warlords or armed factions, while reaching out to vulnerable and suffering populations. Collateral threats to aid workers have been from corrupt government officials in conflict-ridden countries, other militant actors ready to siphon off their share of the foreign assistance, opposing warlords in need of supplies, biased community/clan leaders or even the disgruntled beneficiary seeking a larger portion of aid.
Increased political insecurity, particularly in parts of northern and western Africa, and southern and eastern parts of Asia, coupled with violent extremism in the Middle East is not only a direct threat to the populace of the region but also to humanitarian efforts that try to offset the effects of war, insecurity and suffering. The increased threat to the lives of humanitarian aid workers clearly jeopardises access to and delivery of aid among the most vulnerable. Moreover, it can inadvertently put an end to the effectiveness of humanitarian operations across conflict zones.
The past two decades indicate that threats to aid workers are more serious and targeted in nature. Aid workers, especially those in conflict zones, are vulnerable to roadside bombs, kidnappings for ransom or killings for ideological or political reasons. Over the years, as funding for humanitarian causes increased and organisations grew, so had the size of the ‘humanitarian footprint’. However, this alone does not correlate to the rise in the number of violent incidents, when measured against the total number of aid workers in the field. In fact, the number of victims has outstripped the expanding aid worker population. As seen from the recent attacks on humanitarian professionals in Syria and Iraq, humanitarian agencies are facing greater threats to their staff and operational programmes.
Selfless service – at what risk?
The number of attacks in which aid workers were killed, kidnapped or injured has risen significantly since 1997, with a sharp increase over the period from 2010 to 2014. Violence against humanitarian aid workers reached a record high in 2013, with 155 aid workers killed globally through 251 separate attacks and affected about 460 aid workers. The year 2014 saw a marginal dip with a total 329 aid workers becoming victims of major attacks. So far this year, at least 82 aid workers have been killed. Nearly 75% of brutalities committed against humanitarians in 2013 occurred across five countries – Afghanistan, Pakistan, South Sudan, Sudan and Syria. Such volatile nations are more than often in severe need of humanitarian interventions. Yet, it is in these places that humanitarian organisations face the daunting task of legal and operational challenges, while protecting their own and partner staff from violence while reaching out to populations in need. Albeit slightly tricky, humanitarian organisations are having to weave around a variety of stakeholders to secure space for humanitarian action, where states cannot guarantee the security of such actors and their action. However, in doing so, organisations are treading a fine line and should be wary of not jeopardising adherence to the core humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence.
The past two years had shown a marginal decrease in atrocities against humanitarian workers. Improved security, awareness and management might have helped arrest and possibly, reverse the rise in casualty rates that were evident in 2013. However, recent high-profile attacks and kidnappings of humanitarian professionals in Afghanistan indicate a disturbing trend: humanitarian actors face increasing threats and attacks on their staff. These assaults imperil the lives of aid workers, violate international humanitarian law and threaten the effective delivery of emergency relief to people in need.
Security management and strategies over the years
The Good Practice Review Operational Security Management framework, commonly referred to as the GPR 8, was first created and disseminated by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) in 2000. It envisaged a three-pronged approach to field security management, namely Acceptance, Protection and Deterrence, as basic to humanitarian operations in volatile geographies. While it was referred to as the security triangle, over the years it proved too rigid and compartmentalised to suit the fluid environment of conflict zones. Particularly confusing was the concept of ‘acceptance’, which in itself meant that organisations have to work and portray their activities in such a manner that is seen as ‘acceptable’ by the community, in turn reducing organisational risk. Sixteen years later, the idea of gaining community acceptance continues to be a work in progress and remains elusive to many aid organisations.
Over the years, there has been a concerted effort to move from the framework of the security triangle to a more consistent active acceptance approach, which lays stress on consistently ensuring that organisations are accepted into the operational regions through a culturally and geopolitically sensitive programming and staffing engagement. A persistent and critical problem with the ‘acceptance’ approach is the multitude of humanitarian players and the diverse mandates they hold. In fact, local non-humanitarian actors in most cases perceive these various entities as indistinguishable. Aid organisations, although operating under the framework of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) or designated UN agency, rarely represent themselves with a unity of mission at any level, primarily owing to competition and difference in programme designs and goals. These organisations have varied ethos and personnel from different backgrounds. Additionally, humanitarian organisations have more recently been sharing operational space with the private sector, religious organisations and increasingly the military, which have undoubtedly posed challenges for ‘acceptance’ as an approach to mitigate security concerns.
Is ‘deterrence’ the only solution for successful aid delivery?
While few professional organisations would have over time and effort put in place an effective acceptance-based approach, this could be run to the ground by the behaviour, affiliation or attributes of another unrelated organisation. The criticism against the acceptance approach assumes that any security management strategy or system that is neither deterrence based nor protection based implies an acceptance-based approach. It must be clarified here that the entire strategy is being questioned, not merely the ‘acceptance’ approach. While the ‘deterrence’ approach is highly controversial, involving armed protection in times of need, organisations currently put consistent effort on the ‘protection’ approach, which envisages methods such as travelling in convoys and paying protection taxes. Perhaps it is time, in view of the dire situations that exist in Syria, for humanitarian organisations to return to ‘deterrence’ as a means to reach suffering populations. In addition, organisations should actively engage in building a holistic security culture, which could prevent untoward incidents in the future.
Seppi Sebastian is a second generation Humanitarian with a professional background in Human Resources. He grew up across the Horn of Africa during the 1980s, and has witnessed intimidation to humanitarians in several forms. He is an avid follower of international humanitarian issues and is among the founder trustees of the Centre for Public Policy Research, Kochi.
Views expressed by the author is personal and does not represent that of Centre for Public Policy Research
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