What's In Blue

Posted Mon 18 Aug 2014

Briefing on the Protection of Humanitarian Workers

Tomorrow morning (19 August), the Security Council will hold a briefing on the protection of humanitarian workers in armed conflict to mark World Humanitarian Day, which honours the efforts of aid workers. World Humanitarian Day was designated by the General Assembly to coincide with the anniversary of the 19 August 2003 bombing of the UN compound in Baghdad, in which 22 people were killed. Briefings will be provided by Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, ICRC President Peter Maurer, and Masood Karokhail, the Director of the Liaison Office, an NGO that works to promote good governance in Afghanistan. Council members will make statements following the briefings. No immediate Council outcome is anticipated from the briefing, although the discussion could help to inform a Council outcome on this issue in the future. (The last Council outcome to focus specifically on humanitarian personnel was resolution 1502 adopted on 26 August 2003.)

The briefers will offer their unique perspectives on the protection of humanitarian workers in conflict zones. Eliasson is likely to brief on the devastating impact of attacks on humanitarian workers, highlighting the frequency with which they are killed, injured or kidnapped while helping those in need. He is also expected to suggest ways in which the Security Council and other international actors can help humanitarian workers to carry out their work safely and in a neutral and impartial manner.

Maurer is likely to reiterate ICRC’s fundamental principle that humanitarian assistance be delivered in an impartial, neutral and independent manner. He may also underscore the efforts of the ICRC to gain acceptance for humanitarian activities among all parties to a conflict, although the proliferation of these parties remains a challenge. Maurer may also emphasise that all parties to a conflict have an obligation to respect the safety of humanitarian workers. Karokhail is likely to provide a first-hand account of the challenges and opportunities of providing humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan and may provide more information on the recent deaths of humanitarian workers there.

The UK, the President of the Council in August, has circulated a concept paper in preparation for the briefing. It spells out that the purpose of the briefing is “to bring international attention to this critical issue, consider the reasons for the increase in attacks with a particular focus on countries on the Security Council’s agenda, and assess the tools at the Council’s disposal to ensure greater respect for international humanitarian law and accountability for those who perpetrate attacks against aid workers.” According to the concept paper, some of the key issues the briefing hopes to address include:

  • the role of Council mandates and peacekeeping operations in aiding the protection of humanitarian workers;
  • the impact of violence against humanitarian workers on their operations, their access and those they are attempting to serve;
  • the need for accountability against those who attack humanitarian workers and the tools that the Council and the UN more broadly can use to promote accountability; and
  • the impact of non-state actors in settings where humanitarian workers operate


In 2014 conflict has continued to have an alarming impact on the safety and security of humanitarian workers. Tomorrow’s briefing is particularly timely, given the events of recent weeks. Earlier this month, seven local aid workers were killed in Maban county, South Sudan, apparently targeted because of their Nuer ethnicity. The UN Organisation for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs also recently reported that 30 aid workers had been killed and 74 injured in the Gaza conflict from 8 July to 12 August. In Afghanistan, two aid workers from Finland were shot to death on 24 July in Herat, the main city of the province bearing the same name, and just last Friday (15 August), five ICRC workers were kidnapped by extremists in the western part of the province.

Overall, the world is becoming an increasingly dangerous place for humanitarian workers. According to Humanitarian Outcomes’ Aid Worker Security Database, there were 248 security incidents, defined as “deliberate acts of violence affecting aid workers,” in 2013. (Humanitarian Outcomes provides consulting services to donor governments and aid organisations on humanitarian issues.) This is, by a wide margin, the highest number of annual security incidents since Humanitarian Outcomes began compiling data in 1997. Furthermore, according to the data, five of the six most dangerous places for humanitarian workers in 2013 in terms of number of security incidences—Afghanistan, Syria, South Sudan, Sudan and Somalia—are on the Council’s agenda. (The sixth country is Pakistan.)

Council members have long been concerned about the safety and security of humanitarian workers. For several members, the issue has taken on an enhanced urgency given the striking rise in violence against humanitarian workers over the past couple of years, especially in situations on the Council’s agenda. In recent years, language expressing concern with or condemning attacks on humanitarian personnel has been incorporated into several Council resolutions on country-specific cases, ranging from Afghanistan and Sudan to Somalia and Haiti. Resolution 2165, adopted on 14 July, on the humanitarian situation in Syria recalled that attacks on humanitarian workers may amount to war crimes.

This issue has also featured in recent thematic discussions on protection of civilians. For example, at the most recent Council debate on the protection of civilians on 12 February (S/PV.7109), France said that deliberate attacks on civilians and humanitarian workers were unacceptable and that the Council “could no longer accept such repeated and flagrant violations of international humanitarian law”, while Lithuania argued that there must not be impunity for those “who attack and kill humanitarian and medical workers, journalists and peacekeepers.”

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