Afghanistan + 7 more

Don't shoot the helpers

Johannesburg, South Africa. March 1 2000
International aid workers have always risked their personal safety, but they are increasingly becoming targets of criminal bandits and cold-blooded terrorism.


Humanitarian workers in the fields of war and natural disasters live by an immutable rule: risk goes with the job. Delivering food, shelter or medical aid to refugees, displaced people or the victims of floods or earthquakes or drought - this work requires sacrifices, large and small, of one's personal comfort and safety.

For a long time, the humanitarian community accepted this hard fact, and, occasionally, its tragic consequences - a death by violence or a fatal accident in a faraway place, the news received by shocked colleagues, heartbroken families and friends. These were like bolts out of the blue in a kinder world in which the flags of the United Nations or the Red Cross constituted an unassailable shield for their personnel.

Not any more. In lands without the rule of law, the humanitarian flag can become a target, and humanitarian aid booty for armed bands. Cold-blooded terrorism against aid workers is becoming, alarmingly, all too commonplace. In Somalia, Sudan and Afghanistan, UN relief convoys are hijacked, our drivers beaten or killed. In Angola, UN planes have been fired upon. In Sierra Leone, the Great Lakes, the Balkans and the Caucasus, our staff have been taken hostage. Every day, our workers, and the employees of numerous other aid agencies, are risking their own lives in their efforts to save the lives of others. The toll is heavy: The UN lost 184 civilian employees between 1992 and 1999 to violence and air crashes. In 1998, more civilian relief workers died than armed and trained UN military peacekeepers - 98 of them murdered.

The World Food Programme has the tragic distinction of having lost more staff members to violence or work-related accidents than any other UN agency in the last three years. Last year, one of our employees was shot in the head in a refugee camp in Burundi. She was only 34 years old and she died on a gunman's whim, along with a colleague from Unicef , the UN children's agency.

The killing must stop. The time has come to give our aid workers the protection they are entitled to as basic rights in order to carry out their work. To achieve this will require a concerted effort by all of us in the UN - government, agencies and secretariat - and by the entire international community. Together, we must forge an inviolable recognition that the safety and well-being of humanitarian workers in the field are to be respected at all times. This principle must carry the same force as other portions of the Geneva Convention; it must be scrupulously observed and forcefully defended for the sake of the men and women around the globe who are dedicated to helping the victims.

We must hold accountable those who are responsible for crimes against humanitarian workers. They cannot go unpunished. Countries which fail to take action against those who harm humanitarian workers should be made to understand that all available pressures may be applied against them. When aid workers are killed, kidnapped or abused, when food convoys are attacked or vehicles hijacked, the international community should be prepared to apply serious measures. Now we do not hold governments responsible for investigating murders and prosecuting the guilty. Two - only two - of the 98 UN staff members who have been murdered in the last eight years have had perpetrators brought to justice.

We need to improve our communications systems and our equipment in the field. We must make greater efforts to equip our humanitarian staff for dangerous work through security training: how to read the warning signs in volatile settings, how to deal with armed marauders, how to spot hidden landmines, how to extricate themselves from trouble, how to handle forced confinement. For this is the world of the humanitarian worker, and the sooner we face up to it, the more lives will be saved.

These ideas - among other valuable recommendations - are now before the UN security council, which must be given full credit for addressing such an important humanitarian issue. The proposals are under consideration for a comprehensive programme of security and protection for all those engaged in helping the less fortunate. I believe such measures are crucial to the UN humanitarian mission. Because, while we cannot forfeit our mandate to help people in need, neither can we endanger the lives of the people healing the need. To paraphrase the poet John Donne, "Any death diminishes us, because we are involved in humankind."

-- The Guardian, March 1 2000.

Catherine Bertini is executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme