This article was first published by the Guardian.
On the 3 October, a hospital run by Médecins Sans Frontières in Kunduz, a city in northern Afghanistan, was bombed by US airplanes. The air strike, one the US claimed mistakenly identified the hospital for a Taliban base, killed 22 people, of whom 12 were staff.
That day and the previous day, according to the New York-based Physicians for Human Rights, Russian air strikes also damaged three medical facilities in Syria, injuring many. The facilities were said to be over 30 miles from the nearest Isis-controlled territory.
These two separate events reflect one truth: the terrible harm suffered by humanitarian workers in conflict zones.
It is a harm that has largely increased in recent years. The US government-funded Aid Worker Security Database (AWSD) shows that between 2004 and 2013 there was a 300% rise in major attacks on aid workers (from 63 to 264). And despite there being a dip in casualties in 2014, the data also shows rates of violence generally rising too, doubling from 2.4 per 10,000 in 2004 to 4.7 per 10,000 in 2012.
While some of these increases might be ascribed to the fact that harm to humanitarian workers is increasingly being reported, the underlying reality is it has rarely been more dangerous to be working in the field of aid than today.
The rise of religiously motivated terrorism, the fragmentation of armed groups, the ease by which guns can be procured, the re-drafting of the rules of conflict to fit shifting agendas: these new realities have transformed the environment in which many aid organisations operate. According to Gareth Owen, the humanitarian director of Save the Children, things have changed irrevocably: “Years ago you could be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but there were not people who’d attack you for the colour of your skin or the place you came from. Being decapitated on YouTube was not a consideration.”
And while beheadings like those of Alan Henning and David Haines may appal, it is untargeted attacks that pose the greatest threat. Christina Wille, managing director of the Aid in Danger Project, says that more humanitarian workers operating in conflict cities means more are being exposed “to the increased use of explosive weapons in populated areas”. Three of the five countries that had the most attacks on humanitarian workers in 2014 – Afghanistan, Syria and Pakistan – are also the most affected countries in the world (except for Iraq) for the use of explosive weapons.
Such indiscriminate attacks look set to increase. According to Action on Armed Violence’s (AOAV) global monitor of explosive violence harm, 2015 is likely to be the worst year on record for suicide bombings. So far this year there have been 35% more civilians killed or injured from such attacks than in the same period in 2014 (5,671 compared to 4,214).
The threat of violence has meant many international NGOs have ceased to operate in certain areas. According to Wille, “most international workers have been pulled out of Yemen and aid is being delivered by national staff”. Aid workers are reportedly pulling out of Ukraine, too. Indeed, AWSD’s explanation as to why the harm suffered by aid workers reduced slightly in 2014 is because there are “fewer aid workers deployed to field locations deemed insecure”.
Such ceasing of operations clearly has had impact. It has been reported the departure of Médecins Sans Frontières from Kunduz might have catastrophic consequences for civilians in the region. And even when aid groups do stay, the threat of violence can severely restrict operations. AOAV asked a dozen Afghanistan based NGOs about the impact of roadside bombs on their work. Eleven listed “avoiding certain roads” as one of the measures taken. The survey also found many NGOs admitted to bunkering down when faced with threats, both restricting access to those in need and also giving the impression of a protected and privileged class of workers to locals.
The threat of harm brings other costs. Legal action might be brought against aid organisations if workers are wounded during their work; there are greater insurance premiums; an increased drain of resources in providing security; and even the costs of providing psychological support to traumatised workers.
Perhaps the most hampering element, though, is the impunity enjoyed by many perpetrating the violence. As Gareth Owen says: “Whether it is terrorists or governments, it is not enough to make a trite apology when you hit a hospital and kill dozens. And that is what is concerning many – there seems to be no respect for the norms of conflict. It begs the question, on the 70th anniversary of the UN, to quote its charter, has the experiment to end the scourge of war worked?”
Certainly, it may currently not feel like it to many aid workers operating on the front lines of conflict.
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