Lives On The Line: Aid Workers Are #NotATarget

Action Against Hunger’s Head of Humanitarian Advocacy answers Frequently Asked Questions about our #ProtectAidWorkers campaign.

Aid workers put their lives on the line to reach vulnerable populations with lifesaving humanitarian assistance in the most world’s most dangerous areas. On World Humanitarian Day – and every other day of the year – Action Against Hunger stands up to protect aid workers and the communities they serve.

One of the ways we advocate for the safety and respect of aid workers, as well as justice and accountability for violations of International Humanitarian Law, is through our "Protect Aid Workers" campaign. Below, Pauline Chetcuti, Action Against Hunger’s Head of Humanitarian Advocacy and Policy, addresses some FAQs about this campaign and the threats to aid workers and civilians, particularly in situations of armed conflict.

Action Against Hunger launched the "Protect Aid Workers" campaign last year. Why? What is the objective of the campaign?

Aid workers are a lifeline to civilians trapped in conflicts and violence: our campaign raises awareness with the public and decision makers about the importance of keeping that lifeline safe. Aid workers and the assistance they provide to the most vulnerable populations are literally the difference between life and death for entire communities in many emergencies, particularly in situations of conflict. But despite the fact that humanitarian organizations are, by definition, neutral, impartial, and independent—committed to saving lives and alleviating suffering solely on the basis of need, without discrimination, and with no political, economic, military, religious or other objectives—they are often targets of violence.

Action Against Hunger decided to launch the “Protect Aid Workers” campaign to urge greater international accountability for violence against humanitarian personnel in the wake of our pursuit for justice for 17 Action Against Hunger aid workers who were assassinated in Muttur, in Sri Lanka in 2006. These humanitarians were deliberately targeted and killed while bringing assistance to populations suffering from the consequences of tsunami and war.  More than a decade later, the government of Sri Lanka has still failed to bring those responsible for this crime to justice. The lives of millions of people around the world depend on humanitarian aid. World leaders, parties to armed conflict, and those who influence them are obligated to do more to uphold international humanitarian law. And if they fail to uphold their obligations, the international community—and all of us—must hold them to account.

Why does your campaign emphasize protecting national aid workers?

In 2016, 158 major attacks against aid operations were documented, in which 288 aid workers were victims. There were 13 times as many national staff victims as international victims in the five conflict-affected countries representing the bulk of all major attacks on civilian aid operations: Afghanistan, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, and seven times as many globally.

The majority of the world’s humanitarian personnel are national aid workers. International personnel benefit from certain protections and other mechanisms available through the government of their home country and the diplomatic representation and assistance of of their home country through its embassy and consulates. National staff, however, lack such assistance and are left to rely on often weak or non-existent domestic justice systems. The current mechanisms rely on the good faith of States to actually provide a conducive environment for aid agencies and to prosecute perpetrators--all but ensuring weak systems to protect aid workers.

What are governments or parties to conflict obligated to do, under international humanitarian law and per the Geneva Conventions, to protect aid workers and civilians in times of conflict or crisis?

Even in the midst of war, there are unequivocal, long-established international humanitarian laws that apply to all actors in a conflict: protect civilians, spare schools and hospitals, and ensure the safe passage of aid workers to allow them to deliver timely, impartial, safe, unimpeded assistance to the populations in need.

Compliance with and respect for international and domestic laws are fundamental to ensuring the protection of civilians, and more specifically for aid workers. If international laws were respected, neither civilians nor aid workers would be killed, attacked, or kidnapped.

Why have aid workers and civilians increasingly been the targets of violence over the past several years?

There are a couple reasons: more aid workers are currently in the field responding to more humanitarian emergencies, and incidents are more easily reported today. But  using only absolute numbers is insufficient to describe the increase in targeting: in 2015, for example, the five contexts with the greatest number of attacks all experienced violent conflicts. This shows that respect for humanitarian principles and International Humanitarian Law (IHL), applicable in armed conflict, is decreasing and that the nature of humanitarian aid and the protection that aid workers deserve is poorly respected and/or understood.

In situations of conflict or violence, humanitarian workers are deliberately staying in, or traveling to, dangerous areas in order to support the most vulnerable populations trapped in these areas. They become valuable targets for all parties, despite their neutrality and impartiality.

Isn't violence against aid workers and civilians just an unavoidable consequence in conflicts and war?

Violence against aid workers is not unavoidable consequence of war--it is the consequence of the erosion of respect for norms and the result of the multiplication of various actors involved in a crisis. It shows the increasing politicization of aid. Aid workers are not simply “collateral damage” in a crisis, they are targeted for what they represent. When lines between military or political actions and humanitarian action are blurred, aid workers can become targets of violence.

Lack of accountability for attacks against aid workers contributes to the problem, too. We must fight against the almost absolute impunity that exists for attacks on aid workers. Reinforced security measures do not ensure accountability for violence against aid workers. Given that impunity appears right now to be a fundamental feature of violence against aid workers, our calls to hold those responsible for these crimes to account are essential.

What is Action Against Hunger asking world leaders and the international community to do to protect aid workers?

The dialogue between humanitarian actors and all other parties must be strengthened and the respect for the nature of humanitarian aid should be emphasized. UN member states should demand that the UN Secretary General appoint a special mandate holder, namely a Special Rapporteur, for the protection of aid workers.

The Special Rapporteur could be mandated to:

  • Work with relevant authorities to ensure that all cases of violence against aid workers are brought to justice;
  • Report to relevant UN bodies, on an annual basis, on incidents against aid workers and follow-up actions taken, to fight against the culture of impunity;
  • Work with Member States to review ways to strengthen domestic laws and search for opportunities new compliance mechanisms with all actors and at all levels;
  • Function as an advocate, as a resource and as recourse for all aid workers in cases of violence against them;
  • Raise awareness about the nature of humanitarian work and the humanitarian principles both within the UN systems and with Member States.


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About Action Against Hunger USA

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Action Against Hunger is a global humanitarian organization that takes decisive action against the causes and effects of hunger. We save the lives of malnourished children. We ensure families can access clean water, food, training, and health care. We enable entire communities to be free from hunger.