Since 2006, when 17 of its staff members were killed in Sri Lanka, Action Against Hunger, an international non-governmental organization operating in 48 countries, has engaged in various advocacy strategies to bring justice to victims’ families in Sri Lanka. This pursuit of justice has pushed the organization to question the evolution of the humanitarian context, where it is not only a principled action (as independent, neutral, human and impartial as possible) that leads to attacks affecting the sector’s capacity to serve people in need. Country operations all illustrate in various ways the erosion of respect for International Humanitarian Law (IHL) in the field, including through systematic denials of access for humanitarian actors and violence against humanitarian action in a context of silence and impunity.
Humanitarian actors are often subject to violence in their areas of intervention, especially when operating in highly insecure environments such as conflict zones or areas of fragile governance. While the causes for violence against humanitarian action are often diverse and intertwined, humanitarian organizations note an increase in targeted violence against humanitarian action in recent years, either towards recipients of aid or against the organizations delivering this assistance. Their humanitarian mandates and logos are less and less considered a protection—on the contrary, in some settings, they are seen as making humanitarians and their operations the targets of violence.
Such violence includes deliberate attacks on aid workers, humanitarian convoys, or the bombing of health facilities, amongst others. These attacks endanger lives, violate international norms, and are a particularly serious manifestation of denial or hindrance of humanitarian access and assistance to populations in need. They also pose an acute operational dilemma between humanitarian organizations’ ability to maintain access to populations in need, and to ensure the safety and security of their staff. Despite a reinforced security culture within humanitarian organizations, this violence continues to affect the delivery of principled humanitarian aid to civilians already made vulnerable by conflicts, disasters, or extreme poverty.
While humanitarian organizations find operational means of adapting, these responses often fail to address the overall deteriorating environment for humanitarian action, or the prevailing impunity for such violations, which implicate many types of actors. At the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, Action Against Hunger petitioned, along with 11 other organizations, for the creation of a Special Rapporteur on the Protection of Aid Workers.
The lack of strong commitments regarding IHL at the World Humanitarian Summit prompted an initiative to mobilize the humanitarian sector on this issue and try to collectively address the problem. A new Toolkit was produced as part of these efforts, through a series of consultations in 2017-2018 with members of the Working Group on Protection of Humanitarian Action, an initiative organized by ATHA and Action Against Hunger that brings together more than 20 partners. The Working Group aims to mobilize a community of practice and foster cooperation through peer-to-peer professional exchange and information sharing, research, and advocacy. Members of the Working Group involved in producing this Toolkit include representatives from ATHA, Action Against Hunger, CARE International, the Johns Hopkins Center for Humanitarian Health, and the European Interagency Security Forum (EISF), in consultation with other leading international and humanitarian organizations.
The purpose of this Toolkit is to offer guidance and support to humanitarian actors for responding to violence against humanitarian action, in order to promote a more protective environment for the provision of humanitarian aid to civilians. It aims to complement and strengthen operational and security responses to acts of violence or incitement of violence against the humanitarian mission, or humanitarian organizations’ personnel, facilities, assets, and activities.
Focusing on the aftermath of serious incidents of violence against humanitarian action against national or international staff of local or international NGOs, United Nations personnel, first responders, or healthcare providers, this Toolkit seeks to provide a range of options and guidance regarding sharing information, speaking out, and challenging impunity in response to attacks. These options are meant to highlight possible and complementary responses to incidents of violence against humanitarian action. The Toolkit applies to cases where an organization has been directly affected, as well as to incidents perpetrated against other organizations in a particular setting. It contains resources and templates to help country directors; regional directors and desks; security managers; communications officers; as well as advocacy, policy, and legal staff – at global and field levels – make informed decisions about whether and how to share information, speak out, and challenge impunity in cases of violence against humanitarian action.