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By targeting NGOs, they bite the hand that helps them Add to ...

With the withdrawal of 11,000 aid workers, humanitarian assistance in Darfur is in danger of being shut down. That's the assessment of United Nations emergency relief co-ordinator Jan Egeland after a period of escalating violence against relief workers. Despite mounting pressure on the Sudanese government to rein in the marauding Arab militias known as janjaweed, the situation has worsened. Pro-government militias have made a raw calculation: By forcing aid workers out of Darfur and keeping the peacekeeping presence to a minimum, the mass killings and land appropriation can continue unhindered.

The targeting of aid workers for political gain is a depressingly common equation in other war-affected corners of the world, and is much more widespread than reported. Since the early 1990s, more than 250 UN civilian personnel and more than 1,120 peacekeepers have been killed in the line of duty.

As heinous as these killings are, the long-term consequences are even graver: Every time an international employee is injured or even threatened at gunpoint, it puts entire relief or development programs in jeopardy. Gunshots put a stop to the digging of wells, prematurely terminate the provision of water and sanitation services, and shut off livelihood assistance.

There are other hidden costs: The increasing targeting of aid workers is leading to a "culture of withdrawal." Agencies such as Médecins sans frontières, Care and World Vision have regularly suspended their operations in Afghanistan and Iraq in response to threats against their employees.

Many more humanitarian and development NGOs, determined

to stay the course, have ratcheted up their security precautions -- erecting higher walls around

their compounds, laying more barbed wire and, increasingly,

hiring armed guards.

But the rules of engagement for their private security agents are far from clear-cut and give rise to a host of new challenges. These types of offensive and defensive measures complicate principles of neutrality and impartiality, and further distance aid workers from the very people they are mandated to protect.

In 2004 and 2005, the situation took a turn for the worse. A new report by the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey and Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue finds that aid worker victimization rates are rising to levels not seen since the mid-1990s (the peak of the genocide in Rwanda). In a survey of more than 2,000 personnel from 17 international agencies, at least one in five respondents claimed to have been the victim of a security incident in the previous six months.

According to aid workers themselves, violence presents the most formidable obstacle to carrying out their activities, with at least one in three reporting suspensions as a result of armed threats.

Aid workers are a final, albeit precarious, barrier to large-scale violence. By keeping them on the ground, widespread violence can be temporarily kept at bay while more durable solutions are found. This simple fact was recognized by the authors of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, who sought to ensure the protection of aid workers while keeping the "humanitarian space" open.

But the conventions are only as strong as warring parties are prepared to accept. Mechanisms to strengthen, not undermine, international humanitarian law are urgently required if aid workers are to be allowed to continue their work. Practical interventions to shore up aid worker safety have also been called for by the UN High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change and the UN Department of Safety and Security, though these require urgent follow-through.

Although political motives are surely behind some aid worker attacks, much of the violence is facilitated by the widespread availability of illicit firearms to organized and petty criminals. The UN Security Council and numerous multilateral agencies and governments have identified illegal small arms as a major contributor to civilian insecurity, including that of relief and development workers.

International action on small-arms control would be one of the most direct ways to improve aid worker security on the ground. A major UN conference on the illicit arms trade next July could make real inroads to curbing widespread gun availability.

It is time that governments listen to the agencies that are administering life-saving assistance to their citizens, and curb the gun problem for good. The people most in need deserve it.

Robert Muggah is project manager of the Small Arms Survey in Geneva, and a Social Science Research Council Fellow at Oxford University.

CORRECTION

An Oct. 28 Comment piece on Darfur incorrectly stated that 11,000 aid workers had been withdrawn from the region. In fact, the aid workers are at risk of being withdrawn if present trends of violence continue.

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