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Caught in the killing fields: Aid workers deserve more than our condolences Add to ...

Another day, another gruesome killing in Afghanistan. Three expatriate aid workers and their Afghan driver died last week in a hail of bullets southeast of Kabul, bringing to 19 the tally of practitioners killed in Afghanistan this year. The litany of killing, harassment and intimidation in the past two months alone is the worst on record.

Aid workers, of course, are not just targeted in Afghanistan. Intentional violence is now a leading cause of death among humanitarian personnel around the world. Granted the numbers are patchy, but nearly 1,000 of them have died in the line of duty since the early 1990s.

Although the overall numbers of violent deaths are escalating, so, too, are the numbers of relief workers in the world's hot spots. Africa and the Middle East are still the most dangerous places for those providing humanitarian assistance. But it is not just war zones that generate insecurity. Crime and routine interpersonal violence also contribute to a higher-than-expected incidence of mortality, injury and psychological stress.

The abundance of illegal weapons in these places is conducive to routine insecurity. Aid workers are regularly subjected to ambushes and carjackings while driving in convoys or en route to their offices. It is not just expatriates, but also national staff - secretaries, drivers and guards - who suffer a disproportionately high burden of violence.

For every aid worker killed or injured, thousands of civilians in genuine need go without assistance. This chilling calculus is well understood by criminals and insurgents alike. Sri Lankan aid workers were subjected to death threats by phone and post before and after 17 employees of the international relief organization Action contre la faim were massacred in August of 2006.

More recently, after the killings of Médecins sans frontières workers and others in Somalia this year, aid agencies seriously curtailed their work. As a result, thousands of starving Somalis were deprived of medical assistance and food aid. According to United Nations estimates, more than 20 aid workers have been killed in Somalia this year.

It is not enough to wring one's hands and issue statements condemning such actions. The onus must be on governments and international agencies to adopt a proactive approach to preventing violence. So what can they do?

For one, the UN should establish an independent unit to track all aid worker fatalities and government follow-up. While the UN Department of Safety and Security issues annual reports, there is no centralized or reliable register to monitor trends on the ground. If aid agencies want to diminish the likelihood of being targeted, they need to co-operate and share information. Without more awareness of the scale of the risks facing aid workers, timely preventive interventions will fall short.

There also is an urgent need to reinforce the principles of international humanitarian law among belligerents. And relief agencies must emphasize their neutral and impartial credentials. Specifically, armed groups, government security forces and aid personnel need to be versed in the 1949 Geneva Conventions and the 1977 protocols. These treaties lay out legally binding obligations to warring parties that prohibit intentional violence, hostage taking and humiliating or degrading treatment. If armed groups are not aware of these rules and the repercussions of non-compliance, they are more likely to violate them.

Finally, it is critical to ensure physical protection and effective liability for aid workers killed or injured in the field. The number of prosecutions and convictions for the murders of humanitarian workers is abysmally low. There are also worrying signs that certain donor governments and aid agencies are distancing themselves from any responsibility for such deaths. This is morally reprehensible. When governments sponsor and encourage NGOs to respond to a crisis, wherever it may be, they share joint responsibility.

Humanitarian work is risky business. In seeking to alleviate suffering, aid workers are conscious of the tremendous threats they face on a daily basis. It is clearly difficult to balance the requirements of personal security with the humanitarian imperative. This is because guns draw gunfire. And while most relief agencies refuse to recruit armed guards and military escorts, they still struggle to effectively ensure the safety of their staff and those they seek to assist.

Aid workers deserve more than just condolences. They deserve meaningful action.

Robert Muggah is research director of the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey. Larissa Fast is an assistant professor at the University of Notre Dame's Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.

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