A recent attack on members of the HALO Trust charity in Afghanistan has killed 10 and injured 16 others. The incident has highlighted the increasing dangers faced by humanitarian workers stationed in conflict zones. An Islamic militant group has claimed responsibility for the attack on the humanitarians who were working to clear landmines in Kabul. Chief executive of the HALO Trust has reported the incident, stating that the attackers went “bed to bed, murdering in cold blood my staff.” The HALO Trust was founded in Kabul in 1988, where it has sought to clear landmines in conflict zones and to further support landmine victims. According to their website it has “made almost 80 percent of the country’s minefields and battlefields safe.” The stability of such a critical mission is undermined by the threats posed to humanitarian workers.
Even though international humanitarian law determined by the Geneva Convention prohibits attacks on civilians and humanitarian workers, instances of senseless attacks have been increasing recently. This has highlighted the dangers humanitarian workers encounter as they work compassionately to save lives, livelihoods and to create peace and stability in the world. Just this year there have been many incidents which have put aid workers in harm’s way. In February, a deliberate and deadly attack on a World Food Programme convoy at a school in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, left 3 workers dead and resulted in numerous injuries. Furthermore, in May, an aid worker was killed after assailants fired at a humanitarian vehicle which was travelling to a health facility in South Sudan.
In addition to these deliberate attacks, humanitarians working to assist civilians in conflict zones are also vulnerable to the dangers of constant airstrikes and gunfire. A Doctors Without Borders Clinic was damaged by airstrikes in Gaza last month, which destroyed important medical equipment essential to treating wounded patients. The dangers faced by these aid workers was reflected by Ely Sok, the Head of Mission for Doctors Without Borders, who reported that “anytime you go outside, you are taking the risk to be killed.”
Aid workers face countless risks when exposed to the challenges of environments rife with political instability, armed conflict as well as hostile and lawless governments or militant groups. The increasing number of humanitarian deaths and incidents has resulted in an overwhelming need for increased training and preparation for both local and international workers, as well as the need for increased security on the ground. 2019 concluded as the worst year on record for humanitarian casualties and incidents, with a reported 145 deaths. UN Secretary-General António Guterres stated that “unfortunately these attacks are only increasing.” Sexual harassment, kidnappings, aggressive encounters with armed combatants, exposure to disease, robbery and traffic incidents are just some of the dangers that humanitarian workers risk every day.
Enforcing security measures and protections is required from the governments of conflict ridden regions. Alain Noudéhou, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in South Sudan has called on the Sudanese Government to strengthen law enforcement along roads to ensure that humanitarian organizations are able to travel safely across the country, free of fear. The increasing dependence on non-governmental organizations and UN agencies to help civilians affected by conflict calls for the improved security of these workers. The importance of humanitarian workers cannot be understated as they are essential in supporting civilians through the provision of food, resources, medical care and infrastructure for people in life-threatening circumstances. Governments and agencies have a duty of working together to increase safety protocols and the enforcement of laws meant to ensure the protection of aid workers.
Humanitarian work is a highly demanding job, with many workers impacted by long-term physical and mental illnesses following aid missions. Increased training, support and continued emphasis on the enshrined laws of the Geneva Convention is of chief importance in the protection of those who are putting their lives at stake to provide critical assistance and protections for vulnerable populations.
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