The Dangers Of Being An Aid Worker In Conflict Settings


On Monday 19 December, an aid worker for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was abducted in Afghanistan after he was taken from his vehicle between Mazar-i-Sharif and Kunduz. While the other aid workers were released, this latest abduction reflects a growing trend of danger and risk within the profession of humanitarian governance. It raises serious concerns about the infallibility of a neutral and impartial humanitarianism espoused by the ICRC against the intensifying threats of the modern era. The ICRC has been active in Afghanistan for nearly three decades. In its claim to provide medical assistance to local populations as a ‘neutral intermediary,’ the organization must nevertheless face the dangers of working in a war-torn environment. The prevalence of kidnappings and targeted killings against aid workers has escalated worldwide. The shocking attack against aid workers at the Terrain compound in Juba, South Sudan that resulted in the death, violence, and sexual assault of aid workers in July of this year has further emphasized the need for serious reform within the humanitarian system and the utmost respect for international humanitarian law in conflict.

In relation to the most recent abduction of an ICRC aid worker in Afghanistan, the organization’s head of delegation in Afghanistan, Monica Zanarelli stated: “We’re extremely concerned for the safety of our colleague. We’re doing our best to discover what precisely happened, and to secure his safe and unconditional release as quickly as possible.” Unfortunately, this is not uncommon. Indeed, Afghanistan is the most dangerous country in the world for an aid worker. Furthermore, there is the current perception that, mainly, international workers are being targeted, but as Masood Karokhail, Director of The Liaison Office in Afghanistan remarks: “Afghan workers bore the brunt of those attacks… local aid workers rarely received the same security arrangements as their international colleagues.” This unsettling disparity is not isolated to Afghanistan. In the most dangerous countries in the world, from Syria to South Sudan, aid workers, both international and local, face the risk of death, injury, or abduction on a daily basis.

At the heart of this issue is a complete disregard for the international humanitarian law by nation states and belligerents of war. The international community must continue to condemn violence and ensure the protection of aid workers in conflict settings, but also of the suffering populations humanitarians attempt to help. Furthermore, the current hierarchy within humanitarianism that favours international workers over their local counterparts must be uprooted. The equality of all aid workers must be guaranteed by relief organizations, including equal protection from harm. At the country context level, organizations and their staff must gain acceptance from local communities in order to operate and provide assistance, even if it means responding to belligerents. The safety of aid workers speaks to a greater need within the humanitarian and wider political sphere to discourage generalized violence and conflict, and instead promote state responsibility and capacity to care for and protect its populations.

Aid workers operate in contexts of protracted conflicts, civil wars, and complex humanitarian emergencies. The conflict in Afghanistan is decades long, making it an extremely complex and volatile environment to operate. In Afghanistan and elsewhere, humanitarian assistance has been increasingly associated with political and military actors, thus endangering the impartial position of aid workers. Attacks on humanitarian aid convoys in Syria are examples of the expropriation of humanitarianism for political endeavours. The safety of aid workers and the civilian populations they attempt to alleviate hinges upon the commitments of nation-states and non-state actors to respect the principles of international humanitarian law. The World Humanitarian Summit held in May this year is one step closer to safeguarding the values of humanitarianism and upholding its pursuit for human dignity worldwide. However, enforcement of these values often remains to be seen. The international community owes this to those aid workers who put their lives at risk to help others.

Caitlin Biddolph