A group of volunteers, belonging to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) were attacked Wednesday while carrying supplies to areas hit by deadly snowstorms in the northern Afghan province of Jawzjan. Six helpers were killed, and another two are missing. ICRC spokesperson Thomas Glass stated that the organization does not know who is responsible for the attack; however, Jawzjan’s governor informed Reuters news agency that the aid workers were attacked by fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). A search operation is underway to locate the two missing aid workers.
The attack has rocked the international humanitarian aid community. Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) International President Joanne Liu spoke out on the attack – “we find ourselves in a state of shock and disbelief at this assault on the very essence of humanitarian action.” She adds, “we stand in solidarity and in mourning with our colleagues and friends at the ICRC.” The organization has halted their activities in the country following the attack. The group’s global operations head, Dominik Stillhart, issued the following statement: “we need to understand … exactly [what] happened before we can hopefully resume our operations.”
Aid workers in war-torn Afghanistan have come under increasing attacks in recent years. In April 2015, five Afghan workers from Save the Children charity were killed after their abduction in the southern province of Uruzgan – this attack follows the release of a Spanish ICRC employee, who was kidnapped by unidentified assailants in the country’s northern region. However, insurgents are not the only ones responsible for attacks on aid workers in Afghanistan. In October of 2016, US air strikes on a civilian hospital run by MSF killed 42. The attack was dismissed of being a war crime.
Following over 30 years of war, many Afghanis still rely heavily on humanitarian assistance, which includes the basics they need in order to survive. Furthermore, the attacks are only adding to the difficulties faced by these organizations in trying to reach those in dire need. This case calls into question the scope of the international humanitarian law and the necessary protection provisions for its vulnerable aid workers. While many call for greater security measures, others remain acutely aware of the message, intended or not, that heavily militarized humanitarian aid operations will send. Even though dialogue was pursued in the past (with positive outcomes) – the presence of ISIL in northern Afghanistan and the current surge of violence has further destabilized an already tumultuous region.