Protection in Humanitarian Emergencies

Every year, the World Humanitarian Day (WHD) is held on 19 August to honour humanitarian aid workers who put their lives at risk on the front lines of war and disasters across the world. It also gathers people from all walks of life to advocate for a more humane world. The day was selected by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly to coincide with the anniversary of the 2003 bombing of the UN Head Office in Baghdad, Iraq.

Awareness of danger in conflict zones

On this year’s WHD, the UN and its partners are advocating for the protection of civilians, humanitarian workers, and all of who have been affected by conflict. In recent times, there has been more effort to document the atrocities committed against civilians and humanitarian workers, and as a result the issue has gained much more attention. WHD will be an important opportunity to raise awareness of this issue through UN Member States, civil society and global leaders, so that fast and effective action can be taken to overcome these challenges. On the social media front, the online hashtag, #NotATarget has also been promoted as an act of solidarity to stand up for the protection of civilians, humanitarian aid workers and civilian infrastructure in conflict situations, to draw attention to the atrocities committed against these groups of people in war zones and to demand the right of humanitarian workers to provide assistance to people in need, especially in conflict areas. The #NotATarget campaign has drawn the attention of world leaders and is pushing them to investigate and collate data to understand the extent of the situation. It has also helped both victims and witnesses to come forward and share their experiences in war zones.

Humanitarian workers at risk

Protecting humanitarian workers when they are delivering assistance and protection to civilians has become an increasingly serious challenge in complex humanitarian situations everywhere. Though some hazards are inherent to humanitarian action, there has been an increase in overall risks in terms of intentional attacks against those working in the humanitarian field. These attacks endanger their lives, disregard international humanitarian law and risk effective provision of aid to civilians in need. According to Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP), there are an estimated 450,000 humanitarian workers working in armed conflict zones and natural disaster situations. Data from Insecurity Insight has indicated that just between June 2015 and August 2016, 816 humanitarian workers were killed, kidnapped, injured or assaulted. The World Health Organisation (WHO) reported that during the 2- year period from 2014 to 2015, an estimated 600 health facilities came under attack, taking the lives of more than 950 patients and health providers. The increasing number of crises continue to affect the security of humanitarians.

Exploring the underlying causes of hostility towards aid workers

As the issue on the protection of civilians and humanitarian workers gains traction, the knowledge and practice of providing protection to them remains limited. More research can be done to understand the disparities between humanitarian workers and risks it poses to them in relation to their nationality, gender and the organization that their affiliated with. Also, there is a need to explore the underlying causes of hostility towards aid workers in different situations across the world and how international humanitarian law could be applied and enforced to protect these groups of people. It is also important to determine how organisations can balance between speaking out against attacks but at the same time protect people or programmes that are affected. At the ground level, it is important to understand what the risks humanitarian workers face when they speak up about attacks against them and what the most appropriate course of action is, in order to reassert the protection of humanitarian action, whether independently or jointly. One step at a time, this will help build a safer world for humanitarian action.