Aid workers in conflict zones no longer immune, now targeted

by Stella Dawson | https://twitter.com/stelladawson | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 20 November 2014 06:43 GMT

In a file photo from Nov. 8, 2014, colleagues of U.S. aid worker Abdul-Rahman Kassig carry signs during a news conference calling for his release in Tripoli, northern Lebanon. Kassig, a 26-year-old humanitarian worker from Indiana whose first name was Peter before he converted to Islam while in captivity, was the fifth European or American captive killed by Islamic State militants. His severed head was seen in a video released on Nov. 15, 2014, which also showed the beheadings of at least 14 men. REUTERS/Omar Ibrahim

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474 aid workers were killed, kidnapped or seriously wounded in 2013, compared to 143 in 2003

(Corrects numbers of aid worker attacks and kidnappings in paragraphs 2 and 3.)

WASHINGTON, Nov 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Humanitarian groups in conflict zones need to reconsider how they protect aid workers now that insurgents no longer provide immunity for relief work, aid experts said on Wednesday.

Attacks on humanitarian workers have increased steadily over the past decade, with 474 workers killed, kidnapped or seriously wounded in 2013, compared to 143 in 2003, according to Aid Worker Security Database statistics last updated on Wednesday.

The database showed that kidnappings alone shot up to 141 in 2013, from only seven ten years earlier.

Last week an American aid worker was beheaded by Islamic State militants, following beheadings earlier this year of two British aid workers.

Kendra Davenport, chief of staff at the development group Africare, said that traditionally safety was given little attention in planning delivery of aid.

But today groups must consider developing reliable systems for regular check-ins by field staff, and field kits that include satellite phones, she said at a panel discussion on safety at the Disaster Relief Summit here.

A range of factors explain the rising danger of humanitarian relief, including increasingly unstable environments where they work and a larger number of aid workers in the field.

Alastair Morrison, director of RW Chelsea Group which provides private security, said that the perception of aid neutrality also has been eroded as governments invest more defense money in development programmes.

The growing number of attacks on aid workers coincides with the rise of Western governments using so-called "soft power" to advance their foreign policy goals, he said.

The United States for example has spent more than $100 billion in rebuilding Iraq and Afghanistan - constructing schools, clinics and roads as a means of winning the hearts and minds of local populations in support of the Western values of democracy.

But insurgents who see these development programmes as Western incursions increasingly have identified aid workers as politically acceptable targets, he said.

"We have got to get a clear distinction between government development and humanitarian programmes. If we don't, those who go in to save lives will be put at tremendous risk because of the lack of distinction between government and humanitarian aid," Morrison said.

However, Amaury Cooper, deputy director of risk management at the non-governmental group International Relief and Development, said the situation is more complex than separating governments from aid programmes.

He noted that the U.S. military has played a critical role in delivering humanitarian relief without a backlash on aid workers.

Cooper cited assistance after the Indian Ocean tsunami and Haitian earthquake, and the construction of hospitals in Liberia to cope with the Ebola crisis - aid that no other country had the resources to bring as quickly and effectively as the U.S. government.

(Thomson Reuters Foundation is a supporting partner for the Aid and International Development Forum's Disaster Relief Summit.)

(Reporting by Stella Dawson, editing by Alisa Tang.)