By Sally Hayden
LONDON, Aug 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Hundreds of aid workers signed a petition on Friday calling for greater protection in conflict zones, urging the United Nations to end "a culture of silence and dishonesty" that they say allows relief workers to be targeted with impunity.
Launched on World Humanitarian Day, the petition describes "a decades-long pattern of callous negligence" by U.N. agencies, governments and international relief groups in protecting those on the frontlines of delivering relief.
"In the first half of this decade, more than 2,000 aid workers were kidnapped, extorted, used as proxy targets, bombed, assaulted, shot or otherwise attacked for doing their jobs," the petition reads.
"We, a global community of serving and former humanitarian aid workers, can no longer remain silent while so many of us are murdered, raped, taken hostage, and attacked with impunity in crisis zones around the world."
The campaign on online petition website Change.org was set up by three aid worker support groups, including "Fifty Shades of Aid", a social media group with more than 7,000 members. Within hours, it had more than 1,000 signatures.
The petition calls for the granting of protected legal status to humanitarian workers under international humanitarian law and the appointment of a special U.N. rapporteur on aid worker wellbeing.
It also urged U.N. agencies, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the Red Cross movement to adopt a common code of duty of care to aid workers.
"A culture of silence and dishonesty has grown around the realities of delivering aid in dangerous places," it says.
Megan Nobert, founder of Report the Abuse, a Geneva-based NGO that collects data on sexual violence against aid workers and one of the groups behind the petition, said it was up to the United Nations "to take up the charge" on aid worker safety.
Nobert, 29, went public last year after being raped in South Sudan by a sub-contractor employed by a U.N. agency.
"Violence against humanitarian aid workers in general happens on a regular basis," she said.
The petition's authors say the campaign was sparked by outrage over an incident in July in which uniformed South Sudanese forces killed a journalist and gang-raped aid workers at a compound in the capital city, Juba.
Those present accuse the U.N. peacekeeping mission stationed nearby of failing to respond to calls for help.
On Wednesday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon launched an independent special investigation into the incident.
Nobert said greater access to social media made it easier for humanitarian workers to speak out.
"There is such momentum and this is the timing for humanitarian workers to start talking about issues - sexual violence, kidnappings, negligence and liability. Are we delivering aid responsibly and are we doing it well?"
(Reporting by Sally Hayden @sallyhayd; editing by Timothy Large. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)