Global Policy Forum

International Aid Work a Deadly Profession


By Thalif Deen

Inter Press Service
November 10, 2006

The United Nations says that international aid work is one of the world's most hazardous professions, in which humanitarian workers are constantly threatened with -- or victims of -- kidnappings, harassment, detention and deadly violence.

The United Nations says that international aid work is one of the world's most hazardous professions, in which humanitarian workers are constantly threatened with -- or victims of -- kidnappings, harassment, detention and deadly violence.

A U.N. study, currently before the 192-member General Assembly, points out that hundreds of aid workers and U.N. humanitarian personnel continue to face risks in some of the world's major trouble spots, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Israel and Haiti.

"By any measure," says U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, "international aid work is a dangerous profession." A comparison of on-the-job death rates in the top 10 most hazardous civilian occupations would place aid workers at number five after loggers (92.4 per 100,000 workers), pilots (92.4), fishermen (86.4) and structural iron and steel workers (47.0), according to the U.S. Department of Labour.

In the past year, says Annan, United Nations and humanitarian personnel "have again placed themselves in situations of extreme risk to achieve their mandates". Last year's death toll was 15: a figure that does not include uniformed peacekeepers who lost their lives in the line of duty or U.N. staffers who died in air crashes.

The majority of threats to security of U.N. staff and operations continue to be physical attacks, threats and armed robberies. The greatest number of violent incidents directed at U.N. personnel have occurred in Africa and Latin America. In Africa, 97 such incidents were recorded, a majority of which took place in three countries: Sudan (29), Cote d'Ivoire (24) and Liberia (9). In Latin America and the Caribbean, there were 84 such incidents, including 25 in Haiti and 15 in Peru.

The U.N. study, titled "Safety and Security of Humanitarian Personnel and Protection of U.N. Personnel", notes that the security of United Nations and humanitarian personnel "remains un-assured" in Afghanistan, Somalia and especially in the Sudan.

"The governments of Eritrea and Ethiopia, and the Israeli authorities continue to detain United Nations staff, and to refuse the United Nations right of protection, in violation of agreed (international) conventions," it says. The governments of North Korea, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka and Yemen continue to withhold essential communication and security equipment, and to impose restrictions on the movement of goods and means of communication, essential to U.N. operations, in contravention of international conventions, according to the study. "The government of Sri Lanka also inhibits the work of the organisation by imposing unnecessary delays and restrictions on the importation of essential communications and security equipment."

The study says these restrictions "have a deleterious effect on the beneficiaries of U.N. programmes, as well as on staff safety and security." A soon-to-be-released study, based on a global survey of major incidents from 1997-2005, concludes that violent acts against aid workers, as measured in absolute terms, have increased markedly since 1997, with a steeper increase in the second half of this decade.

Last year, the General Assembly adopted the eight-article Optional Protocol to the U.N. Convention on the Safety of United Nations and Associated Personnel, expanding the scope of the 1994 treaty which covers peacekeeping operations.

The amendment to the convention expands legal protection to U.N. and associated personnel "delivering emergency humanitarian assistance or providing humanitarian, political or development assistance in peace building." But the protocol does not cover personnel working in permanent U.N. offices overseas.

Manuel Bessler, deputy chief of the policy development and studies branch in the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said last year that the protocol will also apply to humanitarian organisations working with the United Nations as partners, including the International Rescue Committee, Oxfam and some national chapters of Doctors Without Borders.

Jane Cocking, deputy humanitarian director of the London-based Oxfam, said: "As one would expect after more than 60 years of working in some of the world's worst conflicts, Oxfam has experience of very difficult security environments and in some cases direct threats." "We recognise this and treat these situations as issues which need to be managed and can't be either eliminated or accepted without question," Cocking told IPS.

Asked how Oxfam copes with security threats, she said: "We have various strategies to address security threats; acceptance by the local community or our impartial humanitarian identity, protection to reduce the threat through equitable policies, curfews, no-go areas, good communications, etc. and deterrence, for example, suspension of activities and use of unarmed guards."

"Where we believe the risk to our staff is too great, particularly relative to the humanitarian impact which we are able to have, then we will temporarily or very occasionally permanently remove our international staff from the country," she explained. But wherever possible, "Where we believe we can have a positive impact on people's lives, then we will seek to return as soon as safely possible."

Asked whether organisations like Oxfam operate under the U.N.'s security umbrella, Cocking said: "We are often part of the U.N. managed security system which provides information to the international humanitarian community." "We have also used their transport facilities on some occasions for withdrawal of staff. These decisions however, are taken on a case by case basis."

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