Charline, Antonin, Myriam, Stella, Léo, Nadifa, Kadri Abdou Gamatche, Boubacar Garba Soulay, on the morning of 9 August, 8 of them were murdered in Kouré Park in Niger, 60 km south-east of the capital Niamey. Six of them were French humanitarian aid workers members of the NGO ACTED and two were Nigerien nationals. One was the driver, father of 4 children and whom wife is pregnant, who also worked for the NGO ; the other was the president of the park guides who had been working there for 21 years. Kouré Park was regularly visited and was classified by the Quai d’Orsay as a “yellow zone” of vigilance and not as an “orange or red zone”.
They were murdered by armed men riding on motorbikes. There have been no official claims to date. But this abominable crime is a clear sign of intent and targets its origin among those who want to spread terror. These young humanitarians had come to the rescue of hundreds of thousands of Nigeriens forcibly displaced by the fighting in the insecurity zone known as the “3 borders” with Mali and Burkina Faso.
They were generous, committed and competent. They had everything they needed to succeed in their lives in a country at peace. But they had chosen to temporarily leave their families and their country to help people and populations in danger without any other consideration than their vital needs in a troubled country, Niger.
A poor country confronted with the armed action of groups described as jihadists or terrorists, including the Islamic State in the Great Sahara (EIGS) affiliated to Daech. These humanitarians have encountered hatred and death. It is our humanitarian sisters and brothers who have been cowardly murdered in this way, and those who have done so are nothing but murderers. This is not war, it is a crime. We must call things by their name, be lucid. This does not prevent us from grasping the multiple reasons that fuel rebellion and radicalisation: poverty, corruption, nepotism, negligence, a failing state. But this does not justify this, any more than the Treaty of Versailles, the war damage and the economic crash of 1929 justify the final solution of Nazism; any more than the war of 1914, hunger and the tsar justify the gulag.
We have heard a lot of analysis and advice following this drama. Some even go so far as to recommend military escorts, forgetting that the humanitarian principles of impartiality and independence are essential conditions for security and access to populations at risk in fragmented areas where civil war reigns.
Co-founder of ACTED with Marie-Pierre Caley, Frédéric Roussel rightly declared: “The international community (must consider) the contradiction between asking us to support these populations who live in a dramatic way and leaving us alone to face a violence where we have become the easiest targets”.
For, on the one hand, there is an increasingly organised and controlled international humanitarian ecosystem, where donors are demanding more and more guarantees while, at the same time, imposing more and more constraints, such as hindering the transfer of funds in the name of the war on terrorism. And on the other hand, there are humanitarian NGOs which alone or almost alone assume most of the risks on the front line without always having the support of the so-called donors in the hard times! In this case, the NGOs are alone while the administrations cautiously open the umbrella to cover themselves.
But it is also true that NGOs take risks to help people in war zones and this is part of their birth certificate, their DNA. Without taking risks, there can be no humanitarian aid in a war zone! When the danger is too certain, then we can temporarily suspend the use of humanitarian personnel and look for alternative waiting solutions.
Similarly, several humanitarian leaders published an open letter to the Prime Minister (1) on 19 August entitled “No, French NGOs do not represent the French State”, which is obvious, while recalling the principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence and concluding “For if the official discourse makes humanitarians the representatives of France, then it traps our organisations in the role of the Achilles’ heel of its military power and strategic objectives, reinforcing the exposure of our teams”.
If this is true, the reality to be considered is also that ACTED’s 6 humanitarians are French citizens towards whom the State has responsibilities. That France and Niger have State-to-State relations. Moreover, the French State supports humanitarian action both in its principles and in its funding and acts for the protection of humanitarian personnel at the United Nations. Finally, the words spoken by Prime Minister Jean Castex to the families on 14 August in Orly during the repatriation of their children’s bodies were fair and humane.
But, finally, it must be very clear to all, in minds and principles as well as in practice, that the rule of distinction between States and humanitarian NGOs must be respected to the letter. As a former President of the Republic rightly said, the State is not an NGO!
Coping with growing insecurity.
This drama leads us to revisit the issue of insecurity and the initiatives that could be taken. The latest Aid Worker Security Database 2020 report, which is a reference, states that in 2019 there were 483 humanitarian victims of 277 attacks in which 125 people were killed, 234 injured and 124 kidnapped. Of these victims, nearly 90% were nationals of countries where humanitarian aid is urgently needed.
However, it is extremely rare for eight people to be killed simultaneously. A recent study (2) underlines that we are facing a continuous increase in the rate of violent attacks. Thus, between 1997 and 2017, the number of humanitarian workers injured, kidnapped or killed has increased fourfold. However, it must also be said that between 1997 and 2005, the number of aid workers in the field increased by 77% and has since more than doubled to reach around 570,000 people, including 50,000 expatriates.
Let us recall here, with Défis Humanitaires, that this insecurity led Peter Maurer, President of the ICRC, and Joanne Liu, President of MSF International, on 28 September 2016, at the United Nations Security Council to insist on the insufficiency of international guarantees for the security of humanitarian workers. It is also necessary to recall that Resolution No. 2286 of 3 May 2016 is specifically devoted to the protection of the wounded and sick, medical personnel and humanitarian workers.
The following year, on 19 August 2017, on the occasion of World Humanitarian Day, Jan Egeland and Stephen O’Brien, both former United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, published an op-ed entitled “Stop shooting humanitarian workers”. I will not go into detail here about the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols of 1997 and 2005, as well as the rules of customary international humanitarian law that oblige parties to a conflict to respect and allow the protection of medical and humanitarian personnel.
What initiatives can be taken to protect oneself?
The alarm bell has been sounded several times, but this is clearly no longer enough today. We must therefore go further. Two types of initiative can be envisaged here. The first is of a technical nature. NGOs need to review and consolidate their security procedures and apply them rigorously to changing contexts. I can testify that the major humanitarian NGOs have for years been putting in place demanding training and security frameworks that are regularly monitored on a country-by-country basis. But we need to go even further.
Today, humanitarians, especially before a first departure, have only a vague idea of what war is and particularly what are terrorist groups. You cannot send volunteers to a country at war if they don’t know what it can mean for themselves in terms of major risks, injury, rape, kidnapping or death.
A humanitarian aid worker must go into the field with a clear understanding of the risks involved and be trained to avoid them. Today, theoretical training is no longer enough. It is important, as is already the case, but not in general, to organise training courses on how to deal with serious risk situations in order to be better prepared to deal with them. This type of course could be a prerequisite for any humanitarian volunteer or NGO to be selected to go on a mission.
Forty years ago, before any journey to Afghanistan, I presented to everyone the risks that had to be properly internalised: ambush, bombings, anti-personnel mines, injuries without immediate care, truncated arrest and trial, risk of being killed. It was only then that the choice was made whether to go or not. And the cost of these week-long training courses should be included in the budget of any humanitarian programme funded by institutional donors.
There is another initiative to be considered which concerns aggressors. They should be prosecuted for as long as it takes to be arrested, tried and convicted. We are not going to rule here today on the need or the possibility of obtaining imprescriptibility of the crimes committed or on the question of the extraterritoriality of the law applied to crimes against humanitarians around the world. But what is certain is that we cannot stop there. Such an initiative could meet a number of conditions:
- Preserve the duty of humanitarian initiative to access and rescue populations in danger. The priority, as well as the goal, is access to relief to populations in danger.
- Include national actors and raise awareness among the populations concerned.
- Broadly include international actors (INGOs, ICRC and Red Cross/Red Crescent family, UN).
- Obtain the support of States, relevant institutions and donor partners.
These proposals are incomplete by definition and remain largely to be debated, clarified, decided and constructed between the actors concerned.
I would like to conclude with a fraternal thought for the 6 French humanitarians and the 2 Nigerien citizens and their families. I would also like us to continue to pay tribute to them, to support their families and above all not to forget them. The humanitarian community must remember them and demand that justice be done for them. We owe it to them. As Frédéric Roussel from ACTED rightly says, “Impunity is enough”.
This assassination is indicative of the deteriorating situation in the Sahel. For instance, in Mali, where a military coup d’état has just taken place following massive demonstrations calling for the departure of the elected president. He has just resigned. And then what happens? Similarly in Burkina Faso, where the number of people forcibly displaced by the conflict is over one million, including 453,000 since the beginning of the year. They represent 5% of the population, i.e. one person in 20. Will this situation continue to worsen?
If humanitarians want to continue their relief mission in an increasingly deteriorated and dangerous context in the Sahel as elsewhere, it is imperative that they strengthen their security while remaining impartial and independent.
(1) “No, French NGOs do not represent the French state”, Collectif d’ONG, 19 August 2020 in. Libération, [Accessible: https://www.liberation.fr/debats/2020/08/19/non-les-ong-francaises-ne-representent-pas-l-etat-francais_1797168].
(2) “Mise en cause et protection des travailleurs humanitaires”, Alain Boinet, in. Droit et pratique de l’action humanitaire, pp. 887-894. Edited by Sandra Szurek, Marina Eudes, Philippe Ryfman, Editions LGDJ Lextenso.