What protection for humanitarians? Following the assassination of humanitarians in Niger.

Article published by Alain Boinet in Droit et pratique de l’action humanitaire in October 2019. The figures have just been updated in paragraph 15 bis following the publication of the “Aid Worker Security Report 2020“.

To quote this article, please use: “Mise en cause et protection des travailleurs humanitaires”, 2019, in. Droit et pratique de l’action humanitaire, M. Eudes, P. Ryfman, S. Szurek (dir.), Paris, LGDJ, Treaty Series, pp.887-895.

You will also find an interview with P. Ryfman on Défis Humanitaires, following the publication of the book.

1. For humanitarians, action is a duty to help people in danger, whether as a result of war or disaster, by meeting vital human needs such as food, drink, shelter and health care. Although this action has ancient roots, the 1980s was a moment of rupture with the system of the time and with the United Nations, illustrated by the debate on the duty to intervene in humanitarian situations, which was followed – from largely different premises – by the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Today, not only is humanitarian aid destined to be deployed almost everywhere, but it has grown considerably with a staff of hundreds of thousands and a budget of several tens of billions of dollars. Of course, all of this is not without risk.

2. The philosopher Max Weber has posed the problem well: “… any ethically oriented activity can be subordinated to two completely different and irreducibly opposed maxims. It can be oriented according to the ethics of responsibility or according to the ethics of conviction” (M. Weber, Le savant et le politique, Paris, Plon, 10/18, 1995). While humanitarian action is a duty which falls under the ethics of conviction, its implementation in contexts of insecurity generates multiple risks, particularly for humanitarian personnel, for whom organisations must take responsibility. It is for this very reason that aid actors have – for a long time now – laid down essential rules with regard to the populations they assist and to social and public structures. These rules are not to replace or harm. The challenge is to balance these two ethics of conviction and responsibility in the face of insecurity for both the population and the humanitarian community.

Section 1 – Crisis insecurity and crisis-related insecurity

1. – Crisis and insecurity

3. Acting in a country at war automatically generates risks caused by violence, in all its forms, for humanitarian workers rescuing populations that are themselves victims of the conflict, most often in poor countries with few services to meet vital needs. Historically, this aid began in the 1980s with assistance to the wounded and sick who were without care, and then expanded to other primary needs such as water and sanitation, food, basic necessities or shelter.

These new humanitarian actors spread to the civilian population the founding idea of Henry Dunant, founder of the Red Cross, of the duty to care for all the wounded on the battlefield, as shown in his pioneering work on the battle of Solferino on 24 June 1859 (H. Dunant, Un souvenir de Solférino, Geneva, Imprimerie Jules-Guillaume Fick, 1862, 115 p.).

4. Since then, international humanitarian action has been characterised by the increasing acceleration of its development, due both to the increase in needs and to the increase in the capacities of organisations, whether they be NGOs, Red Cross family organisations including the ICRC, the United Nations, States and the various donors who fund them. However, the increase in the number of workers present in crisis zones automatically increases the number of incidents affecting them, and therefore the need for security and protection.

5. This continued growth in aid is the result of the multiplication of conflicts and disasters. For example, while there were 278 armed conflicts in 2006, there will be 402 in 2016. While there were fewer than 300 disasters a year until the early 1990s, there have been more than 500 each year since the early 2000s (Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs, Humanitarian Strategy of the French Republic, 2018-2022). And, due to a constantly rising population, mainly in Africa, the number of victims is constantly rising. This is illustrated by the increase in the budgets dedicated to it: 2 billion dollars in 2006, 16 billion in 2012, 27.3 billion in 2016 (MEAE, SHRF). More humanitarian aid necessarily implies more staff for its implementation at a time when, moreover, crises are prolonged, as has been the case (in 2019) in Afghanistan for almost forty years or in DRC for more than twenty years. On average, today, 69% of crises last more than ten years. Not only does this mean that more humanitarian aid in terms of volume and time mechanically leads to more expatriates and nationals being exposed to the risks of these crises, but even more problematic, radicalisation and fanaticism threaten its very existence in certain territories.

2. – Diversity of contexts and risks

6. A distinction is usually made between inter-state wars and civil wars, the latter being by far the most numerous. These intra-state conflicts generally pit armed groups against each other on ethnic, and/or religious grounds, in countries that are usually poor with weak, non-existent and/or partisan governance. In these chaotic contexts, the challenge for humanitarians is to gain access to all populations in danger, to be operationally autonomous in order to be effective and to deliver relief of various kinds which – it should be stressed – also have a market value for the belligerents. A humanitarian mission is therefore about being able to help populations in territories in the hands of opposing factions, crossing front lines by passing through checkpoints, manned by militiamen and more or less controlled. This is what we call “humanitarian space”. More often than not, chaos reigns in these areas and generates multiple risks. These range from simple banditry to the opportunity for an armed group to seize 4X4 vehicles, transmission equipment such as satellite telephones and money. In addition to property, these attacks can easily escalate into threats, physical violence and rape.

7. But the major change in this area is the appearance in the Arab-Muslim space of organisations such as Al Qaeda and Daech. Generally speaking, these organisations do not consider humanitarian organisations to be neutral, impartial and independent but, on the contrary, treat them as Western organisations and treat them as adversaries. This has led to a considerable increase in the risks and their nature, as was dramatically seen during the beheading of a humanitarian volunteer (from the NGO ACTED), David Haines, by Daech in Raqqa in Syria in September 2014. Similarly, these groups practice hostage-taking to finance their activities and obtain political gains.

Therefore, humanitarian actors must strive to continue their mission in these areas, while measuring the risks involved. Pragmatic solutions are possible. For example, in Mali, when jihadist groups (Aqmi, Mujao, Ansar Dine, …) controlled the north of the country in 2012, some international humanitarian NGOs were able to operate with Malian teams (from the local population) and/or Malian NGOs, while being in contact with these groups. These organisations were needed to meet the basic needs of the population after the departure of public services.

8. In the case of natural or man-made disasters, the risks are lower, although the risks of theft and looting are also present. Sometimes these disasters occur in countries in conflict, such as in Sri Lanka during the tsunami of December 2004 or in Haiti after the earthquake of January 2010, in a context of chronic political instability and high levels of heavily armed banditry.

9. Finally, a particular category of risk relates to those associated with humanitarian response in the context of epidemics. Here the example of Ebola is emblematic. Prior training and security protocols within treatment centres, where patients must be quarantined, are extremely restrictive due to the virulence of the virus, as is the protocol for monitoring the return of international staff, due to the incubation period of the virus. There are many other illnesses, some of which can be fatal or incapacitating: cholera, malaria, hepatitis, etc. Not to mention car and transport accidents, which are a major cause of injury as well as death.

Section 2 – Evolution or deterioration of security

1. – Figures and analysis

10. There is a widely shared feeling that humanitarian action has become more dangerous and that the number of incidents is increasing. This assumption seems to be validated by the United Nations. Security Council Resolution 2175 of 29 August 2014 states that “(…) there has been an increase in acts of violence (…) against national and international humanitarian personnel (…)”. Similarly, the Council, in resolution 2286 of 3 May 2016, states that “(…) humanitarian workers (…) are increasingly the targets of violence (…) violence against the wounded and sick, medical personnel and humanitarian workers…”.

However, it is not forbidden to question the figures published on this subject. The reference mechanism in this area is the Aid Worker Security Database (AWSD), created in 2005, which records all incidents since 1997. It is made up of a few consultants who collect secondary data from the media and from humanitarian and security organisations. INSO (International NGO Safety Organisation) is a charitable initiative which is currently present in around ten countries with a fairly large number of teams working with humanitarian actors. Finally, the United Nations has developed its own measurement tool since 2004, the UNDSS (United Nations Department of Safety and Security).

In order to distinguish between the two organisations, the AWSD provides a rather global vision and the INSO a precise representation for each country covered.

11. We will refer here to AWSD data to assess any deterioration in security.

According to AWSD data, between 1997 and 2017, the number of aid workers injured, kidnapped or killed during a mission increased fourfold. The peak in 2013 is representative of the explosion of armed violence in Syria and Afghanistan. The logical conclusion is that insecurity has increased sharply. Nevertheless, these figures should be understood in absolute terms and not in relative terms. Indeed, between 1997 and 2005, the number of humanitarians present in the field increased by 77%, from 136,204 to 241,654 (A. STODDART, Providing Aid in Insecure Environment, 2006 Report, p. 8). In 2017, according to The State of Humanitarian System (SOHS) 2018 Report (P. KNOX CLARKE, ALNAP. The State Of The Humanitarian System Report 2018. ALNAP, 2018, p.102), there will be approximately 570,000 humanitarian workers employed (including just over 50,000 expatriates) by humanitarian organisations in their field activities. This is an increase of 27% compared to the figures in the SOHS 2015 report, which showed 450,000 humanitarian workers.

12. This is what led MSF-France to publish a collective work on this sensitive subject in March 2016 (M. NEUMAN and F. WEISSMAN (dir.), Secourir sans périr, Paris, CNRS Editions, March 2016, 251 p., p. 115). The authors state that “the number of victims (…) remains remarkably stable in relative terms: the rate of workers killed, injured or kidnapped fluctuates between 40 and 60 per 100,000 per year between 1997 and 2012”. They add that “the risk of violent death is even declining, if we are to believe the drop in the percentage of deaths among victims” (from 49% to 30% between 1997-2001 and 2012-2013 according to their calculations taken from the AWSD). And to conclude: “In this sense, humanitarian action is no more dangerous than in the past”. This iconoclastic analysis has revived the debate. Its main merit was that it highlighted certain methodological weaknesses in the data collected.

13. However, if we take the statistical series available up to 2017, we still note an increase in the percentage of people killed, which rises from 25.2% in 2012 to 44.4% in 2017 (https://aidworkersecurity.org/incidents/report/summary), i.e. almost a doubling over the period, which brings us back to the 1997 average, but for a workforce that has, without doubt, tripled! What appears, with variations according to sources and years, is a continuous and considerable increase in the rate of violent assaults against national staff, with, however, a relative stability in the number of kidnappings. Conversely, these doubled between 2006 and 2012 for international staff (AWSD, The New Normal: Coping with the Kidnapping Threat, 2013). This could be explained as much by the amount of ransom demanded as by the political leverage and media coverage they provide. In 2018, the percentage of fatalities is 33.4%, according to the AWSD database.

14. Another source (A. STODDART, Providing Aid in Insecure Environment, UN chart, ICRC and NGOs rates, 2009), covering the years 2001-2008, estimates that the number of victims in NGOs (all staff combined) would have doubled overall during this period. The author also suggests that a greater presence of NGOs in high-risk contexts may be a possible explanation.

15. The only approximate knowledge of the real number of humanitarian workers in activity each year is likely to distort the results of these figures, as is the uneven documentation of incidents. Paradoxically, the increase in the number of incidents could be due to better documentation of incidents by humanitarian actors. Conversely, the significant improvement in training and security tools reduces exposure to risk. However, the overall level of preparation through training cycles remains insufficient, particularly for national staff who are most exposed to risk. Finally, it should be noted that, since 1997, most of the violence against humanitarian workers has been concentrated in a small number of countries: Afghanistan, Sudan, Southern Sudan, Somalia, Pakistan and Syria. These six countries alone account for 65% of the total number of victims.

15bis. Update for 2018 and 2019 according to the AWSD 2020 report

Although the number of incidents (injuries, kidnappings, deaths) has generally been on the rise since 1997, this is largely due to the increase in the number of humanitarian workers in the field. The number of aid workers in the field has risen from 136,204 in 1997 to 450,000 in 2013. In 2019, there will be 569,600 humanitarians, of which around 10% will be expatriates and 90% nationals. In relative terms, therefore, the number of incidents has remained relatively stable, with an average of 40 to 60 victims per 100,000 humanitarian workers per year. There will be 48 per 100,000 in 2019.

However, we note a change in the distribution of attacks. The number of deaths has quadrupled since 1997, rising from 31 to 125 in 2019; the number of kidnappings has increased from 30 to 124 and the number of injured has risen from 6 to 234 according to AWSD figures. We now know that the feedback is much more effective than it was originally, but the trend in the number of injured people is spectacular: it has increased 39-fold from 1997 to 2019!

The number of attacks can increase sharply from one year to the next, depending on the intensity of the fighting and the exposure of aid workers. For example, the number of incidents rose from 228 in 2018 to 277 in 2019 and the number of victims from 408 to 483.

It should also be noted that 3 countries (Southern Sudan, Syria, Afghanistan) account for 52% of victims in 2019 and that 9 countries (the 3 already mentioned and DRC, Somalia, Central African Republic, Mali, Nigeria and Yemen) alone account for 83% of victims. A large proportion of assaults take place on the road (35%), compared to 11% on project sites.

As of 6 September 2020, the AWSD counted 204 victims, including 75 dead, 69 injured and 60 abducted. There are 67 deaths, 68 injured and 55 kidnappings among nationals and 8 deaths, 1 injured and 5 kidnappings of expatriate aid workers.

2. – A wide range of measures to deal with insecurity

16. While insecurity is therefore a constant in emergency humanitarian action, today most of the organisations concerned have mastered the framework and tools relating to it. Above all, it is essential to remember that proximity to populations, knowledge of contexts and respect for the humanitarian principles of political neutrality, impartiality of relief and independence of action are essential conditions for the security of people and organisations.

17. Almost all NGOs now have a security framework that includes a number of tools, as well as the presence of a security representative at headquarters, or even in each mission. In addition to a general security manual, which almost all NGOs have, there are many other more specific tools, such as context analysis tools, which include numerous indicators ranging from armed groups to local authorities, modes of violence, conditions and areas of displacement and the perception of NGOs by local actors. Each operational base has a security memo and a standard operating procedure on displacement, management of financial resources, etc. Frequently, there are also so-called “contingency” documents which set out the conditions and means of hibernation when it is no longer necessary to go out and lock oneself in, the conditions and methods of evacuation or relocation. Each incident is recorded with the help of a description, a classification according to seriousness and an assessment of the human, psychological, material and financial consequences. In addition, a communication document listing the contacts needed in the event of an incident is also produced.

18. While most security measures are applied in the field, the headquarters of the organizations ensure continuous monitoring. For example, quarterly meetings are held with the Director of Missions, the geographical or desk officers in charge of missions, the Safety Officer, and the human resources and communication departments. All missions and operational bases are reviewed using an incident scale. Each base is re-evaluated in terms of dangerousness according to a score from 1 to 5 and the necessary information is presented by the geographical managers and completed by the other participants. This table indicates the physical consequences of the incidents, but also their impact on the organisation.

According to various estimates, one third of incidents have negative financial consequences for the NGO. It is also interesting to note that incident reports are increasingly coming back to the organisations’ headquarters. Some organisations have an external audit carried out by a specialised company on their exposure to the various risks involved. One of the related issues is that of accountability, which consists of demonstrating the capacity to guarantee security according to the principle of obligation of means.

3. – Legal protection and perspectives

19. “Stop Shooting at Humanitarian Workers” was the title of the op-ed published by Jan Egeland and Stephen O’Brien (both former UN Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs) on the occasion of World Humanitarian Day on 19 August 2017. In it, they declared: “Wars have rules. It is time to enforce them”. Indeed, the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols of 1997 and 2005, as well as the rules of customary international humanitarian law (IHL), oblige the parties to an armed conflict to respect and ensure respect for IHL, which provides for the protection of the wounded and sick, medical personnel and humanitarian workers. Specifically, Article 70 (1) of Additional Protocol I of 1977 provides that when civilian populations are in need of relief, humanitarian action must be undertaken with the consent of the parties to the conflict. Similarly in the case of non-international armed conflict, the principle of humanitarian access is laid down in Article 18 (2) of Additional Protocol II of 1997.

20. Under the principle of distinction – one of the pillars of IHL – a decisive differentiation is made between combatants and non-combatants, including civilian populations, the wounded and sick, and medical and humanitarian personnel. There are specific provisions for the legal protection of humanitarian actors. For example, Rule 31 of customary IHL states that humanitarian relief personnel must be respected and protected. Rule 55 establishes the principle of freedom of movement for humanitarian relief. While international law therefore theoretically guarantees access to populations in danger, experience shows that it is first and foremost the will of the actors and their know-how that are decisive and make the difference. The challenge today is to find the right balance between a culture of risk and risk management, including the ability to negotiate with armed groups, in the knowledge that there is no such thing as zero risk.

21. However, the reality is quite different in countries in conflict such as Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, Myanmar, Afghanistan, North Sudan and Darfur. As Peter Maurer, President of the ICRC, and Joanne Liu, President of MSF International, rightly pointed out on 28 September 2016 at the United Nations Security Council, these two leaders wished to draw attention to the inadequacy – in their view – of international guarantees for the safety of their employees. This is despite the fact – it should be recalled – that the Council had previously adopted two key resolutions on this subject. Resolution 2175 of 29 August 2014 condemns all forms of violence against humanitarians and calls for full access to humanitarian assistance and security for its actors. Resolution 2286 of 3 May 2016 is devoted to the protection of “the wounded and sick, medical personnel and humanitarian workers (…) their means of transport and equipment, as well as hospitals and other medical facilities”. However, the UNSC has not passed any landmark resolutions since then.

22. Nevertheless, faced with the deliberate destruction of hospitals and health centres – particularly during the Syrian conflict – causing the death of many civilians, medical and humanitarian personnel, some States are taking initiatives. France, for example, organised a ministerial meeting on 31 October 2017 – as part of its Presidency of the Council – on the protection of humanitarian and medical personnel in conflicts. Thirteen countries adopted a Political Declaration to this effect. This initiative is the first translation of the new Humanitarian Strategy of the French Republic (MEAE, SHRF, 2018-2022) and will give rise to concrete proposals drawn up in consultation with humanitarian NGOs.

4. – Trends and recommendations

23. As there is no such thing as “zero risk”, humanitarian organizations must provide complete coverage for their staff (health, welfare, repatriation, etc.). Furthermore, it is important to inform volunteers honestly and completely about all the risks involved at the start of their assignment. Some organisations – after information and training – now have volunteers sign a document entitled “informed consent”. This is accompanied by a form entitled “proof of identity”, particularly in the event of hostage-taking. This document contains personal information enabling the identity of the abducted person to be validated with certainty. All the more so as the risk of security incidents also increases. Even if it is still quite rare, given the number of humanitarian workers deployed and the incidents which have occurred. The use of mediation leading to an amicable solution still predominates over legal action.

24. A report published by OCHA in June 2017, “Presence and Proximity“, takes stock over five years and asks the key question of how to remain in the face of insecurity rather than when. It highlights, among other things, greater attention to security in the humanitarian world, the establishment of databases and the creation of specialist companies.

Humanitarian work is by definition a risky business. Threats and protection are two sides of the same coin. Security is an even more serious issue because it is a condition for access to relief supplies for populations in danger. While security is a whole which must be considered globally and in its various facets, the contextualisation of humanitarian action is a major rule which must be assiduously cultivated.

25. A final security risk is that of the industrialisation of aid, which is pushing the populations being helped further and further away from humanitarian actors.

However, proximity to the people and their representatives, knowledge and interest in history, customs and languages remain a major dimension of humanitarian action. How can relief be provided without taking an interest in people and without involving them in the humanitarian aid response itself? Finally, we must come to terms with the fact that the question of threats and protection is a natural constant in humanitarian action and conclude by paraphrasing Max Weber: “No ethics in the world can tell us either when and to what extent a morally good end justifies morally dangerous means and consequences”. It is up to every employee, volunteer and organisation to respond to this dilemma and act to help other human beings in danger, at the risk of their own safety.

Alain Boinet

BIBLIOGRAPHY. – F. BOUCHET-SAULNIER, Dictionnaire pratique du droit humanitaire, 4th edition, Paris, La Découverte, 2013. – H. DUNANT, Un souvenir de Solférino, Geneva, Imprimerie Jules-Guillaume Fick, 1862. – A. JACKSON and S. A. ZYCK, Presence & Proximity: To Stay and Deliver, Five Years On. UN OCHA, 22 June 2017. – M. NEUMAN and F. WEISSMAN, Secourir sans périr, Paris, CNRS Editions, 2016. – P. RYFMAN, Les ONG, Paris, La Découverte, coll. Repères, 2014. – P. RYFMAN, Une histoire de l’humanitaire, Paris, La Découverte, coll. Repères, 2016. – M. WEBER, Le savant et le politique, Paris, Plon, 10/18, 1995. – The Aid Working Security Database. https://aidworkersecurity.org. – INSO, International NGO Safety Organisation https://ngosafety.org/keydata-dashboard. – Défis Humanitaires” website https://defishumanitaires.com.