UN wants humanity for global aid workers
The first World Humanitarian Day is marked Wednesday with attention to aid workers under attack in conflict areas.Geneva -- The first World Humanitarian Day is to be marked Wednesday with the United Nations seeking to bring attention to thousands of aid workers who are increasingly under attack in global conflict areas.
The nineteenth of August is the anniversary of the 2003 bombing against the UN headquarters in Baghdad, which killed 22 people including UN envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello.
The attack has become one of a growing list of symbols of threats faced by humanitarian workers helping civilians in the world's most dangerous regions, from Darfur to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"Sadly, the aid workers themselves are increasingly under fire," said John Holmes, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator.
"This has grave implications for our work and the survival of those who rely on us," he said. "Unfortunately, the need for humanitarian relief continues to grow."
The humanitarian aid system was strained "to the limit" in the first half of 2009 as civilians fled conflicts in Sri Lanka, where the army crushed separatist rebels, and Pakistan, where the military battled Taliban militants, Holmes said.
In 2008, a record 260 humanitarian aid workers were victims of kidnappings and attacks, including 122 who were killed, according to UN figures. Since 2006, attacks have risen by 61 percent.
"This toll is the highest of the (last) 12 years," said Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
"The absolute number of attacks against aid workers has risen steeply over the past three years, with an annual average almost three times higher than the previous nine years," she said.
In 2009, two members of the French medical charity group Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders) were killed in Pakistan.
Four European employees of the French non-governmental organisation Action contre la Faim (ACF) were kidnapped in Somalia and released nine months later, while three other aid workers were taken hostage in Kenya and two more in Sudan's conflict-torn region of Darfur.
"Attacks were the exception, now they have really become frequent," Byrs said.
The 2003 attack against the UN headquarters clearly showed that humanitarian symbols no longer guarantee protection for aid workers.
Aid workers "have even become targets in countries with high kidnapping rates," said ACF director general Francois Danel.
Danel sees multiple reasons for the growth in attacks, starting with populations increasingly "confusing" combatants with aid workers.
The views of combatants, who "separate East and West, the Christian and Islamic world," have also put a strain on humanitarian aid workers, said Florian Westphal, spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross.
"We are seen as Western agents," Westphal said.
Crime is also a major challenge in unstable countries where goods like the vehicles driven by humanitarian workers are targeted by thieves.
Under such strains, aid organisations face a dilemma, having to decide whether to leave a dangerous place where their work is vital to the civilian population.
"When the safety and security of aid workers is compromised, it undermines the ability of aid workers to access populations in need -- so ultimately it is those who most need assistance who suffer," said Doctors without Borders Secretary General Kris Torgeson.
In conflict sites such as Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, ACF asks itself "every day the question, do we stay or go?" Danel said.
AFP / Alexandra Troubnikoff / Expatica