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EU to improve aid worker safety in hot spots

17 September 2008

BRUSSELS — The EU’s development aid chief said Tuesday he will investigate how to better ensure the safety of international relief agencies working in world hot spots where militaries are operating.

Louis Michel, the EU’s development commissioner, also accepted concerns voiced by many aid groups and the International Committee of the Red Cross that lines were increasingly blurred between aid given by governments and by independent aid groups.

"Neutrality, independence, impartiality … that is difficult if you have an army involved in humanitarian areas," Michel told reporters after a conference on humanitarian law.

"There are a growing number of cases in the world where humanitarian law is abused, or where we find people responsible for respecting humanitarian law ignoring the importance of that."

He said he would consult with aid groups and UN agencies to come up with possible guidelines for the 27-nation EU bloc to improve the situation of aid workers.

While no official tallies are taken of how many aid workers are killed while in the field, the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, has said that as aid projects increase worldwide, it expects to see more attacks on aid workers.

Michel said a so-called action plan should push all countries, including those where aid workers are stationed, to ensure they adopt international humanitarian law in national legislation. He said donors such as EU countries should also work to ensure a better distinction between military personnel providing aid and neutral aid workers.

"Those who can act politically, they must respect humanitarian workers and humanitarian workers must respect the independence, the impartiality of their humanitarian actions," said UN refugee chief Antonio Guterres.

He said more and more countries such as Sudan and Myanmar are "reluctant to accept the idea of the responsibility to protect" civilians and aid workers caught in conflict zones.

Christopher Stokes from Doctors Without Borders said groups such as his were seeing increased attacks because their workers were being confused with soldiers or government sent aid workers.

He said armed forces caught up in conflict in Ethiopia and Somalia were hindering impartial aid operations.

"We shouldn’t be surprised that these countries are increasingly targeting humanitarian actors," Stokes said.

He urged the EU to put pressure on other nations to guarantee the safety of aid workers and to defend their rights to enter areas that need their help.

[AP / Expatica]