On August 19, 2003, a truck loaded with explosives rammed into the Canal Hotel, Baghdad, housing United Nations (UN) headquarters, killing 22 people, including the United Nations’ Special Representative in Iraq Sérgio Vieira de Mello, and wounded over 100.[1] The same day, the head of United Nations Development Programme, Mark Malloch Brown, said: “We do this – humanitarian relief – out of vocation. We are apolitical. We were here to help the people of Iraq and help them return to self-government. Why us?” [2] It’s a fair and complex question. And requires an honest effort to answer it.

The humanitarian aid sector has grown exponentially over the past two decades. Yet this international goodwill has also produced dangerous consequences. As a matter of fact, aid worker attacks have increased in tandem. In 2013, a particularly difficult year for humanitarian missions around the world, 461 aid workers were attacked, representing the most violent year on record against aid workers. Aid worker attacks occur disproportionally in some countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria, but many African countries have also seen high rates of attacks. Why are attacks on the rise? Scholars and journalists are increasingly trying to understand where, why, and how aid workers become targets of violent acts. For many, the key message is simply that it has become more dangerous to be an aid worker in the field, particularly in conflict-affected regions.

I wouldn’t dare try to provide a final answer for this question, but I definitely want to share some thoughts. The increase in attacks against humanitarian workers shows a strategic decision to target them, not only as a moneymaking enterprise, but also as a political lever. The occurrence and variation in attacks against aid workers across civil wars can and should be analyzed as a deliberate action, not just as a collateral effect. Despite the fact that most humanitarian aid missions operate under explicit guidelines to remain politically neutral in providing basic human needs like food, water, and medical supplies, aid workers are frequently seen like opponents supporting the enemy. They are not neutral or impartial about the nature of future peace either. Besides that, the attacks may be carried out in an attempt to seize goods for the attackers’ own use, to prevent enemy civilians from benefiting from aid, to drive an international presence out of an area and assert control over the region, or to send a message to the government, the international community, or another faction.

It’s a new world and the scenario imposes new challenges. A few years ago, humanitarian workers were protected by laws. They were respected, and could provide relief for those living in the middle of a conflict. Now the politicization of aid may cause the individuals representing agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on the ground to become strategic targets in the conflict.[3] It is imperative that relief organizations and agencies provide an appropriate protection for their staff.

Azøth Humanitarian Global Defense is deeply commited to collaboration with those organizations that are trying to improve the life of civilians in conflict zones, and we do it also with information. Understanding the risks for humanitarian initiatives and deployments is worth the effort. As aid agencies continue to expand across the globe – and to new areas of conflict and insecurity – the evolving and contested role of humanitarian space is of high priority of comprehension, and we will do our best to serve this cause.

[1] Baghdad Bomb Crude But Deadly. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/baghdad-bomb-crude-but-deadly/. August 21, 2003.
[2] Anderson, Kenneth. 2004. “Humanitarian Inviolability in Crisis: The Meaning of Impartiality and Neutrality for U.N. and NGO Agencies following the 2003-2004 Afghanistan and Iraq Conflicts.” Harvard Human Rights Journal, Vol. 17, pp. 41-74.
[3] The problem was addressed in Humanitarian Aid in Syria: A Conversation with the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross.04/15/2016. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/harvard-universityas-institute-of-politics/humanitarian-aid-in-syria_b_9704366.html.