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Increased Attacks on Aid Workers Due to Lack of Respect for International Humanitarian Law, Deputy Secretary-General Tells Security Council

Security Council

7244th Meeting (AM)

Increased Attacks on Aid Workers Due to Lack of Respect for International

Humanitarian Law, Deputy Secretary-General Tells Security Council

Paying Tribute to Fallen Personnel, Speakers Call

For More Effective Use of Judicial Tools, Sanctions, Resolutions

The international community must reverse the loss of respect for international humanitarian law and the resulting increase of attacks on those workers providing life-saving aid on the frontline of world crises, the Deputy Secretary-General told the Security Council this morning on the occasion of World Humanitarian Day.

"Let us not accept, but let us stop this growing worldwide deficit of humanity," Jan Eliasson said.  The death toll among workers, and the inability to reach people with nutrition, shelter and health care, must not be accepted as the condition of working in conflict environments, he stressed.

According to a concept note (document S/2014/571) provided by the United Kingdom, which holds the rotating presidency of the Council for August, World Humanitarian Day is dedicated to all humanitarian workers, including those who have lost their lives in the line of duty.  The date commemorates the 2003 attack on the United Nations compound in Baghdad when 22 of the Organization's staff were killed, including Special Representative Vieira de Mello.

The note states that, in the decade since the Baghdad bombing, aid worker casualties have tripled to over 100 deaths per year, pointing to the bombing of the United Nations compound in Mogadishu and the attack on the International Organization for Migration, both in 2013, as two recent examples that had a direct impact of humanitarian workers to conduct effect operations and reach people in need. 

Last year, Mr. Eliasson said, more such workers were attacked than ever before, resulting in 155 reportedly killed, 171 wounded and 134 kidnapped and representing a 66 per cent increase from 2012.  The majority of incidents in recent years took place in six countries:  Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan and Syria, with most victims national staff of humanitarian organizations.

In protecting humanitarian workers, he said the Security Council had a clear role to play.  It could call on parties to comply with international legal obligations and condemn then when they do not, imposing targeted measures on grave violators.  It could make sure the lines between political, military and humanitarian objectives were not blurred in peace negotiations and peacekeeping mandates.  It could finally use a variety of tools to ensure accountability for those who committed attacks.

Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), told Council members that the number of organizations able, allowed or willing to work in conflict environments had shrunk dramatically over the last decade.  Recommendations from his organization on reversing the trend included campaigns to ensure all actors, including non-State armed groups, were aware of their obligations under international law.

Masood Karokhail, Director of The Liaison Office in Afghanistan, said that country had seen the highest number of casualties among humanitarian workers in the world, with 895 attacked since 2001 and 325 killed.  As Afghan workers bore the brunt of those attacks, he urged the United Nations and the Security Council to remove the artificial distinction between international and local staff in strengthening protections for humanitarian workers.

Speaking after those briefings, Security Council members paid tribute to humanitarian workers, particularly those who had sacrificed their lives carrying out their duties, including the victims of the Baghdad bombing.  To protect them, they urged better implementation of international humanitarian law and assurance of accountability for those who violated it.

"All the tools available must be utilized by us," the representative of France said, calling for, among other measures, more effective use of sanctions, judicial mechanisms, such as the International Criminal Court, and an upgrade of the Council's resolution 1502 (2003) to provide for more robust protection of humanitarian workers.

Also speaking were representatives of Luxembourg, Argentina, Rwanda, Republic of Korea, Nigeria, Australia, China, Lithuania, Russian Federation, Chad, United States, Jordan, Chile, and United Kingdom.

The meeting started at 10:05 a.m. and ended at 12:01 p.m.


JAN ELIASSON, Deputy Secretary-General, said that attacks on humanitarian workers on the frontlines of disaster and war represented a "world-wide deficit of humanity", stressing that the situation was getting worse.  Last year, more such workers had been attacked than ever before, resulting in 155 reportedly killed, 171 wounded and 134 kidnapped, a 66 per cent increase from 2012.

During the first quarter of 2014, in Somalia alone, over a dozen humanitarian staff had been kidnapped and in recent weeks, several were killed in South Sudan and Gaza, he said.  The majority of incidents in recent years took place in six countries:  Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan and Syria.  Most victims were national humanitarian staff working to save the lives of their own people.

The consequences of such crimes, he said, affected not only the families of the workers, but also millions of people who could not be reached, including children who did not get vaccinated, the sick and wounded who went untreated and those forced from their homes and left without shelter.  Those effects must not be accepted as the necessary cost of operating in risky environments.

As part of the effort to protect workers, he said that political and military actors must respect the need for humanitarians to carry out their work in an impartial, neutral and independent manner.  Misusing humanitarian action for political or security ends compromised the integrity of humanitarian operations, placed lives of humanitarian workers in grave danger and could prevent humanitarian workers from engaging with all parties to conflict.  Such engagement, he underlined, was important and did not confer legal status or political legitimacy on non-State groups.

The Security Council, he said, had a clear role to play in protecting humanitarian workers.  It could call on parties to comply with legal obligations and condemn them when they did not, imposing targeted measures on repeat violators.  It could make sure the lines between political, military and humanitarian objectives were not blurred in peace negotiations and peacekeeping mandates.  It could finally use all tools to ensure accountability for those who attack humanitarian workers and assets.

In closing, he said that attacks on humanitarian workers were part of a sadly growing lack of respect for international humanitarian law.  "Let us not accept, but let us stop the growing deficit of humanity."

PETER MAURER, President, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), said that “sadly, violence and threats of violence against humanitarian workers know no borders, colors or religion”.  Noting the 13,000 individuals he represented, many of them working in volatile and dangerous environments, he highlighted the challenging security environment characterized by the fragmentation of armed groups, easy availability of small arms, and the outsourcing of security tasks to private military or security companies, among others.

The resurgence of religious fundamentalism and the spreading of terror and violence were being fuelled by new and far-reaching social media, he said.  Because of the risks involved, the number of organizations able, allowed or willing to work in conflict environments had shrunk dramatically over the last decade.  The calls for humanitarian action were ever less likely to be answered.

“But solutions do indeed exist,” he said, underscoring some elementary points that must be accepted and acted on.  Protecting humanitarian workers in armed conflict environments was an obligation under international humanitarian law and all States had a collective responsibility to uphold it.  The blurring of the line between military, political and humanitarian activities posed a threat to humanitarian action and workers.  Ensuring a separate scope for humanitarian action was imperative.  Humanitarian action must not serve as a fig leaf for political inaction.  That was a burden humanitarian workers could not be expected to shoulder.

Furthermore, he continued, security was intimately linked to acceptance, which depended on the ability of humanitarian organizations to engage with local communities and others.  That meant speaking with armed non-State actors about humanitarian law and principles and obtaining unambiguous and adequate security guarantees — a threat reduction strategy.  At a more basic level, security management required humanitarian organizations to adopt professional standards and training in that area.

The ICRC “Health Care in Danger” initiative had generated compelling information on the threats facing health-care workers, he said.  After studying some of the riskiest situations, such as crossing checkpoints, emergency evacuations and deploying troops next to health facilities, his organization had made recommendations to armed entities, lawmakers, health authorities, ambulance providers and many others.  ICRC and World Health Organization (WHO) would hold a related event during the General Assembly session this fall.  Another initiative, Safer Access Framework, aimed at identifying and meeting the challenges they faced in ensuring operational access and acceptance at all times.

MASOOD KAROKHAIL, Director and Co-Founder, The Liaison Office in Afghanistan, said that 2013 saw a 14 per cent year-on-year increase in civilian casualties, marking the highest number of civilian deaths and injuries since 2001.  Afghanistan had also seen the highest number of humanitarian worker casualties in the world, with 895 attacked since 2001, including 325 killed, 253 wounded and 317 kidnapped.  Afghan nationals had borne the brunt of insecurity, accounting for 88 per cent of those killed, 89 per cent of those wounded and 89 per cent of those kidnapped.  The real numbers were likely to be much higher as many attacks on local staff went unreported.

Afghan aid workers suffered heavy casualties in part because international organizations were using local staff and local organizations to reduce their own risk, he said.  About 85 per cent of United Nations staff involved in security incidents were Afghans; for international non-governmental organizations, it was 76 per cent.  Security arrangements of those organizations and the United Nations often left local humanitarian organizations less secure.

Furthermore, offices of many aid organizations, including the United Nations, increasingly resembled military bunkers with armed guards, he said.  The perception of humanitarian organizations as “neutral” in Afghanistan had greatly diminished, and that had proven costly for Afghan lives.  Local aid workers rarely received the same security arrangements as their international colleagues.  That inequality exploited the reliance of many Afghans on employment opportunities, with many forced to accept dangerous assignments simply to feed their families.

He urged the United Nations and the Security Council to monitor risk also for local staff and organizations, remove the artificial hierarchy between international and local staff in protracted situations, take the lead in negotiating access with all parties of the conflict and bring to justice the perpetrators who committed crimes against aid workers.  Afghan organizations stood ready to provide assistance where international organizations no longer could.  However, the international community must do more to protect them through assistance in capacity-building and funding.


SYLVIE LUCAS ( Luxembourg) said that the host country bore primary responsibility for protecting civilians and humanitarian workers, although parties to conflict often did not have the means or willingness to do so.  Humanitarian organizations must work with host countries to mitigate the risks they faced.  In that regard, the United Nations initiative, "Saving Lives Together" was an example of good practice.  There was a need for continued mainstreaming of resolution 1502 (2003), which called for more attention to be paid to humanitarian protection.  It was also time to review that resolution to reflect recent developments, including causes and consequences and the Security Council’s developing role.  Humanitarian action should never be a substitute for political action and humanitarian action and she called on the Council to assume its full responsibilities for establishing commissions of inquiry, sanctions regimes and referral to the International Criminal Court.

MARÍA CRISTINA PERCEVAL ( Argentina), noting the "bleak" situation faced by civilians caught in conflicts, said that attacks on humanitarian workers were by now "common currency" and had reached "alarming levels".  International law was designed to provide protection, with the principle of "distinction" between civilians and combatants a key element under the Geneva Convention of 1949, the Protocols of 1977 and customary international law.  Yet, distinction was not protecting civilians, including humanitarian workers, from deliberate attacks, sexual violence, illegal detention and other violations.  The United Nations must remain committed to protecting civilians and humanitarian personnel through fostering respect for international law, particularly humanitarian, human rights and refugee law.  Additionally, the Secretary-General should report to Member States any attacks against United Nations personnel, while proposing measures to improve security.  The Security Council also needed to strengthen its abilities to investigate violations and work against impunity.

OLIVIER NDUHUNGIREHE ( Rwanda), emphasizing that perpetrators of attacks on humanitarian workers must be held to account, said that all stakeholders must build a security strategy that respected the neutrality of humanitarian operations.  As part of that effort, effective protection of humanitarian workers must be included in all peacekeeping mandates without associating military operations with humanitarian work.  Regional and subregional organizations should be utilized to raise awareness of international law, build trust and engage parties.  He stressed that the most effective protection of civilians and humanitarian workers was prevention of conflict.

OH JOON ( Republic of Korea) said that international humanitarian law must be fully implemented, with awareness of such law raised worldwide.  Staff of non-governmental organizations must be included in all efforts to protect workers and all staff should be trained in local culture.  Perpetrators of attacks must be held to account, with the international community providing support for national accountability mechanisms, augmented by international justice when necessary.  He called attacks on humanitarian workers inhumane, as they prevented the provision of life-saving aid.

USMAN SARKI ( Nigeria) said the Security Council's recent trip to Somalia had shown members the difference that humanitarian workers could make.  However, since the 2003 attack in Baghdad, hundreds of humanitarian workers had faced violence and death in going about their duties.  Condemning "cowardly and outrageous attacks" that contravened the status of humanitarian workers and humanitarian law, he said that special status lay within the fundamental principle of distinction between combatants and non-combatants.  The responsibility to protect that status lay with States.  He pointed to the often "fluid atmosphere of lawlessness", the lack of Government structure and the prevalence of non-State actors as obstacles to full protection.  Enhanced coordination between humanitarian actors was needed and smart and adequate security measures had to be put in place while protecting the perceived neutrality of humanitarian workers.  Alternative measures, such as community-based policing, were worth considering, while credible and timely investigations into attacks on humanitarian workers were necessary to help prevent impunity.  Perpetrators had to be held accountable, if not nationally, then through international mechanisms for redress and remedy.

PHILIPPA KING ( Australia) paid tribute to humanitarian workers, noting that deliberate targeting had "become a sickening hallmark of conflict".  The growing threats humanitarian workers faced were particularly prevalent for national staff, with 80 per cent of attacks in 2013 on local workers.  Stressing the inviolability of United Nations premises, she noted the responsibility to protect civilians, including humanitarian workers, in conflict.  The Council could engage certain tools to promote the centrality of protecting civilians, one being resolution 1502 (2003).  Another was the inclusion of the protection of humanitarian action in the mandates of peacekeeping deployments.  The Council could also pass sanctions against those obstructing the delivery of assistance and ensure perpetrators were brought to justice, either domestically or internationally.  Noting that non-State armed groups posed unique challenges, she applauded the work of organizations, such as Geneva Call and ICRC, which promoted compliance by such groups.  The Council, as well, should continue searching for creative ways to promote compliance.

WANG MIN ( China) said that, although the past decade had seen much international effort to protect civilians, humanitarian workers were suffering more and more.  He condemned all attacks against those workers, voicing support of efforts to protect them.  Such protection was primarily the obligation of parties to a conflict.  Violators must be held to account by national Governments with international support.  National sovereignty must be protected and neutrality of humanitarian operations affirmed.  All stakeholders, including the United Nations and its peacekeeping operations, must coordinate their actions for those purposes.

RAIMONDA MURMOKAITĖ ( Lithuania) said that the Rome Statute defined attacks against humanitarian workers as a war crime.  Resolution 1502 (2003) established that status-of-forces, status-of-missions and host country agreements with the United Nations should include provisions regarding attacks against humanitarian personnel as punishable crimes and the prosecution or extradition of offenders.  Yet, she wondered, how often were those provisions being put into action.  As described in the Geneva Convention and its protocols, humanitarian action was based on the principles of impartiality, neutrality and independence.  In Syria, impartiality and neutrality had been violated, in particular by the Syrian regime, which had repeatedly obstructed humanitarian aid.  On the eastern borders of Ukraine, attempts to deliver purported humanitarian aid had been accompanied by the Russian Federation’s increased military movements, violations of Ukraine’s borders and support to anti-Ukrainian rebel groups.  All attempts to manipulate humanitarian access for military or political purposes were totally unacceptable under international humanitarian law.

VITALY I. CHURKIN ( Russian Federation) said room remained for improvement in the Council's efforts to ensure protection of civilians and humanitarian workers during armed conflict, voicing disappointment with the latest data on the number of humanitarian workers killed.  Strengthening of the mechanisms that ensured the safety of humanitarian workers was needed, including proper investigations and justice for law breakers.  A priority for the Council was to ensure assistance reach the South-East of Ukraine, he said, noting that some Security Council members had encouraged the Kyiv Government's actions, which included indiscriminate firing and the use of incendiary munitions.  Calling for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire, he stressed that the Ukrainian Government refused to acknowledge the worsening situation.  He said great attention should be paid to Russian efforts to deliver humanitarian assistance to combat weary areas.

BANTE MANGARAL ( Chad) said that attacks on humanitarian workers hampered efforts to provide effective relief to civilians caught up in conflict.  Recurring debates in the Council and legal instruments should have helped to improve the situation.  Nonetheless, challenges remained and attacks against civilians, humanitarian workers and United Nations workers were growing in scope.  That caused him to wonder, he said, about the shortcomings of the United Nations in improving the situation, with such difficulties still prominent.  Differences between Council members often impeded action, citing Syria and Ukraine as clear examples.  Implementation of existing legal mechanisms could help to improve the situation, he stressed, pointing to the importance of preventing attacks and of prosecuting perpetrators of attacks.

DAVID DUNN ( United States) underscored the growing worldwide need for the aid provided by humanitarian workers, along with the growing threat to them.  Ensuring safety and access for such workers and ensuring accountability for attackers were priorities of his country.  He reaffirmed the importance of the neutrality of humanitarians.  Describing recent attacks in Syria, Afghanistan, Mali and other areas, he said that the lack of humanitarian access in many current crises had been devastating.  He called on all Governments and other parties to ensure such access and called for a coordinate approach from all United Nations units.  Finally, he called on the Council to consider and support accountability mechanisms.

MAHMOUD HMOUD ( Jordan) said that the Security Council must provide the necessary means to uphold humanitarian law within the framework of peacekeeping mandates and must guarantee humanitarian access to those who needed it.  He called on parties to conflicts to uphold their responsibilities under international law, saying there were breaches in Gaza, Syria, Iraq, Sudan and many other areas.  Multifaceted peacekeeping operations had to define clear roles in civilian protection and include protection of humanitarian actors in those efforts.  It must be ensured that humanitarian workers embrace the neutrality necessary for their work.

CRISTIÁN BARROS MELET ( Chile) noted that the Aid Worker Security Database recorded a 66 per cent increase in attacks on humanitarian workers since last year.  States and non-State players had to comply with their legal obligations.  It was critical to establish the right conditions for aid workers to fulfil their duties.  Attacks had become "part of the daily fare", even though they were war crimes, and those responsible had to be held to account.  The duty lay with host countries, and where they were unable to fulfil it, international jurisdictions, such as the International Criminal Court.  Peacekeeping mandates had to be appropriate to tackle threats to States’ security and stability, he said, observing that there had been some progress in the number of peacekeeping mandates that included specific references to protection of civilians.

ALEXIS LAMEK ( France) said repressive regimes used denying their populations of the means of survival as a strategy to force acceptance of dictatorships.  Attacks on humanitarian workers could make those personnel flee, thus removing the eyes of the world from the country.  He pointed specifically to South Sudan, where aid workers were being expelled, and to Syria, where hospitals were a typical target of barrel bombs.  Attacking humanitarian workers was a war crime that could be referred to the International Criminal Court, and the Security Council had the responsibility to prevent and suppress such acts using all the tools available to provide favourable environments for humanitarian access.  Referral to the International Criminal Court could be necessary, as could sanctions against anyone preventing access or perpetrating attacks.  Calling for implementation by the Syria regime of resolution 2165 (2014), he also said he hoped to see resolution 1502 (2003) updated, as called for in the concept note.

MARK LYALL GRANT ( United Kingdom), Council President, speaking in his national capacity, said that 2014 was on course to see more attacks on humanitarian workers than 2013, which had experienced the highest figures in 10 years.  Humanitarian workers were increasingly viewed as soft targets, which was “a moral outrage”.  The situation required urgent attention as increasing demands on the United Nations meant those personnel would remain in the firing line.  He underlined the view expressed by Under-Secretary-General Valerie Amos, that “even wars have rules”, stressing that attacks on humanitarian workers not only impacted them directly, but also hampered their ability to reach those in need.  The Council had a duty to act and could do so through condemnation and direct action, and by mandating peacekeeping operations to create safe conditions for civilians.  Additionally, special political missions could help build the institutions necessary to prevent and punish attacks, while sanctions could also be employed.  He added that he would propose a new resolution to update resolution 1502 (2003) to ensure the better protection of humanitarian workers.

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For information media. Not an official record.