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Aid Workers Could Secure Better Protection Under the Protection of Civilians Mandate

18/08/2014 15:55 BST | Updated 15/10/2014 10:59 BST

When two aid workers were shot dead in Afghanistan last month, the world's media focused its attention on the dangers of 21st century humanitarianism and the challenges that assistance agencies face in protecting their personnel. Those challenges were underscored again this week with the tragic news of more fatal attacks on aid workers in South Sudan. International law plays an undeniably important role in the protection of humanitarian personnel, but these events call into question the extent to which international law's provisions on protection are effective on the ground. Reframing the protection of humanitarians as a protection of civilians issue could go some way to improving protection across-the-board.

Aid worker security is of vital importance to any humanitarian mission. Insecurity in this regard not only compromises the safety of aid workers themselves, but also the safety of the populations they serve and the quality of the aid they deliver. Condemning the attacks on the above mentioned South Sudanese aid workers, Wendy Taeuber, Country Director for the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in South Sudan, commented that the 'security and safety of... staff is paramount in order to be able to operate.'

It is a desperately sad reality that attacks on aid workers are so common. According to the Aid Worker Security Database (AWSD), in 2013-2014 alone 610 workers across the major international organizations and national agencies were killed, wounded or kidnapped in the field (so-called 'major incidents'). That figure does represent a slight decrease in the number of victims compared to 2012-2013 statistics, but the trend over the past decade shows a deeply concerning increase all the same.

So what accounts for such an increase? One might chalk these figures up to weapons becoming more powerful and more indiscriminate (unable to be operated in a manner consistent with the legally required distinction between combatants and non-combatants) than ever before but the statistics remain fairly steady with respect to the number of victims of weapons-related incidents. For an answer, it appears we need to look elsewhere.

The general framework for the protection of humanitarian personnel under international law may provide us one explanation, but certainly not the full array of them. There are several major international legal instruments that pertain to the protection of humanitarian aid workers and each legally classifies those aid workers as civilians. The 1949 Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War (the fourth Geneva Convention) and the 1977 Protocols additional to the Geneva Conventions (Additional Protocol I and Additional Protocol II) are civilian protection treaties that oblige Parties to protect aid workers in specified armed conflict situations. Article 71(2) of Additional Protocol I, for example, requires that 'personnel shall be respected and protected' generally and Article 71(3) stipulates that each Party in receipt of relief consignments is obliged to 'assist relief personnel... in carrying out their relief mission'. But despite being classified as civilians for the purposes of the conventions, aid workers are rarely treated like civilians in practice. It is in this paradox that many of the humanitarian protection issues faced today are sourced. Reframing the protection of humanitarian personnel as a protection of civilians issue (in line with international law), therefore, may provide an avenue for some improvement.

So how does the protection of humanitarians vs protection of civilians issue play out on the ground? The problems in this regard are too numerous and too complex to list in full but some key issues can be identified here. For one thing, aid workers look like aid workers and not like civilians. They are often dressed in uniforms with internationally-recognized emblems that guarantee their legal protection if nothing else (the International Committee of the Red Cross' (ICRC) emblem of a red cross on a white background being the most prolific) and they often travel in marked vehicles with a host of resources and privileges that are not available to the general civilian population. These factors create an operational atmosphere in which humanitarians look to be more protected than they actually are. This is so even without considering that certain types of humanitarian are permitted, unlike the civilian population, to carry guns - a consideration that despite having no legal relevance here (as these humanitarians are governed by a separate branch of international law) does accentuate the differences between humanitarians and civilians. In light of these perceived differences, mission planners have ended up splitting protection of humanitarians units away from protection of civilians units, meaning the two rarely work together or share resources which in turn serves only to foster the unhelpful divide. Major advocacy groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, too, have responded by prioritizing protection of civilians in their campaigns at the cost of minimalizing protection of humanitarians advocacy. In reality, that perceived protection - emblems, resources, organization, etc. - makes humanitarians look like legitimate military and political targets for certain groups and therefore renders them open to attack in the same way as a combatant but with no means of defending themselves.

Those problems are especially acute in the national aid worker context. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has indicated in a 2011 report that despite overall improvements in aid agencies' security risk management, national aid workers perceive continued inequities in security support compared with their international counterparts.

Placing protection of humanitarians more firmly under the umbrella of protection of civilians may go some way to eradicating issues with respect to operational 'siloing', resource allocation and international/national worker inequities. The mandate of protection of civilians encompasses a wide range of activities designed to obtain 'full respect for the rights of all individuals in accordance with international law - international humanitarian, human rights, and refugee law - regardless of their age, gender, social, ethnic, national, religious, or other background' (an Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) endorsed definition). Since 1999, protection of civilians has received widespread attention and resources from critical institutional and humanitarian actors and has a framework for prevention and response that is far more developed than that which applies to the protection of humanitarians.

There is certainly institutional and cultural support for a more thorough system of humanitarian worker protection. The United Nations Security Council, for instance, has issued several resolutions condemning attacks on aid workers (most prolifically with respect to the treatment of humanitarian personnel in Syria) and has previously emphasized, in Resolution 1502, that attacks on aid workers constitute war crimes. Garnering this influential support and directing it towards addressing the gaps in international law with respect to how protection is framed, therefore, can only be welcomed.

Despite the fact that a review of the role of international law in the protection of humanitarian personnel would be a positive move, international law plays a frustratingly limited role in conflicts where motivations of politics and religion often have the final say. Humanitarian protection is a complex and multifaceted issue and only a coordinated effort across all risk and security areas can foster the levels of change demanded by the tragedies too often witnessed in humanitarian missions the world over.

As part of that coordinated effort, August 19, 2014, marks World Humanitarian Day, a day conceived to increase awareness of humanitarian work around the world and encourage greater dialogue on key challenges. You can show your support and find out more about the Messengers of Humanity campaign by visiting www.worldhumanitarianday.org.