Statement for World Humanitarian Day on the Protection of Humanitarian Action

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World Humanitarian Day, held every year on August 19, pays tribute to those who risk their lives in humanitarian work around the world. Humanitarian aid workers provide life saving and life sustaining assistance and protection to populations affected by conflict, disaster and crisis, and in the process, many risk their lives to help others.

Violence against Aid

During the first six months of 2017, at least 104 aid workers were reportedly killed, at least 72 injured, and 97 reportedly kidnapped around the world, according to the monitoring by Insecurity Insight’s Aid in Danger project. These figures are based on information collected from open sources (Monthly News Brief) and direct submissions from 25 partner agencies to the Security in Numbers Database (SiND), and include incidents from the Aid Worker Security Database (AWSD). According to the latest Aid Worker Security Report by Humanitarian Outcomes, the most attacks against aid workers in 2016 were perpetrated by ‘national-level’ non-state armed groups, though attacks by state forces were responsible for the highest number of aid worker fatalities.

Healthcare has been particularly threatened in recent conflicts, resulting not only in death and injuries among healthcare providers, but the breakdown of health systems in crisis settings where they are needed most. According to the work by the Safeguarding Health Care Coalition, health workers have experienced high levels of violence of the past years. The latest data from the Aid in Danger project Incident Trends show that in the first six months of 2017, 89 health facilities and ambulances were damaged or destroyed across 6 countries, and a further 62 health workers were attacked across 13 countries.

Sexual violence against aid workers is also increasingly recognized as a concern. While the true scale remains unreported, the experiences of 76 aid workers have been documented by Report Abuse and the Aid in Danger project.

In addition to direct attacks, a less well-known pattern of arrests and detentions of humanitarian personnel is contributing to the curtailment of humanitarian access and action in a number of emergency settings. Over the last 30 months, a total of 418 aid workers were arrested, primarily in Yemen, South Sudan and Ethiopia. In Yemen and South Sudan, state and non-state actors arrested and detained aid workers, while in Ethiopia only state authorities carried out arrests. Some interventions by state or non-state actors were directly related to accusations or charges against the aid activities. These arrests have also occurred a context in which an increasing number of laws or regulations have been introduced or applied that agencies feel interfere with their ability to deliver aid unhindered.

Protecting Humanitarian Action

Violence and obstructing measures against humanitarian missions pose an increasingly critical challenge to the humanitarian community. These attacks not only endanger lives, and violate international norms, but they also jeopardize the humanitarian enterprise overall. Where humanitarian aid workers are unable to operate, populations will be unable to access the emergency assistance they need to survive crises.

Attacks against aid workers also pose an acute operational dilemma between humanitarian organizations’ ability to maintain access to populations in need, and to ensure the safety and security of their staff.

Many humanitarian operational organizations attest to a growing difficulty in securing the safe passage and delivery of aid to civilians in need. Whereas humanitarian organizations have responded to the changing security context by taking operational security measures to protect their staff, operations, reputations, and beneficiaries, there remains a lack of systematic reporting of security incidents to data collection systems.

Moreover, there are no global mechanisms for monitoring violence against aid workers, or bringing accountability. The result is that each agency is largely left to deal with sensitive or politically difficult incidents on its own, with no consistent choice of options to engage in reporting, advocacy or justice processes, and with little support from the international community and limited solidarity within the humanitarian sector at the global level. The dangerous systematization of attacks against humanitarian action thus remains hidden, each case dealt with in silence, and most followed by total impunity.

Collective global action is now encouraged in a Working Group on Protection of Humanitarian Action, which brings together practitioners from operational humanitarian organizations, security experts, advocacy and policy experts and academics. This Working Group is co-led by the Advanced Training Program on Humanitarian Action (ATHA) at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) and Action Against Hunger / Action contre la Faim (ACF). The aim is to overcome the individualistic nature of humanitarian organizations and respond to this increasingly challenging environment through collective reflection, stronger and more consistent advocacy across the humanitarian sector, and joint actions to reassert respect for IHL and the protection of humanitarian action.

Call to action             

It is only on the global scale that the humanitarian community can push for a change in a context that is, for now, becoming less and less conducive for humanitarian aid to reach civilians in need.

For humanitarian practitioners and organizations, this means responding much more deliberately and consistently to individual incidents and patterns of attacks and obstructions. In response to attacks, humanitarian organizations should:

  • document and share information about incidents or threats;
  • speak out against such violence and its perpetrators; and
  • challenge impunity through the pursuit of investigation, prosecution and changes in policy and practice among parties to conflict.

For states and all parties to conflict, this means:

  • Respecting their obligations under international humanitarian law (IHL) and international human rights law (IHRL);
  • Taking measures to prevent attacks against humanitarian action;
  • Ensuring that the perpetrators of attacks are held accountable;
  • Ensuring respect for IHL and IHRL by other States and parties.

In particular, States and parties to conflict responsible for attacks against humanitarian action should:

  • Issue a formal apology and guarantees of non-recurrence;
  • Hold those responsible accountable, whether military members or public officials, e.g. through criminal or disciplinary measures;
  • Institute new practices or safeguards to prevent recurrence;
  • Provide compensation to the victims.

With regard to attacks against healthcare in particular, the international community must also take concrete measures to live up to the promise of Resolution 2286, adopted by the UN Security Council in May 2016 to address attacks on health services in armed conflict. This includes proactive steps by member states and the UN Secretary-General to prevent attacks and hold perpetrators accountable. In particular, as highlighted by the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition:

  • The Security Council should adopt the recommendations of the Secretary-General to implement Resolution 2286;
  • States should report annually on actions taken to reform laws, address military practices, strengthen investigations and promote accountability;
  • The Secretary-General (or other entity) should report annually on state actions called for by Resolution 2286 and the Secretary-General to advance protection, prevention, investigation and accountability;
  • The Secretary-General should provide regular briefings to the Security Council on country situations as called for by Resolution 2286;
  • In cases where attacks have occurred and the member state has not conducted an adequate investigation or held perpetrators accountable, the Security Council should mandate an investigation, and make referrals to the International Criminal Court or other international tribunals as warranted.

These measures are crucial to reasserting the protection of humanitarian action, and ultimately, enabling the protection of civilians, who are not only subject to increasingly protracted conflicts, but are also deliberately barred or effectively hindered from receiving life-saving humanitarian assistance and protection.

The members of the Working Group on Protection of Humanitarian Action call upon humanitarian practitioners, organizations, and the sector as a collective to do more to respond to attacks against humanitarian action, with the aim to improve the protection of humanitarian action and ultimately, the protection of civilians.

This article originally appeared on the Advanced Training Program on Humanitarian Action (ATHA) website at