Briefing Security Council, UN deputy chief urges protection for frontline ‘humanitarian heroes’

A UN flight takes humanitarian workers from Baghdad to Erbil in Iraq. Photo: IRIN/Heba Aly

19 August 2014 – United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson had one main message – “we must protect humanitarian workers” – as he marked World Humanitarian Day with a special briefing to the Security Council, addressing a subject critical to people caught in conflict.

Recalling that the Day commemorates the 19 August 2003 bombing of the UN premises at the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, Mr. Eliasson said the occasion is “dedicated to the memory of all the staff members and partners who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty for the humanitarian imperative.”

“We have since then seen shocking tragedies and terrorist acts against UN personnel and premises in places like Algeria, Nigeria, Somalia and Afghanistan. These appalling incidents remain fresh in our minds,” he added during his briefing, which also included statements from Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and Masood Director and Co-Founder of The Liaison, an Afghan non-governmental organization (NGO).

Humanitarian workers from the UN, the ICRC, international organizations and NGO’s dedicate their lives to assisting millions of women, children and men affected by conflicts and natural disasters around the world. Working in some of the most dangerous places, they take great risks to help people in desperate need.

“Yet, all too frequently,” Mr. Eliasson continued “their safety is compromised in the most despicable of ways: by threats, by attacks, and by the use of illegal methods of warfare that endanger lives or damage the infrastructure needed for the delivery of assistance.”

Such acts are part of a brutalization seen today in which parties to conflict often ignore international humanitarian law and target civilians for political and military gains. They have used collective punishment, incited ethnic violence, impeded the delivery of humanitarian assistance and attacked humanitarian actors.

He commented: “What this represents is nothing less than a deficit of humanity. Regretfully, this trend is getting worse, rather than better.”

Last year, more humanitarian workers were kidnapped, seriously injured or killed than ever before: 155 were reportedly killed; 171 were wounded and 134 kidnapped – representing a 66 per cent increase from 2012. According to preliminary figures, 2014 has already witnessed the deaths of 79 humanitarian workers in addition to 33 wounded and 50 kidnapped.

“In Somalia alone,” Mr. Eliasson asserted, “over a dozen humanitarian staff were kidnapped or detained during the first quarter of 2014. In recent weeks, several humanitarian workers have been killed in South Sudan and in Gaza.”

The consequences are not only felt by humanitarian workers and their families but also by the millions of people who cannot be reached when assistance is sabotaged by violence. They are felt by the children who do not get vaccinated; the sick and wounded who go untreated; and by those forced from their homes and left without shelter.

In recent years, the majority of incidents have occurred in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan and Syria – with the overwhelming majority of victims being national humanitarian workers struggling to save the lives of their own people.

“As we mourn these losses, and recall the plight of the many wounded and kidnapped, we must not accept this as the necessary cost of operating in risky environments,” Mr. Eliasson argued. “Our shared responsibility is to do everything we can to provide humanitarians with the safety and the space they need to do their life-saving work.”

Humanitarian action must not be politicized. A clear distinction between humanitarian actors and political or military actors must be guarded – even when military objectives are to protect civilians.

“If these lines are blurred, perceptions of humanitarian organizations can change quickly and radically and further expose them to violence,” warned the UN deputy chief. “For this reason, political and military actors must respect the need for humanitarian actors to carry out their work in an impartial, neutral and independent manner. Dialogue on how to best maintain this distinction – strike this balance, I would say – is an on-going endeavour.”

“This must include preserving the ability of humanitarian workers to engage with all parties to conflict. Such engagement serves humanitarian purposes. But I want to stress that it does not confer legal status or political legitimacy on non-state groups,” he explained.

Mr. Eliasson outlined four priority actions for the Security Council to support urgently needed humanitarian work in conflict situations. First, it can routinely call on parties to conflict to uphold their legal obligations – and condemn them when they do not.

Second, the Council can ensure that measures to safeguard peace and security, such as the negotiation of peace agreements or deployment of UN peacekeeping operations, do not blur the lines between political, military and humanitarian objectives. “Humanitarian efforts, essential as they are, are no substitute for political action to resolve the causes of conflicts,” Mr. Eliasson underscored.

Third, the Council can impose targeted measures against parties to conflict who violate their obligations to respect and protect humanitarian workers and the civilian population.

And finally, it can use all tools at its disposal to seek accountability for those who perpetrate attacks against humanitarian workers and assets. “This means supporting investigations and prosecutions at the national level, creating special criminal tribunals or mixed arrangements, making use of commissions of enquiry and fact finding missions, and referring relevant situations to the International Criminal Court,” elaborated the Deputy Secretary-General.

Those who take civilian populations hostage – consciously spreading fear and using intimidation to reach their goals – must never succeed.

Mr. Eliasson closed by reiterating that attacks against humanitarian workers and facilities were part of a deeply disturbing trend. “I think of the increase in unacceptable and cowardly attacks against civilians in armed conflict, and the sadly growing lack of respect for international humanitarian law. Let us not accept, but let us stop, the growing deficit of humanity,” he pressed.

On World Humanitarian Day, the Deputy Secretary-General encouraged everyone to honour the victims. “Let us protect the heroes on the frontlines of disaster and war, and let us do everything we can to help them – and to help us all – to alleviate human suffering in a difficult time of turmoil and violence in the world,” he concluded.


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