New York

19 August 2014

Deputy Secretary-General's remarks at Security Council Open Briefing on the Protection of Humanitarian Workers

I want to thank the President of the Security Council for this initiative to mark World Humanitarian Day with a briefing on the protection of humanitarian workers.  This subject is critical to mobilising awareness and mobilising action and to improving our response to people caught in conflicts and disaster.

World Humanitarian Day commemorates the bombing of the UN premises at the Canal Hotel in Baghdad on 19 August 2003.  It 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.

Humanitarian workers from the UN, the ICRC, international organisations and NGOs dedicate their lives to assisting millions of women, children and men affected by conflicts and by 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, 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 picture of brutalisation which we see in the world today.  Parties to conflict are very often ignoring international humanitarian law and targeting civilians for the sake of political and military gains.  They have used collective punishment, they have incited ethnic violence, they have impeded the delivery of humanitarian assistance, and they have attacked humanitarian actors.  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.  This represents a 66% percent increase in relation to 2012.

Thus far in 2014, 79 humanitarian workers have been killed, 33 wounded and 50 kidnapped according to preliminary figures available at this stage.

In Somalia alone, 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.  They are also felt 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; they are felt by the sick and wounded who go untreated; and they are felt by those forced from their homes and left without shelter.

In recent years, the majority of incidents have taken place in six countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan and Syria.  The overwhelming majority of victims are national humanitarian staff working 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. 

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. 

It is essential not to politicize humanitarian action, and to make a clear distinction between humanitarian actors and political or military actors. This distinction is important even when the military objective is the protection of civilians.  If these lines are blurred, perceptions of humanitarian organizations can change quickly and radically and further expose them to violence.

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.

To misuse humanitarian action for political, military and security ends is dangerous.  This compromises the integrity of humanitarian operations, and can place the lives of humanitarian workers and the people they assist in grave danger.

Respect for the humanitarian principles of impartiality, neutrality and independence is crucial for building acceptance with parties to conflict and affected communities. 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.

In this area, where humanitarian work is urgently needed in conflict situations, the Security Council has a clear role to play.  And that is why we particularly appreciate the fact that you have organized this meeting today.  I would suggest that four actions are especially important.

First, the Council can routinely call on parties to conflict to uphold their legal obligations – and, I would say, 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.

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.

Fourth, the Council 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.

Let us remember that those who commit these crimes take the civilian population hostage and consciously spread fear and use intimidation to reach their goals.  They must never succeed.

I would like to close by stressing that attacks against humanitarian workers and facilities are part of a deeply disturbing trend which I mentioned earlier.  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.

Today, on World Humanitarian Day, let us 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.

I thank you.