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DFID must lead international efforts to end violence against aid workers

6 August 2019

The growing threat of violence against aid and healthcare workers in conflict-affected countries is putting humanitarian efforts at risk, a report by the International Development Committee has found.

Committee conclusions

The Committee calls for strong leadership from the UK to better safeguard aid and healthcare workers from harm and hold aggressors to account by using diplomatic pressure to encourage the enforcement of international law.

In 2018, attacks against aid workers resulted in 126 deaths across the globe. In the same year attacks on health care in conflict-affected countries killed at least 167 people. Violence against aid workers can take many forms and varies from region to region. Of the three nations with the highest number of attacks, South Sudan has chiefly witnessed shootings and assault, Syria air strikes and Afghanistan kidnappings. Attacks are not only occurring in areas of man-made armed conflict, preventing those in need from receiving vital assistance. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, violence against healthcare workers is seriously hampering international efforts to combat the spread of Ebola.

The report finds that while international humanitarian law provides a strong legal framework to safeguard humanitarian activity in conflict, state and non-state aggressors are increasingly acting with impunity in practice. The upward trend of violence against aid workers has not been met with a concerted effort by the international community to provide protection, maintain accountability or seek justice.

Violence is not only causing unacceptable loss of life and injury but threatens the continued operation of vital aid programmes. Resources are being diverted away from providing essential services and assistance toward ensuring the safety of aid workers and facilities. Increased security measures are helping to create a barrier between humanitarian relief efforts and recipients, sowing distrust and increasing threats.

Chair's comments

Stephen Twigg MP, Chair of the Committee, said:

“First and foremost, we must pay tribute to aid and healthcare workers across the globe who continue to put their lives on the line to help others. But it is unacceptable that they should continue to do so without much greater support from the international community.

Whether through targeted acts of violence or indiscriminate bombing; we are witnessing a growing trend of attacks. But where are the consequences for those committing these atrocities. The legal framework is there to punish aggressors but the willingness and drive to enforce it is lacking.

We have called on DFID to take the lead in ending violence against humanitarian workers. This should include building international consensus on how better to enforce humanitarian law, but also investigating how diplomatic pressure can be applied against states who hold it in such disregard.

On the ground, we need to work with local communities to build trust and end suspicion of the purpose of aid programmes. There must be greater support for agencies such as the European Interagency Security Forum (EISF) and the International NGO Safety Organisation (INSO) whose sole purpose is to ensure humanitarian workers can operate in safety.

Most importantly we must assess the threat to all humanitarian workers equally. It would not be acceptable to ensure the safety of international aid workers by placing locally-engaged workers in greater danger. There is a duty of care to all those who do such great work in helping people in desperate need, we cannot forget any of them.”

Key findings

  • The Department for International Development should take the lead in strengthening international recognition of humanitarian relief as a protected activity. In the worst cases, where aid workers have been targeted and attacked by state actors there must be accountability under international law. The UK should back this up by being prepared to take meaningful diplomatic action against sponsors, enablers and perpetrators of attacks that contravene international rules of law.
  • Efforts to support and protect aid workers must not simply transfer risk to local delivery organisations. When assessing bids for aid funded programmes, DFID should take full account of the duty of care owed to all agency personnel to prevent the transfer of high levels of risk for the sake of lower costs.
  • International agencies, such as the European Interagency Security Forum (EISF) and International NGO Safety Organisation (INSO) play a vital role in supporting humanitarian agencies providing risk analysis and advice on safety and security. DFID should explore the case for longer-term strategic investment to support their work.
  • Resources must also be focused on gaining acceptance among hard to reach communities and combatting negative narratives from opposition forces. Suspicion of inoculation campaigns or the intentions of international aid workers can cause serious harm to efforts to alleviate the worst consequences of war or combat infectious disease. As part of wider risk management strategies, there should be a focus on relationship building and trust establishment with local host communities.
  • Data on sexual violence and violence based on diversity characteristics is poor, meaning that strategies designed to counter threats to workers can be based on assumptions that lack evidence. DFID should support greater research to understand the extent of these forms of violence against humanitarian workers.

Further information

Image: Department for International Development