Military attacks against humanitarian workers and facilities have repeatedly been in the news in the past months; from Afghanistan, to Syria, to South Sudan, among others. This highlights a worrisome trend: the rise in the deliberate targeting of humanitarian workers.
In 2000 there were roughly 91 registered cases of personnel being injured, killed or kidnapped. That number has more than quadrupled ever since—an increase that cannot be explained simply by pointing out the rise in the total numbers of personnel employed in the humanitarian field.
There is no denying that working in war zones and in fragile or unstable post-war societies carries significant risk. Yet the growing trend of attacks against humanitarian professionals should not be downplayed as occupational hazards of a dangerous job. Rather, the increasing risks and attacks against humanitarian professionals should be seen as symptoms of the larger malaise of the international humanitarian sector as a whole.
Put simply, workers on the ground, both local and foreign, are increasingly targeted because of who they are and what they have come to do. This reveals something disturbing: the gradual erosion of the “humanitarian space”—the perhaps fictional yet vital notion of a “safe space” that should allow those providing emergency assistance and relief to operate amid ongoing conflicts.
What could account for this worrisome trend? The reasons are numerous and complex, but perhaps it worth reflecting on at least three important points:
First, when warring parties fight over controlling the civilian population and are deeply committed to destroying and denying their enemies’ ability to govern and maintain territorial control, granting and withholding humanitarian access and assistance become de facto weapons.
Second, these trends at play on the battlefield are reinforced time and time again when they are met with impunity and, at times, complacency from the international community.
Finally, it is important to reflect on how the legacy of the past decade of external military interventions, followed by counter-insurgency campaigns, “state-building” processes, “stabilization” operations and “civil-military partnerships” has at times dangerously muddled up the lines between principled and neutral humanitarian work and politics.
If the “humanitarian safe space” is not preserved and protected, providing assistance will become more difficult. This could have devastating consequences for the international humanitarian system as a whole and, more importantly, for the millions of civilians trapped in conflict-zones and dependent on humanitarian assistance.
[Dr Benedetta Berti, a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, writing in The National Interest]