On 19 August 2003, the Canal Hotel housing the United Nations (UN) office in Baghdad (Iraq) was targeted by a large truck-bomb. The attack left 22 dead, including a few UN staff members involved in the provision of humanitarian assistance to Iraqis affected by the aftermath of the March 2003 US-led military invasion. On 27 October 2003, a car-bomb attack targeted the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) office in Baghdad killing 12 people, possibly providing a defining moment for changes in the security management practices of aid agencies and increased perceptions of insecurity for aid workers in areas affected by armed conflict.
In 2008, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution on strengthening the coordination of the UN’s emergency assistance, which included the designation of the anniversary of the Canal Hotel attack as World Humanitarian Day. Intended “to recognize humanitarian personnel and those who have lost their lives working for humanitarian causes,” it has come to represent an opportune time to reflect on the dilemmas and challenges related to the security of aid workers. While many debates agitate the microcosm of the humanitarian sector, there is a near-consensus on the worsening of the situation.
This is evident through the suspension or closure of life-saving medical projects or even the departure of humanitarian actors from a given context following critical security incidents such as the killing or abduction of aid workers. In turn, such decisions have devastating effects for populations in need of assistance, leaving pregnant women without access to basic surgical capacity or children going without basic vaccinations. There is an acknowledged risk-taking when providing medical assistance in a conflict area but the direct targeting of aid workers by parties to the conflict means that the requirement of basic acceptance for a neutral and independent “ambulance” inside the conflict zone is not attainable.
The underlying basis for a responsible humanitarian intervention is that it must be led on the basis of guiding principles. The ability to treat those most in need (impartiality) without taking sides in the ongoing conflict (neutrality) while making one’s own decisions on the allocation of resources based on one’s own assessment of needs (independence) is a complex endeavour from its inception. For a process of negotiated humanitarian access to be obtained from a government or an armed actor to be successful, principled humanitarian action must balance out all the interests at stake: its own based on its social mission of saving lives and alleviating suffering as well as those of a conflict’s other stakeholders from local levels (where its projects are implemented) to higher authority levels as required by accountability and transparency criteria enshrined in state-level regulatory frameworks or agreed-to in bilateral agreements.
But this principled view of ‘humanitarianism’ emanating from Western Europe 150 years ago which led to the codification of rules in the conduct of war and the birth of the ICRC is not always felt to be universal. Born somewhat in reaction to the institutionalized ICRC, Doctors Without Borders / Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) sought to extend the right to humanitarian assistance above and beyond borders, moved by an ethical imperative to save the lives of people in crisis situations even if it were to collide with the sometimes-competing concept of state sovereignty.
It is in such light for example that its decision to work inside opposition-controlled areas of Syria in 2011-2012 after the continued refusal by Syria’s government to register MSF in Damascus should be understood: not as compromising on neutrality and supporting the rebels but as concluding that the only way to provide medical assistance to the victims of the civil war inside Syria, in cities such as Homs and Aleppo, was to cross its northern borders with its own surgical teams and increase the volume of medical supplies distributed to networks of health facilities and staff across Syria, including in Damascus-controlled areas also affected by the conflict.
Whether in Syria or in an increasing number of sub-state, identity-driven conflicts such as in Myanmar or in South Sudan, the acceptance of humanitarian action, particularly from western-based organizations, is weak. But the principles carried by MSF in conflict settings across different cultures are not meant to fix disputes or impose a preferred political order over the one in place or the one that will eventually emerge from the fighting. Humanitarian assistance should be seen as a band-aid for a conflict’s victims. Guided by the principles that ensure a distinct level of transparency to the warring parties, aid actors need to be judged on their actions rather than on the perception of what they are or whom they represent.
Aid agencies do need to share some of the blame for the current impasse over humanitarian access in conflict areas. A lack of embedding into local societies, previously identified and criticized parochial attitudes towards the beneficiaries of their assistance, and negative feedback on the image they project as opposed to the effectiveness and efficiency of the action they undertake are all areas that require significant improvements. In conflict areas, humanitarian principles should continue to guide the decision-making of aid agencies, away from overly conservative risk management policies and ethically questionable compromises that turn aid actors into accomplices of abuse and exclusion. Humanitarian principles and their consistent use as an ethical compass of reference remain the most honest avenue to reduce human suffering in a chaotic world in which armed conflict is increasingly being conducted without rules or rights.
About the author: Tarak Bach Baouab is a Humanitarian Advisor with Doctors Without Borders / Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).