On dangerous ground

Humanitarian aid in war zones is subject to security measures that do not guarantee workers' protection. But in extreme situations, is it better to arm up or pull out?

In 2002, 85 aid workers were killed, injured or abducted in violent attacks around the world. By 2010, the figure had almost tripled: 225 workers were attacked while trying to do their jobs. The ongoing case of the two medics from Doctors Without Borders (MSF) abducted in Kenya, the French woman who died while in the custody of her kidnappers (the same in both cases) and the three European aid workers kidnapped from a refugee camp in western Algeria are the latest in a long string of attacks against workers who provide humanitarian aid, one of the cornerstones of global solidarity and development (the other is development assistance). It is also the most dangerous.

In modern-day conflicts, the battlefront is an oil spill that spreads out at the expense of the civilian population. And along this volatile line of fire, all those who help the victims become targets. In the 50-odd conflicts going on around the world - most of them forgotten - tens of thousands of aid workers, both foreigners sent to the area and locals, risk their lives each day.

Working in extreme situations means assuming extreme risks, and war is the scenario that brings all of them together. Thus, security measures to minimize risk-related situations are also extreme. Aid workers are forbidden to travel at night, to drive (since in the case of the military missions in conflict zones, accidents are the number one cause of death), or to allow armed individuals into their headquarters or vehicles (the "No Weapons" sticker is the first thing you see on any NGO's all-terrain vehicle or ambulance). They must also stay in touch with the base, plan their trips, and be easy to find at all times. But no matter how many measures are taken, given the complexity of today's conflicts - with all kinds of armed parties: regular forces, guerrilla fighters, militias, warlords and so on - are they enough to guarantee the safety of foreign aid workers? How to improve and reduce the number of incidents? And what's more, faced with the possibility of providing aid, when is it time to back out and evacuate?

There is no unified international protocol, but there is an endless number of manuals and recommendations. The organization is directly responsible for security issues. "Each NGO adapts these recommendations to their organizational structure and functions," says Angelo Pirola, the head of project logistics and a security expert for Médicos del Mundo (MDM), an NGO that lost three workers in 1997 in Rwanda. "That is to say, it comes up with a risk management policy and then the corresponding protocol of security measures. In humanitarian aid, security is mostly risk prevention, and that prevention is based on four pillars: the first, making trips as safe as possible (no improvised movements), using properly equipped vehicles and obligatory basic supplies (tanks of gas, water, food, satellite phone). The second is telecommunications: the worker has got to be reachable at all times, and also be able to reach the organization. The third is the proper handling of the NGO's visibility: just as the NGO's logo opens a thousand doors in situations of development assistance, in situations of war it can be a target. Whether or not it's in the organization's best interest to show it is evaluated in each context, and it can even vary from one region to another in the same country. The fourth pillar is to avoid flaunting iPads, money, phones, etc." As a result, says Pirola, managing the security of aid workers can be summed up as follows: "handling information and data, processing and sharing them with colleagues from other humanitarian organizations: this road has been cut off, there's been an attack in such and such a place, etc."

Franciso Rey, co-director of the Institute of Studies on Conflicts and Humanitarian Action (IECAH), shares this opinion: "Protocols don't solve everything, and they can even be too strict. A daily analysis must be made of all the information that is received and it must be shared with other organizations because of the changing nature of the environment. Apparently in the camp in Dadaab [Kenya] they had detected the presence of suspicious individuals in the days leading up to the kidnapping [of the two MSF workers]. Because it's the people who protect the NGOs - the ones who receive the aid, and even sometimes the armed individuals who know that they can turn to them if they need help."

For the co-director of the IECAH, security doesn't depend on protocols alone, "but also on how neutral the NGO is seen to be by all players involved in the conflict." In other words, the more that humanitarian organizations are trusted and accepted, the more "natural" protection they will receive in order to carry out their mission in peace.

Stephanie Sturzenegger of the operational security unit of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), an organization with a presence in 55 different conflicts (and which lost six nurses in an armed attack in Chechnya in 1996), explains via e-mail from Geneva that "way before becoming a matter of technical or physical protection, security is a question of acceptance and trust. The ICRC's security regulations are based on what are known as the pillars of security, which are: acceptance, identification, information, security regulations, personal behavior, telecommunications and protection measures, active as well as passive - not resorting to armed bodyguards, reinforcing buildings."

The neutrality wielded by the ICRC is the line that separates this organization and the humanitarian aid NGOs that, like MSF, explicitly opt for advocacy, which goes beyond traditional humanitarian aid. It is worth recalling that the ICRC is the champion of the 1949 Geneva conventions and its additional 1977 protocols, which protect all those not taking part in hostilities (civilians, including war correspondents; healthcare workers; members of aid organizations) and those who can no longer take part in them (the wounded, the ill, shipwrecked individuals and war prisoners, including embedded journalists who fall into enemy hands). Yet most activist humanitarian aid NGOs are notoriously suspicious of the ICRC's unwavering neutrality.

The conventional conflicting parties have been joined, in recent years, by a new, spurious one, whose main objective is to collect a possible ransom and get publicity: terrorists, such as the Somali militants of Al Shabab, who abducted the two MSF workers in Kenya, and Al Qaeda's organization in the Maghreb. Although they may seem similar, Rico makes a clear distinction between the case of the MSF workers and other recent ones: "The two MSF workers were not reckless; they were merely taking risks inherent in their job. The three Acció Solidària workers [kidnapped in Mauritania in 2009], on the other hand, were reckless: they weren't familiar with the sector or the context." The Spanish government paid a ransom in exchange for their liberation.

The professionalism of aid workers - when it comes to humanitarian aid, almost all tasks, from operating to supplying water, are life or death situations - is necessary, but it's not enough. For Soraya Rodríguez, secretary of state for international cooperation, security measures start "at minute zero, in the hiring phase. Not everyone has what it takes to do the job: they might be a great professional, but not have the skills to deal with a critical situation of unsustainable tension."

There is a red line that NGOs - and international agencies - theoretically never cross, the controversial "militarization of humanitarian aid": resorting to armed bodyguards (from Blue Helmets to regular forces, or even private security companies) to ensure the distribution of aid. A weapon close to an NGO is anathema for ethical reasons, but also operative ones, says Angelo Pirola. "Weapons do not guarantee the health of the populace; not even our own safety. And ethically, we'd be sending out a message that goes against our objectives. Their presence is counterproductive," he says.

It makes the person who has a weapon part of the conflict. That's why they don't use weapons in theory and - 90 percent of the time - in practice. But aren't there any exceptions? "Anglo-American organizations usually have armed bodyguards," says Rey. "What's more, in critical contexts such as Somalia, the ICRC and MSF have used armed guards to protect their warehouses." Another exception is Afghanistan, where the secretary of state for cooperation admits that it's impossible to travel without protection: "We're talking about cases of extreme need: Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, North Kivu [the Democratic Republic of the Congo]," says Rodríguez.

MSF turned down this newspaper's invitation to share its position on security. Instead it alluded to a statement made by its president, José Antonio Bastos, in a press conference the day after the kidnapping: "MSF has been working without bodyguards in countries at war for 40 years, and the number of accidents we have had is similar to that of organizations that work with them. It's part of our approach, to be able to show the people and the armed parties that we've got nothing to do with the conflict; that we're a purely humanitarian and medical institution."

According to Manuel, an individual who has worked with MSF and other NGOs with extensive experience in the Sudan, on the ground, pragmatism takes over: "It's getting dark on the way back from some village, and you see yourself getting lost in the desert. On the road you come across a group of armed men who offer to get you out of there. You ask them to lay down their weapons before you get in the car, but they refuse. What are you going to do? Risk spending the night out in the open, surrounded by arms? You look the other way, and it's not hypocrisy: these are situations that occur on a regular basis."

As a general rule, the ICRC avoids using armed guards, "because they call into question the organization's neutrality and independence. But in exceptional circumstances, a delegation may use armed guards to protect the team and the material. This has been the case in the northern Caucasus and in Somalis, as a final resort against the action of bandits and criminals, but never to impose a humanitarian operation on part of the conflict, against its will," says Sturzenegger.

Since the beginning of the 1990s, with the escalation in humanitarian crises in the African Great Lakes and the Balkans, the number and length of these crises has multiplied: some of them have festered, such as that at the Dadaab refugee camp, the largest in the world, and those surrounding the silent forced displacement of indigenous populations caught in the crossfire of paramilitary groups and regular armies (in Colombia, for instance). Thus, the security scenario varies. Soraya Rodríguez establishes a scale, from zero risk to withdrawal: "The acceptance [of humanitarian aid workers] and clear neutrality with the authorities or the warring parties: this would be the safest scenario. When this is not possible, protection measures must be established that do not pose a threat to the population you are aiding, or to the warring parties. Thirdly, there is dissuasion: on the ground, measures like the use of armored vehicles, bulletproof vests; and on the diplomatic level, sanctions, resolutions from the international community and so on. The fourth is the worst imaginable scenario: when it is impossible to either guarantee security or aid the victims."

When the balance between the security and effectiveness of aid is tipped by the weight of danger, the only option is to pull out. Almost all humanitarian aid NGOs have carefully rehearsed evacuation plans, even before deploying to the area. "When you get to the point that you're taking major risks without any guarantee of providing services." That's when it's time to back out, according to the secretary of state.

But even in the worst-case scenario, "although you're only reaching part of the victims, like in Mogadishu [Somalia], the risk is worth it." The rest would only fall into the category of sacrifice, and aid workers are just professionals, not heroes.

A local aid worker for the UN's World Food Programme delivers food to displaced families in a Mogadishu refugee camp in 2009.
A local aid worker for the UN's World Food Programme delivers food to displaced families in a Mogadishu refugee camp in 2009.MOHAMED DAHIR (AFP)

Victims of war

Hundreds of aid workers - from NGOs as well as United Nations agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) - have died in violent attacks since the early 1990s, when major humanitarian crises emerged in the areas around the African Great Lakes and the Balkans. Here are some of the most serious episodes:

- In May 1995, during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a deranged individual burst into the Médicos del Mundo (MDM) headquarters in the city of Mostar and killed the logistician Mercedes Navarro.

- In December 1996, six nurses from the ICRC were murdered in a hospital in Novye Atagi, 20 kilometers south of Grozni (Chechnya). The site had been chosen for its supposed safe location.

- In January 1997, three Spanish aid workers from Médicos del Mundo were killed in Rwanda. The photographer Luis Valtueña, the nurse Flors Sirera and the doctor Manuel Madrazo died while working on a project for the organization in the city of Ruhengeri.

- In September 2000, five aid workers who were employed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) were killed in an attack by an armed group in Atambua in East Timor.

- In February 2001, six members of the International Red Cross were murdered in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

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