Attacks on humanitarian workers

From Academic Kids

Humanitarian aid workers belonging to UN organisations, PVOs / NGOs or the Red Cross / Red Crescent have traditionally enjoyed both international legal protection, and de facto immunity from attack by belligerent parties. However, attacks on humanitarian workers have occasionally occurred, and became more frequent in the 1990s and 2000s. This is attributed to a number of factors, including the increasing number of humanitarian workers deployed, the increasingly unstable environments in which they work, and the erosion of the perception of neutrality and independence.


Legal basis for protection of humanitarian workers

The legal basis for protection of humanitarian workers in conflicts is contained in the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the related Protocol of 1975. These treaties describe the category of civilian non-combatant and outline the rights of obligations of non-combatants during conflict. These rights include the right to be treated humanely; to have access to food, water, shelter, medical treatment, and communications; to be free from violence to life and person, hostage taking, and humiliating or degrading treatment; and the prohibition against collective punishment or imprisonment. Civilian non-combatants include local citizens and nationals of countries that are not party to the conflict.

While the Geneva Conventions guarantee protection for humanitarian workers, they do not guarantee access of humanitarian workers to affected areas: governments or occupying forces may, if they wish, ban a relief agency from working in their area. Médecins Sans Frontières was created in 1971 with the express purpose of ignoring this restriction, by providing assistance to populations affected by the Biafran civil war despite the prohibitions of the government of Nigeria.

In addition, the Geneva Conventions do not require that parties to the conflict guarantee the safety of humanitarian workers. The Conventions prohibit combatants from attacking non-combatants, and they require occupying forces to maintain general order. However, the Conventions do not require that combating parties provide security escorts, for example, when other factions threaten the safety of non-combatants operating in their area.

Trends in risks faced by humanitarian workers

  • Wars between states became much less common in the period following the end of the Cold War. Unfortunately, these wars have been largely replaced by an increased incidence of internal conflict and resulting anarchy, increasing the risk to civilians and humanitarian workers alike.
  • Between 1985 and 1998 just under 50% of deaths were in workers from UN programmes. 25% were UN peacekeepers.
  • Most deaths of aid workers are due to deliberate violence.
  • One third of deaths occur in the first three months of deployment, with 17% occurring within the first 30 days.

Source: Sheik, Gutierrez, et al, British Medical Journal 2000;321:166–8

Countries with the highest number of aid workers killed (1997 -2003)

  1. Angola: 58 (mostly as a result of anti-aircraft attacks on two UN planes by UNITA in 1998 and 1999 and by landmines)
  2. Afghanistan: 36
  3. Iraq: 32
  4. Sudan: 29
  5. Democratic Republic of the Congo: 18
  6. Rwanda: 17
  7. Somalia: 16
  8. Burundi: 11
  9. Palestinian Authority: 7
  10. Uganda: 7
  11. Serbia and Montenegro (Kosovo): 5
  12. Liberia: 5

List of recent attacks on humanitarian workers









  • Badghis province, Afghanistan - June 3, 2004 - Five staff working for Médecins_Sans_Frontières were killed on the road between Khairkhana and Qala-I-Naw, resulting in the complete withdrawal of MSF from Afghanistan. The names of the murdered staff were: Hélène de Beir, Willem Kwint, Egil Tynaes, Fasil Ahmad and Besmillah.
  • Darfur, Sudan - October 10, 2004 - A Save the Children vehicle was hit by an anti-tank landmine in the Um Barro area of North Darfur, Sudan. Two members of staff travelling in the vehicle were killed, Rafe Bullick (British, Programme Manager, North Darfur) and Nourredine Issa Tayeb (Sudanese, Water Engineer).

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