Under fire around the world, aid workers weigh new tactics

After 1998's heavy casualties, how to better defend in the field, andavoid appearing partisan?

In their mission to help others, humanitarian workers increasingly face a more fundamental task: keeping themselves alive.

In 1998, the United Nations recorded 27 of its nonmilitary personnel killed, marking the first time casualties among the organization's civilian staff exceeded the number of casualties among the military personnel working under its auspices.

Though UN diplomats have made the issue of humanitarian aid workers' safety a priority, there is little consensus on possible solutions.

Some diplomats suggest strengthening links between military personnel and aid workers. Yet governments seem averse to risking soldiers' lives to protect aid workers. And such links carry other risks.

The World Food Program (WFP) took the biggest hit: nine members murdered. In response, the Rome-based UN agency has launched a program to train its 4,000 staff members in defensive tactics.

A security trust fund for the entire UN system was established last July, though only $103,500 of the needed $1.7 million has been placed in its coffers. That has fueled concern that aid workers will be less willing to work in dangerous zones.

"In the Caucasus, peacekeepers were unwilling to go where the aid workers went," says Larry Minear, the director of the Humanitarianism and War Project at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

Jonathan Moore, an associate at the Shorenstein Center for the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., agrees. "We're going through a period right now where our willingness to involve military people is predicated on the absence of body bags," he says. While humanitarian-aid workers continue to operate in volatile regions, governments are less willing to send their soldiers on the ground, he observes.

EVEN if peacekeepers are sent to protect relief efforts, their guns have not always helped. A WFP convoy in Angola, escorted by UN peacekeepers, came under an attack that killed two people in November. In 1997, armed men overpowered guards at Hungarian Inter-Church Relief's compound in Chechnya, kidnapping two staff members.

"So bodyguards are obviously a weak reed to lean on," says the Rev. Leonid Kishkovsky, who was the head of the crisis management team for the International Orthodox Christian Charities when two of its own workers were kidnapped in Chechnya just a few weeks before the two Hungarians were taken hostage.

Armed bodyguards also may exacerbate problems by tarnishing NGOs' neutral, apolitical image.

"As soon as they bring in armed guards, [NGOs] lose that appearance of neutrality and benevolence," says Lisa Schirch of the Conflict Transformation Program, at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va. "There have been stories where heavily militarized relief efforts have actually been targets."

So for the most part, aid workers have shunned bodyguards and military escorts, preferring to look neutral during conflicts. They are, however, finding that this is an elusive goal. Relief workers carrying the UN emblem often work in countries - like Iraq - where the UN has political missions. They get lumped together with the UN Security Council and become associated with one side of the conflict. Nongovernmental organizations must grapple with this image problem as well.

"If you go back 10 or 15 years, we were the knights in shining armor who went in and rescued people in distress. Now more and more, due to the changing nature of conflict, we get associated with conflict itself and are seen as partisan," says Randy Martin, the director of operations at the New York-based International Rescue Committee (IRC).

In 1996, a sobering year for the humanitarian aid community, six International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) members were murdered. Aid workers had been killed before then, but the politically motivated ICRC murders sent a shock wave around the world. ICRC was founded on the principle of neutrality and is specifically protected by the Geneva Convention. That its work was not respected meant no organization could expect safety under the principle of impartiality.

Indeed, aid work can strengthen one side by providing food and medical assistance to soldiers.

"In Sudan, we're viewed as aiding and abetting the rebels in the south because we're providing humanitarian assistance to the refugees," IRC's Mr. Martin adds. "So we're often concerned about being targeted."

Caught in the middle of civil wars, foreign-aid workers become witnesses to the atrocities committed by warring factions. Some of them alert journalists or offer testimony before Congress.

"More and more, we are the only ones on the field," says Brussels-based European Commissioner for Humanitarian Affairs Emma Bonino. "The final goal is to save lives, not be neutral," she says.

Arnold Vercken, head of the World Food Program's security task force, concedes that the training of his staff has limitations. "The primary security should be provided by the host country," he says.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has suggested he may have to pull staff out of dangerous situations where governments fail to offer a necessary shield.

But in some countries, governments are engaged in civil wars and cannot even protect their own people, as in Angola, where UN officials demanded a cease-fire Jan. 5 between government troops and UNITA rebels to allow access to the sites where two UN planes were shot down in recent weeks.

In other countries, government leaders may be the perpetrators of crimes, as in Sudan - and in Yugoslavia, where civilian observers are monitoring Serb adherence to a truce in the breakaway province of Kosovo. And there are regions where governments lack control, as in Chechnya.

Kidnapping has become a particularly acute problem in the Caucasus. Just last month, Russian commandos rescued UN official Vincent Cochetel, who had been in captivity for more than 300 days. But most hostages in the region do not have the benefit of military intervention. And most aid organizations agree not to give in to demands for ransom, fearing that this would only encourage would-be kidnappers.

Unarmed relief workers can also represent a means of making a political statement. After Washington struck at Afghanistan and Sudan in August in retaliation for the bombings of two US embassies in East Africa, a French aid worker and another UN employee in Kabul were shot.

The killers have not been found. In fact, only six perpetrators involved in only one of the UN's 166 civilian deaths over the past seven years have been brought to justice.

UN officials agree that the cycle of impunity must be broken in order to stop the growing number of casualties. Meanwhile, diplomats and aid workers are calling for better arms control.

"There has been a huge spread of light weapons all over the world. So we're being ... confronted with desperate people with access to weapons and who see us as a source of revenue," says Mr. Vercken of the WFP.

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