The deaths of six employees of the International Committee of the Red Cross in The Democratic Republic of Congo last week have led many aid workers based in the region to contemplate their own vulnerability. And questions are being raised about what can be done to improve the safety of aid workers worldwide.
"No military in the world would allow their soldiers to work unarmed in the kind of situations aid workers are in," says Brenda Barton of the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) regional office in Nairobi.
She says the murder of the six Red Cross workers is just the latest incident to demonstrate the dangers of humanitarian work. "It's sending a strong signal to agencies like WFP who are moving around a lot on the ground that we cannot be passive about the security situation."
The safety of aid workers drew worldwide attention last September, when, in the space of 12 days, four staff of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) were killed - three massacred by rebels in West Timor and another shot in Guinea.
In 2000, at least 46 aid workers were deliberately killed around the world, according to statistics compiled of Unicef's emergency programs office.
"What is painfully obvious is the attacks on humanitarian agencies and UN have gone up, and up, and up," says Brian Golesworthy, a UNHCR field safety adviser in eastern Africa.
Various explanations are offered. One is that the vast majority of conflicts since the end of the cold war have been civil ones rather than international. Rebel armies are notoriously less disciplined and often have little respect for such principles as the laws of war. They also see the very neutrality that aid agencies practice - giving humanitarian assistance to civilians from both sides of a conflict - as provocative. They want aid given to their supporters, but not to the other guys.
In addition, there are far more aid workers in the field than there were 20 years ago, and they're going into places that are more remote and situations that are more dangerous than ever before. Some critics believe the aid agencies are not blameless: In the scramble for donor funding, they are keen to be involved in the most dire humanitarian crises and might be tempted to take unsuitable risks.
With evidence mounting that the humanitarian agencies have become targets rather than shields, they have begun to try to solve the problem.
UN agencies and other humanitarian groups are pushing for greater financial support to the office of the UN security coordinator, which makes decisions on the security status of locations worldwide. "They are highly underfunded and highly understaffed," says Barton.
The UN general assembly tackled the issue of staff safety in February 2000. During the debate, deputy secretary general Louise Frechette called for the perpetrators of attacks to be brought to justice. Despite the dozens of murders of UN personnel in recent years, only two prosecutions have followed, she said. Aid agencies are also asking the UN to give peacekeepers the mandate to protect humanitarian staff.
Yet it will remain difficult to protect aid workers in conflict zones, because attacks could come from numerous potential perpetrators and for various possible motives. Sometimes rebel groups want to scare off the aid agencies to stop them from bringing support to civilians; sometimes they want to clear an area of potential witnesses to atrocities. One group might kill aid workers in the other's territory to discredit their opponents, or sometimes, they're simply looking to steal things.
"It's very hard to put hand on heart and say we have a solution to all ills," says Mr. Golesworthy. "I don't think any security officer in the whole organization will say there's a sure-fire answer to all this."
Today, despite some progress on implementing a peace accord, the Congo remains one of the most lawless places on earth.
Vincent Nicod, head of the Red Cross's regional delegation for eastern Africa, says his agency believed the area was secure last week.
"When we are operating in the context of an ethnic or a religious conflict, we take even more caution than in other situations," says Mr. Nicod. "Our staff had not the slightest doubt they had taken all the necessary measures for security, otherwise [the victims] would not have gone."
The Red Cross has temporarily suspended its operation in Ituri province of northeastern Congo. Two senior staff from its Geneva headquarters are now in eastern Congo investigating the killings.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor