Humanitarianism under fire

All too often, the day opens with news of yet another tragic attack on humanitarian aid workers, and by extension, the principles of humanity, impartiality, and neutrality that define our work. The sheer, sickening repetition of the news could hail from Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia or any number of hot spots where unarmed aid workers are seeking to help civilians in urgent need of life-saving assistance.

Last week, the Nobel Prize-winning humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) announced it was closing its operations in Afghanistan after 24 years of uninterrupted service to the Afghan people. MSF's decision follows the murder in June of five of its aid workers there, a crime that occurred against the backdrop of deteriorating security, impunity for perpetrators, and an increasingly politicized environment for humanitarian aid.

Since March 2003, more than 30 humanitarian workers have been killed in Afghanistan. Add to this the dozens of other aid workers kidnapped or attacked elsewhere, and the trend becomes horrifyingly clear.

Under the Geneva Conventions, both civilians in crisis and the aid workers who seek to help them are to be protected from harm. UN Security Council Resolution 1502, passed last year following the bombing of the UN compound in Baghdad, affirmed that killing a humanitarian aid worker is a war crime. All UN members have a responsibility to end impunity and bring to justice those who commit these crimes. Despite these proclamations, humanitarian aid workers continue to be targeted. Why?

In our post-9/11 world, there is a perception that humanitarianism has been politicized, with a dangerous blurring of the lines between independent, impartial humanitarian action and military or foreign-policy objectives. The result: Aid workers are seen as "legitimate" targets by those who identify them - wrongly - with the policies of combatants or governments. In Afghanistan, for example, the aid workers shot in June were accused by the Taliban - which claimed responsibility for the attack - of carrying out US policies.

In principle as well as practice, however, humanitarianism is independent of the policies of any government or rebel group. Our loyalty belongs to no nation, religion, or ethnicity - but only to the principle of humanity: providing aid to people in need.

Attacking an aid worker undermines this most basic principle: that people caught on the front lines of violence or disaster have a right to assistance. The ripple effects of an attack begin, of course, with the family and colleagues of the slain, but extend more widely to countless others whose survival may well hinge on the provision of aid.

There is a direct and deadly correlation here: When humanitarians are attacked, aid agencies feel they have no choice but to suspend or downscale their operations. But we cannot be remote, long-distance humanitarians. The principle of humanity, the moral cornerstone of our work, requires us to be near those in need, be they on the front lines of war in Darfur or on the faultlines of a natural disaster, as in the earthquake in Bam, Iran, last year.

Proximity entails risks - but this is the price we must pay in order to access those who are in greatest need.

Today, in 20 conflicts around the world, aid workers' access to 10 million civilians in urgent need of assistance is blocked due to the threat of armed attacks or because of bureaucratic obstacles imposed by warring parties. Thus, the loss of one life leads to the potential loss of thousands more who can no longer be reached by humanitarian food and medical programs.

What can we do to protect our colleagues, and thereby continue to provide life-saving assistance to civilians around the world, from Burundi to Bosnia, Ingushetia to Angola?

We must begin with a humanitarianism that emanates from the unassailable principle that suffering civilians have the right to impartial assistance. We need a humanitarianism that is demand-driven by local communities of all faiths and creeds sharing a common belief in the principle of humanity. We need a humanitarianism that embraces all nationalities and ethnicities, and is firmly grounded in the ethical precepts of all major religions, including Islam.

We need a humanitarianism that is neutral and impartial - in name, deed, and perception. Local communities need to know that humanitarian workers are there for one purpose only: to alleviate human suffering. We offer no political solutions and have no agenda, save one: to counteract man's inhumanity to man through a compassionate outreach of lifesaving assistance based solely on need.

Aid workers enjoy no iron-clad guarantees of safety. The only security we can hope for comes not from armed security officers, or by withdrawing from the front lines of suffering. In the long run, security must be built from the ground up. We must continue to build trust with local communities by demonstrating through word and deed that humanitarianism is entirely separate from political or military agendas.

Building trust takes time, humility, and empathy. But without the acceptance of local communities, humanitarians will be increasingly vulnerable, and their work drained of its essential ethical solidarity with those in need.

We can and must do a better job of explaining how - and why - we are different from soldiers dressed in civvies delivering bread one day and dropping bombs the next, different from private contractors running "reconstruction" programs for the military, and different from politicians promising panaceas.

As humanitarians, we stand or fall based on fidelity to three core principles - humanity, impartiality, and neutrality. If they're blurred or diluted, then not only are humanitarians at risk, but so too are the millions of civilians whose lives depend on their assistance.

Jan Egeland is UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and the emergency relief coordinator for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

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