Committee: Humanitarian Forum

Issue: Ensuring safe access of humanitarian organisations in countries in conflict

Chair: Marie-Estelle ÖLZ




« To help vulnerable, voiceless and marginalized people wherever they may be: that is the abiding mission of the humanitarian community. » said Mr. Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the UN on the 19th of August 2009.

Humanitarian aid is based on the fundamental principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence; and aims, in a few words, to save lives, relieve suffering and assist victims in distress. But being part of humanitarian aid today is a job with risks: the people who are involved in the service of others are increasingly exposed to insecurity. The accidents, abductions and attacks that these teams endure, which are majorly composed of volunteers, have strongly increased over the past 20 years.  Until what point can we endanger our own lives, out of solidarity? Nowadays, armed conflict zones capture the essential of funding that international humanitarian aid dispose of. Alarming situations have shown that these aids are not always welcome amongst governments or within local populations. Indeed, this type of exterior support is often wrongly interpreted, sometimes even associated with political motivations. Humanitarian workers have become chosen targets by armed groups and terrorists, in order to spread terror amongst the population. It is therefore in these zones that the question of insecurity is most pressing. During the debate, we will try to find solutions which could save lives if applied to real humanitarian missions, this time on the side of those helping.






        Insecurity is the state of being subject to danger and injury, and the anxiety you experience when you feel vulnerable and insecure.


The Humanitarian principles

All activities are guided by the four humanitarian principles: humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence. These principles provide the foundations for humanitarian action. They are central to establishing and maintaining access to affected people, whether in a natural disaster or a complex emergency, such as armed conflict. (More information in bibliography)

Armed conflict

Conflicts are breeding grounds for mass human rights violations, including torture, disappearances, imprisonment without charge and other war crimes. Armed conflicts can be triggered by issues including identity, ethnicity, religion or competition for resources. There are two types of armed conflicts according to international humanitarian law:

          ·      International armed conflicts (IAC), opposing two or more States,

   · Non-international armed conflicts (NIAC), between governmental forces and non-governmental armed groups, or between such groups only.



A humanitarian crisis

          A humanitarian crisis is an event threatening a community or a large group of people in terms of health and safety, requiring the implementation of complex aid programs. A humanitarian crisis may be an internal or an external conflict and can be caused by armed conflicts, epidemics, natural disasters, famine, etc.…



Humanitarian aid

         The main purpose of humanitarian aid is to save lives, reduce suffering and restore human dignity. It is a short-term or a long-term assistance to endangered communities or groups of people in response to humanitarian crises. Governments and other institutions offer material and logistical help to homeless, refugees, and victims of natural disasters, of conflicts or of famine.



International Humanitarian Law (IHL)

             International Humanitarian Law is also known as the “law of war” or the “law of armed conflicts” and is a set of rules seeking to limit the effects of war. It is part of international law, which is the body of rules governing relations between States, and applies to both types of armed conflicts (see above).

A major part of international humanitarian law is contained in the four Geneva Conventions of 1949. Nearly every State in the world has agreed to be bound by them. The Conventions have been developed and supplemented by three further agreements: the Additional Protocols of 1977 and 2005 relating to the protection of victims of armed conflicts.




Humanitarian law


         Humanitarian law was born in the XIXth century following the initiative of 5 Genevan men including Henry Dunant. This Swiss businessman, present in the 1859 battle of Solférino, was shocked by the atrocities caused by war and therefore decided to carry the bodies of the wounded back to the village regardless of their nationalities. After this dreadful experience, unable to forget the horrors of the battlefield, he began writing the book Un Souvenir de Solférino, published in 1862. Through this work, Dunant hoped to make the politicians and military leaders of his time understand that the suffering of soldiers must be reduced in the future. He therefore encouraged all countries to allow neutral humanitarian organizations to rescue wounded soldiers, whether they were in one's own army or not. His plea was answered in 1863 by the creation of an international committee for the relief of military wounded, later to become the international committee of the Red Cross.


World War I


          The First World War marked a real turning point in humanitarian aid. Indeed, aid had never been in demand to this extent, and the concept of charity work began at this time. Humanitarian aid became a mass phenomenon. In every part of society, people sacrificed part of their time to aid those in need. Young or old, man or woman, rich or poor, all rushed to contribute to humanitarian aid. In the face of misery, the general population enlisted to fight the crises that had suddenly and brutally appeared. There were thousands of refugees to feed and house, and an unimaginable number of people needing physical and psychological medical attention. In 1914, the bloodiest year, the hospitals were filled and lacked personnel. By the thousands, women joined the effort as volunteer nurses. Out of the 120.000 nurses working for the army's health service at the time, 80.000 were volunteers. It was also at this time that a new concept appeared for earning money: "fundraising".


The Organization for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)


        The UN's involvement in humanitarian aid began in the years following World War II, when Europe was still a land devastated by the battles. The UN began to coordinate rescue operations in order to assist the annihilated populations that were incapable of providing for their own basic needs. Today the global community counts on OCHA to react to any disasters, whether they are of human or natural origin, that countries would be unable to face, were they left on their own.


In order to face these conflicts or natural disasters, the UN combines two strategies. First, it attempts to rescue any victims as quickly as possible, and at the same time, it elaborates strategies that aim to prevent further crises.


The Geneva conventions


Conventions before 1949


Conventions in 1949


Three additional protocols




What does it mean to be a humanitarian worker?


Nowadays, working in humanitarian aid attracts a lot of people, especially young adults. More and more people are getting engaged, most of the time without really thinking it through. The majority of volunteers are not sufficiently prepared mentally and in terms of their equipment when they leave their home countries. Under such circumstances, humanitarian missions become even more dangerous. Without being prepared enough, they are often unable to react efficiently to the emergency situations they have to face.

         It goes without saying that humanitarian work is not just about travelling around and distributing food and medicine; in fact it is much more than that: there has to be a wish to bring unconditional help to people in hardship, taking the time to understand their situations and being able to slip into their shoes, without considering one's own life as less important than the others.

        In addition to that, several areas of the world became completely out of reach of humanitarian organizations due to their remoteness or inaccessibility. However, the main obstacle is insecurity: it is now proved that humanitarian aid workers have become the principal targets of terrorists and armed groups in order to spread terror.

What are the main risks?

Getting informed about the local and international context, defining unsafe areas on maps, avoiding routines and reducing displacements in times of high tension doesn’t always avoid being at the wrong place at the wrong moment. It is now still impossible to foresee all incidents.


These are the main risks humanitarian aid workers face nowadays, but not only:

·           Terrorist attacks in order to deliver a political message

·           Deliberated murders

·           Kidnapping in exchange of high ransoms

·           Sexual assaults

·           Unreachable areas including a dangerous travel

·           Threats by letter or SMS,

·           Material and supply theft

In some areas, missions have to be interrupted due to too important risks.


Who are the people attacking humanitarian aid workers?


Armed groups


The various armed participants during conflicts are increasing and many of these groups don't feel anymore concerned by IHL. Despite the majority of players that respected these laws, many are ignored or transgressed. In this case, missions are becoming either impossible or very dangerous.




As indicated by its name, terrorism consists of trying to spread terror, in order to deliver a political, religious or ideological aim. Tackling international aid is therefore an effective strategy to spread terror worldwide. Without any ethic, these people are willing to do anything to promote their values. They will have no hesitation to kill, threat etc.


Civilian populations


More and more civilians are becoming actors of violence, by actively participate in conflicts. Becoming both actors and victims of conflicts, they are capable of extreme cruelty. Some won't hesitate to fire on ambulances and finish off with already wounded people in hospitals, and kill the staff.


Why are humanitarian workers attacked?

In most of the incidents recorded by the AWSD, the motive is described as “undetermined”. However, these are often led by political motivations, economic motivations, or can just be an incident. Sometimes a humanitarian organization may be targeted for something that it has done or a statement it has made, or simply for the delivery of aid to a certain population, to whom others do not wish aid to reach. It can be also targeted as a result of being associated with the “enemy”.

What do humanitarian actors do to fight against insecurity?


In order to reinforce security, some organisations have already put into effect a large number of practices, by taking cautionary measures in order to avoid any confrontation with armed groups or other groups willing to harm humanitarian staff.


The principle of “bunkerisation” is one of the most widespread of these measures: walls topped with barbed wires circling centres, bars on windows, guards in charge of security, minimisation of going-and-coming of workers... In brief, workers’ houses are transformed into genuine bunkers. A reduction of intervening groups, material without any logo indicating no membership to any organisation, cars and vans rented on the spot or taxis are ways to go unnoticed.


However, we have to ask ourselves if the barricade of aid teams is a good idea. This has a tendency to cut any possibility of exchange with people. Furthermore, in times of war, it is difficult for local actors to trust exterior speakers/contributors. Often, the population is misinformed and does not know its rights. We must therefore put ourselves in the place of these people in order to have a better understanding of their reactions. To them, humanitarian workers are a group of men and women, who they do not know,  who don’t seem to belong to any organization/association, who are from a foreign country, but who offers them, in a language which is not necessarily theirs, food aid, healthcare etc.… Due to the impossibility of identification, this leads to confusion; people have a tendency to distrust. The use of armed protection is not a good solution ethically speaking, although it remains extremely effective.


          No precaution is sufficient to ensure security entirely. Defining risk areas, studying the situation, avoiding risk, decreasing movements in time of tensions, do not always stop from being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is impossible to prevent and thus avoid being in the middle of a riot, a fight, a settling of scores. To conclude, it is impossible to fully eliminate the threat. At a push, it is possible to decrease the threat but humanitarian workers have to leave with the knowledge that any initiative is a risk.









        Ever since the beginning of the Soviet occupation in 1979, Afghanistan has been assisted by numerous NGOs in many areas: health, education, culture, agricultural development, sanitation of water etc. This almost permanent presence is explained by the fact that this country has experienced many events which led to dramatic outcomes for its population: the war against the Soviets, the civil war, the Taliban, a severe drought between 1997 and 2001. After the fall of the Taliban, many Afghan refugees decided to return home, causing an urgent need for food and shelter. Despite the indispensable support of international aid, the Afghan government seems to want to take things in hand, as it was understood from the Prime Minister in many of his speeches wishing to become more independent from the NGOs.


        The International Committee of the Red Cross is a humanitarian institution founded in 1863 by Henry Dunant, devoted to diminish human suffering through humanitarian aid in armed conflicts after personal dreadful experiences. The organization has signed all 4 Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols from 1977 and 2005 and has won several Nobel Peace Prizes. Red Cross aid workers intervened in several world conflicts throughout the years such as World War I, World War II and the Chaco War (Bolivia-Paraguay). Since then, ICRC is active in many armed conflicts all around the world: their actual key operations take place in Afghanistan, Iraq, Chad, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Based on the humanitarian principles, their first mission is to “protect the lives and dignity of victims of war and internal violence and to provide them with assistance."  


         Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere, and is located in the middle of the Hurricane Belt, making it subject to storms, occasional flooding, earthquakes and droughts. In January 2010, a magnitude-7.0 earthquake hit about 15 miles west of the capital city Port-Au-Prince. 300,000 people were killed and 1,5 million were left homeless due to the earthquake. In October 2016, hurricane Matthew made landfall on the island nation. Over 500 people died and at least 350,000 are in need of aid because of the storm, and left the country’s infrastructure completely devastated. Today, aid groups on the ground are appealing for international help, to bring relief as soon and as efficiently as possible to the victims of that major humanitarian disaster.


         The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs is responsible for bringing together humanitarian actors to ensure a coherent response to emergencies. OCHA’s mission is to mobilize and coordinate effective and principled humanitarian action in partnership with national and international actors in order to alleviate human suffering in disasters and emergencies, advocate the rights of people in need, promote preparedness and prevention and facilitate sustainable solutions. OCHA’s aid workers are present in almost every country facing a crisis. The main missions concern Syria, Iraq and Yemen.



MSF in Somalia

        On 14 August, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) announced that, after 22 years, it was closing all its activities in Somalia as "the situation in the country has created an untenable imbalance between the risks and compromises the staff must make, and their ability to provide assistance to the Somali people."

        Acknowledging that Somalia has always been a dangerous place, MSF came to the decision that the operating conditions of humanitarian workers have deteriorated to the extent that assistance has become too risky. Between 2007 and 2010 there was a notable rise in the number of international agencies operating in the country and an important decline in security conditions, which therefor increased the number of violent incidents.  Since then, over 160 aid workers were killed, 99 kidnapped and 82 wounded.



After 5 years of conflict, Syria is a completely devastated country. In a few words, approximately 220 000 people have been killed since the beginning of the conflict in 2011, and 12,1 million people urgently need humanitarian aid. More than 50% of the population is currently displaced. The governmental forces deliberately target civilians: they bombard habitation zones and medical installations. Civilians are in the middle of the conflict, and are deprived of food and other essential basic needs.


Only 40% of the UN appeal for funding to meet the humanitarian needs of the Syrian refugees were obtained. Syrians receive only $13.50 per month or less than half a dollar a day for food aid. The conditions have become so dangerous that many NGOs have set up a remote response system. In the case of Solidarités International, no worker is sent to the field, however Syrian teams are in charge of directing relief efforts, supported remotely from Turkey. Syria has become the most dangerous country for humanitarian actors.


South Sudan


   Following a presidential crisis in 2013, South Sudan has indulged in a political conflict that has killed thousands of men, women, and children. Since the beginning, more than 2.5 million people have been forced to leave their homes and flee. Today, 4.8 million people are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. Food prices, energy and the costs of living have increased, local businesses have collapsed and food reserves are exhausted. South Sudan is one of the countries that are extremely affected by an insufficient amount of food. Humanitarian organizations are trying to help the country rebuild itself: they are leading agriculture support actions by distributing seeds and agricultural tools and providing training for farming techniques. South Sudan is a greatly devastated country and it is often very difficult or almost impossible for workers to reach civilians. The United Nations recently launched a global appeal to raise 1 billion dollars for humanitarian aid for Sudan, to meet the needs of the population torn by war.

Oxfam International

         Founded in 1942, Oxfam is a confederation of several independent organizations having all one mission: "Working with thousands of local partner organizations, we work with people living in poverty striving to exercise their human rights, assert their dignity as full citizens and take control of their lives"

         Oxfam International is responding to over 30 emergencies all around the world, giving life-saving support to those most in need. Oxfam Int. workers seek to overcome poverty in the world using a six-sided strategy to bring the more efficient response to humanitarian crises:

1.        Developing programs to help people claim their rights,

2.  Working on gender equality, helping women and girls to speak out and demand justice,

3.  Giving support by providing clean water, food and sanitation and trying to ensure safety for civilians in devastated zones / seeking to reduce the risk of future disasters,

4.  Lobbying governments, international organizations and corporations for fairer land policies and action on climate change, insofar that natural resources are vital for prosperity,

5.   Fighting the injustice in the way the food is unequally spread over in the world/ Trying to stop the issue of hunger,

6.  Making access to basic services and education easier for poor people, as it is essential for the wellbeing of everyone and to human development.




Initiated in 2005, The Aid Worker Security Database (AWSD) records major incidents of violence against aid workers, with incident reports from 1997 up until today, which caused the death, serious injury or kidnapping of a help worker. AWSD figures and related analyses have been extensively cited in reports and official statements by the United Nations, non-governmental organisations, governments, and a wide range of media outlets.


However, this database is not reliable on all levels. As a matter of fact, it is very difficult to collect this information and make sure it is right. A few organisations only are able to provide precise numbers of the statistics by country and by year.


Despite everything, the results of survey and analysis, as approximate as they are, show without a doubt that the burden of insecurity on humanitarian workers is rising. In fact, the AWSD data shows that the number of victims has increased fourfold in the past 15 years, as we can see on the diagram above. On the other hand, it is not to forget that the number of humanitarian staff has considerably risen. The increase of the victims is proportional to the increase of help workers. In this way, humanitarian action is not much more dangerous than in the past.

(Link to the database in bibliography)


         In 2014, the Security Council adopted unanimously the resolution 2175 aiming to improve security of humanitarian staff in the world. (See link in bibliography)





·           The year 2014 counts 460 victims compared to 260 in 2008 (deaths, kidnappings or serious injuries)

·       In 2014, the International humanitarian aid funds given by countries and EU institutions raised by 24%. (24,5 billions US$ compared to 20,5 billions US$ en 2013)

·       The 5 main governments donating to the international humanitarian aid are the USA, the UK, Germany, Sweden and Japan.

·       The 5 main territories benefiting of this funds are Syria, the occupied Palestinian territory, Sudan, South Sudan and Jordan

·       The most dangerous countries for humanitarian aid workers are Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan.



Be prepared

     A decision to go on mission in a danger zone should never be made on a whim. It needs the right preparation. Many people decide almost overnight to throw themselves into an adventure, -willing to give a hand after seeing upsetting images on TV- and anticipating unusual experiences and strong emotions. However, such a commitment must be taken seriously. First, it isn't advisable to go alone. It's better to be part of a large organisation that knows how to train and support their workers. It's important to be adequately trained: analysing and understanding the situations in the zone being considered, and being aware of the risks that may be encountered, are key.


Be equipped

     It's not possible to arrive in an unknown land unequipped. Support of a military kind (guards, escorts, etc.) and material (lighting, alarms) can help to diminish risks. It is essential to have security and evacuation plans developed beforehand in the event of an unexpected crisis.


Promote dialogue

     Because humanitarian actors are often isolated from others around them, a chasm often widens between workers and local people and actors. Setting up dialogue is very important for trust building. Moreover, it is of utmost importance to encourage negotiations between armed groups and personnel aimed at establishing arms-free zones. Personnel must be authorized in as many zones as possible.


BIBLIOGRAPHY Humanitarian assistance, United Nations security of humanitarian aid workers database International humanitarian law Global humanitarian assistance in the world, 2016 report Geneva Conventions, commentaries by the Red Cross complete resolution 2175 Security Council Humanitarian principles What is International humanitarian law? Aid Worker Security Report 2016 The Journal of Humanitarian Assistance, very interesting! attacks on humanitarian workers