Increasing Threat to Aid Workers Bodes Broader Ills
An opinion piece in the most recent issue of the Chronicle of Philanthropy offered a sad reminder of the past. “Aid Workers Deserve Better Security” focuses on the increased threat to aid workers operating in conflict zones. I wrote a piece raising similar concerns in the Boston Globe in late 2004, just after Margaret Hassan (pictured) – an Iraqi citizen who worked for CARE International – was kidnapped and murdered. It is deeply troubling that two and a half years after her death, we have made no progress on the issue. Indeed, we have lost ground.
It is hard to overstate the importance of aid workers. They go places and do things that, for whatever reason, governments and militaries can’t, or won’t, do. They have a long tradition of striving for neutrality, which means refusing to take sides in a conflict, and maintaining impartiality, which means providing aid to all comers, without judgment. Certainly, there are exceptions to these rules, but they are exceptions. And the thousands who risk their lives in conflict zones to adhere to these rules and provide comfort and relief to those who suffer,do a service to humankind.
Unfortunately, sometimes the surroundings become too dangerous for aid workers. Their agencies feel the need to pull them out to safety, rather than asking them to make the ultimate sacrifice. Time was, such pullouts happened mostly in the face of chaos, where the conflict had spiraled so far out of control that no one was safe.
Today’s spirals are not out of control, though. They are intentional. Margaret Hassan was kidnapped on purpose, because the kidnappers either did not believe she was not a party to their conflict, or because her standing as someone trying to provide impartial relief would make their crime all the more horrifying. Her death marked a terrible trend.
Darfur is its new breeding ground. Nancy Langer, the author of the piece in the Chronicle, notes:
Twelve relief workers were killed in Darfur in the last six months of 2006. During that period, 30 compounds where nonprofit and United Nations workers live were directly attacked by armed groups, and more than 450 humanitarian workers had to be evacuated from positions in Darfur and eastern Chad.
Our own foreign policy adds to the problem. In 2001, then Secretary of State Colin Powell referred to aid workers as a “force multiplier” for the War on Terror, and “important part of our combat team.” In November, 2005, the Defense Department released a directive that outlined a role for humanitarian operations as a way to do advance work in potential conflict zones. Desperation, combined with the evolution of violence and the return to total warfare – the kind in which no one has noncombatant status because everyone could be a combatant – is gradually squeezing out the space in which humanitarian workers could bring some relief, and some hope for an end to the suffering.
We have to stop this trend. A world in which conflict not only means total violence, but also no neutral or impartial relief from abject suffering is unacceptable. And unbearable.