- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 9, 2006

For those who strive to save the world’s sick and wounded, this summer has been among the worst of times. Too many days begin with desperate calls from our field colleagues, telling us still more humanitarian workers have been ambushed, kidnapped or killed while in the line of service.

But the tragedy does not end there. By extension, these assaults potentially sever the lifeline of hope that unarmed aid workers provide to millions of desperate, destitute families in Darfur, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and elsewhere. These attacks must end.

Last month, 17 humanitarian aid workers in Sri Lanka from Action Against Hunger were shot in execution-style killings in the northeastern town of Muttur. We await the results of the investigation by the government of Sri Lanka with the participation of international experts, and call for prosecution of those responsible. In addition, two more aid workers were killed in Sri Lanka in August: 19 deaths in one month alone.

Meanwhile in Darfur, Sudan, this week’s death of an International Rescue Committee humanitarian worker brings to 13 the number of aid workers killed since the Darfur Peace Agreement was signed in May — more deaths than in the last two years combined. More than 25 humanitarian vehicles also have been hijacked or attacked in the last two months. Overall, violent incidents in Darfur increased more than 100 percent in the first seven months of 2006 as compared to the same period last year, further jeopardizing the world’s largest relief operation.

Also last week, a Swiss-American aid worker was killed in Senegal when her vehicle struck a suspected land mine. A continent away in Afghanistan, 27 aid workers have died this year to date, while 31 were killed the year before. Add to this the dozens of other aid workers killed, kidnapped or attacked in Somalia, Iraq, Chechnya, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and elsewhere over the last three years, and the tragedy of these crimes becomes still more stark. Those who seek to alleviate man’s inhumanity to man have become its victims.

Attacks against humanitarians have occurred against the backdrop of deteriorating security, impunity for perpetrators and an increasingly politicized environment for aid work. In each case, aid workers, armed only with their principles, paid with their lives in upholding the ethos of humanity, neutrality and impartiality that defines the humanitarian movement.

Under the Geneva Conventions, both civilians caught in armed conflict and aid workers seeking to assist them are to be protected from harm. U.N. Security Council Resolution 1502 and the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court both affirmed that intentionally attacking a humanitarian aid worker could constitute a war crime. All U.N. members have a responsibility to end impunity and bring to justice those who commit these crimes.

Despite these proclamations, humanitarian aid workers are still targeted, with the local staff of nongovernmental organizations by far the most frequent victims. When humanitarian staff or operations are targeted, aid agencies often feel they have no choice but to suspend or downscale their operations.

The result: an aid lifeline to millions is potentially severed. The loss of one life thus leads to the potential loss of thousands more who can no longer be reached by life-sustaining water, food and medical programs. Attacking an aid worker undermines the fundamental right of all civilians on the front lines of violence or disaster to receive assistance. Such aid is impossible to provide unless aid workers have safe, free and unimpeded access to all those in need.

Safe, unimpeded access is essential, for 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 conflict in Lebanon or Somalia, or on the fault lines of a natural disaster, such as in the earthquake in South Asia.

Proximity entails risks — but this is the price we must pay to access those in greatest need. Today, in numerous conflicts around the world, aid workers’ ability to help millions of civilians who urgently need it is curtailed by the threat of armed attacks or bureaucratic obstacles imposed by warring parties.

In Darfur, we have full access to only about half of those in need due to widespread fighting and pervasive, ongoing attacks against humanitarians. The other 1.6 million civilians we either cannot reach or only at grave risk to our own safety.

What can we do to protect our colleagues, particularly local and national staff, so we can continue to provide lifesaving assistance to civilians around the world?

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 embraces all nationalities, cultures and creeds, rooted in the ethical precepts shared by all major religions.

We need a neutral and impartial humanitarianism —neutral, in name, deed and perception. Local communities need to know humanitarian workers are there for one purpose: to alleviate human suffering through a compassionate outreach of lifesaving assistance based on need alone.

Aid workers enjoy no ironclad 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.

As humanitarians, our loyalty belongs to no nation, religion, creed or ethnicity, but only to the principle of humanity. In this summer of sorrows, we need a humanitarianism that is by and for all humanity.

Jan Egeland is the United Nations undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator.

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