Reflections on World Humanitarian Day: Old stakes and new challenges for humanitarian aid workers

“World Humanitarian Day (WHD) is held every year on 19 August to pay tribute to aid workers who risk their lives in humanitarian service, and to mobilize people to advocate for a more humane world.” – United Nations, WHD

The date of World Humanitarian Day, 19 August, was selected seven years ago to coincide with the anniversary of the 2003 bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad, Iraq. The attack took place just few days after the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq had been created; most of the UN staff was withdrawn shortly after. It had an immediate and profound impact on the UN, both with its self-image and role in Iraq. More broadly, it would deeply impact UN security measures and the development of humanitarian space in the years to follow.

Today, as we pay homage to the courage of aid workers, particularly local staff working under horrendous conditions, we also grapple with humanitarian space and aid worker security as emergent areas of research.

The deeper question that has preoccupied much of humanitarian action since the attack in Baghdad is how humanitarians can access populations in need without risking their lives, and without barricading themselves behind high security fences isolating them from the very populations they are there to assist. The “bunkerisation” of aid, as Mark Duffield has conceptualized it, versus the emphasis on resilience, of aid workers and local communities, has raised big debates in the humanitarian community and among scholars studying the field.

The security industry has capitalized on the need for protective measures for humanitarian aid workers, all the while aid workers strive to be safe while also neutral and independent – not formally embed with, nor be indistinguishable from armed forces. This has also underpinned the “technology turn” in humanitarian action, seeking new ways to deliver aid from a distance, all the while seeking the populations’ own participation, from reporting on needs to contributing to the best delivery of aid.

The issue of how aid workers are led to risk their lives has again been raised in the wake of a series of attacks on hospitals and health facilities, notably the bombing of an MSF hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan in October 2015. That attack raised important questions about the place of the Geneva Conventions in today’s conflict arenas, with this attack as a profound breach of the principle laid down in International Humanitarian Law (IHL) of hospitals in conflict zones being protected spaces. The US military, admitting they were behind the strike, released a report on the attack in April this year, but MSF continues to campaign for an independent investigation. More recently, attention has been on the deteriorating conditions of health workers and doctors working in Syria. Very few international health workers have been able to access areas like Aleppo, and assistance is often left to the few local staff still there. As the fighting continues, hospitals are not only caught up in the crossfire, but appear to be even targeted by regime forces.

Yet, although the targeted attacks on hospitals and health facilities reveals a particularly worrisome trend, the overall number of attacks on aid workers has been on the decline over the past two years, as revealed by the Aid Worker Security Database (AWSD). Aid worker security is becoming an important research topic, with notably the work of Larissa Fast, and Kristian Hoelscher, Jason Miklian and Håvard Mokleiv Nygård, in addition to the AWSD project of Humanitarian Outcomes.

Further, the theme of this year’s WHD, “One Humanity”, also resonates as an appeal in the wake of a year where states, notably in Europe, have built new fences and walls to try and seal off borders to prevent people seeking international protection from entering their territories.

In addition to the humanitarian needs within and in closest vicinity to current conflict theatres, what in Europe is referred to as the “refugee crisis” has created new spaces of humanitarian suffering alongside and inside many of these borders: from the drownings at sea, to the violent repulsions at the borders, and the dire conditions at reception centers inside Europe. The humanitarian needs that appear are often related to the difficulty, or sometimes impossibility, for some individuals to cross the borders. Humanitarian aid workers may face new challenges in their mission to deliver aid to vulnerable populations in these new situations. The state apparatus that aid workers relate to in the European border zones, when seeking access to these new spaces, may not be of states that are unwilling or incapable of providing protection, as they may be in other areas where humanitarian assistance is provided. It may rather be states that struggle to find a balance between the securitized borders and their legal and moral responsibilities to respond to the human suffering at their borders, underpinned by fears of the outcome of any move that could make it slightly easier to cross them.

Finally, the UN’s World Humanitarian Day aims to highlight the commitments made by world leaders at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul this past May, to support people affected by crises and to ensure safe conditions for aid workers. There are still many challenges ahead, notably shown by the suggestions at the Summit to bring humanitarian, development, and peace-building efforts together. Such a development would risk the further blurring of the contours of what constitutes neutral and independent humanitarian action and subsequently raises new questions.

Our aim at the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies is to continue to engage in this conversation on aid worker security and humanitarian space, through further research and debates.