Humanitarians Working in Dangerous Places

Photo by AhmedBibas/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by AhmedBibas/iStock / Getty Images

The Complexity of Insecure Environments for Aid Workers

Over the course of the World Humanitarian Summit, Emergency AIDio released two shows focusing on aid worker wellness. In this second show, recorded before the official opening of the Summit, host Nuran Higgins discusses the increasing operational complexity of insecure environments that humanitarian organisations work in and the challenges this faces for aid workers on the frontline with guests Pauline Chetcuti, Head of Humanitarian Advocacy for Action Contre la Faim, and Rebecca Maudling, the Director of International Location Safety.

The following is a transcript of the second audio show, which is posted here with the kind permission of The Healthy Nomad Emergency AIDio“the first independent international broadcasting community for aid workers. Emergency AIDio is focused on connecting aid workers around the globe to discuss the issues that shape our lives; and enjoy music with a purpose to strengthen the human dimension back into life. “  

Nuran Higgins:            Hi everyone, it’s Nuran Higgins and your listening to Emergency Aidio. The community space is all about connecting aid workers to discuss real issues that shape our live…. Heading into day two of the Summit, I draw again on a quote from the Secretary General who says, “Now it is time to turn promises into action for this generation and uphold people’s safety, dignity and the right to thrive." 

One of the prominent challenges affecting the humanitarian landscape that is dire need of turning these very words into reality, is the issue surrounding safety and security and protection of aid workers, which will be the focus of the second day of the World Humanitarian Summit special. But today humanitarian organizations and aid workers are operating in much more highly complex and insecure places. They…(are)…more exposed to the shifting patterns of insecurity amidst ongoing operational challenges with humanitarian access, protection of staff and civilian and facilities and upholding principle humanitarian action to name a few. We’ve also seen…a clear trend across all organizations with the escalation insecurity incidents of deaths and kidnappings disproportionately affecting national staff around the world.

Alongside this is the use of explosive weapons. Especially in urban and other civilian populated areas as part of military campaigns remains a major concern with the respect to the delivery of independent and impartial humanitarian aide. The indiscriminate use of explosive weapons has raised the risk for humanitarian organizations that are no longer confident that their emblems will protect them when acts of impunity are not dealt with by the very rules that govern war. Now individual governments have the primary responsibility to ensure the protection of aide workers within their boundaries with such accountability also lies with the broader international community who share their responsibility as well.

Now, to talk about this complex but critical issue today we are pleased to have with us on the show, guests Ms. Pauline Chetcuti, who is the Head of Humanitarian Advocacy for Action Contre la Faim. And Rebecca Maudling who is the director for International Locations Safety.

And today’s World Humanitarian Summit special is a call out to state leaders that existing just on good intentions which are not solidified without concrete action can no longer continue as aid workers and committed humanitarian organizations across the globe are mobilizing together as a collective force.

Together we stand in solidarity. And even when silence, we will continue to speak out. Reinforcing state obligations to uphold the laws they have signed up to and demand accountability of state and non state actors of the inalienable right of all aide workers to be able to operate in a safe and protected environment. And that values that health and well being while in the service in humanity. We are a part of one humanity. And we fall upon you to uphold and share your responsibility. 

There’s no denying that a sense of anxiety has been felt leading up to the summit. The scene has a critical juncture across the humanitarian sector in setting the future direction to setting the most pressing issues influencing the changing humanitarian landscape. The question most pressing that many are waiting to see is whether the outcome of the summit will galvanize real tangible changes for action.

And to open up this discussion, I’d like to welcome our guests on today’s show, Pauline and Rebecca. Thanks so much joining us here on Emergency AIDio, to talk about this important topic today.

Pauline Chetcuti:          Thank you, it’s a real pleasure to be here.

Rebecca Maudling:       Thank you Nuran, it is great to be on Aidio.

Nuran Higgins:            At the heart of humanitarian action lies a deep rooted call of humanitarian principles which governments have affirmed that for the first time in over a 150 years the brutality displayed in our conflicts to today, we’re continuing to see at an alarming scale a serious violation and abuses. Alongside, a lack of respect for international humanitarian law that governs the rules of war.

In the last year alone (in Afghanistan) MSF have had 75 of their hospitals bombed. Including the Kunduz airstrike of the trauma hospital in Afghanistan, where 42 people were killed, including 12 MSF staff members.

In the last fortnight the Syrian Arab Red Crescents were refused entry into Daria to provide civilians that have suffered relentless violence over the last three an half years with life-saving humanitarian aide.  Alongside this, there continues to be indiscriminate attacks and killings on civilians. In deliberate denial of humanitarian assistance in countries such as Syria, South Sudan, Yemen and Afghanistan as a tactic of war.

What’s most disturbing about this is that in spite of their being international legal frameworks in place over the last 150 years, examples such as this are not in isolation today, which illustrates a frightening trend. The very foundation of international humanitarian law, human rights, and refugee law. Along with our shared values and norms that drive humanitarian action, a very much at risk of being threatened if we do not act now.  More than ever, we need to stand together to fight against impunity, which in turn threatens axis to populations in need of assistance.

But of the five core responsibilities of which states and high level stakeholders committing to announce bold actions at the summit. Upholding the norms that safeguard humanities is the main area that is focused more specifically around principle humanitarian action concerns that organizations responding in the front line of humanitarian crisis are facing.

Throughout the World Humanitarian Summit consultative process there was strong call out not only for the need to preserve and reaffirm humanitarian principles but also to ensure that they are respected and complied with more consistently.

Bearing this in mind, what are the most concerning issues affecting the ability of humanitarian organizations today in being able to uphold humanitarian principles that you feel are critical to be addressed at the summit.

Rebecca Maudling:       Thank you for asking this question because back then, the action and the connected response, must be on the respect of humanitarian principles. There is several…(aspects) to this and we have to win mark to recall that in any case, applying all the principles in the field is the question of balance. The challenges that we face are down to the area and contents in which we work. For example, when we are in areas of conflict, maintaining humanity is the key point for ACF, we will try to discern by negotiating access with the different parties of control over the area to the extent and will try to remain neutral by being focusing specifically and only on the means as we assert them.

Based on these needs, it is something that we would allow us to remain as neutral as possible in the contest of conflict. Another challenge would be to maintain independence from political agenda. For example, we can see that some donors may have direct or indirect interest in a conflict and would then use their influence….to have an influence on how the conflict is going. Another example is that in some areas like in Afghanistan, we will simply extract some funding from donors, when these donors are configured either as the direct regiment or in the conflict or having departmental or political agendas….It is very very urgent that we remain in tedious and neutral and impoverish-able and independent from the donors.

Pauline Chetcuti:          This is exactly the key point where the Summit can be useful for a better and more effective humanitarian response. It is if states can admit to very concrete and very complete decision…. For example in different documents we have called on states to commit not fund…a crisis or a conflict where they are directly involved. But in conflict, if they could commit directly they are perhaps it to would be very interesting. This is a commitment that would be very concrete and very easy to make, ensure that human principles are respected. By that I mean, we’re not all viewed as king or the donor not to fund a call, whether it’s just asking them to use this money, for example for the emergency funds and call this carefully the different emergency funds so that they are then re-dispatched according to the emergency or to the different crisis that we can see in the Iran world.

Another very simple engagement that they could take would be to (re)commit to…(the) Good Humanitarian Donorship initiative. This is a very good initiative that states are trying to re-commit the initiative, we wish that more donors would be following the principles of the GHD.

Another very simple example would be to ensure that the donors or principals would be for them to refrain from including into the contract clauses that may put the NGO’s in a difficult position, such as the polices on counter-terrorism that sometimes pushes the NGO to gather information, or put NGO’s into a tricky situation with the actors in the field. So it could refrain from using those clauses, or very explicitly I would say that NGO’s are exempt from those clauses that would be a very simple concrete proposition that would show a good will, a real willingness for the humanitarian system to be more principled.

Nuran Higgins:            Excellent, I think all of those points are really really valid ones. Let’s hope that we do at least see a move towards a commitment from some of those suggestions that you’ve made.

Rebecca Maudling:       I think Pauline’s point around the counter-terrorism legislation is really interesting. I believe in some countries there are exclusions for humanitarian organizations, but I think its really something that needs to be addressed, because it does impatience for humanitarian access, which we are seeing. It is impeding access to populations in need. I think also I would like to see something to come out of the World Humanitarian Summit around the strengthening of compliance mechanisms with international humanitarian law. It’s great that we have these rules around the conduct of war but they are of little use if they are not able to be fully enforced. I’d like to see states committing to as part of that respect in humanitarian action in ensuring that its not appropriated for the litigious. And also consequences of states that block humanitarian access to populations in need. But as part as their needs to be commitment to humanitarian organizations to hold up their side of the bargain and they are operating with the respect for the humanitarian principles in order to not violate the trust that operating with those principles should bring.

Nuran Higgins:            In his report for the world humanitarian summit, the United Nations Secretary General highlights "Even wars have limits, minimizing human suffering and protecting civilians requires strengthening compliance with international law” which is something you have both highlighted. Now we are looking over the last year alone and it is fair to say that the most pressing issue to be facing the humanitarian effort is at large today sits under the core responsibilities of upholding the norms that safeguard humanity.

For example, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in the last year alone had 75 of their hospitals bombed, including the Kunduz airstrike attack trauma hospital in Afghanistan where 42 people were killed including 12 MSF staff members. Now alongside this, there continues to be indiscriminate attacks and killings inflicted on civilians and deliberate denial of humanitarian assistance in countries such as Syria, South Sudan and Yemen as well as Afghanistan as a tactic of war.

I guess what’s most disturbing about this is that in spite of their being international legal frameworks in place over the last 150 years, examples such as this are not in isolation today, which illustrates a frightening trend. The very foundation of international humanitarian law, human rights, and refugee law, along with our shared values and norms that drive humanitarian action, is very much at risk of being threatened if we do not act now.  More than ever, we need to stand together to fight against impunity, which in turn threatens axis to populations in need of assistance.

So I guess taking into account this critical issue, do you feel the approach taken at the summit has been sufficient or have we lost in fact, a key opportunity to re-enforce the importance of the shared responsibility and accountability and if so what is needed to reaffirm the commitment and obligation to respect and protect medical personnel and facilities as well as humanitarian aide workers against attacks, threats or other violent acts.

Rebecca Maudling:       Within the upholding the norms, round table, there are commitments that speak to promoting and honing an original international humanitarian law. However, my feeling is that this is a highly (political) round table event and…not very tangible actions (will emerge). For me the detail will come with a certain commitment from the some of the state holds and once their announcements become importance for the humanitarian community placed on the system. So for now I think its quite hard to say….

Pauline Chetcuti:          Yes. I think it is the real issue of the World Humanitarian Summit and if I say its the fact that the states have not been in the advocacy table or been in the summit from the beginning is probably one reason for the situation that we are seeing right now. We know that IHL is the responsibility of the states ultimately, and the summit not being that clear on the outcomes, nor on how we are going to monitor and implement (each) different commitment which are going to be made during the summit. It’s not really helpful in making sure that those commitments are going to be implemented. The P5 states are not all going to the summit. It’s a shame that the P5 are not at the table. We wish that states that are directly or indirectly linked to balancing of humanitarian law were there to discuss their issues, the up cycles they teach or implementing of IHL so that we would actually work together to find ways for humanitarian system to work properly. I hope that in the event that the problem with IHL will better address the UNGA or another moment which would be more convenient in the event.

Nuran Higgins: In his report for the world humanitarian summit, Untied Nations Secretary General highlights even wars have limits, minimizing human suffering and protecting civilians requires strengthening compliance with international law.  Looking over the last year alone and it is fair to say that the most pressing issue facing the humanitarian sector and the world in large is very much inline with the importance of addressing the core responsibilities of upholding the norms that safeguard humanity.

Now in spite of humanitarian organizations increasing (their) sophistication over the last decade in the area of security management, the number of aide workers killed, injured and kidnapped and been exposed to sexual violence has continued to rise over the years. According to the last aid workers’ security reports from Humanitarian Outcomes in 2014, 329 aid workers were victims of major attacks which occurred mainly in Afghanistan, South Sudan, Syria and Central Africa Republic.

Also numbers have shown a slight decline in 2013 which has been in decline for nearly a decade. The decline in 2014 is argued to be a result of reduction of operation presence and not necessarily a reduction in incidents. One of the major concerning trends most notable is the risk to national staff, which today make up a bigger proportion of fatalities and kidnapping victims among the affected aide victim community around the world.

Now alongside this issue such as legal and ethical responsibility to national starve need to be considered as well. Similar to other areas discussed today protection of aid workers has definitely been high on the agenda of both (your) organizations, and aid workers have (been) advocating tirelessly (for its inclusion at the Summit).

We are looking at what has evolved in the advocacy up to the summit it’s fair to say that it has been extremely disappointing to see how little attention has been given. However, on the other side of the same coin, a special session has been assigned around the collection of journalists in crisis situations.

When looking at statistics according to the committee to protect journalists there’s no denying that the situation effecting journalists is just appalling.  In 2015, 72 journalists killed working in humanitarian crisis. Given the grave situation also surrounding the urgent need of protection of aid workers who continue to be increasingly exposed to violent attacks by all parties, why do you think it has not been included on the agenda? What do you feel are the most pressing issues that require urgent attention in action, concerning staff safety and security of aide workers at the Summit.

Pauline Chetcuti:          I think for me there are reasons that I would highlight firstly, given the brutality many are faced with conflicts …  However, my concern is that local aid workers aren’t simply supported with their ability to adequately manage (being in a conflict) and this is a key issue for me, especially with the push of localization of humanitarianism response we’re seeing at the summit. For me, the global community has a responsibility for the neighboring (local) organization to access the support they need. Communicative care is another area which I feel the United Nations and NGOs needs to be looking at closely. To make sure they are meeting their obligations…. This is just something being brought sharply into focus as a result of Steve Dennis case.

So thirdly, another aspect for me is that organizations take a holistic approach to safety and security and by that I mean an approach that acknowledges that safety and security and physical and psychological well-being are interlocked… That the psychological impact (of) humanitarian work is acknowledged and it is in the best appropriate place within the organization. There is individual responsibility for safety, security, and well-being but there’s another to be supported by an organizations and that this is something I feel very strongly about.

Two things, first, the actual community as a whole hasn’t been facilitating ensuring safety and security for international staff, and in particular, national staff.  And that we do need to take a holistic approach to the discussion of their safety and security. If we take this issue very seriously, and sadly we been touched very badly when we had 17 of our staff killed in Sri Lanka in 2016…10 years ago…. The impunity around those crimes is something that is very important to ACF….

I welcome the new resolution from the United Nations condoning…all attacks on medical personnel….

[The next part of the audio transcript from Pauline Chetcuti was partly inaudible. In this part of the audio show Pauline describes the reasons why ASF advocates for the creation of a UN Special Procedure for the protection of aid workers and in particular national staff.   A UN Special Advisor or Rapporteur would be “charged with raising awareness, investigating violations and intervening in emergency situations. The Special Advisor or Rapporteur is an independent expert, impartial, non-remunerated and the only individual wholly dedicated to the issue of a more protected humanitarian community.”

“Over the past 15 years, more than 3000 humanitarian aid workers have been killed, kidnapped or injured while doing their job alongside populations weakened by war, armed conflict or natural catastrophes.As humanitarian actors, we accept a certain level of risk in our work. Knowledge and practice of the humanitarian principles help to limit violent incidents but are not always sufficient by themselves to protect the delivery of humanitarian assistance. 329 people were victims of attacks in 20142, mainly in Afghanistan, Syria but also in South Sudan in the Central African Republic and in Pakistan.The majority of victims were local staff and their deaths have been forgotten. 

These attacks often happen in countries where the government is unstable and unable to provide justice. ACF rejects the impunity that too often follows an attack on aid workers or humanitarian facilities. These crimes constitute an unacceptable attack on our shared values and the norms that safeguard humanity. They are not an inevitable consequence of war, but represent a failure of parties to conflict to respect and facilitate neutral and principled humanitarian action, which is their obligation under IHL, and a failure of the international community to speak out and demand accountability for the perpetrators of these crimes.

Action contre la Faim has always been concerned by the protection of its aid workers. But on 4th August 2006, 17 ACF staff were lined up in their office and summarily executed. They were bringing relief to the population around Muttur, a town in north-east Sri Lanka. Those responsible for this crime have never been brought to justice, and we have continued to speak out against the unacceptable vulnerability of national aid workers in many humanitarian settings.”

Action Contre la Faim


Nuran Higgins:            I think for me it would definitely be great to see something such as that put in place and I think that that would just put a totally different layer of accountability in place that has been lacking and as a result we continue to see acts of impunity. I’m keen to see what comes out of the World Humanitarian Summit with regards to the call for action that ACF has put out there. I hope there is solidarity amongst the humanitarian community to get behind this because I think if we look at the evidence we see we’re all effected. It’s not a particular organization, it is reaching all of us and if we don’t stand together in raising our voices as a collective community then we run the risk of continuing to go around in circles with this.

Rebecca Maudling:  I don’t completely understand why that some of (these issues on aid worker security) has not attained…more…importance within the summit. There’s numerous calls from even the UN General Assembly for a better focus on this issue.

Pauline Chetcuti:          We also worked with a group of advocates globally to submit a proposal for a side event on this due which would turn down. As we mentioned it is that in broad terms in the round table event but given the high level nature of this, the focus is very much on responsibilities of states and IHL and it again it remains a tangible action that is going to come of these. I think I would have liked to see some succession along the lines of the general session that you mentioned. And again I feel that healthcare workers seemed to have gained prominence in World Humanitarian Summit than say, humanitarian, because generally they are really in grave need of protection. But I believe that they share issues in something that is broader. In terms of why did this happen, I find it very hard to answer the question. Particularly because a resolution that some would specifically call for this issue to be on the agenda, so yes I do think that it is disappointing that it hasn’t been given more (attention).

Nuran Higgins:  Now both of your organizations will be making sure that the issue of safety, security, and protection of aide workers remains visible and is not lost at the crowd at that summit which would be great for you to share with listeners…Rebecca, ILS has established a stall together with the European Inter-agency Security Forum at the summit. Can you share with listeners the intention behind it and the commitments that you endorsed as well?

Rebecca Maudling:       We’re really excited about the opportunity to be at the summit and you feel it is an opportunity for us to raise the importance of this issue at the summit. Part of that is that we have an admissions store and we are participating with EISF which is an independent network of security focal points representing European based humanitarian organizations, and also with InterHealth WorldWide, who provide physical and psychological health support to humanitarian workers. We’re beginning to get respected in areas of expertise and to on the security and welcoming aide workers and we will be showcasing products and initiatives to improve their safety and security and also their well-being.

Additionally, once I had heard that there was a Summit event that had been planned….I was really keen to make sure that there was a connection issue at the summit and try to increase the promise of it on the agenda. So as a result I approached the EISF with a view to developing commitments to support the core commitments of upholding the norms on the table.

And gathering with key speakers and holders to develop two commitments. The first was around supporting organizations to integrate holistic security risk management which favors on the physical and psychological well-being of all staff and this is due to make sure that impurity is not being seen as a modern or textbook psychological well being is not seen as a luxury.

The second commitment was developed to support, continued development in the best practice of security risk management, but that is to say risk management is appropriate and…(it) enables the population in need (to be assisted) … It (also) offers protection to all those involved in delivering humanitarian assistance whether it be international or national.

These commitments have been supported by a number of NGO management coordination bodies representing security focal point s of approximately 145 organizations working in 129 countries is key that they called in the Humanitarian Security Risk Management Committee with awakening to hear that we feel that it was important for these commitments and have them on the agenda at World Humanitarian Summit.

Nuran Higgins:            Thanks so much for sharing that Rebecca, and I think that it will be really useful for people to at least get an understanding around what actions are still taking place regardless of whether there has been limited inclusion within the agenda.  ACF has put a call out for action on the protection of aide workers, can you share with listeners what was the turning point behind ACF making the decision to launch this critically important campaign?

Pauline Chetcuti: … The reason why (at) the Summit (ACF) has decided to step up in engagement with the protection aid workers is based on a true event. The incident that happened with ACF 10 years ago has had a very deep effect on the organization. Just to recall what happened 10 years ago; we had 17 national staff killed in Sri Lanka…and despite all our efforts, nobody has been put in jail. So the impunity with this crime happened really affected the need for a better community commission situation. Aid workers when they face such violence and the threat of that there is  international instability for a better respect and protection for aid workers…

We decided to launch a campaign (for) .. better protection for all civilians and…national aid workers…..

Nuran Higgins:            I don’t know how to finish up on that, but it’s such an important issue and something very close to my heart as well. Being a very strong advocate across all levels of the importance to recognize the challenging environment that national staff are under. Not only over the last decade, but the continuing position that they are under. I put out a call out to listeners as the importance to us as you mentioned come together in solidarity to ensure that this not become the norm, it should never and we need to ensure that we make our voices loud and clear that it will not become the norm.

On that note, I would like to say, Pauline and Rebecca, thank you so much for taking the time to join us here on Emergency Aidio and sharing your thoughts and personal reflection on such an important and complex area affecting the humanitarian sector to listeners here today.

Rebecca Maudling:       Thank you, Nuran for having us on Emergency AIDio, it was a pleasure to discuss this very important issue of humanitarian safety and security.

PaulineChetcuti:          Thank you, Nuran, it’s been a pleasure and thank you for highlighting these issues on aid worker security

Nuran Higgins: So we’ve come to the end of today’s show and our World Humanitarian Summit two-day special. Our thanks to our guests today Pauline and Rebecca for joining us on today’s show and sharing with us their personal perspectives on the importance of valuing safety, security, and protection of aide workers.

A special thanks goes out again to all our guests that have contributed to the two-day World Humanitarian Summit special. Your thoughts and perspectives surrounding these challenging issues facing the humanitarian sector have been invaluable… 

To learn more about ACF’s call for action for the protection of aid workers visit to find out more.

To learn more about International Location Safety and the work they are doing around the area of safety and security risk management visit: