Why Humanitarian Aid Workers Are Under Attack

Syrian children filling drinking water in bottles at Al-Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan. Wikimedia Commons/Mustafa Bader

The international community must hold governments and rebels alike accountable.

Second, these trends at play on the battlefield are reinforced time and time again when they are met with impunity and, at times, complacency from the international community. When the Syrian regime systematically targets humanitarian facilities and politicizes aid, yet is punished solely by words of condemnations, this sets a disheartening precedent. Coordination of assistance with governments that have abysmal human rights records can prevent significant pressure on those regimes, giving them a pass on issues ranging from civilian protection to upholding basic international humanitarian law principles. This undermines the overall humanitarian system. And when peacekeeping forces tasked with civilian protection fail to intervene when humanitarian workers are under attack, the message is that perpetrators can get away with it. Needless to say, impunity and complacency only increase, rather than lessen, the chances of these episodes recurring.

Finally, it is important to reflect on how the legacy of the past decade of external military interventions, followed by counter-insurgency campaigns, “state-building” processes, “stabilization” operations and “civil-military partnerships” has at times dangerously muddled up the lines between principled and neutral humanitarian work and politics. What is more, time and again the humanitarian sector at large has been dispatched to ameliorate deeply complex conflicts that, ultimately, need a political solution. Protracted political crises caused by foreign policy failures or international inaction—or a combination of the two—continue to be outsourced and derogated to an ever more cash-stripped and overstretched humanitarian sector. Eventually the entire edifice will collapse.

The relatively apathetic reactions by the international community are a symptom of a much larger problem. Much needs to change if we want these attacks not to become frequent occurrences and if we want the notion of humanitarian space to be protected and respected, allowing people in need to be reached regardless of which party controls the area where they are located. The first step is in this direction is for the international community to step up and put humanitarian access again at the top of its priorities. It must go beyond words of condemnations and really strive to hold perpetrators—governments and rebels alike—accountable.

Unless more assertive policies to ensure humanitarian access, protect workers and end impunity are implemented, “no-go zones” for humanitarian workers are going to expand, further weakening the already shaky international humanitarian system.

Dr Benedetta Berti is a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), a TED Senior Fellow, a Robert A. Fox Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) and a Fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point.

Image: Syrian children filling drinking water in bottles at Al-Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan. Wikimedia Commons/Mustafa Bader