2006: A violent year for aid workers

by Reuters
Thursday, 28 December 2006 00:00 GMT

A memorial for murdered Sri Lankan aid workers from Action Contre La Faim

Violence against aid workers reached its highest level in a decade in 2006, as conflict escalated in Sudan's western Darfur region, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, new figures show.

There were 90 major incidents in 2006, compared with 72 in 2005 and 66 in 2004, according to New York University's Center on International Cooperation (CIC) and Britain's Overseas Development Institute (ODI), which have measured violence directed at aid operations since 1997.

"I think we've crossed a line in 2006, where we are looking at a more major uptick in incidents," said senior CIC associate Abby Stoddard.

"It's not just that aid workers are associated with political actors; they are political actors. In conflict situations, attacking them is seen as an effective way of controlling the local population."

Over the year, 83 aid workers were killed - the highest number since 2003 - 78 were wounded and 52 kidnapped. Afghanistan had the greatest number of aid worker deaths at 26, followed by Sri Lanka with 23 and Sudan with 15.

Sudan accounted for over 40 percent of major attacks in 2006. Recent weeks have seen a spate of raids on aid agency compounds and vehicles in Darfur, where conflict has uprooted some 2.5 million people.

Violence increased in 2006 after rebels who rejected a May peace deal renewed hostilities with the government.

More than 400 aid workers were evacuated in December - the largest monthly relocation since the world's biggest humanitarian operation began in early 2004.

Humanitarian officials say it is unclear who is carrying out many of the attacks.

"There are a lot of people practising warlordism, and who are out to get what they can materially," said George Somerwill, spokesperson for the U.N. Mission in Sudan (UNMIS). Aggressors often steal vehicles, communications equipment and weapons carried by armed escorts, he added.

NEUTRALITY QUESTIONED

The worst single attack in 2006 was in Sri Lanka when 17 local workers for Action Contre La Faim (Action Against Hunger) were massacred in the northeastern town of Mutur while working on projects for survivors of the 2004 tsunami.

Sri Lanka is in the grip of renewed civil war between Tamil Tiger rebels and the army. Most of the murdered aid workers belonged to the island's Tamil minority. International monitors have blamed government forces, although an investigation into the deaths continues.

Operations director Thomas Gonnet described the attack as an "unpredictable offensive". But he said it had spurred the agency to rethink the way it manages security in conflict zones, with a need to monitor developments on the ground more closely.

For Gonnet, the biggest challenge lies in convincing warring parties that aid workers don't take sides.

"We can't disregard the fact that fighters are taking religion and ethnic identities into consideration," he said. "It is a big deal for non-governmental organisations to be able to obtain recognition of their neutrality and impartiality whatever their skin colour or beliefs."

Local aid workers often find it even harder than expatriates to preserve a neutral image, according to UNMIS spokesperson Somerwill. "They can be perceived as traitors by their own people or easy targets to influence," he added.

But Ahmed Muhummed, Somalia director for British charity Muslim Aid, said he thought his local staff were less at risk than expatriates would be.

"National staff understand the country; they know the angles. They can deal with a situation that would be difficult for expats," he said.

However, the CIC/ODI figures show that national workers increasingly bear the brunt of violence directed at aid operations. Between 2001 and 2005, the rate of attacks on local staff rose by 48 percent compared with the previous five-year period, while the rate for international staff fell by 25 percent.

LOCAL STAFF AT RISK

In conflict situations like Iraq - where the recent mass abduction of 30 volunteers for the Red Crescent has caused the agency to suspend its Baghdad activities - growing numbers of international agencies are resorting to "remote management". Expatriates work at a distance, depending on national staff and partner organisations to carry out operations on the ground.

But smaller aid groups often can't afford to give their staff the same training that big international agencies can.

Muslim Aid's Muhummed said his organisation did not have official security guidelines, nor did it spend much on security training.

Somalia has recently looked to be on the verge of all out war. Ethiopia has waded in to help government troops against Islamist rivals, who seized control of large swathes of the country this year. The capital Mogadishu fell to government forces on Thursday.

Despite the violence, Muslim Aid said it had no contingency plan beyond trying to move its 144 staff and their families away from dangerous areas.

"In a 'normal' situation, I think our security provisions are fine. But if things get out of hand, nothing is enough because everyone is armed in this country," Muhummed added.

The CIC's Stoddard said that international aid agencies needed to draw up better policies to protect local employees and partners.

"National staff often find it hard to turn down this work. They are willing to take on more risk for monetary or altruistic reasons," she said. "But is it ethical to create these opportunities, and is there a duty of care?"

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