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BMJ. 2007 June 30; 334(7608): 1340.
PMCID: PMC1906606

Aid workers are compromised by “war on terror,” UN official says

Humanitarian workers are facing unprecedented danger because of the erosion of the concept of neutrality in the wake of the war in Iraq and the “war on terror,” said the former United Nations deputy general Mark Malloch Brown.

Giving the International Rescue Committee's annual lecture at the Royal Geographical Society in London, Sir Mark said that “between 1997 and 2005 the number of relief workers lost annually had more than doubled to over 100.” Last year “60 aid workers were lost in Darfur alone.” This is partly because the number of aid workers has grown by 60% to 250 000, so “there are a lot more people to get in harm's way.”

He said, “Most years we now lose more unarmed relief workers than military peace keepers. And more and more of them die as a consequence of political violence rather than, say, their Land Rovers tipping over.”

That the number of casualties wasn't higher was only “because of ever more intense security measures, which have seriously impeded the international community's ability to bring relief where it is needed,” Sir Mark said.

“Access to Somalia is on and off. Huge swathes of Darfur are at times closed to humanitarian access. There is almost no help at present to victims of war in Ethiopia's Ogaden desert. Work in Iraq is almost closed off.

“Iraq is the immediate cause for this, and 9/11 the preceding trigger—but both come at the end of a process that has knocked humanitarian work off the straight and narrow of non-political impartial help, where every government and party to a conflict—be it rebel movement or other—accepted us at face value as bringing help to the needy.”

Nowadays “the world is simply a much more dangerous place for those who cover conflicts whether as journalists or relief workers . . . the brutal truth is politics is making it harder and harder to serve victims' needs by reaching them with assistance or bearing witness to their suffering and thereby staying the hand of those who would harm them.”

The UN's head of emergency relief, John Holmes, last week told the Security Council that the targeting and harassment of aid workers in Darfur placed “enormous strain on the delivery of life saving assistance to millions of people.”

Between January and May this year in Darfur more than 60 vehicles of aid workers were hijacked, usually by rebel groups, and 56 staff abducted; 31 aid convoys were ambushed and looted; and 13 relief organisations were forced to relocate because of attacks. Those “contributing to providing some measure of protection to the displaced and drawing attention to abuses have been harassed by the authorities,” he added.

Martyn Broughton, editor of the humanitarian news service Reuters Alertnet, said that most Westerners working in present day war zones, including humanitarian workers and journalists, “are immediately assumed to be parties to the conflict, which wasn't the case before.”

He said that aid agencies are often targeted because politicians have been deliberately blurring the line between military and humanitarian objectives.

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