As Alfred Einstein noted, “not everything than can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted”. Paraphrasing Einstein, the humanitarian agencies today confront security challenges where not everything is what it appears to be and should be.
Over the past decade, we have been witnessing an increasing level of insecurity in the different contexts in which humanitarian agencies operate. Unfortunately killings, kidnappings and serious injuries are not something extraordinary; rather they have become a common occurrence. The year 2008 generated the highest number of attacks, killings and kidnappings against humanitarian workers. It marked the highest point of seriously wounded since the data started to be collected, with 276 victims in 165 separate security incidents (according to “Aid Worker Security Report 2011″, Humanitarian Outcome 2011).
Despite recent data showing a decline of security incidents from 2009, this should not lead to the wrong perception that security has increased and that humanitarian agencies are less vulnerable. Nothing could be further from reality. On the one hand, there is no unique and standardized definition of what constitutes a “security incident”, and not all agencies systematically record them. On the other hand, the contexts where humanitarian agencies operate today are more complex, less predictable and increasingly volatile, making their work more difficult.
There is a diversity of opinions on whether today’s contexts of operation of humanitarian agencies are new contexts or whether there has been an evolution of already existing trends. Without entering into this controversy, there is no doubt that today humanitarian agencies have to confront an increasingly insecure environment characterized by globalization, polarization and radicalization of the conflicts, and they have to deal with their immediate consequences.
In this environment, aid agencies and their personnel have become targets. Former symbols of unequivocal protection such the Red Cross now find themselves unable to guarantee it. Others, like the UN flag, have become, on occasions, the opposite of protection. What has changed or evolved today in these contexts?
1. A notorious increase of internal armed conflicts -in comparison to international conflicts- and their internationalization (such as Somalia or the DRC), with an increasing presence and mix of local and international groups guided by diverse motives and agendas (political, economical, religious, etc).
2. An increase in the number of non-state actors that are very difficult to identify, hardly structured and without clear chain of command. Their violence is stimulated by an easy and rapid access to communications, copy patterns and weapons.
3. Strategic alliances are established between the different non-state actors resulting in an increase of criminal actions that in most cases are camouflaged under political and “claimable” agendas.
4. An increased number of National States trying to advance their diverse interest and political agendas, often disguising an interventionist political discourse or its military strategy as humanitarian aid.
5. An increasing tendency towards the privatization of the humanitarian assistance, where the Humanitarian Imperative is not longer the reason of the action. Rather, it is discarded or even worse, despised.
6. A proliferation of NGOs that under this “generic” name agglutinate a large variety of organizations not necessarily respecting and sharing humanitarian principles.
7. NGOs are often perceived by armed groups and non-state actors as competitors for the control over local populations on whom they depend mostly for supplies, recruitment and the possibility to hide among them (i.e. refugee camps).
8. Neutrality, as a traditional “protection shield”, has been disappearing and today is no longer synonymous of security and protection as it was in the past. Humanitarian agencies and their staff are perceived as aligned to one side, supporting or helping one of the parties in conflict. Parallel to that they are perceived as importers of certain “western/foreign” values.
The immediate result is a deep and substantial erosion of the humanitarian space with the deterioration of the respect of the rules of the game and of the International Humanitarian Law. Or even worse, its absolute ignorance. Indeed, humanitarian agencies are perceived as antagonistic to the interests and objectives of the conflicting parties. Parallel to this, the perception of agencies as instruments of foreign interest, combined with the increasing multipolarity of powers in the international arena, is used by armed groups to legitimatize their attacks against the humanitarian workers. This shows that the attacks perpetrated against the aid agencies are not only motivated by “a wrong perception of them”, but also that they are deliberated and strategically organized. Indeed, the growth of the unstable and highly volatile environments, characterized by fragile or failed states with ethnic conflict and with the presence of terrorist and criminal groups, makes it more difficult for humanitarian agencies to work under basic security conditions. The level of relative stability and normality that the presence of humanitarian agencies bring to the context is perceived by those actors as a threat to their interest. These groups remain restricted to their area of operations without seeking international recognition. This focus on the local provides them with a “sense of impunity”, attacking and targeting humanitarian agencies.
At present, humanitarian agencies and their personnel are confronted with difficult challenges in environments which continuously metamorphose, making it fundamental to depoliticize humanitarian aid and re-establish the respect for the independence, impartiality and neutrality of humanitarian action. At the same time, it also becomes fundamental to guarantee the respect of International Humanitarian Law and with it the free and secure access to the beneficiaries. It is essential that the NGOs establish confidence in their local work, and that their actions are based purely on the Humanitarian Imperative. This will certainly help to reduce security risks.