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The International Committee of the Red Cross and the Afghan Red Crescent Society provide assistance to families whose houses were destroyed by flooding in Faryab province, Afghanistan, in 2006. (ICRC/Marcel Stoessel)

Terrorists are still killing aid workers. Why?

The murder of at least seven aid workers in Afghanistan and Syria this week refocused attention on those who risk their lives to help others.

Unknown militants deliberately attacked humanitarian aid workers in Aleppo, Syria, and Jawzan province, Afghanistan, on Wednesday.

Six staffers for the International Committee of the Red Cross were shot to death and two of their colleagues are missing from a convoy carrying livestock to a remote, blizzard-struck region of Afghanistan. And in Syria, a mortar hit a Syrian Arab Red Crescent aid distribution center, killing a volunteer and two civilians and wounding others. In both cases, the culprit and motive is unknown.

Aid workers are specifically protected by the Geneva Conventions, and attacking them is a war crime. But that hasn’t stopped governments, armed opposition groups and terror organizations from targeting humanitarians. This type of violence began in the early 1990s and has only increased, reaching a climax in 2013, with 474 attacks. The most dangerous countries that year were Afghanistan, Syria and South Sudan.

The number has fallen in subsequent years, but the attacks have had a chilling effect on humanitarian aid, forcing organizations to change the ways they operate or vacate regions altogether. After the attack Wednesday, the Red Cross suspended operations in Afghanistan.

“All ICRC activities in Afghanistan are put on hold until further notice,” the group said on Twitter. “Our priority is to find our two colleagues still unaccounted for.”

Why do militants target aid workers?

Humanitarian aid workers do not carry guns. They don’t have a political agenda. The only mission of these organizations is to deliver relief to people suffering through war, natural disaster and economic crisis in accordance with international law. So why would anyone want to kill them?

In 2009, the Oversees Development Institute attempted to answer that question. Most attacks aren’t claimed. But when they are, there are two main types of perpetrators: criminals and political opposition groups. In 2007, most known attackers were criminals. The following year, the ratio had flipped: More aid workers were being killed in the name of politics.

The authors offered a hypothesis:

The political targeting of aid workers by belligerents can be either associative or direct; that is, aid organizations may be attacked because they are perceived as collaborators with the ‘enemy,’ be it a government, a rebel group or a foreign power; in other cases, the organization itself may be the primary target, attacked for its own actions or statements, or to prevent or punish the delivery of aid to a population. …

We would posit that aid organizations are being attacked not just because they are perceived to be cooperating with Western political actors, but because they are perceived as wholly a part of the Western agenda. It would seem that the undeniably Western nature and orientation of much of the international aid community is at the root of the insecurity aid workers face in countries such as Somalia and Afghanistan.

Masood Karakhail, director of The Liaison Office, an Afghan NGO, told the U.N. Security Council in 2015 that armed groups don’t differentiate between international humanitarian organizations and occupying military forces, such as U.N. peacekeepers, partly because their security apparatuses give them a quasi-military appearance. International NGO compounds are surrounded by blast walls with guard towers, and convoys often travel under police escort.

Aid workers may also represent a perceived challenge to the local authority of an opposition group, the report suggests. In the case of terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, eager to shock the West any way possible, aid workers represent the easiest targets. Driving along the countryside, carrying nothing but rice or medical supplies, they’re sitting ducks.

Who is responsible?

Often, the attacks are carried out by criminals looking to profit for a ransom payout. But more and more, well-known state actors are killing aid workers.

The Taliban have denied attacking aid workers, citing an organizational policy against the practice. But as you might expect, it’s a loosely enforced policy. In 2014, for example, Taliban gunman attacked a guest house where aid workers were staying, killing two foreigners and an Afghan. And the Taliban claimed responsibility for an attack on French aid workers in 2013.

Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, the Syrian Army, the Russian military, various rebel groups and the Islamic State and its affiliates have been known to target humanitarian relief organizations. In 2015, the U.S. Air Force obliterated a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan. (The military says it was an accident.)

The governor of the Afghan province where the Red Cross workers were killed blamed the Islamic State for the murders.

Not all aid workers are equal

International relief organizations typically employ two classes of workers: international staff and national staff. The international staffers bring institutional knowledge and specialized skills while national staffers provide local knowledge and support. National staff make up 90 percent of all aid workers, according to Humanitarian Outcomes, a consultancy that researches aid work security.

Statistically, according to their recent reports, international staff suffer a greater proportion of attacks, but national staff are far more often killed, injured or kidnapped.

As attacks on aid workers increased throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, international NGOs began to assign riskier work to national staff or outsource it to local partner organizations on the assumption that locals could operate under the radar. But as ODI, Humanitarian Outcomes and others concluded a decade ago or more, that’s just not true.

“Local staff take on more responsibility for accessing dangerous areas, while international staff remain in compounds,” Karakhail said. He went on to say: “Local humanitarian workers rarely receive the same security arrangements as their national colleagues. This inequality exploits the reliance of many Afghans on employment opportunities within the humanitarian sector. Many have been forced to accept dangerous assignments simply to feed their families.”

Effects on aid

The Red Cross has shut down operations in Afghanistan indefinitely. The effect of this will be devastating. The convoy that was attacked on Wednesday was on its way to an area where more than 100 people had died from intense snowstorms, Al Jazeera reported. We have to assume the livestock they were delivering represented lifesaving—or at least desperately needed—aid.

“As security worsens, aid operations are often scaled back or withdrawn, affecting both the quality and quantity of assistance beneficiaries receive,” ODI reported. In 2008, for example, 12 large NGOs suspended programs in six countries after attacks on aid workers. “For one NGO [in Somalia], the decision to withdraw staff and close down its program of therapeutic feeding affected 280 severely malnourished children.”

On Friday, the Red Cross announced the names of the six aid workers killed. The two missing staffers are still unaccounted for.



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