Aid workers must be seen as strictly humanitarian, not political - UN relief chief

6 August 2004

In the face of increasing attacks on aid workers worldwide, the top United Nations humanitarian official is calling for a clear line between impartial relief personnel and those operating with a political or military agenda.

"We can and must do a better job of explaining how - and why - we are different from soldiers in civvies delivering bread one day and dropping bombs the next, different from private contractors running 'reconstruction' programmes for the military, and different from politicians promising panaceas," UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland wrote in an opinion article published Thursday in The Christian Science Monitor.

Mr. Egeland said more than 30 humanitarian workers have been murdered in Afghanistan since March last year, and dozens of other relief staff have been killed, kidnapped or assaulted around the world.

Only last week the non-governmental organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) closed its operations in Afghanistan after 24 years of continuing service through civil war and Taliban misrule because of the murder of five of its aid workers in June and the apparent impunity of the perpetrators of that crime.

But Mr. Egeland said "the principle of humanity" demands that relief workers continue to travel to the front lines of conflicts or natural disasters, even when they are dangerous, to try to help suffering civilians.

"Proximity entails risks - but this is the price we must pay in order to access those who are in greatest need," he said.

Mr. Egeland blamed the spike in attacks against aid workers on a widespread perception since the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States that the lines between humanitarian assistance and military or foreign policy objectives have been blurred. "Aid workers are seen as 'legitimate' targets by those who identify them - wrongly - with the policies of combatants or governments."

To reduce the threat of those attacks, and the spill-over effect of aid agencies withdrawing their staff from the field because of security fears, Mr. Egeland stressed the importance of promoting a philosophy of humanitarianism that embraces all nationalities, ethnic backgrounds and religions.

"Local communities need to know that humanitarian workers are there for one purpose only: to alleviate human suffering," he said. "We offer no political solutions and have no agenda, save one: to counteract man's inhumanity to man through a compassionate outreach of life-saving assistance based solely on need."


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