Why aid workers are now in the crosshairs

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Why aid workers are now in the crosshairs

This article was first published in The Age here in November 2003.

Because humanitarian agencies indirectly assist the US, they are a target.
On August 19 a bomb exploded outside the UN compound in Iraq killing 24 humanitarian workers and injuring another 150. On October 27 at least 12 were killed at the International Committee of the Red Cross office in Baghdad. On November 17, 29-year-old Bettina Goislard was murdered while on duty with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Afghanistan.
Why were these organisations targeted? The answer is frightening for humanitarian workers: they are targets because they are providing humanitarian aid.
In simple military terms, one attacks an enemy where the enemy is most vulnerable.
The objective of the United States, and its coalition of occupying powers, is to restore stability in Iraq. Indeed, the Fourth Geneva Convention requires the occupying power to maintain peace and security and provide all items indispensable for the survival of the civilian population.
Feeding a population is hard work and the US military is not set up to do it; rather, the military is structured to defeat an enemy military force. This is recognised by planners who, in the US and most major military organisations these days, have established dedicated CiMiC (or Civilian-Military Co-operation) units to co-ordinate the humanitarian delivery to vulnerable populations.
CiMiC structures help fulfil the military’s obligations and by helping co-ordinate the delivery of vital supplies, aid the return of stability to a country. In other words, the humanitarian organisations coincidentally help the military achieve the military’s overall objective.
Viewed through the eyes of the anti-US forces in Iraq, coalition vulnerability is represented by humanitarian workers.
Contrary to the US aims, the objective of either the Iraq bombers or the murderers of Bettina Goislard is to disrupt the supply of assistance to the civilian population and maintain disorder in their country.
More disorder and disruption to aid supplies increases disquiet within the civilian populations. And, if the aid agencies continue to scale back or pull out, it puts the pressure back on the US-led military forces to deliver the aid needed by the population.
Aid delivery stretches scarce military resources and requires the force to move bulky cargo in strategically vulnerable convoys open to easy attack.
Anti-coalition forces may thus think that attacks on the UN and the Red Cross disrupt aid supply, increase disquiet in the community, enhance the opportunity for recruitment to their cause, and increase the number of vulnerable soft military targets on the road.
Not a bad result, from their perspective.
A more frightening way of looking at this is to say the more efficient and effective a humanitarian organisation is, the more important a target it is in the eyes of the anti-US forces.
The effective delivery of humanitarian supplies is what makes the UN a target, precisely because the delivery undermines one side of the conflict and helps the other.
So what do we do?
Big agencies rightly refuse to pay ransom when a staff member is kidnapped. The reason is simple – if you pay ransom you encourage more kidnapping. Now the stakes are higher. If aid organisations pull out when international staff are killed, doesn’t this just encourage the targeting of the undefended humanitarian workers? But if staff are not pulled out in places such as Iraq and perhaps now Afghanistan, their mere work makes them a target for attacks.
Running concurrently with this is the huge growth in “privatised military corporations”, or PMCs, that are subcontracted to provide security and training and, in some cases, deliver aid.
So what should the international community do? Do we hand responsibility for delivery of humanitarian aid to military structures? Do we subcontract aid delivery to the PMCs or, in the hope of maintaining some neutrality, do we ask humanitarian workers to do their work knowing that they are unarmed and undefended targets?
In the old days of African hunting, men pegged innocent goats to the ground knowing they would attract prey and could not defend themselves. Will humanitarian workers become the new “pegged goats”?
Andrew MacLeod, a former International Committee of the Red Cross delegate, now works on early warning and emergency preparedness for the United Nations. These are his personal views.

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