Islamabad - The international community observed the World Humanitarian Day on Sunday under the theme ‘Not a target’. The day is observed in memory of the bombing of the UN Headquarters in Baghdad, Iraq on August 19, 2003 in which the Special Representative of the then UN Secretary General to Iraq Sergio Vieira de Mello and 21 of his colleagues were killed.

Five years later, the UN General Assembly [UNGA] adopted a resolution designating August 19 as the World Humanitarian Day. Every year since then, the international community has organized campaigns to observe the day, advocating for the safety and security of brave humanitarian aid workers, and for survival, well-being and dignity of people affected by communal unrest, internal conflicts, armed conflicts or insurgencies, especially in the Middle East and Africa. By commemorating the day, the world leaders are called upon to do everything within their stride to succor common people and protect health and aid workers who are targeted or obstructed as they set out to help the people in need.

During the first six months of the current year, 303 aid workers were reportedly killed, kidnapped and arrested in 36 countries. The deadliest attack was in Afghanistan where four aid workers were killed and 27 injured in an attack on an NGO office. Out of 303, 111 aid workers were killed by explosive weapons, 63 kidnapped and 129 arrested.  The countries facing more violent conflicts see a greater number of attacks on the aid workers. Over the past 20 years, 4,132 aid workers have been attacked worldwide. In 2016, 91 aid workers were killed, 88 were injured and 73 were kidnapped in the line of duty. 2013 remained the most violent year when 474 aid workers were attacked.

The majority of attacks in recent years took place in six countries which are Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan and Syria. 65 per cent of all attacks occurred in these five countries. Afghanistan has seen the highest number of casualties among humanitarian workers in the world, with 895 attacked since 2001 and 325 killed. Only in 2017, seven aid workers from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) were killed in Afghanistan. Pakistan also remains one of the deadliest countries in the world for aid workers with 12 incidents of attacks reported on relief workers.

Like in other parts of the world, aid and health workers have also been attacked and killed in Pakistan, especially in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province where dozens of health workers, including women, and security forces personnel providing them security cover have been harassed, intimated and gunned down in broad daylight. In Pakistan, two aid workers were killed between January and June this year.Polio workers have been particularly targeted in the tribal areas and even main towns of Pakistan. Some of them were even targeted by suicide bombers. Every time, a campaign is launched, the forces of dogma and obscurantism come into action to obstruct this exercise that is solely aimed at cushioning our children against a killer disease.

Though numerous efforts have been made in this regard, the medical and humanitarian workers continue to face attacks and obstructions around the world while organized armed gangs and other fighting parties continue to loot the aid supplies besides indulging in sexual and gender-based violence. The fighting parties fail to understand that they are also failing humanity by disrespecting human rights and by obstructing the work of these selfless and committed medical and humanitarian workers who take their own life in their own hands to serve humanity. Though numerous efforts have been made to stop violence against medical and humanitarian workers, they continue to face attacks and obstructions around the world, despite the fact that they are non-combatants and they selflessly serve without taking any sides.

Feeling the pain and suffering that visit upon the aid workers and people alike in conflict areas, the Pakistan Red Crescent (PRC) signed a Charter of Humanity with the Ittehad Tanzeemat Madaris Pakistan on February 7, 2015. The signing of the Charter was an initiative of PRC Chairman Dr Saeed Elahi. Under the charter, the Ulema and prayer leaders will use the pulpit to convey a message to different militant groups that volunteers and aid workers engaged in different humanitarian welfare service projects should not be targeted, as being noncombatants their sole objective and purpose is to cater to those needing help and assistance the most. The ICRC has been running an initiative with the name of Healthcare in Danger globally and in Pakistan to address the issue of violence against healthcare staff, transport and facilities. The growing trend of violence in hospitals and targeting of healthcare staff is a worrisome trend. In Pakistan many hospitals have been attacked, bombed and vandalized, sometimes by militants and at times from the attendants of the patients. Today is also a reminder for all that hospitals, healthcare staff and transport should be spared from violence and must be respected and protected.

On this day, every year the officials of difference countries announce  to do better, pledge to investigate, condolences on the losses, press releases and TV interviews and talk shows but what is needed is the structural and policy level changes to  protect the aid workers who are being killed or injured.

Aid workers helping the victims know that it has always been and will continue to be, a dangerous endeavor. Their families and friends that they leave behind know that. And all humanitarians accept the risks that come with this chosen profession, trusting that our principles, our purpose, our organization and our presence among the community will provide us with the protection that we need.

Disasters and conflicts are coming in flocks and there is a dire need of strict implementation of IHL and respect by all the parties before its get too disastrous for the aid work to help the victims at the cost of their lives. The entire world must stand in solidarity with civilians caught in conflict and with the health and aid workers who risk their lives to help them. The world leaders are urged to not let the grass grow under their feet and rise to the occasion by protecting the aid workers and to deliver on the promise of our mutual and shared humanity.

  • The writer is a freelance contributor and the Principal Information Officer, PRCS NHQ, Islamabad.





khalid bin majeed