Germany has made the facilitation of humanitarian aid to one of its headline goals for its 2-year seat on the UN Security Council from 2019-2020, and a main theme for its shared Security Council Presidency with France in March and April this year. With this move, Germany decidedly contributed to make the delivery of relief to suffering populations an issue of ‘high politics’. It gives humanitarian aid the salience it deserves, given the rising needs of people in humanitarian crises, as well as the constant violation of humanitarian law. Germany in particular focuses on protecting aid workers by promoting the humanitarian principles. However, this approach is insufficient and contradicted by other international humanitarian aid policies.
The rising civilian casualties of extended wars and armed conflicts, as well as increasingly deadly natural disasters make humanitarian aid an ever-more important issue of international peace and humanitarian politics. However, despite this rising need for humanitarian assistance, providing aid becomes increasingly dangerous and impossible in certain high-risk environments. Targeted attacks against aid workers and infrastructure are a constant problem, which receives increasing attention.
Aid workers are killed, injured or kidnapped, mostly in South Sudan, Afghanistan, Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Somalia. According to the Aid Workers Security Report 2017 by the Humanitarian Outcomes research and consultancy group, perpetrators are dominantly non-state armed groups. Moreover, aerial bombings by Russia and the United States killed a particularly large number of aid workers and destroyed medical facilities in Syria and Yemen. At the beginning of April 2019, Germany and France reported “139 attacks on medical facilities last year, in which more than 300 people were killed or injured” in Syria alone. Humanitarian Outcomes ranks South Sudan as the most dangerous place for aid workers, documenting an especially steep increase of violent attacks between 2016 and 2018.
Protection of aid workers as main objective
In such situations, humanitarian aid organizations may decide to withdraw their staff fully from certain countries or regions because of the attacks, as Médecins Sans Frontières did in Afghanistan in 2004 and Somalia in 2013. This is particularly worrisome as the local population often remains highly dependent on humanitarian assistance: Following its independence in 2011, South Sudan, for instance, experienced a violent civil war that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands and displaced millions of people. To make matters worse, famines contributed to the complex humanitarian crisis. Attacks against aid workers therefore do not only hurt the aid workers and organizations, but they also contribute to the suffering of already highly vulnerable people in conflict zones. The attacks effectively prohibit access to affected populations and lead to a deterioration of the situation for a wide group of people.
Therefore, it is highly justified that Germany, for its two-year term on the UN Security Council as well as its shared German-French Presidency in March and April this year, focuses on the promotion of the humanitarian system. This accords with Germany’s and other state’s increasing willingness to allocate more resources for humanitarian assistance, among others in Syria, Chad, Iraq, and Yemen. To make sure that these resources actually reach those in need, it is necessary to protect aid workers. Foreign Minister Heiko Maas consequently advocates for the protection of humanitarian aid workers and humanitarian aid infrastructure, alongside facilitating access to affected populations in armed conflicts and strengthening the application of humanitarian law
Protecting aid workers through enhancing the humanitarian principles?
Germany’s approach to protecting aid workers centrally focuses on strengthening the humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality, and independence. In his speech at the UN Security Council on April 1st 2019, Minister Maas emphasized that these humanitarian principles „are not an end in themselves. They protect the lives of aid workers – and the people they help”. He therefore suggested to provide better information on international humanitarian law and the humanitarian principles, and to sanction norm violations.
While he announced more concrete measures for the coming months, so far Minister Maas mostly advocates to improve knowledge: knowledge of the attacks, for example through Fact Finding Missions, as well as knowledge of the humanitarian principles and international humanitarian law. Yet, while increasing knowledge is certainly important and laudable, the focus on the humanitarian principles is insufficient, in particular when it is undermined by other policies that affect humanitarian aid. Indeed, Germany’s broader humanitarian aid policies, also in the context of recent EU and UN strategies, risk undermining the intention to protect the lives of aid workers.
The problem of protective principles
Foreign Minister Heiko Maas follows a widespread assumption on the security of aid workers: namely, that the humanitarian principles serve as ‘protective shields’ against attacks. Sticking to the humanitarian principles, visibly showing the insignia of humanitarian aid (such as the Red Cross), as well as teaching others about these principles ought to ensure that aid workers in the course of helping others, as well as their hospitals and trucks, do not become targets. In turn, it is commonly assumed that attacks occur, because the humanitarian principles disintegrate, for example through processes of politicization and militarization.
Politicization refers to the observation that humanitarian aid has become an instrument of foreign policy, more recently during the Global War on Terror. Militarization means that, consequently, the actions of humanitarian and military actors blur. Thus, the humanitarian principles should most importantly ensure that aid workers keep their separate identity, as best as possible, to avoid a blurring of lines between them and the actions of states and military actors. Especially in the view of humanitarian aid organizations, such a commingling is the main problem for the security of aid workers. Ironically, Germany’s and the EU’s humanitarian aid policies, as well as UN counterterrorism policies contributed to the problem in the past years.
The EU promoted the integration of humanitarian aid in a comprehensive security strategy in its Comprehensive Approach, thereby blurring the lines of military actions, development cooperation, and humanitarian aid. In addition, the EU and also Germany strongly focus on the prevention of conflicts, whereby humanitarian aid becomes a means of conflict prevention. For example, it may contribute to reducing the causes of flight and migration (Fluchtursachenbekämpfung). However, the use of humanitarian aid for conflict resolution or as an instrument to reach foreign policy goals reinforces the politicization of humanitarian aid, as well as it increases its militarization.
For this reason, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) very recently objected the UNSC Counterterrorism Resolution 2462 (2019), as it “can criminalize and restrict humanitarian action”. These international and national policies affect humanitarian aid practice and illustrate the tension between Germany’s willingness to protect aid workers and its tendency to blur the lines between political, military and humanitarian action.
In sum, while Germany insists on promoting the humanitarian principles to secure aid workers, its policies include humanitarian aid as tools for conflict prevention and conflict resolution, thereby risking to contribute to a further blurring of lines between humanitarian and military action that causes at least some of the security problems in the first place. To achieve more security for aid workers, Germany should focus on keeping humanitarian aid separate from military actions and avoid being part of the problem.