Attacks on Yemeni Aid Workers Imperil Assistance in Overshadowed Conflict

Publication Date: 
Friday, September 11, 2015
A young girl outside her family's tent at the al-Mazraq IDP camp in Yemen’s Hajjah Province  © Paul Stephens/IRIN

As the conflict in Yemen escalates and war crimes allegations abound, the humanitarian situation in the country is becoming increasingly dire, though largely overshadowed in international media. A combination of the Saudi-led military coalition airstrikes and the naval blockade on Yemen’s ports – with the stated aim of cutting off pro-Houthi weapons shipments from Iran – has devastated the already impoverished country and set off a highest-level humanitarian emergency. The UN now estimates 21.1 million people – 80% of the population – to be in need of humanitarian assistance. With many Yemenis now “almost entirely reliant on the international community for food, fuel, shelter and medicines,” humanitarian actors are facing severe access, funding and security restrictions.

In this context, Yemeni humanitarian staff members are shouldering much of the burden of and are exposed to increasingly unacceptable risk. Last week, two International Committee of the Red Cross staff members – a field officer and a driver, both men and Yemeni nationals – were killed when gunmen opened fire on their clearly marked Red Cross vehicle on a road between the northern province of Saada and the capital Sana’a. The head of the ICRC’s delegation to Yemen, Antoine Grand, said the organization “condemns in the strongest possible terms what appears to have been the deliberate targeting of our staff,” and the ICRC subsequently suspended all its movements in Yemen. This is likely to exacerbate the already desperate state of the large population in need. A week earlier, the ICRC had suspended its activities in the city of Aden following an armed robbery at its offices, in what it has described as the 11th such security incident experienced in Yemen. Far from being anomalous, the ICRC’s current struggles to provide humanitarian assistance and protection to beleaguered populations in Yemen are symptomatic of the larger challenges involving the protection of humanitarian aid workers, and especially national staff members (i.e. persons working in their own countries for their local, national or international organizations) in highly insecure settings.

In Insecure Settings, Increased Burden on National Staff

As Raquel Vazquez Llorente of the European Interagency Security Forum (EISF) argues in a recent ATHA blog post, humanitarian organizations have responded to access and security restrictions in a number of settings by increasing their reliance on local staff and partners for program implementation, resulting in the “significant transfer of risk toward local and national organizations without a corresponding transfer of capacity to mitigate those risks.” National staff members now make up the front lines of response in many of the most insecure settings, and as such, they are frequently left most vulnerable to attack. This is both by virtue of their prevalence and positioning in the field increasing their exposure to risk — in many highly insecure or difficult-to-access areas, they are the only ones left — and due to a systematic underestimation of the security threats faced by them on the assumption — sometimes founded, sometimes not — that nationals are better equipped to protect themselves by virtue of their local connections, understanding or awareness. As Humanitarian Outcomes notes in its Aid Worker Security Report, 87% of the victims of violence in 2014 were national staff, which corresponds roughly to their proportion in the field; over 90% of humanitarian workers are national staff. Yet as Vazquez Llorente notes, “many security incidents involving local staff still go unreported, despite some limited efforts of international aid agencies to strengthen the reporting mechanisms of their local partners,” and therefore “statistical evidence does not accurately capture many of the incidents that local staff and national organizations encounter.” Furthermore, many national staff members have expressed that their security is under-prioritized at the organizational level, or that inferior resources, training and security measures are available to them, particularly in smaller NGOs or local partners.

This dynamic has played out in Yemen. The difficulties faced by international organizations in gaining access, and their aversion to risk in this highly insecure setting, have resulted in much of the burden and risks of response falling on Yemeni national aid workers. In addition to the two Yemeni national Red Cross staff deliberately killed this month, several more humanitarian aid workers, all national staff, were killed while carrying out their duties in Yemen this year. On May 29th, Jameela Naji Burut, a volunteer with the Yemen Red Crescent Society, was killed in an explosion while helping wounded civilians during an attack in the northwestern city of Hajjah. On April 3rd, disaster-management coordinator Khaled Ahmed Bahuzaim and relief volunteer Mohammed Ahmed Bahuzaim, two Yemeni brothers working for a branch of the Yemeni Red Crescent society, were shot dead in Aden while evacuating wounded people to an ambulance. Both men were wearing the Red Crescent emblem at the time of their killing. Three days earlier, another Yemeni Red Crescent volunteer was shot and killed while aiding people wounded in fighting in Al-Dhale' province. These killings of colleagues represent “a very worrying trend and a tragic loss,” said Robert Mardini, head of operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in the Near and Middle East, as “Red Crescent volunteers [are] being deliberately killed as they strive to save others.”

The Red Cross has strongly condemned these killings of its staff and volunteers and called for the renewed implementation and enforcement of international law, while also cutting back its activities in Yemen. Elhadj As Sy, Secretary General of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) reiterated that “Humanitarian space must be created and respected to allow Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers and health workers to care for people in need and alleviate human suffering among the most vulnerable and hardest-to-reach communities.”

Representatives of the organization also reiterated that such attacks constitute serious violations of international humanitarian law (IHL). “Under no circumstances should aid workers come under attack,” affirmed Elias Ghanem, director of the Middle East and North Africa region for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, following the deaths of his colleagues earlier this year, calling for “an immediate stop to these attacks.” Under IHL, all parties to conflict are obliged to respect medical neutrality and to grant safe passage to medical personnel, as well as to respect humanitarian aid workers and guarantee their unimpeded access to populations in need. Furthermore, affiliates of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement are granted special protection and are solely entitled to use the distinctive Red Cross/Red Crescent emblem, which is a recognized and protected symbol under IHL. “Intentionally directing attacks against buildings, material, medical units and transport, and personnel using the distinctive emblems of the Geneva Conventions in conformity with international law,” constitutes a war crime in both national and non-international armed conflicts under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Considering that some if not all of the aforementioned attacks in Yemen this year appeared to be intentionally directed against aid workers bearing the Red Cross/Red Cross emblem, what can be done? First, the lack of protection for aid workers in Yemen underscores the recurring need to enhance the implementation and enforcement of international law, especially with regard to accountability and punishment for the perpetrators of such attacks. This will require overcoming a number of barriers to enforcement, including host state capacity, jurisdictional barriers to prosecution, and international political will and consensus. Second, the attacks in Yemen underscore the need for better understanding of the particular vulnerabilities of national staff, and attention to these disparities in organizational security management, operational planning, staff training and resources. Third, and more broadly, there is a need to rethink organizational planning and security management strategies that have not necessarily resulted in the reduction or mitigation of risks, but rather the transfer of those risks to less visible national staff and partners, including volunteers. The development of organizational security strategies that support the needs of both national and international humanitarian staff would have implications far beyond Yemen, as aid workers face direct threats of violence in conflicts from Syria to Mali to Pakistan.

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