Humanitarian Community Speaks Out on Violence Against Aid Workers in Afghanistan

Publication Date: 
Friday, January 26, 2018
Ring Road around Jalalabad © Peretz Partensky / Creative Commons

Earlier this week, at least 7 people were killed and 31 injured in a devastating and targeted attack on Save the Children’s office in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. A local affiliate of the so-called Islamic State group quickly claimed responsibility for the attack, in which a suicide bomber detonated a car bomb outside the compound’s gate, and then gunmen stormed the premises. 

In a statement released while the attack was still ongoing, Save the Children confirmed the incident and announced the temporary suspension of their activities in the country. Later in the day, the UK-based organization condemned the attack “in the strongest possible terms”, asserting that, “Attacks against aid workers must never be tolerated and have a direct impact on the children we work to protect.” As the organization was quick to point out, “Save the Children has been working in Afghanistan since 1976 providing life-saving health, education, nutrition and child protection programs that have helped millions of children.” Last year, those interventions protected and nourished hundreds of thousands of children in Afghanistan.

Save the Children was not alone in condemning the attack. Many other humanitarian organizations – including the ICRC, IFRC, IOM, MSF, NRC, Oxfam, UNICEF, World Vision, and many others – took to social media and other outlets on Wednesday to voice their sadness, condemnation, and solidarity, as did UN officials and the Acting Humanitarian Coordinator For Afghanistan. Today, a group of 61 NGOs representing the humanitarian community in Afghanistan issued a joint statement condemning the attack and calling for action to ensure the protection of aid workers:

We, the 61 undersigned National and International Non-Government Organizations (NGOs), members of Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief and Development (ACBAR), condemn in the strongest terms the atrocious attack on NGO offices in Jalalabad (Nangarhar) on Wednesday 24 January. It has been reported that there is a loss of at least 7 lives, more than 31 people injured, including five children. We would like to pass our condolences to the families of the victims of this atrocious attack.

NGOs in Afghanistan are often the first line of response for those in need. In 2017, through the support of NGOs alongside other humanitarian actors, well over 3.4 million people across Afghanistan received food, water, shelter and other life-saving assistance to meet their most basic needs.

“It is of the upmost importance that NGOs are able to act in circumstances of extreme humanitarian need, including in situations of armed conflict, with the assurance that their personnel, their property, and their activities will not be directly or indirectly attacked”, states Fiona Gall, director of ACBAR. Such an atrocious attack is a clear violation of International Humanitarian Law. We therefore demand a rapid, independent and transparent investigation into how and why this incident occurred.

This is not an isolated incident. Attacks on humanitarian workers are a common occurrence in Afghanistan. Over the last year, there have been 156 attacks on aid workers committed by actors involved in the current conflict. This includes 17 aid workers who have been killed as they attempted to provide life-saving humanitarian assistance including food, safe drinking water and healthcare to those most in need.

Attacks on humanitarian actors are attacks on the people we are trying to serve. Ultimately, any attack, intimidation, violence or threat against aid workers will result in delays in aid implementation or even the withdrawal of aid altogether - negatively impacting the welfare of the most vulnerable people of Afghanistan.

The provision of life-saving humanitarian assistance is a neutral act, protected under International Humanitarian Law. We call on all parties to the Afghan conflict to respect the neutrality of NGOs, their staff and their facilities, as well as to respect International Humanitarian Law, which provides protection to aid workers and civilians.

“Across the world, the number of violent attacks against aid workers is increasing. It is taking place in a context of “normalization” of the use of violence against civilians and aid workers in conflicts settings. It is an overall erosion of respect [for] humanity and humanitarian work”, says Kinga Komorowska (Country Director, Action Against Hunger).

Despite the United Nations Security Resolution 2175 (2014) condemning all attacks on aid workers, a culture of impunity continues to exist. Following discussions at the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, as NGOs operating in Afghanistan, we re-emphasise the need for all actors to respect International Humanitarian Law and to condemn all attacks on aid workers and civilians. As a concrete commitment to the protection of all aid workers, we call upon the international system to explore legal and judicial mechanisms to ensure protection of our staff from violence, as well as accountability after violence has been perpetrated, with the introduction of a Special Representative for Strengthening the Protection of Aid Workers.

Concrete action is needed to ensure protection of all aid-workers as we, the NGO-community in Afghanistan continue in our work to support those most in need in Afghanistan.

While such statements of condemnation and solidarity may seem to be a matter of course after an attack as shocking and visible as the one against Save the Children in Jalalabad, this has often not been the case. After nearly 100 soldiers forced their way into a compound housing several international aid organizations in Juba, South Sudan in July 2016, killing a local journalist, gang raping several foreign women, injuring others, and carrying out mock executions and looting, reports of the incident became public only a month later, when several individual victims went to the press. Even after the story became public, a number of organizations remained reluctant to acknowledge their connection to the incident, and the UN came under pressure for its prolonged silence, as well as its failure to prevent or respond to the attack.

Indeed, the choice for humanitarian organizations to speak out publically about violence affecting their staff or programs may be far from simple. Many incidents of violence against humanitarian action go unreported or unspoken about. The reasons for this vary, but include: fear of reprisals; embarrassment at institutional or personal failings along with an associated fear of losing funding from donors; risks of appearing partial or non-neutral; concerns for the protection and privacy of the affected individuals; and concerns about the sufficiency of local justice systems in investigating or pursuing accountability for such attacks. In the past, these concerns have tended to foster a “culture of silence” in the humanitarian sector, which then fails to feed the international community with the necessary information. In turn, this has helped to “normalize” violence against humanitarian actors and the civilians they serve, which tragically has become all too common in a number of conflict settings. As such, while any choice about public advocacy by humanitarian organizations should be preceded by a thorough risk, it is also imperative to consider the risk of not speaking out, which is often underestimated in times of crisis.

In response to these and other challenges related to violence against aid workers and operations, ATHA and Action contre la Faim (ACF) have co-organized a Working Group for the Protection of Humanitarian Action, which is convening practitioners and developing practical tools to help the humanitarian community reassert its own protection. The aim is to overcome the tendency of humanitarian organizations to work in isolation respond to this increasingly challenging environment through collective reflection, stronger and more consistent advocacy across the humanitarian sector, and joint actions to reassert respect for international humanitarian law (IHL) and the protection of humanitarian action.

The horrific attack on Save the Children in Afghanistan this week underscores that this work is more important than ever. The outpouring of support and solidarity for Save the Children shows that when the humanitarian community speaks strongly and with a chorus of voices, these attacks become impossible to ignore. However, we also cannot stop there. As the NGO statement calls for, we must redouble our efforts to not only raise awareness about such violence, but to translate condemnation and concern into concrete action to prevent these attacks in the future, and to properly investigate and prosecute such serious violations of international law. This is critical to reversing the dangerous trend of violence against humanitarian actors, and protecting the vulnerable populations that they serve around the world.

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