Humanitarians Under Attack

Tensions, Disparities, and Legal Gaps in Protection

Photo: © Boris Niehaus/Creative Commons

Executive Summary

Humanitarian professionals working in complex environments face increasing threats and attacks that endanger their lives, violate international humanitarian law, and jeopardize the consistent and effective delivery of emergency relief to populations in need. In light of these issues, this paper explores challenges and opportunities related to the predominant organizational approaches to the protection of aid workers in complex and insecure environments, and highlights often overlooked disparities in the risks faced by different groups of humanitarian professionals based on their status as national or international staff, gender, and organizational affiliation. It argues that insufficient attention has thus far been paid to the significance of these disparities and their implications for operational security and effectiveness. Furthermore, it highlights significant fragmentation and gaps in the protection of aid workers under international law and the culture of impunity prevailing for perpetrators of such attacks. It then examines the recent trends in humanitarian security management — namely, acceptance, protection, and deterrence. Finally, it offers reflections for the humanitarian community on improving the state of knowledge, practice and law with regard to the protection of humanitarian professionals.


Given that aid workers operate in complex and insecure settings, some security risks are inherent to humanitarian action. Yet recent years have seen a significant increase, in absolute terms, in deliberate attacks against aid workers. Indeed, violence reached record rates in 2013, with 155 aid workers killed, 178 seriously wounded, and 141 kidnapped globally, compared to 70 killed, 115 seriously wounded and 92 kidnapped in 2012.[1] High levels of violence against humanitarian actors continued in 2014, when at least 119 were killed, 87 wounded, and 129 kidnapped.[2] The increase in recent years is primarily attributable to a small number of extremely violent contexts; the most attacks in 2013 occurred in Afghanistan, followed in decreasing order by Syria, South Sudan, Pakistan, and Sudan.[3]

For updated figures, visit the Aid Worker Security Database or explore the map below, created by IRIN News and Humanitarian Outcomes

©2015 IRIN / Humanitarian Outcomes | Made by Fabian D. with data from AWSD

Since data on aid worker security incidents began to be systematically collected in the late 1990s, security risks have grown steadily, compounded by the growth of humanitarian operations in protracted conflict areas, the changing nature of modern war in which civilians frequently fall victim to targeted or indiscriminate attacks, the growth and proliferation of non-state armed groups, and the spread of violent extremist ideologies that oppose fundamental tenets of the international legal order and the humanitarian system. These factors combine to put humanitarian workers at risk of deliberate or indiscriminate attack. Such violence against humanitarian workers not only endangers lives and violates international law but also jeopardizes the consistent and effective delivery of aid to those in need by leading to restrictions on humanitarian access and proximity to vulnerable populations or countenancing the withdrawal of aid entirely.

This paper examines the complexities of managing risks to humanitarian worker security in the field. Part I discusses recent trends in aid worker security; highlights often overlooked disparities — based on status as national or international staff, gender, and organizational affiliation — in the risks faced by different humanitarian professionals; and examines the significant fragmentation and gaps that exist in the protection of aid workers under international law. Part II examines predominant organizational strategies for managing security risks, including acceptance, deterrence, and protection. Highlighting tensions for principled humanitarian action in insecure settings, it considers the advantages and disadvantages of these approaches. Part III offers recommendations for the humanitarian community on addressing the legal protection gaps and disparities in staff vulnerability and protection, and improving the state of knowledge and practice in the protection of humanitarian professionals in complex and insecure settings.

About the Author

Julia Brooks is a Legal Research Associate at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. She would like to thank her colleagues Rob Grace and Anaide Nahikian for their extensive comments and edits during the drafting of this paper. She would also like to thank Larissa Fast, Michael Godfrey, Adele Harmer and Nicholas Holmes for their invaluable expert review.

Julia Brooks

Julia Brooks