Caught between arms and politics

Aid agencies are increasingly becoming targets as opposing sides question their motives.

The bombings of Canal Hotel in Baghdad was an act by “a violent minority”, UN official says [EPA]

The bombing of a United Nations building in Baghdad on a summer morning seven years ago may demonstrate that not everyone believes in the apparent good intentions of the humanitarian organisations that are operating in their country.

Sergio Vieira de Mello, a charismatic Brazilian diplomat, had arrived in Iraq five days before the explosion to set up a UN body with the mandate of “assisting the government and people of Iraq in advancing their political dialogue and national reconciliation”.

It now seems, however, that Vieira de Mello “was misunderstood”, his widow tells Al Jazeera.

He and 21 others were killed and at least 150 injured as a lorry packed with about one tonne of explosives drove into the UN office in the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, ripping it to pieces.

“He was trying to encourage dialogue among different political parties to make peace. How can there be peace in the world if humanitarian workers are treated like that?” Annie Vieira de Mello says.

“We can only remember the humanitarian workers who lost their life and those who live a hard life, who do not stay in five stars hotels, but live just like refugees.”

For this reason, the UN General Assembly designated 19 August as the World Humanitarian Day, after intense lobbying by Sergio Vierra De Mello Foundation, established by Annie Vieira de Mello, her children and friends.

Over the past decade, attacks on humanitarian workers have increased by almost 240 per cent, with many of them being targeted as part of ongoing political conflicts.

Questions remain

Three different armed groups angered by the US-led invasion of Iraq claimed that they had committed the 2003 bombing of the UN headquarters.

Vieira de Mello’s widow says that this means she still has many questions about her husband’s death.

Vieira de Mello, pictured, was killed, along with 21 others, in the 2003 bombings [EPA]

“I still do not have answers about who killed my husband,” she says.

“All I know is that the coalition was responsible for protecting the UN building.”

Omar Bakhet, the former head of the UN office in Brussels and a close friend of Vieira de Mello, also says that “there remains a big question mark on who killed my best friend and about how were the attacks carried out”.

“The building could have been bombed by armed groups who saw the UN as a soft arm to the occupation.

“But it could be the coalition or the government who did it because the UN was starting to oppose the illegality of the war on Iraq.”

Whoever carried out the attack, the fact that it occured and the competing possible scenarios demonstrate how political humanitarian work is becoming and how partial it is being perceived, Bakhet tells Al Jazeera.

“Instead of being an end, it has become a tool for political actors.”

UN-US line

It has become very common for armed groups to proudly claim their responsibility for attacks against aid organisations because they perceive them as agents for the “enemy”, be it a government, an armed group or a foreign power.

“The UN office was attacked as a result of a perception that there is a UN-US line, that the UN was collaborating with an ‘occupier'”

Mike McDonagh,
UN humanitarian affairs agency in Iraq

One group that claimed responsibility for the 2003 bombings said questioned the UN’s motivation in being in Iraq. 

“Where was the UN when the US and Britain waged war on Iraq and killed Iraqi children, elderly men and women?” it asked in a statement.

“As to its work in helping Iraq, all it is doing is paying monthly salaries to its employees from our oil.”

Mike McDonagh, the head of the UN Office for Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Iraq, tells Al Jazeera that those who committed the 2003 attack were “violent minority” that questioned the world body’s independence from US policy.

“The UN office was attacked as a result of a perception that there is a UN-US line, that the UN was collaborating with an ‘occupier’.”

“Enemy of Islam”

Outside of Iraq, Somalia’s al-Shabab group has accused UN agencies of being “enemies” of the country.

The armed group raided the offices of three UN agencies in the Somali capital in July 2009 and issued a press release, saying: “Following thorough research” these agencies “will be completely closed down and considered enemies.” 

Al-Shabab raided UN agencies accusing them of being “enemies of Islam”

After raiding the offices of three UN agencies in July 2009, it accused them of “working against the benefits of the Somali Muslim population and against the establishment of an Islamic state in Somalia”.

“Previously, Care and IMC [International Medical Corps], two American agencies, were closed down as evidence was found of participation in activities against Islam,” it said in a statement. 

“Proof was uncovered of spying for and aiding the intelligence agencies of the enemies of Islam.”

Pascal Daudin, Care’s security director, says that such threats mean that his organisation is no longer working in most parts of Somalia.

“We are not accepted by all groups there,” he tells Al Jazeera.

“The question of being acceptable forms 80 per cent of our security measures. An image projecting our impartiality and independence is essential to our safety.”

Even Muslim Aid, whose name would seem likely to protect it from charges of being an “enemy of Islam”, has faced a number of security incidents in the areas where it operates.

“Maybe because we are based in the UK”, Hamid Azad, the organisation’s assistant chief officer, says.

‘Force multipliers’

Since the end of the Cold War, aid workers have found themselves in complex environments in close proximity to government forces, occupying powers, armed groups and private security firms.

Their work is a constant struggle to maintain relationships with these actors to allow the freeflow of aid, while avoiding being too closely identified with any side in a conflict.

Some governments have tried to embrace the work of non-govermental organisations (NGOs) as part of their overall political and military efforts, blurring the line between humanitarian assistance and political and military objectives.

Nato and US officials in Afghanistan, for example, have sought to co-opt humanitarian assistance by deploying military personnel under the label of “humanitarian assistance”. 

In 2001, Colin Powell, the then-US secretary of state described NGOs as “force multipliers”.

Thus, it came as no surprise to many Afghanis when they heard in 2003 that Mullah Omar, the spiritual leader of Taliban in Afghanistan, had called international aid agencies, “the worst enemy of Islam”.

Dialogue with all

Both the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) and Muslim Aid say that it is essential to invest time in dialogue with all parties of a conflicts to explain that their mission is solely humanitarian and they have no political allegiances.

“When security incidents happen, we realise that they are due to the lack of awareness about our work”

Hamid Azad,
Muslim Aid

Muslim Aid believes that they have been less targeted that other organisations because of their success in adopting this approach.

“When security incidents happen, we realise that they are due to the lack of awareness about our work. When we explain to people that we are neutral and want to help only, they start respecting us,” Azad tells Al Jazeera.

ICRC says that its extensive networks and commitment to dialogue with all parties of conflict has allowed it access to areas Afghanistan where most aid organisations have no access.

“We are still foreigners and strangers coming into their country. We need to explain why we are here,” Florian Westphal, the ICRC spokesperson, says.

Yet, these approaches have not always guaranteed security. In extremely hostile environments such as Russia’s North Caucasus region and Somalia, where neither governments nor armed groups are willing to guarantee adequate security measures, many humanitarian organisations have decided to pack up and leave.

“You simply cannot talk with Somalia’s Shabab, for example,” Care’s Daudan says.

Armed humanitarians

Some organisations, however, have taken more direct measures to protect themselves, including the hiring of private security firms with staff that are armed.

According a report by Overseas Development Institute published in 2009, “at least 41 per cent of the major humanitarian organisations contracted some form of armed protective services [guards, escorts or bodyguards] for one or more of their operations”.

People in need have the right to neutral and independent delivery of aid [EPA]

“No major humanitarian provider – UN, NGO or Red Cross – can claim that it has never paid for armed security,” the report said.

However, many of these mainstream humanitarian agencies, including ICRC and CARE, say they remain concerned by the growing role of private security companies, believing they harm the global image of humanitarian NGOs.

While the ICRC acknowledges that it has employed armed escorts in Somalia and North Caucasus, it describes them as “a very exceptional measure”.

The ICRC’s Westphal says that the organisation believes that employing private security companies is not normally the right approach.

“Under international humanitarian law, people in need have the right to neutral and independent delivery of aid.” he tells Al Jazeera.

“This approach could very much make humanitarian workers seem as part of the conflict and therefore legitimate targets. So I urge other humanitarian organisations to really double check if employing security workers makes their staff safer in the long term.”

Care’s Daudin says: “We should not have arms. If we were attacked, we can’t escalate. We are not a militia.”

“In a way, we have the advantage of being weak,” he says. “Our weakness is our strength.”

Source: Al Jazeera

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