Military attacks against humanitarian workers and facilities have repeatedly been in the news in the past months; from Afghanistan, to Syria, to South Sudan, among others. Last month, international news outlets extensively reported on the deliberate and brutal attack against foreigners and aid workers that took place in Juba, South Sudan, in the context of the bloody conflict that has engulfed the country since late 2013.
The account raises a number of important questions, starting with why UN peacekeeping forces, stationed near the location where the attack took place, failed to intervene.
More broadly, this episode highlights a worrisome trend: the rise in the deliberate targeting of humanitarian workers. In 2000 there were roughly ninety-one registered cases of personnel being injured, killed or kidnapped. That number has more than quadrupled ever since—an increase that cannot be explained simply by pointing out the rise in the total numbers of personnel employed in the humanitarian field. In 2015 alone, 287 aid workers were victims of “major attacks,” with over a hundred casualties.
There is no denying that working in war zones and in fragile or unstable post-war societies carries significant risk. Yet the growing trend of attacks against humanitarian professionals should not be downplayed as occupational hazards of a dangerous job. Nor should this discussion be confined to sector-specific debates on how to improve security protocols and increase the humanitarian sector’s overall commitment to the safety and well-being of its workers. It is not that these debates are unimportant. They are. Rather, the increasing risks and attacks against humanitarian professionals should be seen as symptoms of the larger malaise of the international humanitarian sector as a whole.